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How to Install Tile in a Tub or Shower Surround

November 04, 2016

Seven tips for a better installation and some advanced tile saw acrobatics, too

There are two videos in this playlist showing the basics of installing running bond tile patterns with some good pro tips along the way.

1. Use the right compound

In showers and wet areas, always use thinset mortar, not mastic. Mastic, when exposed to water, becomes soluble and the tiles fall off.

2. Butter the tile, don't slather the wall

When applying the tile, Michal does not spread thinset on the wall. Instead, he butters the back of every tile with a 1/4 inch notched trowel. Also, not applying thinset mortar all over the wall, avoids getting a lot of thinset mortar in the joints, making it easier to clean later and easier to grout.

3. Skip the spacers

Apply tile from the center of the wall toward the ends. He spaces the tiles 3/16 inch apart, but he does not use spacers. He does this for a couple of reasons:

  • After many years of setting tile, he is very good at spacing the tile by eye.
  • With some tile, the exact dimensions vary, so using exact spacers and variable tiles will lead to crooked grout joints.

The reason for 3/16 inch grout joints for porcelain or ceramic tile is...

"...simply because of the calibration. When we deal with a better quality tile, we can do 1/8 of an inch or even 1/16 of an inch space..."

4. Keep the tile flat and level

Check the plane of the tile faces with a four foot level to make sure the tile are flat to the wall. This first row of tile is laid atop a level ledger screwed to the wall, but Michal doesn't trust it.

"You have probably seen some video where the contractor put the bottom part in and then just started tiling, but when you look closer at what he's doing, you'll see crooked joints and everything not looking straight."

He uses the level to perfectly align the top edges—shimming under the bottom corners to bring the tile tops perfectly snug with the level.

"This is our first row, and if the first row of tiles is crooked, that is how the whole wall is going to end up."

On the side wall, there appears to be a slight indentation, so Michal thickens the thinset (see what we did there?) on the back of the tile, to fill the extra space, using a level to adjust the flatness of the tile wall.

5. Don't walk to the saw more than you need to

The end pieces both need to be cut. Measure at the bottom and the top. Walls are frequently crooked, and there is not much you can do. Measure to the bottom corner. If using 3/16 inch grout lines, cut the tile 1/4 inch shorter than the measurement.

But don't get up and walk out to the tile saw until you need to. Install as much tile as you can before cutting. This saves trips to the saw.

6. Use spacers for horizontal joints, but double-check with a level

The second row is offset by a half tile width, to yield a running bond, brick, or subway pattern. Michal uses drywall nails as spacers for consistent horizontal joints.

Level across the second row also, to keep the joints consistent.

7. Work from the outside in on side walls

In the corner, make it look as if a rectangle tile is folded—so if a long tile dies into the corner from the back wall, a short piece of tile should come out of the corner on the side wall. The size of the short tile coming out of the corner is determined by running from the end of the sidewall into the corner. So that the outer edge has only full and half tiles. No slivers.

Begin tiling the sidewalls at the outside working into the corner.

On the second video in the playlist, Michal cuts a complicated cutout from two tiles that surround the mini foot-niche.


Michal Mroczko is a tile contractor in Atlanta, GA who focuses on specialty bathrooms renovations. His YouTube channel has many more good videos.

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