This tutorial shares how to start the layout of tile wainscoting that’s on the bathroom walls and moves into the tub shower.
The layout is critical for success with this type of project. We’ll discuss how to avoid slivers, what tools to use, and set the first several rows of tile.
Here’s a short checklist that will improve your installation
- In general, avoid tile slivers at the floor, the edge of the tub, tub deck, ceiling, and shower niche; slivers are defined as tiles less than 1/2″ to 1″ in width
- Find the low point in the bathroom by setting a horizontal laser level at 24″ above the bathroom floor; measure from the floor to the laser at two points on each wall; the wall with the largest measurement is the low point
- Next, determine the pattern of the wall tile, e.g. offset by 1/2 the tile width, AKA traditional subway tile pattern
- Find the midpoint of the largest wall shared with the bathtub and mark that midpoint on the wall
- Factor in grout joints when planning the layout, e.g. 1/16″ grout spacers
- Either mark the tile locations on the wall or draw a layout on paper to determine how it will appear; adjust the layout to avoid slivers at the points mentioned in Step 1 (above)
- Choose a trowel that will provide at least 90% to 95% thin-set coverage on the back of the tile
- Use a non-sag thin-set mortar to prevent tiles from sliding down the wall; this is important if a glass mosaic or accent tile will be used; mix the thin-set per the manufacturer’s directions
- Set the horizontal laser on the top edge of the wall that is at the lowest point in the bathroom; this method will help you scribe cut the remaining wall tiles and help those tiles remain level
- Dampen bare drywall with a sponge, apply thin-set with the flat side of the trowel and then directionally trowel thin-set on the wall such that trowel ridges are parallel with the shortest side of the tile, e.g. parallel with the 3″ side of a 3″ x 6″ subway tile
- Back butter the tiles with the flat side of the trowel; completely fill in any grooves on the tiles then embed them into the thin-set; compress the tiles and thin-set by moving the tiles perpendicular to the parallel trowel ridges
- Place 1/16″ spacers between the first row of tile and the finished bathroom floor as well as the bathtub; maintaining the expansion and contraction joints at any change of plane will prevent cracked tiles and grout problems
- Scribe cut tiles with either an angle grinder/diamond blade or wet saw to help them stay aligned with the laser level; install the entire first row of tile to ensure there won’t be slivers of tile against the floor
- End tile wainscoting either entirely above or entirely below an electrical outlet; also factor where to end the tile based on the vanity mirror
- Use the laser level to ensure each successive row remains level and plumb
- Foam shower niches can be built up with extra foam board to accommodate tile layout dilemmas
- Use diamond hole saws to cut holes in tile or notch tiles with the angle grinder/diamond blade
- This project can be done over several days by removing excess thin-set off the wall and backer board
- Angle Grinder Dust Shroud (Fein – For Tile Cutting)
- Angle Grinder (Fein Paddle Switch – For Cutting Tile and Metal)
- Bosch Diamond Hole Saw Kit (For Cutting Holes in Tile)
- Carpet Knife (For Cleaning Grout Joints)
- Diamond Grinder Blade (4-1/2″ DeWALT For Cutting Ceramic or Porcelain)
- Diamond Grinder Blade (4-1/2″ Montolit For Cutting Ceramic or Porcelain)
- Gloves (Thickster – For Tile Setting)
- Horseshoe Shims (1/16″)
- Laser Level (Bosch – For Setting Wall Tile)
- Laser Level (DeWALT – For Setting Wall Tile)
- Mud Mixer (DeWALT – For Thin-Set and Grout) or
- Mud Mixer (Zeny – For Thin-Set and Grout) or
- Mud Mixer (Milwaukee – For Thin-Set and Grout) or
- Mud Mixer Blade (For Mud Mixers)
- Scrubby Pads (White – For Cleaning Tiles)
- Shop-Vac (Fein HEPA – For Cutting Tile)
- Tile Cutter (Ishii – 19″ Manual Tile Cutter) or
- Tile Cutter (Montolit – 14″ Manual Tile Cutter) or
- Tile Cutter (Montolit – 24″ Manual Tile Cutter) or
- Tripod for Laser Level (Bosch)
- Trowel (Goldblatt – 1/4″ x 1/4″ Square Notch)
- Trowel (RTC – 1/4″ x 3/8″ Square Notch)
- Wet Saw (DeWALT – 10″)
- Wet Saw (Skil – 7″)
Tile Slivers are BAD
The dreaded tile sliver should be avoided in bathrooms. Tile slivers are 1/2″ to 1″ pieces of tile at these locations
- Bathtub Edges
- Shower Niches
Keep these areas in mind when planning your tile layout (0:12).
Find The Low Point
Find the low point in the bathroom by setting a horizontal laser level at 24″ above the bathroom floor. Then measure from the floor to the laser at two points on each wall. The wall with the largest measurement is the low point. (0:47).
For example, in our bathroom the low point between the horizontal laser level and the finished bathroom floor was 23-1/8″. The shortest distance between the bathroom floor and laser was 22-7/8″ and this indicated the first row would have to be scribe cut at that location (1:24).
Choose Tile Pattern
Next, determine the pattern of the wall tile, e.g. offset by 1/2 the tile width, which is also the traditional subway tile pattern. In this example, we chose to have the base trim align with the half pattern above it (1:58).
Find the midpoint of the largest wall shared with the bathtub and mark that midpoint on the wall (2:14).
Factor in grout joints when planning the layout, e.g. 1/16″ grout spacers. We recommend using plastic horseshoe shims because they don’t compress under the weight of tiles, unlike rubber spacers. Plus, horseshoe shims can be stacked on top of each other if necessary (2:25).
Either mark the tile locations on the wall or draw a layout on paper to determine how it will appear. Then adjust the layout to avoid slivers at the points mentioned above. One benefit of a paper layout is being able to reference it while setting the tile. It may take a few different tile layouts to avoid slivers, so be patient (2:32).
The Tile Council of North America wants installers to achieve 95% thin-set coverage on the back of tiles inside wet areas like showers. The way to achieve this is by choosing the right trowel for your tile installation. Most of the time we use these trowels
- 1/4″ x 1/4″ square notch
- 1/4″ x 3/8″ square notch
- Euro Notch Trowel
- 1/2″ x 1/2″ square notch
Always ask these questions when choosing the trowel size
- What are the dimensions of the tile, e.g. 3″ x 6″ or 12″ x 24″
- What is the weight of the tile?
- What is the tile thickness?
Small tiles require smaller trowel sizes. Larger tiles, like 12″ x 24″ porcelain, require larger trowel sizes like 1/4″ x 3/8″ or 1/2″ x 1/2″ square notch.
Weight and tile thickness also factor into the trowel size because heavier tiles need more thin-set to prevent them from sliding down the wall or off the ceiling.
That said, back buttering and back troweling tiles with thin-set can allow installers to use smaller trowel sizes. For example, the installer could use a non-sag thin-set mortar, 1/4″ x 3/8″ square notch trowel, and back trowel the tiles to help them bond to the wall with 95% thin-set coverage.
Bottom line, choose the trowel size that achieves the 95% thin-set coverage and use the right thin-set!
Thin-set is the other part of proper tile installation. Most of the time we recommend using non-sag polymer (or latex) modified thin-set mortars.
But thin-set mortar depends on both the tile being installed and the waterproofing material. For example, Schluter doesn’t recommend modified thin-set over their KERDI, KERDI-BOARD, or DITRA products.
However, just to make it more confusing, Schluter does recommend their own modified thin-sets to be used over their substrates. For example, you could use ALL-SET to set tile over any Schluter substrate.
That said, Ardex and Mapei warranty the use of their thin-sets to set tile over Schluter products. For example, Ardex warranties the use of X5 or X77 thin-set mortar to bond tiles to KERDI-BOARD. Therefore, we do use Ardex thin-sets to some times set tile over Schluter substrates.
For this project, we used Mapei’s Ultralite Mortar. This is a non-sag polymer-modified thin-set mortar. It’s excellent for most tiles. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions when mixing and use the right water ratio to thin-set powder to achieve non-sag qualities. For example, Mapei recommends 5 to 6 quarts of water with their entire bag in order to get non-sag properties. So we added 5 quarts of water to a buck and mixed the entire bag. Then added up to 1 quart to get the proper thin-set consistency (5:00).
Setting the first row of tile
Set the horizontal laser on the top edge of the wall that is at the lowest point in the bathroom; this method will help you scribe cut the remaining wall tiles and help those tiles remain level (6:13).
Tiles can be scribe cut using an angle grinder and diamond blade. Please be safe if you use this method and either secure the tile with clamp or other method. Also, we recommend using a silica dust respirator and if possible, a dust shroud system with the grinder. Our grinder is connected to a dust shroud that is itself connected to a HEPA vac. When the grinder is turned ON, the HEPA vav also turns on and pulls the dust out of the air (6:30).
Cutting tiles at a 45-degree angle on the bottom and side helps them fit tighter to the bathtub and floor tile (6:38).
We dampened the bare drywall with a sponge, burned thin-set into the wall with the flat side of the trowel, and then directionally troweled thin-set such that all the ridges faced the same direction. The baseboard tiles were also back buttered to ensure the 95% thin-set coverage. Tiles were compressed into the thin-set by moving the tiles perpendicular to the parallel trowel ridges (6:59).
We used 1/16″ horseshoe shims between the first row of tile and the finished bathroom floor as well as the bathtub; maintaining the expansion and contraction joints at any change of plane will prevent cracked tiles and grout problems (7:10).
The same pattern for the first row of tile was continued on the adjacent wall. In the corner of the first wall we had a 2″ piece of baseboard tile. Therefore, we continued the look of that first wall by adding a 4″ piece of baseboard tile on the adjacent wall; miter cuts were made in the corner via a wet saw (7:57).
For the plumbing wall, we basically try to match the tile work on the opposite wall. This provides a symmetric appearance inside the bathroom (10:28).
Checking Layout After First Row
After the first row of tile is set, it’s good to check the layout again and determine the height of the wainscoting in the bathroom. End tile wainscoting either entirely above or entirely below an electrical outlet; also factor where to end the tile based on the vanity mirror. Do a dry layout of the tile/spacers to see that the tile will look like at the tub edge/deck, tub inside corner, and ceiling (11:54).
At this point, check the ceiling with a 4′ level and see if it slopes up or down. Ceiling imperfections can factor into tile layout and may require some additional planning (13:26).
Adjust the horizontal laser to the top edge of the second row of tile. This ensures each successive row of the tile remains level and plumb (14:21).
PRO TIP: Foam shower niches can be built up with extra foam board to accommodate tile layout dilemmas. Therefore, don’t worry too much about how the tile layout will look at the bottom and top of a foam shower niche (15:33).
Setting Successive Rows
Always wipe down bare drywall with a damp sponge because it will absorb the moisture from thin-set mortar. Continue to use directional troweling on the wall and only apply thin-set to the area that can tiled in 5-10 minutes. Otherwise, thin-set will skim over and the non-sag properties will be lost (16:16).
Don’t forget to maintain the expansion and contraction gap between tiles and the tub. At least a 1/16″ joint should be maintained. This joint also helps the silicone grab the tile and tub (17:02).
As you’ll see in the video, our layout somehow didn’t work. Don’t be afraid to pull tiles off the wall to get the layout you want. Some times this happens and it’s better to be happy with the layout and sacrifice some time to do it right (18:53).
Most of the tile cutting in this bathroom was done with Montolit’s Minipiuma manual cutter and the angle grinder. These two tools are invaluable and well worth the investment if you plan to tile several bathrooms. Also, use diamond hole saws to cut holes in tile or notch tiles with the angle grinder/diamond blade (20:55).
PRO TIP: Get a great laser level for setting tile. They’re invaluable and you can align the horizontal and vertical lasers with each successive row to ensure tiles are precisely aligned with each other (22:27).
At the tub edge we typically try to make an L-notch in the tile, i.e. the tile wraps around the edge of the tub. Either an angle grinder or wet saw can be used to make this cut look precise (23:24).
The objective on this first day of tile setting was to get the first row of tile set inside the tub area. That required setting three rows of wainscoting and then tiling the first row of tile against the tub deck. As the tiles were set, we cleaned thin-set from the grout joints using a dull carpet knife and also sponged the surface of the tiles (23:39).
The layout of the main shower wall is somewhat independent from the side walls. Thus, we started the layout by finding the center of the wall and seeing how full tiles would look as they went against the side walls. Also, we removed the one side wall tile to make the main wall tile be behind it, leaving a good 1/8″ expansion and contraction joint between this main wall tile and the backer board. This project can be done over several days by removing excess thin-set off the wall and backer board (25:38).
Watch our video for all the details.