Walk-in Showers — the BEST!
Seriously, it’s great to live like Roman nobility. In other words, it’s great to live in the 20/21st century.
This client was looking for someone to finish a medium 3’x5′ shower that had a traditional fiberglass waterproofing pan installed but not much else. The space was converted from a former smaller bathroom that had had a large 80s vintage whirlpool tub and lots of fake gold marbled glass on the walls. Sounded groovy, actually, but a walk-in shower replacement was definitely the right decision for practicality and condo resale.
How’d it turn out? Read on to see…
Shower Step ONE — make the walls
Generally, I like to use “Kerdi” waterproofing fabric laid on plain drywall for shower construction. It’s easy to work with and guaranteed for life. However, with a traditional fiberglass pan shower, traditional cement backerboard (Durock or similar) for the walls is really the only option. Otherwise, water can wick up from the concrete shower base into the drywall behind the Kerdi waterproofing.
Although concrete backerboard does resist water wicking, though, it is not waterproof. There is a difference between waterproof and merely water resistant. Concrete backerboard is merely water resistant. So, to make a shower truly waterproof, you need to use a paint-on waterproofing material like RedGuard on the walls. Otherwise, you’ll have moisture seeping into the backerboard through the wall tile and grout and more moisture on the backside of the wallboard through vapor condensation.
So, if you’re having an expert install your traditionally-constructed shower, then make sure they use cement wallboard and that they paint the wallboard with RedGuard or similar (HydroBan, AquaDefense, etc).
It can all be very confusing, so here’s a handy “if this, then do that” guide!
- IF your contractor says that installing shower wall tile directly on drywall is okay, THEN FIRE ‘EM! They’re a shady dope.
- IF your contractor gives you a blank look at the mention of “vapor barrier”, THEN FIRE ‘EM! They’re a dumb dope.
- IF your contractor uses cement backerboard for your shower walls AND paints the backerboard with an elastomeric waterproofing barrier, THEN … give ’em a hug! They’re a conscientious smartie.
Or, for an even simpler guide — just make sure your concrete backerboard shower walls look something like this before they’re tiled:
Shower Step TWO — make the base
The second step to installing a shower with a traditional fiberglass waterproofing liner is to make an evenly sloped packed concrete base. Two things are critical for this step. The first (and most obvious) is to make the shower base actually slope evenly from all spots to the drain. It’s amazing how many ‘professional’ installers screw that up. The second (less obvious) critical step is to not clog the shower drain weep holes with tightly packed concrete. This can lead to a musty shower.
Reason is, the drain you see at your feet when you shower is only the top part. Between the top of a shower drain and the waterproofing pan below it is ~1″-2″ of packed concrete. Every time you shower, some water will pass through the shower floor tile and grout into the packed concrete base. In between showering, this moisture will evaporate back up and through the floor tile and grout. To help the concrete base dry out faster between showers, the sides of the shower drain assembly has small “weep holes” that help wick away moisture. Blocking these holes makes it harder for the shower to dry out between uses.
So, if you’re having an expert install your traditionally-constructed shower, then make sure they use pea gravel or something similar around the drain to keep these weep holes open. If your install ‘expert’ instead just packs concrete right into the drain assembly, then you probably need to fire ’em!
Shower Step THREE — tile
Finally, the start of the finish.
To ensure a good even install, it’s crucial to make certain that the first course of tile is level. This is easy with temporary 1×2 wood strips. Screw ’em to the walls at the point where the first uncut course of tile wants to start, then start tiling. The wood strips prevent the tile from sliding down the wall. After the thinset has dried and set, the wood strips can be removed and the bottom course of tile filled in.
The 12″x24″ large format faux sandstone ceramic tiles the client chose worked great in this space. There are, though, two important things to keep in mind for planning an attractive layout for tile like this. First, faux-natural manufactured tile actually comes in a limited number of ‘random’ natural patterns. In this case, there were 12 patterns that needed to be carefully randomized to prevent too many identical tiles from being too near each other. Second, large format 12″ high tiles need to be planned carefully for a full floor-to-ceiling layout. A too-thin tile strip either at the bottom or the top doesn’t look good.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure neither the bottom or top course of tile is cut to less than half the height of the main tiles. Luckily, the client also chose to include a mosaic tile accent strip in the design. This made it easy to plan the tile layout, since the height of the mosaic strip could be adjusted to make the overall layout ideal.
Does this seem like a lot of tile layout description? Probably. I’m kinda geeky about tile. It’s an occupational hazard.
Shower Step THREE(.2) — make it flush
Installing large-format wall tile to flush isn’t too difficult. Even with an offset subway pattern, 1ft high by 2ft wide tiles are so large that any waviness in the concrete wallboard can easily be compensated for.
Mosaic tile though? That can be more difficult. If the walls were installed to flush (not a problem in this case), then compensating for waviness isn’t an issue. However, most mosaic tiles aren’t the same thickness as large-format field tiles. In this case, the mosaic tile chosen by the client was a lot thinner than the field tile.
Ever noticed tile accent strips that weren’t flush with the rest of the wall tile? Maybe not. But if you do, then you know how annoying it can be. When the tile strips are not flush. In your own shower. That you use every day.
If details like this are important to you, then get an OCD tile expert. They will have tricks.
Like this one — use thinset as a spacer! First, simply cut a plastic drywall taping knife with notches to match the width of the tile strip and the depth for a flush install. Then, mix modified thinset a bit stiff and trowel into the strip. Then, smooth the thinset to the exact depth you need using the notched taping knife as a guide. Let the thinset dry and set overnight, and then install the mosaic tile the next day. Viola! Your mosaic tile accent strip is now exactly precisely even with the rest of the wall tile.
In this case, the client asked for the mosaic strip to be exactly 1/8″ inset from the field tile. That would be very difficult to accomplish freehand. But, with the thinset spacer trick, no problem.
It’s little things like this that make the difference between a half-assed vs FULL-assed install.
Shower Step THREE(.3) — install the floor
And, also the trim bits. Bullnose tile that matches the field tile pattern is the most conventional choice for covering outside corners on walls and shower curbs. River tile mosaic for a shower floor? Not as easy. Making seamless seams between irregular tile mosaic mats takes some jiggering.
Best bet for best results is to test fit, label each mosaic mat for position and direction, and then install with thinset. The less thinking during thinset install, the better.
Minimize the need for thinking. That’s the Fricke Industries motto!
Shower Step FINAL — grout and done!
Well, almost done. The client still needed to manage install of a stylish frameless glass partition and door for a final shower-ready finish. But my task was to simply make the shower tile shower-ready with grout and a penetrating sealant for the shower floor.
Sealing the shower floor tile and grout isn’t primarily for water resistance. Remember that grout and tile isn’t waterproof, even with sealant. However, sealant does minimize waterborne soap and oil residue from penetrating the shower floor tile and grout. Which makes a shower way easier to keep clean. Which is definitely worth an extra 30min and $20 for a few years of easy cleaning. Once the shower floor tile starts to dull, a simple deep clean and sealant reapplication will last another few years.
The point is, grout sealant for shower floors is cosmetic. If installed correctly, a properly waterproofed shower will last a lifetime regardless.
A happy 3×5 custom walk-in shower install, ready for glass finish and decades of happy bath goodness! Yay being a walk-in Roman.