An Inexpensive Custom Tile Shower

Having a large custom tile shower is awesome. Even up to the 1970s, it was very difficult to make a truly waterproof tile shower. But today’s modern waterproofing materials and inexpensive tile options makes it possible to have an awesome shower that will last a literal lifetime. This post describes how to make an inexpensive custom tile shower using traditional waterproofing materials and methods.

If you’re not using Kerdi, then the (second) best way to waterproof a modern tile shower is to start with a fiberglass “pan” like this:

Well, that’s the start of a shower…

A properly pre-sloped thick fiberglass liner will ensure that no moisture ever escapes from the shower base. Unlike a vinyl PVC shower “pan” liner, custom made in place fiberglass liners have no seams and will not become brittle over time. And fiberglass has been used since the 1970s to waterproof showers. So there are a lot of fiberglass pan installers that you can choose from, especially here in Austin, TX. You can therefore keep your reno costs low by taking the time to comparison shop.

This client was looking for someone to finish a medium 3’x5′ shower that already 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 1980s 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.

The client was on a tight reno budget, so they needed an inexpensive custom tile shower. How’d it turn out? Read on to see…

Custom Tile Shower STEP ONE: make the walls

Generally, I like to use “Kerdi” waterproofing fabric for custom tile shower waterproofing. 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 and into the drywall behind the Kerdi waterproofing.

Concrete wallboard
Waterproof? Nope, not yet!

Although concrete backerboard does resist water wicking, concrete backerboards like Durock, etc, ARE NOT WATERPROOF. There is a difference between waterproof and merely water resistant. Concrete backerboard is merely water resistant. To make a traditional custom tile shower truly waterproof, you need to use a paint-on waterproofing material. You can do this inexpensively by just making the shower walls out of concrete backerboard painted with two layers of RedGard (or any similar name brand paint-on elastomeric waterproofing material like HydroBan, AquaDefense, etc).

This is what fully waterproofed shower walls should look like before they’re ready to be tiled:

I put extra RedGard on the shower curb mainly just becuase there was some extra left over from triple-coating the walls. If the fiberglass shower “pan” is wrapped properly around the curb with no nails or screws, then it’ll already be waterproof. The added RedGard on the curb was just for added peace of mind.

Custom Tile Shower Step TWO: make the base

The second step to installing an inexpensive custom tile 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.

Protect those weepholes!

The drain you see at your feet when you shower is only the top part of a 3-piece drain assembly. 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 shower drain assembly has small “weep holes” that help wick moisture directly into the drain pipe. Blocking these holes makes it harder for the shower to dry out between uses.

Concrete base with proper slope

So, if you’re having an expert install your traditionally-constructed custom tileshower, 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!

Custom Tile Shower Step THREE: the tile!

The secret to making an inexpensive custom tile shower is to use inexpensive tile for the shower walls and floor. Large format porcelain ceramic tile is great for this application. The client for this project chose a budget wall tile engineered to look like natural stone.

Field tile install start!

The 12″x24″ large format faux sandstone ceramic tiles the client chose worked great in this space, but there were two important things for ensuring a great finish for this tile. This is the secret to using inexpensive tile. Making it look good often requires extra installation skill and care.

First, tile like this actually has a limited number of ‘random’ natural patterns. In this case, there were only twelve different tile patterns. So, this required careful planning to prevent too many identical tiles from being too near each other.

Second, any large format tile requires careful planning for a full floor-to-ceiling layout. A too-thin tile strip either at the bottom or the top doesn’t look good. This is where a decorative mosaic wall tile strip can add both layout flexibility and a bit of inexpensive design flair.


A good rule of thumb is to make sure that both the bottom or top course of tile look like almost full height. The height of decorative mosaic wall strips can be easily adjusted to make an ideal field tile layout.

Shower Wall Tile Tip: make it flush!

Installing large-format ceramic tile on a wall 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. Making the tile walls of a custom tile shower perfectly flush flat will make the shower look very classy.

Mosaic tile, however, can make a flush install difficult. Most mosaic tiles aren’t the same thickness as large-format ceramic field tiles. In this case, the mosaic tile chosen by the client was a lot thinner than the field tile. So, making the decorative mosaic tile wall strip perfectly even flat with the rest of the wall tile took some skill and patience.

Here is one trick to achieve perfect flush. Simply cut a plastic drywall taping knife with notches to match the width of the tile strip and the exact thickness of the mosaic tile (plus ~1/8in for the thinset depth). Then mix modified thinset a bit stiff and trowel into the strip. 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!

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, it was no problem. It’s little things like this that make the difference between a half-assed vs FULL-assed install. This is also why you should NEVER cheap out on labor when planning any custom tile shower installation.

Shower Floor Tile Tip: hide the seams!

Inexpensive natural stone mosaic tile can be a great choice for making an expensive-lookiing custom shower with sneakily inexpensive materials. But again, you can’t cheap out on skilled install labor if you want a great result. Making truly seamless seams between irregular tile mosaic mats requires careful planning.

Some stone pebble mosaic mats are engineered so that any side of a mat can (ideally) match up seamlessly with any side of any other mat. This gives some flexibility for matching mats together to minimize the appearance of seams. If each mat can be rotated 90, 180, or 270 degrees, then you have lots of options for (ideally) seamless matching.

Less expensive stone pebble mosaic mats are often designed and manufactured so that only two sides of a mat can match with the layout pattern of an adjacent mat. This cuts down on manufacturing costs but also really limits the installer’s options for getting a truly seamless result.

The best bet for best results is to take time 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!

Custom Tile Shower Step FOUR: grout!

Grout is merely decorative in a properly waterpoofed tile shower installation. But, it’s still important to choose the right kind of grout for a good looking and low maintenance result.


In this case, it was important to use a grout that woudn’t scratch the glass mosaic tile during install but that would still be very dense and durable for years of easy cleaning. This was a perfect application for Mapei’s “Ultracolor Plus FA” which is my favorite all-purpose grout.

Be CERTAIN that your custom shower tile installer uses a good quality presealed grout for the final grout finish step. Screwing up the grout finish on an otherwise perfect tile shower install can be like painting your Lamborghini with crappy spraypaint from a can. It’ll still work, but it will unfortunately look like crap

The Result!

This sneaky inexpensive custom tile shower install project ended with a great grout install for a classy finish. After the frameless glass is installed, this 3ftx5ft walk-in shower will be ready for a lifetime of happy bathing goodness!