Classic Custom Shower

The Before — not a great design

The client’s motivation for replacing this particular shower was mainly aesthetic. It had already been replaced within the past five years or so, and was showing no outward signs of leaking (no water obviously wicking through the tile curb, no active water damage signs in the adjacent walls, etc). There were clear signs of some future problems (some water accumulating in the back of the wall niche, corners of the shower floor not draining, etc) but nothing that seemed immediately critical.

Mostly, it just looked not great:

One reason why? The previous folks had used inexpensive ceramic floor tile for the install. These 12×12 ceramic tiles have a somewhat rough raised surface, because they’re designed for use on high-traffic institutional spaces. They’re slip resistant, which is great for a commercial restaurant kitchen floor but really annoying for a residential shower wall.

The result was IMG_8224a shower difficult to keep clean. No-skid floor tiles catch and hold soap scum as though designed to (and therefore encourage surface mold growth by design).

In addition, the finish tile used in the previous install just didn’t follow some basic design principles. In general, here are a few three things not to do with a small shower space:

1) Try not to use textured ceramic floor tile for the walls, since this will make the shower unnecessarily difficult to keep clean.

2) Try not to use large square 12×12 tiles for the walls, since this will make the shower space feel smaller than it actually is.

3) Try not to use dark (especially large and dark) tiles for the walls, since this will make the shower space seem even smaller than it actually is.

The Demo — none too soon!

So again, the motivation for this reno was originally mainly aesthetic. The clients didn’t like the tile (or the previous reno workmanship for that matter, but mainly the tile itself) and rightfully wanted something much more agreeable to the original 1950s/60s vibe of the house.

Once demo began, however, it became very clear very quickly that the shower was indeed leaking moisture and would have become a real mold factory pretty soon.

What looked at first glance to be some legacy drywall damage from perhaps a previous toilet or sink overflow years ago turned out to be ongoing moisture migration from the shower base. Shower curbs are the first place this generally turns up. And, sure enough, peeling the tile off the outside of the shower curb showed dryrot and mold starting.

The base problem, of course, was a badly installed ‘waterproofing’ liner in the shower base. It was traditional PVC vinyl, which often fails quickly.

In addition to being inexpertly folded up at the corners, the installer had ‘secured’ the liner to the wall and curb framing with drywall screws. Which is basically the equivalent of hammering nails through the sides of your submarine and thinking that won’t be a problem.

So, mold was beginning at the perimeter of the shower base and migrating moisture was just beginning to cause dryrot in the wall framing. Luckily, since this full demo shower reno was starting just ~5yrs after the previous install, the clients caught the problem before it caused major moisture intrusion problems.

The Demo Deux — a devilish design

Taking everything to the studs and the concrete foundation pad was not too much of a problem. The only inconvenience was the high-density ready-mix concrete that the previous installer had used for the shower base. It’s kinda tough to crack apart high-density Quickcrete, especially in a space too small for swinging a full sized sledgehammer.

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This is NOT what you make a shower base out of!

Aside from simply being a (literal) pain to crack apart and remove, regular concrete is neither the type of material you should use for a shower base nor how you should use it.

Drypack “deck mud” concrete mix is both easily water permeable and easy to shape and slope, which makes it possible to slope the shower floor properly and guarantees that moisture won’t get trapped between the shower floor tile and concrete base layer to overtop the liner level and get dumped into the wall framing. This is why you use drypack “deck mud” concrete for a shower base.

Quickcrete, on the other hand, is not and will not. This is why you can’t simply pour a shower base as though it were a section of DIY sidewalk.

The Rebuild — start with proper waterproofing

For maximum future waterproofing goodness, the clients decided to go with Kerdi waterproofing fabric at the shower base and paint-on RedGard waterproofing for the concrete backerboard wall substrate. This will ensure that the moisture absorbed by the shower tile grout will never go any further than the tile layer.

Putting a continuous waterproofing barrier immediately behind all the shower tile (but especially the shower floor tile), ensures that everything will dry out immediately between showers, which is an important thing for such a small showering space that will be used at least twice a day.

And, with the Kerdi fabric running up the walls a bit along with overlapping RedGard, no moisture will ever get into the framing of this shower again. Basically, it’s now a mini steam room with a 50+ year waterproof guarantee.

The Tile Install — a classic 50s choice!

For the tile design, the clients chose to combine sensibility with style. There’s a reason white ceramic subway tile was so popular for so long — it’s one of the least expensive tile types you can find. And, there’s a reason white ceramic subway tile (when installed correctly) is so midcentury iconic still today — it’s peacefully balanced and makes even small spaces seem pleasantly larger.

Looks nice going in, even before the grouting:

Also, for future forever peace of mind, all the tile and grout have to do for this shower is literally just look good. With properly installed continuous waterproofing, the tile finish is now just decorative.

But definitely a very nice decorative layer! In addition to classic wall tile (4×8 subway with grey grout — the tile equivalent of black evening dress), the clients went with perfectly complementary marble hex mosaic sheets for the floor.

Planning the layout for a seamless mosaic tile install on the floor looked like this:

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In The Meantime …

The rest of the bathroom got a makeover too. New floor tile, new stone countertop for the vanity, and a small backsplash to match the new shower.

The in-process process looked like this:

And the Result?

In addition to all the great tile choices, the clients decided to use a neutral gray grout color that really let the tile finish shine (in addition to being hopefully very practically easy to clean — there’s a reason classic design combos are classic).

The clients were pretty happy, as described in their review:

Read Austin E.'s review

And, here’s a bit of visual confirmation for that with before and after views.

Before:

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After!

shower bath floor

Before:

After!

Before:

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After!

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And the big finish parting snapshot:

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A small full bath shower/vanity/floor combo reno that’s now both stylish AND guaranteed waterproof for decades. Not bad for a 10-day install.