Classic Tub Surround

This tub/shower combo in a 1962 Austin home had already been redone sometime in the 1990s with budget tile and a less than inspired design. This is one way to NOT do a midcentury home justice:


An institutional brown theme is never a good choice unless you’re wanting to replicate a public restroom decor. The new homeowners wanted to make their main bathroom match the rest of their home’s charming character without spending a ton of money. The secret? Keep the tub and cabinet, replacing just the tile and countertop surfaces.

By getting creative with a new vanity countertop made from a solid stone remnant piece and classic (inexpensive) white subway tile, this client was able to get a fantastic midcentury vibe on a budget.

The Process — a “partial/full” reno

The steps were:

  1. Demo the existing tub surround down to the studs, floor tile to the slab, and rip out the original vanity countertop
  2. Replace the mixing valve and faucet/spout/showerhead plumbing for all new
  3. Install concrete backerboard for the new tub surround, with RedGard waterproofing
  4. Install the new tub surround tile, the new bathroom floor tile, and the new vanity countertop quartz stone slab
  5. Install a new toilet and drop-in sink, new baseboard, and fin!

Demo revealed that the tub surround wall framing showed no sign of significant moisture intrusion. Although the previous tile installer had used concrete backerboard without a waterproofing layer, tub surround tile gets a lot less moisture intrusion than shower tile. So that was a saving grace.

However, here’s a pro tip for making a tub surround that’s truly moisture resistant: DO NOT use regular drywall screws for installing concrete backerboard. This causes galvanic corrosion when you don’t apply a waterproofing barrier, and it gives moisture a direct line straight into the wall framing:

And here’s a very simple tip for making a tub surround that’s truly waterproof: USE SOME ACTUAL WATERPROOFING!

In this case, the clients chose to go with concrete backerboard waterproofed with RedGard. Only costs an extra $50 and guarantees a mold-free tub/shower combo that will last for at least half a century:


The Plumbing Work

When replacing a tub surround, it’s always a good idea to at least consider completely redoing the supply plumbing. Sometimes it’s a no brainer. For example, in this tub surround the shower head was originally plumbed to a 60″ height (that’s just five feet off the floor). Not great for modern-sized adults!


But aside from being able to move the controls and showerhead and tubspout to whatever custom location you personally like, it’s often the case that legacy plumbing is either cheap off-brand or just plain old. Mixing valves do have a lifespan due to scale and other water deposits and simple wear on plastic parts and silicone seals. And, it’s never easier to replace or completely redo the plumbing than when the wall is wide open anyway.

There isn’t a lot of brainpower needed to replumb a shower or tub/shower when the supply plumbing is already 1/2″ copper that’s in great shape and the wall is wide open. Two sharkbite fittings is all that’s needed to splice PEX piping onto copper, and from there it’s really simple. The PEX fittings themselves are secured by crimp rings that only require a $50 tool to cinch down, so there’s not even any soldering involved.

The Tile Work

The clients went with a classic midcentury subway tile and pattern to achieve a simple finish. Balanced, peaceful, and appropriate for the age of the home and the neighborhood:


The new vanity countertop got a matching strip of backsplash tile, and the new floor tile added some great visual interest:

Speaking of design, one often difficult aspect of tiling around old(er) bathtubs is dealing with the curved bumpout. Most contemporary tubs have a straight skirt (the side of the tub meets the floor in a straight line). Tubs from the 50s/60s, however, generally were designed with several curves in the skirt to make the tub more rigid. Unfortunately, cutting precise curves in even soft tile can be difficult.

But, not impossible! An example:

The Final Result? Judge for Yourself!

This bathroom reno was a great example of how to go from dark and dated to bright and classic contemporary without busting a budget. By re-using the original vanity cabinet, sourcing a remnant stone slab for a new countertop, and using basic white ceramic tile for the tub surround, the clients were able to get full reno results with only a partial reno investment.

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

Read Austin E.'s review

Here are the before and after views.



And the big finish parting snapshot: