A Ceramic Tile Tub Surround!

Some folks in the neighborhood had an early ’70s vintage house with a pretty seriously failing ceramic tile tub surround. The house had been flipped and re-sold sometime in the late 90s, and the tub surround had at that time been redone in the least expensive way possible:

Aesthetics aside, a basic 4×4 white ceramic tile tub surround is fine so long as it’s installed with proper waterproofing. Unfortunately, tile installed directly on top of drywall is NOT waterproof at all. Fifteen years after being flipped, the tub surround was showing classic signs of a dissolving moldy wall substrate:

Demo showed definite mold in the wall framing around the tub spout and fixtures (easy to fix with the wall completely opened up). Interestingly, there was surprisingly little mold and moisture damage in the tub surround wall areas where the shower spray didn’t hit directly.

Sometimes a substandard job has weirdly lucky results. In this case, the tile had been installed incorrectly and therefore with barely any thinset adhesion. This created airflow directly behind the tile layer, which apparently slowed the clock on significant water or mold damage to the drywall layer beneath:

But the whole tub surround would have dissolved in a moldy wet mess eventually if not completely replaced. So the previous installer’s slapdash approach mainly just helped for a quick demo:

The new ceramic tile tub surround rebuild was very straightforward since the clients were keeping the original tub. With the cast-iron tub in great shape, replacing just the tub surround and fixtures from the studs up would guarantee complete waterproof goodness for the life of the house.

Or, even for nine house lives:


Seriously, concrete backerboard with a triple-coat of RedGard or similar paint-on waterproofing and seaming with good masonry caulk all around the tub joints and inside corners of the tub surround is the way to properly waterproof a tub surround tile install for the lifespan of nine cats.

The waterproofing finish and tile start looked like this:

The clients wanted to restore the tub surround space to a very 1970s -era style. So, they chose an oversize 4×12 ceramic tile in a stacked brick pattern. A few colored tiles sprinkled in added Carter -era visual flair:

The main challenge was dealing with the slightly concave bow in the large-format ceramic tiles. While all tile should be completely flat in an ideal world, very few tile types are completely flat in the real world:


Luckily, there are tricks for managing to install even bowed tile with the appearance of a flat finish. Here was the final finish on this job with tub-to-ceiling tile and 1/8-in grout lines:

The client’s GC supervisor definitely approved the final result!