Installing Mid-Century Modern Shower Tile Starting From the Studs

Today I’m going to tell you about a bathroom disaster that turned into an impromptu remodel. When we moved in, the main bathroom had a dull peach-colored tub and off-white shower tile. Had it been a pink bathroom I would have been all for it, but the fleshy peach color just didn’t do much for me.

Before updating my retro bathroom

We figured we’d remodel the bathroom at some point. Then some point arrived without notice, as can often be the case in older homes.

My husband Eric discovered a loose tile. He didn’t realize that little tile was the beginning of something bigger that would suck away several weekends of our lives. By the time I walked into the bathroom, I found half the shower tiles on the floor and Eric staring at the real problem: mold. Cancel the weekend plans, we’re remodeling the bathroom.

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Unexpected Shower Remodel

We called for back-up in the form of super-bro-in-law Andy and got to work. Because family means we all have to sacrifice our precious weekend time together.

Piece by piece we removed all of the tiles and drywall until there was nothing left but wall studs. Thankfully the mold was limited to just the drywall. The studs were all clear! Had there been mold on the studs, we would have had to take further action.

Then came the fun part: figuring out how to build and tile a shower wall from just the bare wall studs. Those shower tiles need a place to live.

In the past, people would put drywall behind their bath tiles. Mold loves to eat drywall, which explains why we had this problem. Luckily we now know to use cement board in moist environments. Cement board is non-organic and non-delicious, so it creates an inhospitable environment for mold.

Now just to clarify, I am not a mold expert. You’re in charge of your own mold. The purpose of this article is to share a tutorial for building and tiling the wall around your bathtub or shower.

How to Build and Tile a Shower Wall Starting at the Studs

Whether you are adding on a bathroom from scratch (go you!) or you’re fixing up an older tub like we did, you can follow these steps to create a beautiful wall around your bathtub.

Before we begin, would you say that the bigger the home improvement project, the more rewarding the outcome? If so, expect to feel very, very rewarded when you complete this project.

This is messy work. You will probably lose several towels in the process. By the way, I have a whole collection of grout-encrusted bath towels if anyone wants them. Let’s get started!

Materials

  • Old towels or drop cloth to protect the surface of your bathtub and floor
  • Hammer
  • Putty knife
  • Mask
  • Stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Drywall saw
  • Mold Control (optional)
  • Flashing/butyl tape
  • Thick plastic sheeting
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Cement board
  • Circular saw with a cement blade
  • Screwdriver
  • Waterproof drywall screws
  • Fiberglass joint tape for cement board
  • Thin mortar set
  • Shims (optional, in case you need to shim out your cement board)
  • Rubber gaskets at the correct size and depth for your spout, shower head and mixing valve (ours required 0.5-inch)
  • Rubber sheets or roll-on rubber coating
  • Shower niche (optional)
  • Gloves
  • Tiles (buy a third extra since some pieces will get cut or damaged)
  • Level
  • Ruler
  • China marker/grease pencil
  • Wet tile saw and extra blades
  • Tile skimmer/float
  • Tile edging
  • Pre-mixed anti-microbial grout (does not need sealer)
  • Sponges
  • Water buckets
  • Caulk
  • Acid haze remover (optional, in case any grout dries onto the front of your tiles)

Remove the Old Shower Tiles

Lay old towels in the bottom of your bathtub to protect the finish. The tub might get scratched anyway, but it’s worth a try to protect it.

Use a hammer and putty knife to carefully pry out the old tiles. If you’re worried about mold, you might try spraying down the area with soapy water to prevent spores from going airborne, and definitely wear a mask.

Remove Drywall

Use a stud finder to locate any pipes, plumbing or electric behind your drywall. Mark those areas. Cut around them with a drywall saw to remove all of the drywall. You should be left with bare studs when the drywall is removed.

Tiling a shower starting from the bare studs

Examine Your Shower Wall

Now make sure everything looks good. Check the wall studs for mold. Examine your plumping and electric. If anything needs to be replaced, now’s the time to do it.

We were lucky the mold was limited to just the drywall, but to be extra safe we sprayed a layer of Mold Control to prevent any mold. No uninvited guests in my house.

Add Flashing and Plastic

This step helps protect your shower from leaks and future mold. Run flashing around all of your fixtures and along the edge of your tub, letting 0.25-inch run over your tub and the rest up your wall. Butyl tape works well.

Next cover your studs with thick plastic sheeting. Staple the sheeting to the studs and let it overlap slightly over the edge of the tub. Your cement board will lay on top of it.

Add flashing and plastic sheeting before tiling a shower

Install Cement Board

Plan how you will hang your cement board. It’s best to have the sheets of cement board run vertical, rather than horizontal, to prevent leaks. The edges should land on studs so they can be screwed into the wall. And keep the cracks as far away from the areas most hit with water whenever possible.

If you’re planning to add a shower niche to hold soap and shampoo, get an idea of where you would like it to go. Find a spot between the studs without pipes or electric in the way, and measure the depth. After you hang your cement board, mark your shower niche location.

Measure and cut your sheets of cement board using a circular saw with a cement blade, remembering to cut holes for any fixtures. Then screw the cement board into the studs with waterproof drywall screws. Where your cement boards meet, cover the cracks with fiberglass joint tape and apply thin mortar set to seal it and provide extra protection from leaks.

Your new cement board might be a different thickness from your old drywall. If it’s thinner, this could leave an unfinished area where it meets your hot tub. You can fix this by shimming it out from the wall to get it closer to the original location of the drywall.

Insert Shower Niche

Use a circular saw to cut the cement board where you want to insert your niche. Slide your niche into place and screw it into the cement board using waterproof drywall screws. Apply fiberglass joint tape and add thin mortar set around the edges to seal it.

Add shower insert and seal cement board

Waterproof the Cement Board and Fixtures

Place rubber gaskets around your fixtures, including the spout, handle/mixing valve and shower head. Apply thin mortar set behind the rubber gaskets to seal them into place.

Next waterproof your cement board. You can use expensive thick rubber sheets. We used the more affordable roll-on rubber coating instead. It’s cost-effective and supposedly does the job just as well. Run the bathroom fan and wear a mask and gloves while applying this nasty-smelling stuff.

Customize Your Own Modern Shower Tile

Finally it’s time to select and lay out your tile. We looked for mid-century modern bathroom tiles and found an option we liked in blue glass. The problem was this tile only came in foot-long sheets. It wasn’t really designed to be used as a smaller tile like we wanted, so we had to get creative.

The plan was to have a few blue tiles randomly placed on a wall of mostly white tiles. Eric carefully cut the sheets and rearranged the tiny pieces as needed to create 6-inch square blue tiles.

Related: See our kitchen tile backsplash and DIY tricks

Planning tile layout for a mid-century modern shower

Cut Your Tile

Whether you go the creative route or keep it simple, you’ll need to plan out where you will lay your tile sheets and where the cuts will be. We scanned and printed photos of the blue tiles to test where we wanted to hang them. Ideally the sides and top of your tile wall will have clean edges, and you’ll save the cuts for the inner corners and bottom where the tile meets the tub.

No matter how hard you try, walls are never perfectly straight, which makes this next step tricky. Use a level, ruler and pencil to plan the locations of your tiles as evenly as possible. Draw lines to guide you as you lay your tiles, to prevent drifting off target. It will look best if you stay level with the tub rather than the floor or adjacent walls.

When cutting tile, use a China marker/grease pencil to mark where you need to make your cuts. Use a wet tile saw and buy extra blades. It’s better to have a cheaper saw and use a lot of fresh blades, rather than have an expensive saw but not change the blade very often.

Lay the tile upside down for cutting so the front side is less likely to get chipped or scratched. And do your tile cutting in a shop or outside if possible. It’s messy. (Andy was our main tile cutter. Thanks, Andy!)

Restoring your fixer upper? See my home improvement guide >>

Lay Your Tile

After your rubber layer is completely dry, you can start laying tile. Mix your thin mortar set in small batches so it stays fresh and doesn’t dry up faster than you can use it.

Apply the thin set to your wall and add the tiles one sheet or square at a time, following the pencil guides you marked. Add tile edging with thin set under the outside edges of your shower tile. This gives your shower a polished, clean look.

Tile edging around mid-century modern shower

Apply Grout

We recommend pre-mixed anti-microbial grout. Since it does not require sealing, it saves you a step at the end. And after a couple of years living with this remodeled shower I can confirm that the anti-microbial feature works well and resists shower mildew.

Before you apply your grout, grab a sponge and fill a few buckets with clean water. Begin spreading grout over the cracks of your tiles, one small area at a time.

Make sure the grout fills the cracks completely. Then wipe away the excess with a sponge. Clean the sponge in a water bucket and wipe again, repeating the process until there is no grout left on top of your tile, just in the cracks. This requires a gentle touch so you don’t wipe away too much grout from the cracks.

Continue spreading grout and wiping your tiles clean until you cover all of the tile cracks. Refill your water buckets as needed to keep your sponge clean.

Custom blue tile layout for mid-century modern shower

Finish Up

For the final touches, insert your spout, handle/mixing valve and shower head. Caulk around them and all around your tub, where the tub meets the wall and floor.

You may want to leave drain holes. Some people recommend leaving a few small holes without caulking at the bottom of your tile so that if any moisture somehow gets behind your wall, it has a place to drain out. We chose not to do this. You can check your local code to find out if there’s a best practice for your region.

If any grout dried onto your tile, you can remove it with acid haze remover. And if you used regular grout rather than pre-mixed anti-microbial grout, you’ll need to seal your grout at this time.

Now take a step back and assess any damage to your bathtub. Ours got scratched up during the messy process of tiling. You can have it resurfaced or use a small touch-up polish to fill in the scratches.

DIY mid-century modern shower tile

Don’t let the small size of your bathtub wall fool you. This is a big job. But when it’s all done with fresh cement board and new tile, you should be set for a long time. Now you get to enjoy the results of your hard work.

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Modern Shower Tile

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4 thoughts on “Installing Mid-Century Modern Shower Tile Starting From the Studs”

  1. Wow just Wow! You did a great job on the bathroom remodel..I just never realized what is involved in doing a bathroom remodel..It looks great and I love “our” bathroom when we visit. In my opinion you guys and Andy did just as good or better than a professioal would have done!! You have done alot of “learning” and “doing” along the way on the awesome remodel of your mid-century modern home. Great job guys!!

    Reply
  2. Wow. What timing. I am in the middle of the same type of ordeal. Last week someone came to look at my 1952 house’s hot water pressure issues. Next thing I knew, my bathtub was full of wall tile. The entire wall of tile just fell. My studs weren’t as lucky as yours. I had to have a huge hole cut in the side of my house, studs replaced, new house siding, etc. Stubborn me wanted to keep the original Florida tile. After construction and cleaning, retiling began today. What a week!

    Reply
    • Oh wow, what a huge job! I can’t believe you had to re-side the house. Glad you’re getting through it and were able to save the tile though!

      Reply

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