Emily Winters: Bathroom Renovation, Days 5, 6, 7 and 8!

In a quest to finish the shower and resume normal bathing habits, we dove into the boxes of subway tile for the bath eagerly after finishing the plumbing and HardiBacker. I’ll state the obvious early: This whole post will just go to show that I had absolutely no idea how long it would take to tile anything because, come to realize, every case study that my brain has absorbed on tiling best-practices has been condensed into part of a 30-minute TV show. Really, I thought the shower could be done in a day. Maybe 6-hours, 8 maximum. And then we would go to dinner and “cheers” our spicy tuna sushi rolls over a job well done.

Not so. This picture was snapped 2 hours in.


And that’s why this update isn’t just Day 5. It’s Days 5-6-7-8, all wrapped up into one very mortar-tight little package. Four very long, consecutive days of working really proved well though, the results are great.

Keep on reading to see the before, during, and after!

I forgot to mention in the Day 4 post that after all of the self-adhesive tape was applied over the joints in the HardiBacker, I whipped up my first-ever batch of thin-set mortar to mud on over the tape (and the screw heads, for good measure), locking it in place and rendering the green tape invisible. We approached this just like mudding seams in a drywalling project, making sure that the mortar was smooth and secure against the tape, and let it dry overnight so that we could start the next morning, our 5th day of laboring, with tile.

Applying thin-set over the tape.

We used two kinds of subway tile. One was the traditional 3″ x 6″ snow white manufactured tile, 23-cents/each, bought in cases of 10-sq.ft. I also bought a bunch of 2″ x 6″ tiles with a rounded edge, a bullnose, along one of the longer edges. The latter would be used to run up and down the edges of the shower where they were going to meet finished drywall. It’ll catch your eye in some of the later photos.

Day 5 was long.

I’m not exaggerating. Up with the sun. Still working after the sun set. And even with two of us chugging away, we only completed the full back wall of the shower. The “easy wall,” we like to call it. The wall that we could practice on, hone our tiling skills on, because it didn’t have any twists and turns and knobs and shelves to consider. With tile cuts only necessary on the left and right edges of the wall, we pretty much resumed position for the day, me on the left, Pete on the right, and worked our way up the shower. Slowly. Very slowly. I even did a little time lapse video of our entire first day, so check it out.

In short, this is what a day’s worth of progress looks like:

Day 5, beginning.

Day 5, middle.

Day 5, end.

The thin set mortar that we used was a pretty regular brand; nothing special about it, although we did “splurge” for the polymer-fortified variety after reading that the less expensive (non-fortified) varieties weren’t as trustworthy. For an extra $7, it seemed obvious to use what most people recommended if it meant that the tiles would stay really, really stuck in place.


We prepared the mortar in small batches using a mixing paddle that we already owned. Working with the smaller batches allowed us to work at a comfortable pace without worrying about the bucket of thin-set hardening beyond use.

Power tool happiness.

First, adding about four cups of water to a bucket, and then adding mortar into the bucket until when mixed for a few minutes, it reached a consistency similar creamy peanut butter, with perhaps just the slightest tendency to want to drop off of the paddle. We found that we needed to make a fresh bucket every half-hour to an hour, just another reason that this project took days.

We bought a few new notched trowels for this job; because we were using subway tile, it was advised that we use 1/4″ notched trowels, because smaller notches work better for smaller tiles. Quite simply, we worked in small areas at a time to prevent the thin-set from drying faster than we were working, first mudding the wall with mortar on a trowel, and then notching it to prepare the surface to receive the tile. (Thin-set begins to dry on the wall in mere minutes, so if you’re preparing to do this at home, have your tiles handy and ready to go!)

Notch the mortar into place.

Before you mush the tile into the wall, remember to lightly cover the complete back of every tile with thin-set mortar to give it one extra hope of sticking to the wall long and forever. I believe the common DIY Network programming term is “butter” the tile. Always makes me want toast.

Butter those tiles.

When you mush the tile into the wall, do your best to wipe away the excess mortar that oozes back at you through the cracks. We used the tip of a nail or the edge of one of the 1/8″ spacers to help clear out the excess before it dried too much.

Tile, mushing it in.

Having spent 12 hours on Day 5 mastering the art of subway tiling, we forged ahead with trying to tile the wall with the two shelves on Day 6. Facing the narrower walls proved more difficult for us both to be actively working at the same time, and we tag-teamed our efforts by having one person cutting the tiles to width, while the other person managed the mortar and the installation. We had been keeping the wet saw in the basement because it can be a bit messy when you’re working hundreds of tiles through it, and because we alternated duties, we both got good stair workouts going between the basement and the second floor bathroom repeatedly.

The shelves themselves were a little different. The backs, sides, and tops of each shelf were going to be finished consistently with subway tile, but I decided that the base of each shelf should be a solid piece of tile, or granite, or something that wouldn’t have grout seams inviting stagnant moisture in. The width of each shelf is 22″, and it’s hard to find 24″ tile anywhere, we even went to a custom granite shop one evening hoping to spare remnants from fancy-pants countertops, but all of the materials that had were upwards of and exceeding 1-1/4″ thick, and bah-humbug, that was a little too thick for my liking. In a brief moment of brilliance at one of the box stores, I decided that marble thresholds would be the perfect; affordable (at $12 each), consistant (similar lovely waves of gray), beveled (the finished edges are so appealing), and accessible (no special orders!), I brought home two that weren’t scratched (and believe me, many that we rifled through had been pretty badly gouged, so if you try this method, check your selects well). Each piece measured 36″x6″, and was easy to cut down to size in the tile saw.

Cutting the marble thresholds.

We installed both pieces of marble before working on any other part of the shelf. By adding a thicker layer of mortar in the back of the shelf, we effectively gave the marble a slight downward slope so that water wouldn’t be inclined to linger on the shelf, or worse, flow to the back of the shelf with no drainage options. It’s tilty, but not tilty enough to allow our shampoo bottles to slide away.

Marble, slightly off level to drip into the bathtub.

With those shelves in place and the thin-set beginning to solidify, I moved ahead with beginning to work the subway tiles up the wall.


It was pretty apparent right away that things weren’t going to go as we planned. You’ll recall that I orchestrated the shelf placement down to an 1/8th of an inch with the hopes that the 3″ full tile would land in the area separating the two shelves?

Optimistic, this is the tile layout I had planned.

It didn’t work out. At some point, I failed to account for an extra width of HardiBacker and that meant that the band running between the two shelves would be 7/8 the height of one tile and 1/8 the height of another. A very narrow miss. Bummer, but we worked around it and still ended up really happy with the result.

Making a tiling error A-OK.
We also spent a lot of time working the miter-feature on the wet saw to create angles for the shelf tiles that matched together flawlessly. Pete mastered this maneuver, I did not. As an alternative to special-ordering an assortment of bullnose and custom tiles, I’m really happy with how the shelves turned out. They look nicely finished.

Shelves, done!
The wall with the shelves actually took us two days (Days 6 and 7). After the number of complex cuts that the shelves required, we were happy to move onto the wall with the shower plumbing on Day 8. Again, because it was a tight space for us both to work in, we alternated between installing and running to the basement to cut custom tiles, like the ones that needed to wrap around the new shower valve and the tub spout.

But because it was simple (and we were becoming pros workin’ the notched trowel) it went up in a short day: 6-hours.

Tile, installed.

The final wall needed to cure for 24 hours before we moved onto grouting, so I’ll be back to show you how we approached that on the Day 9 update.

I’ll also tally up some costs so you can see how much I’ve spent on the tub, tile and related plumbing, so check back soon to see more!

Catching the home improvement bug at an early age, Emily Winters is a now a devoted DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects she covers on her blog Merrypad range from painting a wall to building a deck, so it’s only natural she landed at DIYNetwork.com. You can follow Emily on twitter at @merrypad and like her on facebook at facebook.com/merrypad.

48 Responses

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  3. KellyP says:

    We have to redo our tub surround, and seeing the steps laid out and you doing this gives me hope that we can do it! We won't be doing any shelves, etc, either, so that will help. Thanks for sharing!

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About Emily Fazio 


I caught the home improvement bug at an early age, and now I'm a full-time DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects I cover on my blog Merrypad range ...

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