How to Tile a Tub Surround

Inside: Follow these step by step instructions on how to tile a tub surround that could save you a lot of money on bathroom renovation!

Do you know how much money we saved on the kid’s bathroom renovation by tiling the tub surround ourselves?

About seventeen hundred dollars!

When we were planning this project we got a quote to see what we were up against. We were quoted $1,700 just for the labor to install the tile in the new tub area. That wasn’t in our budget and we knew it was something we could do ourselves and I’m so glad we did because I’m pretty sure I paid more attention to the details that were important to me than anyone else would. It took us 2 days, but if you do the math, those 2 days were absolutely worth our time.

This was the first time the hubs and I took on a tile job of this size and if we can do it, you can too.

Today I’m going to walk you through the steps and show you how to install tile on the walls of your bathtub surround.
how to tile a tub surround

This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. You can read my full disclosure here.

Once we set the tub and had the plumbing all figured out we installed hardibacker (cement board) around our tub in place of drywall because it won’t absorb water. It installs just like drywall, it’s just harder to cut since it is much more solid.

A few things to note before you start installing your wall tile…

  • Double check to make sure your tub is level in all directions (you probably already did this during the tub install).
  • You must make sure that you have a moisture barrier before tiling. 
    • Cement board is not waterproof and some water will penetrate it and reach your studs (which can mold) if you don’t have proper water proofing. There are a few ways to do this. One can be a vapor barrier installed behind the cement board or you can tape the seams of your cement board and use a paint on vapor barrier on top of your cement board before tiling. This post from the DIY Tile Guy goes over different ways to waterproof before tiling.
  • Once you’ve prepped and are ready for tile, decide where you are going to start placing the tile. You will want to consider the size of your tile and the length of your space so that you don’t end up with a really thin tile on the sides. I started on the bottom closest to the top of the tub and at the wall since my measurements made it so that I would have about 1/2 of a tile at the other end of my row. This makes for a really nice look. Take the time to plan it out before you start.
  • This project will go a lot faster if you have 2 people. The hubs was the tile cutter and I placed the tiles. We rented a tile saw and set it up in the backyard. I applied mortar to the walls while he was cutting, which made things go faster.
  • Enlist the help of a licensed contractor if needed (see my hold harmless disclaimer here).

Below is a list of the exact tools and materials that I used and worked well for me. I received the tile for this project from The Tile Shop and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to select tile online which saved me a lot of time. I definitely recommend them.

 

How to Tile the Walls of a Bathtub

Once your surface is ready you are ready to get tiling!

We mixed our mortar according to the instructions in a large 5 gallon bucket.

 

 

Apply a nice coat of mortar to your wall using a putty knife.

 

 

As soon as you have a row or two worth of mortar, scrape the mortar with a trowel to create your ridges. (The size of trowel you use matters. Check this resource to learn more.)

how to tile a bathtub shower surround

Place your first tile onto the wall and press evenly while giving it a little bit of movement back and forth. Slide it into place and check to be sure it is level. Repeat these steps with each tile, using a spacer between each tile to ensure evenly spaced tiles.

On the bottom row, use a spacer on its side to create a space between the tile and the top of the bathtub.

how to tile around a tub

 

When you get to the end of a row, hold a whole piece of tile up and mark where you will need your cut. Once you know the size of that piece you will most likely be using that size for each row, starting with that one on your next row if you are doing a modified subway pattern like we did here. The size of your cut tile may change as you work your way up the wall if your walls aren’t plumb.

how to install tile around a new bathtub

 

When we got to the top of the wall we had to cut each tile length wise to finish the wall. Don’t worry too much about the gap between the top tile and the ceiling. You will be filling it with grout and it will look nice and finished in the end.

how to tile a tubshower surround

On the next wall we ran into a few things we had to figure out.

The first was creating a clean edge where the tile would stop. We drew a line on the wall using a level to ensure it was exactly straight up and down.

Then we used tiles that had a bullnose edge on the short side to create a clean edge.

Create a clean edge for DIY tile installation

On this wall we started each row at the line and worked back toward the corner.
tiling around a new bathtub

When we got to a point where there were no tiles underneath to support the newly placed tiles above, we used a nail (see picture above) to give support until we could come back and work our way down the side of the tub.

how to tile shower walls

When it came time to tile around the plumbing, we held our tile in place to get the height of the pipe and then to the side to get the distance we needed from the edge of the tile.

 

 

 

 

Then the hubs cut a square into the tile according to our marks.

 

 

And we set the tile.

how to cut around fixtures when tiling tub walls

We followed this same process when going around the other plumbing fixtures. You will want a tight fit, but don’t worry too much if it looks ugly; your fixtures will cover up these cuts nicely.

how to tile around faucets in shower walls

Look at that! Who knew we could be so handy?
how to tile bathtub walls

 

How to Grout Wall Tile

Before you grout, let your tile set for at least 24 hours, but follow the exact instructions given on the mortar that you used.

Before grouting, inspect the lines and remove any large pieces of mortar that seeped out during installation. Use a metal scraper or putty knife to scrape out any excess mortar, being careful not to damage your new tiles.

how to grout wall tiles

Prepare your grout according to the instructions on the package and gather your grouting tools!

Apply a blob of grout to your float and smooth onto your tiles so that all your grout lines are covered.

I found that moving my float in an X pattern ensured that I had filled each grout line well and didn’t leave any gaps or air bubbles.

You will want to work in one area of about 3 feet by 3 feet at a time.

Once the grout lines are filled, go over the area again with your float, removing as much excess grout as possible from the surface of the tiles.

If you don’t remove all the grout from the surface of the tiles, don’t worry about it. You’ll be wiping it off soon.

how to grout bathroom tile

When I grouted where the tub and tile meet, I used a piece of painters tape to protect the tub.

 

Then I grouted like normal and immediately lifted the tape out slowly.

 

I dipped my finger in a little bit of water and ran it along the grout line to create a seal and to smooth it out (much like you do when caulking.)

how to grout along the top of a bathtub

 

The instructions on your grout will tell you how long to wait before going over the surface with a damp sponge.

Once you are ready, get a clean bucket of water and a large sponge and wipe the tiles to remove the grout on the surface of the tiles. Once your sponge is dirty, rinse it in your bucket and keep going.

Your grout lines get smoothed out during this step, so pay attention to smoothing out any blemishes because they will dry this way and be permanent.

how to tile bathtub walls

 

The next day you will need to wipe the foggy residue from the tiles clean with a wad of cheese cloth. Wear a mask during this part because it creates a lot of dust.
how to install tile on a tub surround

Once you have the finished surface cleaned up all of the dust, let your grout cure according to the instructions.

You will also want to caulk around your fixtures and along the top edge of the tub.

Once the grout is cured,  seal the tile and grout using an appropriate sealer for your type of tile.

A few days of hard work later (and even eating lunch in this bathtub), we have a beautiful clean new bathtub that is a far cry from the one piece yellowish insert we started with!

kids bathroom remodel

So, what do you think? Have you ever taken on a project this big?
how to tile a tub surround

Related:

The Kid’s Bathroom Reveal

Modern Coastal Bathroom Source List

 5 Tips for Choosing Bathroom Tile

A big THANK YOU to The Tile Shop for providing the tile for this project! See my full disclosure here.

blog post signature

We saved so much money during our bathroom renovation by tiling our tub surround. See how to tile a tub surround in this post. #bathroomrenovation #homerenovation #kidsbathroom #tile #DIY #diyrenovation #diyhomedecor #homedecorating #homedecor #diyproject #bathroom #moderndecor #coastaldecor #masterbathroom

About Corey

Corey is the creative behind Hey There, Home where she shares easy-to-follow and beautiful home decor and entertaining ideas. Her mission? To make home decor accessible to everyone, even if you don't consider yourself crafty, and to empower people to decorate their homes in a way that they can actually be lived in, not just looked at.

32 thoughts on “How to Tile a Tub Surround

  1. Shannon says:

    Hi Cory, Looks great. How did you calculate where to place the niche so whole tiles fit around it? This is how I want to do my tub surround.

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Honestly it took a bit of calculating (and math isn’t fun for me) but we were limited to between studs too. It will look fine though as long as the tiles are the same size or you can start in the middle and have smaller tiles on each side. I think it will look fine as long as it’s symmetrical.

  2. Alice says:

    Where do you get the blue plastic to cover the tub?

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Great question, Alice. It was on the tub when we bought it and so we didn’t take it off till we were done!

  3. Sc says:

    I know you researched this but it is highly recommended to use red guard or another waterproof sealer over the cement board before tiling .

    Your approach may work out but using the red guard would’ve been a much safer bet .

    Also where the tub meets the tiling, grout should not be used because it can crack. Caulk is recommended here . It’s also best to caulk the corners seems where the tiles meet rather than grout .

    Your job does look very good and I hope it holds up .

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Thanks for your input! I do recommend my readers do their own due diligence on prepping the the area prior to tiling. We used a paper moisture barrier behind the cement board. It’s like Kraft paper but has a plastic coating and we’ve had no issues with it.

  4. Della Swails says:

    Corey, love your DYI bathroom discussion. We are in the process of doing our remodel also. We just finished the kitchen tile job (walls and floor). When it came to putting the grout on, I used a grout bag to fill the spaces. This eliminated the very time consuming job of cleaning ALL the excess grout off the tiles. I used less grout and saved money. The grout bag allowed me to fill the spaces completely without the mess of slopping it all around. I used a plastic trowel to scrape the excess off so I wouldn’t scratch the tile. Just an idea I thought I would share. It save a lot of back breaking work.

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Awesome tip, Della. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fred says:

    Red guard is a great product and it should be applied after your hard board is complete. And make sure all seam and corners are treated with type. It looks pink and drys to a red color which is like a rubber finish which will not let water penetrate.

  6. Ceanne says:

    When you say you set the tub and had the plumbing fixed, did you get a new tub installed by someone (and an old tub removed) and have a plumber do the piping for the faucet/shower head?

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Hey Ceanne, We did get help from a plumber! I described the procedure we went through in this post. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. TIm says:

    Nice job. A couple of tips I use.
    Check for level & plumb every couple of rows. I can get of even with tile spacers and easy to correct a little but if you wait too long the grout lines will show it.
    When using spacers, use 2 on the bottom to keep tile from teetering. Put both spacers together at one end then drag one spacer to the other end of the tile. this will scrap out extra thin set.
    If installing new faucets, make sure to assemble and test before backer board. For DIYers, the new Shark Bite plumbing connecters eliminate sweating copper but make sure you buy the disconnecter tool. Besides price ($7/ea) the only drawback is they will allow pipes to spin. I installed a Pfister tub set and it called for a Pipe Thread end to be screwed way into the inside end. I put a couple drops of glue to allow for the required twisting.
    If using tile or stone that does not have a Bullnose, metal trim pieces can be used.

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Great tips, Tim. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  8. Jbvocal says:

    Great article but you’re supposed to waterproof the cement board first. Hopefully you don’t run into problems and hopefully you make the necessary adjustments to this article so you’re not getting a bunch of people to skip that step

    1. Corey Willis says:

      Thanks for your comment; other readers have pointed this out, too. We found numerous discussions about this when researching our project and there is some controversy about the subject. We did use caulk in the corners and a really good grout and tile sealer so we are confident it will work out. My advice is to research your options thoroughly before making a decision.

  9. I can definitely see why you would want to consider the size of your tile and length of space when it comes to your tub enclosure. I’ve been wanting to completely remodel our bathroom to help increase our property value. I definitely think that we should have a brand new tub enclosure installed that could help to make the space much more comfortable.

  10. Shelley says:

    The tile look great & your tutorial was well done in my opinion but I would caution readers who want to tackle this job themselves to research waterproofing your shower wall BEFORE tiling. Tape seams, apply waterproofing of choice to cement backer board and use a good sealer mixed into the grout. After 9 years of remodeling homes for a living, tackling many tile projects on my own AND loving it (plus the money saving aspect–total bonus) I am only now ready to tile a shower wall AFTER a lot of research plus talking with my hired pros about their choices for waterproofing.

  11. From a professional stand point – nice tutorial! Couple of things tho’ – you need to tape your joints before installation or you can get cracking in the finished tile. This marries the concrete board together and seals the corners. It’s a mesh tape that sticks on and then you put mortar over top of it with the flat trowel. You can spread your mortar with your notched trowel and eliminate the step of putting it on the wall with the flat trowel first. A good tool to have is a pair of pinchers to grab out the little square you cut out on the wet saw. Another good tool is a sanding block to smooth out the cut edges on tiles like your cut bullnose pieces that then meet a finished edge tile. $1700 was a little high but it did probably include the concrete board, mortar and grout? Most contractors include setting materials in their labor.

  12. Dan says:

    Thanks Corey I had it in my mind to start from the top and tile down . Not any more.

  13. joan foltz says:

    bought a clayton home. they just used bathroom drywall. can I tile on this?

  14. Kim says:

    Hi,
    Your tile work looks amazing. I want to do this and also need to replace the tub. I feel sure it will be a DIY, but it is a huge undertaking. Any suggestions on removing the tub?

  15. Allison says:

    My husband and I just finished our second bathroom tile job! It’s so easy and every time we use our bathrooms, we smile because our hard work paid off! I love knowing that we’ve done it ourselves and not having to pay someone to do it.

    1. Allison says:

      We also used an adhesive kind of morter. It was already mixed. Just pop the lid off and went to work, instead of mixing it!

    2. Great tip Allison! I’ve used the pre mixed stuff for smaller projects before too. Great stuff.

    3. Smiling over here cause I know exactly what you mean! So rewarding!!! Congrats on a big job under your belt!

  16. Bert says:

    Fabulous! You have inspired me to start tiling right away!

  17. Barb Keller says:

    Hi Corey,
    I love your tutorials. You make everything look easy, but I know it is not. It reminds me when I was 14 my mother bought a box of the old fashioned plastic tile and told me to tile our bathroom. She did this to keep me occupied during the summer when I was out of school and she was working full time. I had no idea what I was doing but it turned out OK. My friends were amazed.

    Meanwhile I am still planning my living room make over and have taken “before” pictures.

  18. Annette says:

    I think you did a great job with the layout of those little tiles and I’m not trying to put down your work in any way! This is exactly how I tiled my shower. However now part of me wants to take it all down and start over. I found out that water eventually does seep through grout and behind the tile. Cement is porous and in the corners ESPECIALLY where one board meets another it can start to create mold very quickly. There should be waterproofing material installed behind the cement board or on top of it (underneath the mortar) I’ve seen it done both ways. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the subject but mold can lead to serious health issues so I’d recommend that anyone who is going to tackle this project look into methods to really waterproof the area to avoid mold growth. Cement Board alone is not enough 🙁

    1. We found the same discussions when researching our project. We did use calk in the corners and a really good grout and tile sealer so we are confident it will work out. I see your point though.

  19. Annette says:

    We have done the bathroom floor, but I want to tackle the boys’ bathroom wall tile. I want to take it up to the ceiling. I wonder if I can talk my husband into it? We also want to redo our master bath, but that is a much larger project.

    1. Hi Annette! Taking it up to the ceiling was something I had to talk my husband into also. It makes the room look so much larger and he loves the result. Good luck with your reno. Our master is on our list too, but you are right, it is a much larger project. 🙁

  20. Shannon says:

    We recently tiled our bathroom floor and all went well until it came time to wipe off the grout. When we wiped the excess off with a wet sponge, it didn’t really come off!! We made the mistake of letting it dry, thinking we could use haze remover to get it off the next day…..this resulted in spending a week scrubbing the tile!! Lesson learned….try harder when removing the grout the FIRST time 🙂

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