How To Tile A Tub Surround

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 kids' 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 two days, but if you do the math, those two 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.

Tile a Tub Surround tutorialPin

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Once we set the tub and had the plumbing all figured out we installed HardieBacker (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 ½ 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).

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.

Tools For Tiling A Tub Surround

Supplies For Tiling A Tub Surround

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 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 tub 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 tubPin

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’re 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.

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’ll be filling it with grout and it will look nice and finished in the end.

how to tile a tubshower surroundPin

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.

DIY tile installationPin

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

On this wall we started each row at the line and worked back toward the corner.

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 wallsPin

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 wallsPin

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 faucetsPin
how to tile walls around a tubPin

Look at that! Who knew we could be so handy?

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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 tilesPin

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.

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 bathtubPin

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.

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.

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!

tiled bathtub surroundPin

So, what do you think? Have you ever taken on a project this big?

A big THANK YOU to The Tile Shop for providing the tile for this project!

Frequently Asked Questions - DIY Tile A Tub Surround

How did you create the little soap/shampoo cut out?

We created this during the drywall step and used an insert to make sure it was waterproof since it has extra seams. This video shows the gist of how we did it.

How many 4×8 tiles did you use?

I don't recall; we have a standard size tub and did the tile all the way to the ceiling (8 foot ceilings.) For help estimating, you can google “tile calculator” and some great free ones pop up.

What was the cost of the project?

We did this bathroom for under $5K and that included cement boarding and waterproofing the tub area, a new tub, tile for tub surround and floor, new cabinets (IKEA kitchen cabinets), countertop, and plumbing fixtures.

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

It was on the tub when we bought it and so we left it on till we were done!

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