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5 no-fear tips for re-tiling your bath

Does your old bathtub surround drive you psycho? Quit screaming. With just a little tiling experience you can take a stab at re-tiling it. Here are a slew of tips to guide you.


  • Protect the tub. Drape a tarp in the tub and tape it to the edges to protect the surface. It can save hours of cleanup.
  • Protect yourself. Ceramic chips will be flying; before you grab the flat-end pry bar and mallet and begin chipping away, put on gloves, goggles and a dust mask.
  • Take it to the studs. Removing the old tiles will undoubtedly destroy the backing, whether it is drywall, green board or backerboard. Plan to rip the wall down to the bare studs.
  • Cost: Your local dump may want $30 to $40 to dispose of the debris.

Tile tub surround tear out

Use a mallet and flat pry bar to chip old ceramic tile off the wall. Don't worry about damaging the drywall -- it needs to be replaced with backerboard.

Re-tiling a tub surround: tear down to the studs

With the bare studs exposed, repair any rot; redo plumbing if needed and, as is obvious in this case, upgrade the insulation.

Repairs and upgrades

  • Remedy rot. With the bare studs showing, check for rot. If you find it, make repairs.
  • Insulate. Now is the time to upgrade insulation and install noise insulation in walls that adjoin other rooms.
  • Pipe up. If you have a single, push/pull valve that you want to change to dual handles, or if you want to raise or lower the height of the showerhead, you should contact a professional to install the proper plumbing.
  • Jet set. You might even want a body-spray system with multiple jets. Keep in mind, however, that your old tub probably is supplied with half-inch copper tubing, which might not carry enough water to supply multiple body jets. Many jet systems require ¾-inch pipe. Again, contact an experienced plumber.

Re-tiling a tub surround: add insulation before backerboard

New rigid styrofoam insulation has been added along the concrete basement wall, and fiberglass insulation replaced in the external walls. More insulation was added for sound suppression in the walls adjoining other rooms.

Putting it back together

  1. Choose your backerboard. The most important thing to remember is keep moisture away from the wood studs. Your backerboard must be designed for use in damp areas. Wedi board is a type of foam board that is impervious to water and easy to install, but it costs around $45 for a 3-foot-by-5-foot sheet. Other types of backerboard are cheaper -- in the $12 to $15 range -- but are much more difficult to work with.
  2. Install your backerboard. Be sure to install the backerboard according to the manufacturer's instructions. Don't cheat. Your tub will have a flange that sticks up along the edge. Stop your backerboard at the top of the flange: Don't run it down to the top of the tub. Fill the gap between the bottom of the board and the top of the tub with thinset and a strip of fiberglass tape designed to use with backerboard (not drywall tape!). Warning: If you run the board over the flange, it will bow and not give you a flat surface on which to tile.
  3. Sheeting. Some manufacturers call for a layer of 4-mill plastic or 15-pound roofing felt between the studs and the backerboard. Run this sheeting over the flange of the tub so that any moisture will seep onto the rim of the tub and not down the wall behind it.
  4. Seal stone tiles. If you are using stone, especially slate or travertine, you need to seal it with a high quality sealer. Do this in the garage: Sealers usually emit volatile organic compounds, and you want to keep those out of the house. Lay the tiles on the floor -- it's easier to apply sealer when the tiles are lying flat -- and apply two or three coats of sealer. You will also need to apply sealer on the grout after the tiles are installed.
  5. Mortar and grout. These two materials are extremely alkaline and will eat your skin and cuticles. Wear gloves! Use a high quality, fortified thin-set mortar for extra strength: Don't use the cheap stuff.

Roofing felt in tub surround

Installation instructions for Hardibacker backerboard call for 15-pound roofing felt to be installed behind the backerboard.

Re-tiling: install new tub surround backerboard

Hardibacker backerboard has been installed and the joints taped and mortared with thinset. There are many types of backerboard available for wet-area applications.

Tips on slate

Slate can be gorgeous in the bathroom, but annoying to work with. It breaks and flakes easily. Get slate that has been "gauged," a milling process that levels the bottom so it will have a more stable foundation. To compensate for the slate's unevenness, double-apply the thinset: Spread it on the wall with your notched trowel and butter the back of the tile so you are certain to have good contact with the wall. Use slate that is uniform thickness around your fixtures so that the trim pieces have a level surface to sit against.

Finished: re-tiling tub surround in slate

The owner chose multicolored slate for his surround. The slate has been sealed with a color-enhancing sealer. The edges are trimmed with polyurethane-finished mahogany.

If you have a smidgen of tiling experience, look at re-tiling your bath as a great chance to hone your skills. If you plan well and you're conscientious about protecting the wood studs from moisture, there's nothing scary about it.