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Bathroom makeover: slate bathtub surround, part 5

This is part 5 and the final in a five-part series, Bathroom Makeover: Slate Bathtub Surround

In Part 1 you learned about slate, Part 2 planned your tub surround, Part 3 tore out your old surround and Part 4 constructed a new bathtub surround. With the backer board installed, you are ready for the final step: installing the slate.

7 tips for getting the slate on the wall

These seven tips will get you to the finish line:

  1. Tile Saw. Because of its propensity to break, a score-and-snap system won't work with slate. You'll need a wet-saw. You can rent a tile saw, or your can buy a small one for under $100 -- a wise investment if you see yourself working with tile again.
  2. Sort the slate. Sort through your slate for colors and thickness to create your design. If you see pieces that look ready to flake off, pop them off with a putty knife. You probably will have some broken tiles; keep them in case you need to cut some small pieces.
  3. Seal the deal. Your slate will have to be sealed, and it is infinitely easier to do it on an open floor, like a garage, than when it is on the wall. Slate just out of the box is going to look a little blah; it will be dirty, and the colors may seem drab. To get the rich, deep color out of your slate, you should use sealer and color enhancer (you may find a combined product that both seals and enhances color). There are both oil-based and water-based sealers, and they can be glossy or matte. An oil-based sealer will impart a slight amber look to your finish; water-based sealers do not alter color and emit only a small amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when curing. Wash the slate first, then apply two, three or more coats, allowing time to dry between each coat. You want a penetrating sealer, not a topical one that only coats the surface. Plan to spend money on your sealer -- $40 or more per quart. There is cheaper sealer around, but its quality suffers. A bonus of using sealer: it reduces slate flaking.
  4. What about grout? You might hear arguments that sealing the slate first will hurt the ability of the grout to adhere, but the grout will hold just fine. You also run the risk of staining the porous slate with the grout if you have not pre-sealed it.
  5. Tiling the wall. With your slate sealed, you are ready to put it on the wall. From here on out you are looking at basic tile installation: spread the thinset mortar with notched trowel, and using spacers, slide the tiles into place. Because of the unevenness of the slate, you have less concern about getting all the tiles level.
  6. Grouting the slate. After at least 24 hours of drying time, use standard procedures to grout your slate.
  7. Reseal the deal. After the grout has dried, come back with a couple of coats of the sealer, concentrating on the grout -- after all, the slate has already been well sealed. Using the color enhancer on the grout will darken it, so you may want to use only a sealer on it.

Your slate bathtub surround is finished. Put the handles on your fixtures, pour the bubbly (bath, that is) and take a good tubbie. You've earned it.