In this post I’ll show you 19 solid shower tile installation strategies I have learned over the years to increase my tiling efficiency and quality.
I include everything from mixing thin set mortar and installing your tile & trim, to installing levelling clips, and grouting.
This is Steve from SKG Renovations with the first of three new additions to my shower remodel series, entirely dedicated to shower tile and shower tile installation.
Ok, let’s get into it!
Shower Tile Installation:
First Install Tile Trim
Tile edge trim installation is always my first shower tile installation step.
I suggest that you NEVER attempt to wedge the trim under the vertical leading edge of your wall tiles while you are installing them. There are so many things that can go sideways with this strategy if you don’t have a lot of experience setting tile.
Instead, you should determine the distance (horizontally from your tub or shower pan edge) where you would like your wall tiles to extend. This is where you will mount your tile edging.
I would suggest that you try to place your edge trims in a position that will allow you to lay one complete horizontal row of tiles with no tile cuts, if possible.
Now draw a vertical pencil line on both sides of your shower enclosure to trace where you’ve chosen to mount your trims.
Then simply glue them in place using a tiny amount of polyurethane adhesive every 6″ or so along the trim.
Further secure the trim to the wall with 6-8 wafer head screws to allow the trims to follow the undulations in the wall (as long as they are not too severe). The screws are removed the next day when the adhesive dries.
For a more detailed account of this procedure, refer to my post on Tile Edge Trim – How to Choose It and Install It (Updated).
Sort & Pre Cut Shower Tile
I always prefer to cut, install and grout the shower base tiles before cutting the wall tiles. Having a finished floor surface makes it easier to cut the bottom row of wall tiles, which is the most difficult and the most important row.
Compared to the shower walls, the shower base is a fair bit easier to cut and install because it’s horizontal, the area is usually much smaller than the walls, the tile size is often smaller so levelling clips aren’t needed, and the perimeter tile cuts don’t need to be very accurate.
As such, the sections below are focussed mainly on sorting and cutting wall tile, but they do apply to the shower base tiles as well.
Rest assured that shower base tile installation techniques are the first I will cover in the Tile Installation section later in the post.
Sorting Tile is Important
If your wall tiles are anything like the ones I installed on this job (see image in the next section), you’ll need to sort through them to ensure that you don’t mount two identical pattern tiles next to each other. It is an easy mistake to make when you are focussed on installation.
Whether or not there is a repeating pattern in your tiles, it is always a good idea to sort through and number each tile in the sequence they will be installing in.
I know this sounds laborious and it most certainly is, but I wouldn’t start any tiling job without numbering all my precut tiles. These will become the base tiles for every shower wall.
Shower Back Wall First
After the shower base tiles are installed, the first step is to cut and install the large back wall tiles first (more on tiling strategy later). This will make it easier to match the grout lines on each of the two side walls when it comes to cutting and installing those tiles.
The back shower wall is also the largest, and you want as little work (and worry) as possible on this wall. It will after all, be the most important focal point of your entire shower tile installation.
Shower Back Wall Tile Cutting
When installing these all important back wall tiles, the bottom rows must be solid and straight, if you want all the rest of your rows to line up.
That means that cutting and dry fitting at least the first couple of rows is super important before you start laying your tile. This will sometimes require a creative use of shims against the shower base to get this row just right, since most shower bases will not be perfectly flat or straight along this edge.
You won’t regret spending some extra time on this because the spacing, levelling and alignment of all the rest of your tile work on the shower wall surround will depend on this.
You will always be better off and have a less stressful experience, if you pre cut as many rows as you can before you start laying tile on this wall. Personally, I try to cut all the rows to length before mixing any mortar.
The back wall tiles are much easier and less stressful that the side walls because the edges will always be covered by the side wall tiles.
For this reason you can get away with cutting the third and higher rows on the fly if you absolutely refuse to cut all the tiles beforehand 🙁
However in any shower tile installation, I really don’t think it’s ever wise to cut the side wall tiles on the fly.
Shower Side Wall Tile Cutting
The shower side wall tiles should only be cut after the back wall tile has already been installed.
The installation of the shower back wall tiles is important at this stage in order to precut the shower side walls tiles accurately. As such, tile cutting must be approached in a slightly different manner than the back wall.
You will be making finished tile cuts on the corner tile of every second row (assuming you have a staggered tile pattern). That means that these cuts must be ACCURATE and SMOOTH.
But there’s no reason for stress……
Because your tile trim and the back wall tile will already be installed, all of these rows will be easy to measure and cut to length.
Accurate Tile Measurements Are Critical
Careful and accurate tile measuring and cutting is important in every shower tile installation.
To do this properly, all you need is a 2′ – 3′ spirit level and pencil/ Sharpie to draw horizontal lines on these walls, lining up with the grout lines on the back wall tiles.
Then simply measure horizontally along the lines you just drew, to calculate the measurements for the last tile cut (don’t forget the grout lines).
I suggest measuring both the top and bottom of each row so you can confirm whether a 90 degree cut is appropriate for the last tile cut. Remember that these cuts will be visible so if the back wall tile is not plumb, you may have to adjust the angle of your corner tile cut to compensate.
And for those of you that are not comfortable with all those measurements and calculations ( like me! ), you can always hold a tile up against the wall and against the tile edge trim piece. Holding a spacer against the opposite vertical tile edge will allow you to mark out every tile in that row.
Your tiles need to be measured and cut accurately for sure..…. but not perfect. Make it easy on yourself and cut an additional 1/16″ off the corner tile to account for any mortar stuck between the vertical spacers, and errors in your cut. As long as you don’t cut your tile too long, you can adjust the vertical grout lines in that row to adjust for a slightly large corner gap.
And because you have marked all your rows, you can always hold up each row of tile after cutting, to check your tile sizes, and how accurate and clean your cut is. I highly recommend this step, especially if you’re a novice tile setter.
Corner and Ceiling Joints
Corner Grout Line? – Yes!
I think it always looks better without a corner grout line if possible, but there are times when you will need one.
It is very common for shower walls to be out-of-plumb so you’ll likely have to consider cutting the tile that meets the corner (see below).
But if your wall veers out of plumb by less than 1/4″, it’ll be much easier to keep these cuts at 90 degrees so the tile corners will line up nicely.
In this situation, the largest part of this gap should then be filled with grout. You will still need a silicon bead in the corner, but the grout will do a better job than silicon to fill and seal the larger part of the gap.
Corner Grout Line? – No!
I think it looks better without a corner grout line if you can manage it, so you should always be cutting your tile as tight to the corner as possible and applying a silicon bead in the corner. It will always look better.
Most shower walls will be out-of-plumb, so you can either correct this problem by adjusting your framing OR you can cut your shower corner tiles to accommodate.
If you decide not to adjust the framing, you’ll be cutting your corner tiles on your side walls at a slight angle to accommodate the wonky back wall. If you get this angle right, you shouldn’t have much of a problem following the back wall. You should make a few test cuts to make sure you get this right.
This is one of the most fiddly parts of shower wall tiling but spending some time on it will ensure that these corner cuts will be tight to the back wall. If you manage to accomplish this, all you’ll need is a small bead of silicon to finish it off.
You can find many colors of silicon out there and there’s no shame in applying the corner silicon bead to cover up some of your imperfections. Professionals do it all the time. 🙂
What About the Top Row?
Now you’re wondering…. What about the top row? Don’t these corner tiles on ceiling need to be ripped so the last tile row can be installed?
The answer is no….… not right away anyways. I recommend that you cut all the tiles to length before you start tiling, including the top row. You can rip this last row to width when you get there.
Pre Bond Your Ceramic Tile
Like I mentioned earlier in the Choosing Your Shower Tile post, it would be best if you pre bonded your ceramic tile before you begin installing any tile.
Pre bonding is partially sealing the back of the tile so it does not absorb as much water out of the mortar. See my Ceramic or Porcelain Shower Tile post if you’d like to read more on this topic.
The way I pre-bond all my ceramic tile (before installation) is with a 1 to 5 mixture of Weldbond to water. I usually get a large bottle with a screw lid, pour in water and Weldbond, seal the lid and shake vigorously for a couple of minutes.
Get a small sponge roller and tray and roll the mixture onto the back of every single tile you will be using in your project. You can set the tiles immediately after bonding if you like, but it actually works better if you leave the tiles to dry overnight before installing them.
A great test to see how well this works is to apply some mortar to a test piece of backer board and lay one tile with the bonding agent applied, and one that has not been bonded. Wait about 15- 20 seconds and then simply remove the tile from the backer board to see what I mean.
A dry flakey, poorly hydrated layer of mortar will remain on the back of the unbonded tile. In contrast, the mortar on the bonded tile will be adhering extremely well to the back of the tile and the substrate. It will also appear smooth and well hydrated on both surfaces.
Cutting Holes in Porcelain Tile
As I mentioned in the tiling tools post, diamond studded hole saw bits are the best tools when cutting all the smaller holes into porcelain or ceramic tile. Believe me, these bits are going to be one of your “go to” tools in every shower tile installation you do.
But this technique can be a bit tricky and it requires a bit of skill, so pay attention!
Mounting these bits on a regular hand drill and using it to cut holes in tile is not a great idea in general, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Most hand drills spin too slowly and your hand is too far away from the cutting blade to have any decent control. This instability can cause the bit to skip out and ruin the surface of the tile you are cutting.
Angle grinders can cut much faster and are much more comfortable to operate with these diamond tile cutting hole saw bits.
Hole Cutting Technique
You can see exactly how I cut these holes in the video above but you should also read below, to make sure you don’t miss anything.
The best way to cut these holes is to continuously irrigate with water to reduce the dust and and save your hole saw bits from burning out, but sometimes this isn’t really practical. There’s a lot of heat produced when a hole saw cuts into porcelain, so irrigation is always a good idea if you want your bits to last as long as possible.
If it’s possible, bring the tile outdoors and rest it on a couple of blocks of wood. Turn on the garden hose and direct the water flow over the pre-marked tile. It doesn’t take much water to keep the hole saw bit cool and dramatically reduce the dust.
I should also warn you that this process is a bit scary if you’ve never attempted it before. Most of the good tile cutting hole saw bits do not come with a center guiding drill bit, so cutting can feel a bit uncomfortable before you get used to it.
To perform this cut efficiently you must lower the RPM on your angle grinder to a comfortably speed. Your goal is to make it cut faster than your drill, but nowhere near its top speed. It is your positioning that is the secret to hole saw cutting with an angle grinder.
You need to stabilize for hand or forearm, and plunge the bit into the material at a slight angle to the surface so that one side cuts in first. You only need to make this angle very slight….. It only takes a moment for your bit to establish its hole.
Once your edge is established, slowly even out the hole saw bit so that it cuts more parallel, until the entire hole saw bit is cutting into the tile (face of the bit is parallel with the tile face). With a good bit you’ll be through the tile quickly.
I will say this again because it’s super important – With or without water irrigation, you absolutely need to wear a respirator that filters silica dust, as well as good quality ear and eye protection. This operation is extremely noisy and dusty, and tile chips usually fly at high speed in all directions. Don’t take any chances with your health!
Now you know how to cut holes in tile like a professional tile installer!
Shower Tile Installation:
Thin Set Tile Mortar
If you’ve been wondering about which thinset mortar to use for your shower tile installation, I’m sure your head is spinning. If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why there is such a mind boggling array of products for such a simple purpose.
First off, I would recommend that you stay away from any premixed tile mortar, mastic or tile adhesive. These products are great for decorative tile work like you kitchen backsplash tile, but generally not a good idea for structural tile installations like the shower floor and shower wall.
As far as I know there are no premixed products designed for adhering your shower wall and floor tiles. If you can find such a product, I would suggest you steer clear of it. Too big a risk. You will have to get used to the idea that you must add water and mix your own thin set. There’s no shortcut around this.
As far as cementitious mortars are concerned, the selection is huge but let me narrow it down for you.
Modified Thin Set Mortar vs Unmodified
I usually prefer to use modified thin set over unmodified. Modified thinset mortar is simply a mortar that contains polymers (plastics) in addition to the cement and sand in the unmodified version.
Modified thinset tile mortars are also apparently stronger and more flexible than unmodified thinset tile mortars when they cure.
This fact is not really important to the average DIYer or professional, simply because both mortars are extremely strong if mixed and cured properly, and manufactured by a reputable brand.
The biggest benefit of polymer modified mortars (or latex modified mortar) is that they can have a longer pot life (longer time in bucket) than unmodified mortar (in my experience). They are also easier to work with on vertical surfaces especially…. AND more sticky, with less slumping.
Find a Compatible Thinset
When you’re looking for a modified mortar, you will also need to find one that is compatible with your shower wall waterproofing membrane.
Some manufacturers of sheet waterproofing membranes suggest that modified mortars cannot cure properly if they are used to attach the membrane to the substrate (curing under the membrane).
Others recommend the use of their own brand of modified mortars ONLY, and still others suggest the use of any modified mortar to attach their membranes. It’s all way too confusing and I’m no scientist, so I won’t comment about the chemistry/ physics of all that.
The best I can suggest is to use the mortar that is recommended by the manufacturer of your waterproofing membrane or by your wholesaler. That’s what I do.
The whole waterproofing assembly may be covered under warrantee if you use the manufacturer’s recommended (branded) mortar, so I think it’s worth doing.
One last point…. don’t worry about the liquid admixes. You can add these to ordinary unmodified thinset to “modify” it, but I don’t really know why you would ever do such a thing. My recommendation is to simply buy the dry bags of modified mortar and mix with water as they recommend.
Thin Set Mixing and Pot Life
I would recommend that you only mix enough mortar to use the entire amount within 2-3 hours (if it’s modified). If it’s cool and rainy outside, I find that pot life can be extended by as much as 1 hour, but this will vary depending on your area.
Regardless, you should always remix your thin set periodically to make sure it stays as fluid as possible. DO NOT add more water to extend the working time when it starts to stiffen up.
I know how tempting it can be to add just a tiny bit of extra water to the bucket when your mortar is getting a bit stiff and your almost finished. DONT DO IT! Dispose of it and mix some more instead.
Extending the working time of your mortar really doesn’t help anyways. It gives you a few extra minutes at best while also damaging the compression and bonding strength of your shower tile installation.
Mixing Thinset & Mix Consistency
Although many professionals don’t seem all that worried about how thick thinset mortar should be (mortar viscosity), it’s actually quite important because it can affect setting times, bonding and compression strength.
You’ll see a lot of directions online about the proper thin set mortar mixing consistency. Statements like, mix until “smooth” or “paste-like”. You’ll also get some useful food analogies like “whipped butter”, or “pancake batter”.
These suggestions for mixing thinset mortar are way too subjective and kind of useless (especially if you don’t cook!). Instead, here is what I would suggest:
Generally follow the directions on the bag, but add about 1 cup less water than the recommended volume. Of course if you are mixing only half a bag, you should add about 1/2 cup less than what’s recommended. Mix thoroughly to a lump free consistency before assessing the thickness.
At this point, the best way to decide if the mortar is too thick is to watch the top layers while mixing, as you move your paddle up near the mortar surface.
If it’s too thick, it will tear or fracture the top surface of the mortar as the bar mixer moves through it. You will know what I mean when you see it.
If you can see this happening , just add about 1/4 cup of water incrementally, mixing thoroughly in between (assuming you’re mixing 1/2 bag or 20 lbs dry mix).
Stop adding water when you see the ridges on the surface of the mortar become smooth when you bring the paddle up near the top. This should give you the perfect thin set mortar consistency.
Thin Set Application
Bonding Agent Again?
When applying thin set mortar to a substrate whether it be a wall or floor, it is always a good idea to apply a bonding agent to the surface before spreading your mortar and setting your tile. This is especially important if your substrate is untreated concrete.
The goal here is to semi seal the surface so only a limited amount of water absorbs into the substrate. You can check out my exact strategy in the bonding ceramic tiles before tile setting section above.
Some pros choose to wet the surface with a sponge rather than applying a bonding agent but I don’t like doing this because there’s a risk of applying too much or not enough water.
This can make it more difficult to adjust the tiles after install, and could result in variable tile bonding strength.
The Right Notched Trowel
If I’m installing shower wall tile, I prefer the 1/2″ x 1/2″ square notched trowel to accommodate tile levelling clips and the undulations in the substrate.
Because the shower wall is rarely perfectly flat, you will create hollows under larger format tiles that need to be filled to adequately support you’re the entire tile. The 1/2″ notched tile mortar trowel accomplishes this very well.
With smaller tiles the 1/2″ trowel notch size may create a little more mess so you may want to get yourself a 1/4″ x 3/8″ notched trowel for these tiles. Personally, I still prefer to use the 1/2″ for most tile sizes except for the smaller mosaic tiles.
Spreading Thinset Mortar
I have seen thin set mortar application done the wrong way in way too many shower tiling jobs. I will tell how to do it the right way.
To ensure adequate thinset coverage on the back of your tile you need to spread the mortar in a single direction under every tile. This allows the raised areas of mortar (created by your notched trowel) to collapse and spread over the substrate and the back of the tile.
If the trowel lines change direction under your tile, there is a risk that air between the raised mortar lines can become trapped, forming air pockets under your tile. These air pockets will keep the mortar lines from collapsing and spreading, which in turn limits thinset mortar coverage.
Not only does this compromise tile adhesion, bond and compression strength, but it also introduces unnecessary spaces under the tile where moisture can accumulate and possibly condense. This could increase the risk of tile delamination and /or mold growth under the tile over time.
Back Butter your Tile
No, back buttering not a lotion application technique or a special massage strategy. 🙂 To back butter a tile is to apply a thin scratch coat of fresh mortar to the back of the tile during shower tile installation.
The most important step to ensuring a great tile setting experience and a long lasting tile assembly, is to make sure you always back butter your tiles before setting them into the mortar bed.
Sorry, but I need to say that again….. ALWAYS back butter your tiles!!! That’s how important it is. If the tiles are too large to handle easily, you can use a butter buddy (Back Butter Buddy). It makes back buttering your tiles a little easier and it’s available at most tiling wholesalers or online.
As I mentioned earlier, tiles can extract water out of the bonding layer of your mortar bed, especially if you’re setting ceramic tile. Even if you’ve taken the time to apply a bonding agent to your ceramic tile, there is still a risk of a poor bond if the bonding was not complete or the mortar bed surface has partially dried (skimmed over).
The only way to ensure a perfect bond is to back butter your tile. Period!
Shower Base Tiling
As I have already mentioned, I prefer to install and grout the shower base tiles before setting the wall tiles whenever possible in my shower tile installations.
This is not absolutely critical, and it may not be the most convenient, but it is the ideal installation scenario in my opinion. The reason is simply about gravity and where water will tend to settle when the shower is in use.
If you decide to install your wall tiles first, there will be a gap between your wall tiles and your floor tiles that terminates at the base waterproofing membrane. If this gap is not perfectly sealed with grout and /or silicon, water could settle here, eventually causing mold growth or tile delamination.
Alternately, if the shower base is tiled and grouted first, the gap will instead be at the base of the wall tile. Because this gap terminates on the wall rather than the floor, water must make it’s way upslope to reach the wall membrane.
In other words, it’s a much lower risk strategy.
Back Buttering Mosaic Tiles
If you plan to install small mosaic tiles on your shower base, you should always be back buttering these as well, before they are set into the mortar bed.
This is a huge hassle so I know that you may want to ignore this if you think you can get away with it. I’m here to tell you that you CANNOT get away with it.
These tiles are usually glued to a fiber mat which interferes with the proper contact between thinset and tile. It is not good enough for the mortar to bond to the fiber matt!
Without adequate contact between the tile and mortar, these tiles may not bond and could easily pop off (or delaminate).
The Mosaic Method
When back buttering mosaics, you need not apply thick gobs of mortar to the fiber mat, like you might when back buttering larger tiles.
If you do, it will cause you huge problems when thin set mortar squeezes through the grout line gaps between the tiles. This is a real nightmare when you need to clean away the excess thinset before grouting.
Instead, you simply add a very small amount of mortar to a putty knife and scrape it onto the back of the tile mat in short strokes in two directions, if possible. This will limit the amount of mortar accumulation in the grout line spaces but still apply an essential scratch coat on the back of each tile.
The less mortar you use and the shorter the strokes, the better off you will be. Keep in mind that your primary goal is get the mortar through the fiber matt and cover each tile as completely as possible.
Extra Mosaic Tile Tip:
NEVER install mosaic tiles with paper matt backing in your shower. These mosaics will very likely disconnect from the matt & pop off the wall or floor soon after installation. See my Choosing Shower Tile post for more info.
Shower Curb Tile ?
The shower curb (shower threshold) always presents one of the bigger challenges for the DIY shower tile installer (if you’re not installing a curbless shower that is).
It is only a small part of your tiling project but it’s a very exposed part, so your tiling expertise (or lack thereof) is right up front for all to see.
The challenge of shower curb or shower sill tiling is due to the presence of two inside, and two outside corners. The outside corners especially, require tile cutting and tile edge trim installation that some DIYers are not confident with.
So if you think you belong to this group, I have another easy and beautiful option for you.
Shower Curb Stone
Skip the hardest part of your shower tile installation and install a stone shower curb cap instead!
On the top of the shower curb threshold, you can install a marble shower curb, granite shower curb or quartz shower curb, instead of installing tile!
Yes, I am talking about the same stone surface material you chose for your bathroom vanity surface. This means you could cap your shower curb with granite marble or quartz stone depending on your vanity stone choice.
Not only does this strategy allow you to skip some difficult curb tiling, but it also allows you to carry a fancy design element from the vanity over to the shower area.
I am no designer, but I think this curb finish looks awesome and most importantly, it’s super easy!
Right after you finish the shower base tiling, tile the inside and outside vertical edges of the curb, measure the length and width of the top of the curb (overhanging the edge by 1/4″ – 1/2″), and order this piece from a stone fabricator.
When you receive it, simply attach it with thinset mortar.
If you want the job to be even easier, you could also face the two vertical sides of the shower curb in stone as well. I decided not to do this (in the accompanying image), simply because the client thought there might be a better design continuity if the front curb face matched with the wall tile (And I agreed)!
Voila! Curb is done and beautiful, with no headaches!
Tiling Around the Shower Drain
In every installation, tiling around the shower drain is always a bit of a challenge. And it’s important to get this right to avoid unsightly tile lippage and/or water pooling around the drain grate.
For this section, I am assuming you have installed a waterproofing membrane on the shower floor as well as it’s associated membrane bonding drain assembly. These drain rough ins are very common now and make up an important part of most waterproofing membrane systems.
These drains also come with an easily adjustable drain extension to raise the final finished drain grate up to the level of your shower floor tile.
No matter what size of tile you choose for your shower pan / shower base, you need to make sure that the drain grate will be level with, or just slightly recessed from the surrounding tile.
To accomplish this you simply adjust the drain grate prior to tiling so that when it’s in position, it stands perfectly level and slightly proud of a tile placed adjacent to it.
How proud it stands depends on your estimated mortar depth. For 1″ mosaics, I would assume only about 1/16″. For larger tiles you will need to increase this to as much as 1/4″ if you are setting large format tiles against a linear shower drain.
With your drain adjusted to its proper height, and your shower floor tiles already cut, you can begin your installation.
Shower Wall Tiling
Your Best Friend – Tile Levelling Clips
In my Tiling Tools post, I talk about the tile leveling system that I use in every one of my shower tile installations (Lash System by QEP), and this section is all about how to use them effectively on the shower wall and the shower floor.
Tile leveling clips or tile leveling spacers, are important because they serve as both a tile spacer and a tile lippage reducer.
To manage both of these elements without these clips is a real challenge even for the professional installer. And if you are lucky enough to be tiling on an uneven surface 🙂 , they are a tool that you cannot do without.
Placing these clips is easy enough, but unlike regular tile spacers, they must be placed before you place each tile into the mortar bed.
If you look at the image, you can see that in order to manage tile lippage, these clips are placed under and in between each tile. This allows you to sandwich the tile edges between the base of the clip and the yellow wedge inserted over top.
One of the most difficult things about using the QEP Lash Tile Levelling System is inserting the wedges. On small jobs you can insert these wedges by hand without too much grief, but with larger jobs your fingers can get quite strained.
That’s why I recommend that you buy a pair of clip insertion pliers. There are two different types of pliers available for this system, and both can be set so the wedge doesn’t get pushed in too far.
You should still be very careful when inserting the wedge because there can be foreign material or semi-dry mortar between the clip and tile. You should ease the clip in gently to allow the clip to stretch and for any mortar to squeeze out.
Doing this too quickly will break the clip.
It’s like a lot of things in remodelling…. and in life. Quick and hasty always loses. That advice was free…. courtesy of Steve 🙂 .
Avoid Sloppy Grout Line Spacing
Another issue with levelling spacers in general, is that your grout line widths tend to get a little messed up when you are inserting the wedges.
They also clamp down on the two adjacent tiles to lock them in place. This makes it difficult to adjust the grout line spacing after the clip is set in place.
That means you must be prepared to adjust each row periodically by using a putty knife or small plastic prying bar against the wall, to re-establish the proper grout line spacing.
A good strategy is to initially insert the yellow wedges only 3/4 of the way in, for each row you complete.
This will ensure that the tiles can move horizontally so you can tighten them up against the levelling spacers (with the prying method).
To be able to pry one side of a tile row, you’ll also need to be sure that your row is supported on the opposite side with something solid. The tile trim works well for this purpose if you are tiling either of your shower side walls.
Wedge your plastic pry bar between your last tile and the wall, and gently nudge the row to tighten the tiles against their spacer clips. Use this procedure both horizontally and vertically (if necessary).
After each row has been adjusted, push in the yellow wedges to tighten the clip. This extra tightening won’t shift the tile if you proceed carefully.
To horizontally adjust the back wall tiles, I often place one of the yellow levelling clip wedges between the tile and wall on one end, while I pry against the opposite wall.
Levelling Clips – One Last Thing
One thing I see all the time is the DIY shower tile installer assuming that the levelling clips will take care of all the levelling work. This is what they were designed to do after all, right? Well….. more or less.
Even the best tile levelling system doesn’t have the capacity to register (level) the tiles perfectly, especially if they are designed to level 4 tiles at once (as with corner levelling systems).
The best strategy is to level the tiles as best you can immediately after you place them. If you do this initial levelling, it will leave less work for the clips to do.
You should also be aware that the more time you spend setting a row of tile without locking down the clips, the more the mortar stiffens. This will make it harder for the clips to level the tile.
My suggestion would be to set and level around 4-5 tiles in a row on the shower wall (while the mortar is still very fluid), before locking down your clips.
Remember that you can still adjust the tiles with the “prying method” after the clips are locked down if you need to. Just keep in mind that it will be more difficult to move them after the clips are locked, especially if you are laying a long row of tile.
Placing your Tile & Thinset Coverage
During shower tile installation, setting your tile into the mortar bed is fairly fundamental if you have some experience with tiling.
But if you are a novice DIY tiler, I think you will appreciate a few words of advice on this deceptively simple procedure.
When you set your tile into the mortar bed, you don’t need to twist the tile to get adequate coverage and bond strength. Applying a slight pressure to the top of the tile is all that is needed.
If the mortar is mixed appropriately (see mortar mixing section above), the tile will sink with very little pressure and provide the perfect 80% – 90% coverage. Your primary goal should be to register the tile against the adjacent tile, not to completely collapsed the mortar ridges.
If you are doing some other online research on this topic you will have seen the recommendation that 100% thin set coverage is your goal. I realize that this sounds like an intuitively correct piece of advice, but let me explain why I disagree agree with it.
In my experience, it’s important to leave at least some air space under the tile. This allows you to shift the tile a lot easier when you are adjusting the levelling clips and grout line spaces. If the tile is pressed firmly enough to obtain 100% coverage, the tile gets too close to the substrate.
When all the air has been removed from the mortar layer, it will not move easily. In fact, it is difficult to move at all because of the suction affect of the mortar.
Avoiding Tile Drift
Tile drift occurs when a row of tiles starts drifting away from horizontal during shower tile installation, especially on the shower wall.
To avoid this, you must be willing to insert additional (very thin) spacers into the effected grout line spaces.
I often use the spent blades from my utility knife as super thin tile spacers. Although they are a bit dangerous to use, I have not found an adequately thin substitute for them (just make sure blade side is inserted into the space :).
You can insert them over or under your existing tile spacer or simply stack them to create a new custom spacer. You can use these on several adjacent rows to very gradually and unnoticeably bring up one drooping side.
It is a very effective strategy even for porcelain tiles because you can correct tiny variations as you go…. or correct large discrepancies by inserting these spacers in several rows.
Either way, this tiny tile spacer strategy can keep your tiles uniform and level without noticeably altering the grout line width.
Best Grout for Showers
In all my shower tile installations, my “go to” grout is Mapei Flexcolor CQ. I really do love this tile grout because it’s premixed, easy to spread, easy to clean-up when wet, and most importantly, this grout is essentially waterproof when it cures.
But you should be aware that Flexcolor CQ is a pre sealed style of grout, so the aggregate is suspended in a solvent base mixture. This makes it a bit smelly and a little more difficult to apply compared to standard cementitious grouts.
I personally find the smell to be quite mild and not too offensive, but it is a good idea to make sure you have good ventilation in the room before you start applying this grout.
You should also be aware that product is not considered an Epoxy Grout. Flexcolor is similar to Epoxy Grout in its waterproofing abilities, but it is considerably less smelly and easier to apply.
Another important consideration is that the aggregate used in this product is very fine, much like a standard nonsanded or unsanded grout. However, the manufacturers do claim that it can be used in grout lines up to 1/4″ wide.
I know there is a lot of info out there about how to grout your tile so I will not go into much detail on grouting technique.
I will tell you that it’s important to sweep the grout float diagonally across the grout joints so you don’t make the mistake of carving the grout back out of the joints after it’s been applied.
You should also keep a steep angle on your float during grout application. The goal is to drive the grout into the joints, so feeling a slight pressure under your float from the grout mass is important.
It’s also important to sweep your float in both directions across every grout line whenever possible. Often during the initial sweep, the grout line is only partially filled. A sweep from the opposite direction almost always fills it completely.
This process can get very tiring so I would suggest frequently changing hands so you don’t get too sore. I frequently grip the float with both hands to apply a little more force to the float, and to relieve my right hand strain.
Another great tip is too apply the grout aggressively and quickly. This does not need to be a meticulous application, as long as you make sure you cover every linear inch of your grout lines from both directions.
Do this as quickly as possible so the grout does not dry on the tile surface. It also helps if you get as much of the grout off the tile surface as possible, so there is less to remove during the cleaning (sponging) stage.
The “Hitch” with Pre Sealed Grout
As I mentioned earlier, this type of grout is a little tricky to apply if you’ve never used it before. Because it’s a solvent based mix, it’s a bit smellier than standard grouts. The most important difference however, is the way that it is applied.
You work this Mapei Flexcolor grout into the joints the same way as any other grout however, you need to take frequent breaks to sponge off completed areas.
This is because the polymers in the grout tend to solidify quickly on the tile surface. As such, it is very difficult to remove if you wait too long before cleaning.
Cleaning Grout Lines
I would suggest that you only apply this grout to a few square feet at a time, or about 5-10 minutes (depending on ambient temp.) before cleaning off the grout with a sponge and water.
You must use only the rigid square sponge that is included with the grout, and you must be very careful to apply minimal pressure, wiping each tile surface until clean of any material. Your goal is to remove the grout on the tile surface only, without affecting the grout lines too much.
Make several passes, cleaning the sponge in between until any resistant material (grit) is removed from the tile face. Do not worry about removing the “cloud” of solvent left on the tile surface. This solvent is mixed into the water and can be removed after the entire job is initially cleaned.
If you perform this procedure as I suggest, the contouring of the grout within the joints should take care of itself.
Resume the grouting procedure, repeating the steps above until the entire job is complete.
When the grouting and initial cleaning is complete you should thoroughly rinse out your sponge and fill a new clean bucket of water. Use this to clean the entire grouted surface again to reduce the solvent haze from the tile surface.
If you find that you have missed a bit of grit from the tile, don’t attempt to scrub it off at this point with the sponge. It will be too firm and you risk carving some grout out of the grout lines.
Instead I would suggest you use a sharp utility knife to carefully cut the grit off the surface of the tile, being careful to avoid the grout lines.
Grout Cleaning Vigilance, Rewarded
At this point the haze will be dissolved and removed to a degree, but you should be prepared to clean the tile surface one more time after the grout lines have set up a bit more (2-3 hours depending on ambient temp.).
A moist microfiber rag does a great job to clean off this final haze.
Don’t ignore this last step or leave it until the next day because the haze, however slight, will remain on the tiles and dull their finish.
It is possible to remove the grout haze at this point but you will literally be scraping each and every tile with a sharp razor blade or utility knife to get it done. I have found that liquid grout haze removers do not really do the trick to remove this type of solvent based grout.
I know I may have scared you away from using this product because it seems so finicky to use. I hope this is not the case because if you follow to my instructions, I believe you will have a stress free and very satisfying grouting experience.
Like the saying goes…. nothing worthwhile is ever easy! And that goes for grouting too!
I think you will be super happy that you used this grout in your shower tile installation if you can put up with a little extra work.
Since shower tile installation is such an important part of every shower remodel, I thought that I should create a comprehensive shower tiling post. I really hope that I’ve accomplished that, and you were able to get some useful information and strategies from it.
Please let me know what you think of my post in the comments below, and ask me any questions you like about this topic.
I remember what it’s like not having any idea how to approach my first tiling job ………oh so long ago 🙁 , and I’m determined to help you guys avoid some of the struggles I went through.
Good Luck with your project. And remember that this job can be super satisfying and a lot of fun….. if you are well prepared, that is 🙂 .
This post is for information purposes only and should NOT be interpreted as professional advice. You should always consult a licensed local contractor before undertaking any remodelling work in your home. Click here for my full Personal / Professional Disclosure.