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Subway Tile

Started: 2020-07-30 21:28:26

Submitted: 2020-07-30 23:30:21

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator installs subway tile in his shower

My project to remodel my master bathroom in the middle of a global pandemic led me to tile my shower.

Shopping cart full of subway tile
Shopping cart full of subway tile

While waiting for the waterproofing membrane on the backer board surrounding the shower to dry, I took a trip to Lowe's to pick up the tile I needed to complete the shower. The biggest problem I had with the tile was trying to find something that sort of coordinated with the two-inch-square tiles that surrounded the bath tub and covered the most of the rest of the bathroom. That tile clearly dated the bathroom with a 1980s aesthetic, which I didn't like; but I really didn't want to remove and replace all of the tile in the bathroom. Most of the tile available off-the-shelf at the big-box home retail stores used the wrong color palette and was the wrong size to look very good next to the existing tile. Kiesa suggested white subway tile, and I found a white 2"x4" subway tile at Home Depot that seemed like it would work (white being a sufficiently-neutral color that it wouldn't clash with the existing colored tile, and the two-inch dimension on the short axis would kind of coordinate with the size of the existing tiles). I bought a sample, and we liked it, but when I went to buy enough tile to finish my shower Home Depot was out of stock, so I found a nearly-identical tile at Lowes and bought 90 sheets (nine boxes) of that instead, enough to tile the shower with 10% extra.

Subway tile staging in master bathroom
Subway tile staging in master bathroom

I set up to begin my tile project late on the last Thursday afternoon in June, when I'd run out of interesting things to do at my day-job a week after formally announcing my departure to move back to the Bay Area.

Ready to start installing tile in shower
Ready to start installing tile in shower

I had never done much with tile (except for replacing the faucet on the sink on the second-floor half bathroom, which required repairing the tile around the sink), so tiling my shower was a new experience. The Internet told me I should screw a board to the wall to provide a level surface to start the tile, then apply mortar to the wall, notch it with the other side of the trowel, stick the tile to the wall, and use plastic spacers to keep the tile about the right distance apart. I started on the back wall of the shower (the easiest wall to work on, since it was uninterrupted (neither niche nor window on that wall), starting at the bottom of the wall and working my way to the top, and seventy-five minutes later I had tiled the entire wall. The whole thing looked good enough that I was surprised at how good it looked. The only complication was at the top of the shower, where I had to cut the tile in half using a tile-cutting tool so the tiles ended up straight.

One wall of subway tile in shower
One wall of subway tile in shower

I returned to the shower after supper (and after putting Julian to bed) and tiled the front wall of the shower. This wall included the shower niche, where I had to cut tiles to size inside the niche and awkwardly stuff the tile inside, while trying to maintain a slope so that water would drain out of the niche that didn't really end up working because I applied too much mortar to the bottom and it squashed through the cracks between the tiles, where I was supposed to put grout not mortar. I called off this part of the project when I ran out of mortar; by this point it was 23:00 and I thought I should go to bed rather than mix more mortar and keep working.

Two walls of subway tile in shower
Two walls of subway tile in shower

I continued placing tile on Friday afternoon, then took the evening off to watch a movie with Calvin and Kiesa, as is our standard practice for Friday night. We watched the newly-released (premiering on streaming, because of the pandemic) Eurovision Song Contest: the Story of Fire Saga, and it was just as ridiculous and bombastic as a movie about Eurovision should be. I had the advantage of having actually watched Eurovision (once) last year, so I recognized some of the artist cameos in the (brilliant, show-stopping) song-a-long scene.

More tile laid on shower wall
More tile laid on shower wall

I returned to my tile project on Saturday. I spent more time cutting tile to size than I did actually applying tile to the walls, and along the way I discovered that my tile cutter could only reliably cut tile along the short dimension; if I tried to cut the tile along the long dimension (to make it even more skinny than it was) it would snap into four pieces rather than two pieces. This forced me to tweak some of my decisions about how I was installing the tile, but in general I was able to fill the spaces I needed with two-inch-wide tiles.

Shower tile complete
Shower tile complete

The one place I ran into trouble was at the very bottom of the shower, where I needed to cut a half-inch tall strip of tile to reach the edge of the shower pan, but if I tried to cut this with the tile cutter it would snap the rest of the tiles attached to the backing plastic wrap at the same time. I ended up leaving those tiles off at first, hoping I could install them later and it would mostly work.

I had to let the mortar cure for 24 hours before grouting the tile. As soon as that timer expired I put grout between the tiles. (I ended up using white grout with the white tiles, because I read that using a darker color of grout would make the imperfections in my tile installation obvious, and I was pretty sure my tile was going to be imperfect and I didn't want to call attention to it.) When I was done I was amazed how good the tile looked.

Grout on shower
Grout on shower

At this point, four weeks into my shower-renovation project, after it had sucked up all of my spare time (and some of my work time) for weeks on end, while I was still neck-deep in the project, when I had accepted a job offer in Cupertino starting in a month, I thought maybe I could at last see a light at the end of the tunnel. I began to think that — maybe — the shower would turn out after all, and I hadn't actually made a catastrophic mistake undertaking this project in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic.

Grout complete on shower
Grout complete on shower

I still had to deal with the tiny tiles at the bottom of the shower pan. I caulked them into position (and taped them to the wall while the caulk cured) and then used sanded caulk to try to match the white grout I used elsewhere, and the end result was that I could still tell that the tiles were misaligned and the grout looked funny, but maybe no one else would notice if they weren't looking closely.

Short tiles installed at bottom of shower
Short tiles installed at bottom of shower
Modern mobile phones make my head hurt, and I speak as the owner of a
sheepskin that proclaims me to hold a degree in computer science.
- Charles Stross, What I want for Christmas