So you’re looking for tips on how to tile a shower. I’m glad you landed here! I’ll give you some quick pointers from many years’ of experience from two starting points.

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A client tasked us with turning a tub into a shower, so in the photos you see, we’re not beginning with a blank slate. That’s not uncommon for remodelers and home flippers. If you can match the existing tile as I did on this project, you don’t have to demo the whole area. But you’ll need to tie into the existing tile, matching level and plumb, and likely have to cut a thin row at the bottom. First, though, you’ll want to replace as much of the cement board as possible.

Regardless of your starting point, get yourself a level with illuminated vials. Trust me on this one – I did tile work for years without one. Regular vials are difficult to see even if your work area has electricity. I often had to drag in work lights and it’s still not optimal. The Empire Level UltraView LED e95.48 I’ve been using, however, has made my work much easier.

If you’re starting from scratch, consider using a pre-fab shower pan. It already has a slope for correct drainage and the sides keep the cement board backer out of harm’s (water’s) way.

Otherwise, you’ll need to install a mud bed, and that takes some practice. Getting the floor’s pre-slope just right so the vapor barrier channels water toward the gravel around the 3-piece drain is tricky (and beyond the scope of this article).

Whatever you choose, it’s imperative to know how to install the cement board that works hand-in-hand with the bed/base.

You will see a lot of guys start the cement board right on the floor. If you paint a waterproofing coat on the entire cement board (the blue-green material), then building the mud bed up against it with a vapor barrier in between is no problem.

Without the waterproofing, cement board will wick water upward if it’s in contact with the mud bed. Since the mud bed really never dries out unless you don’t use the shower for an extended period of time, that’s a recipe for water damage behind the tile over time.

Instead, I like to hang the cement board such that it stops short of the floor by just a little more than the proper slope.

Start by setting a piece of the floor tile next to the 3-piece drain and then screw the drain down until it’s level with the tile. This will make it easier to find a level line on the wall.

With one end of your level on the drain, put the other against the longest distance to the wall and mark the point where it’s perfectly level. From there, measure up 1/4-inch for every foot away from the drain. That’s the top of your slope where the mud bed will start.

In today’s example, there’s a two-foot distance from the drain to the wall, so I’m marking 1/2-inch up the wall. Whether your cement board goes all the way to the floor or you leave it shy like I do, this will be the top of your mud bed.

Create a mud bed perimeter about three inches from the wall out. I run my trowel underneath the edge of the cement board on top of the mud bed to create a gap that prevents water wicking up.

Even though we’ll make the mud bed slope toward the drain, these perimeter edges are level with their walls.

There are several options for starting your tile: (a) start with a full tile on the bottom, (b) do the math and mark on the wall where each row will go, (c) lay out your tile on the floor with spacers, measure, and transfer that measurement to the wall or (d) tie into the existing tile.

If you’re tying into existing tile, you’re constrained by the lines that are already in place. For this job, I have to work from the existing tile downward, leaving a thin row at the bottom. Aesthetically it’s not my first choice, but it’s how our client wanted it.

For a blank slate, I usually start full wall tiles on the perimeter of my perfectly level mud bed. The same principle applies if you have a pre-fab base – just make sure it’s perfectly level on the subfloor!

When you start from scratch and there’s no mud bed or pre-fab pan, you can build your foundational row on a ledger board (we’ll discuss that in a moment).

Apply the thinset to the wall with a putty knife – but wait! Don’t go sticking tile to it just yet. You must use a trowel to evenly butter the wall so you tiles are evenly set on the wall and with one another. I recommend a 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch trowel.

Another method uses a trowel to butter the back of the tile before sticking it on the wall. It’s fine if you prefer to do that, but I find that I’m more efficient when I apply thinset right to the wall.

Don’t think you’re going to save time by apply thinset to the entire wall, though! It will start setting at the top long before the tiles reach it. Apply enough for just a couple of rows.

A lot of guys will do the whole back wall and then start on the sides, but I think it’s really important to get the whole bottom row level first. The guy who taught me didn’t care if leveling the first row all the way around the shower took me all day. Having a perfectly level base is that important and I’ve never deviated from it.

If you don’t have a mud bed or pre-fab base installed yet, you can still level the first row of tile with a ledger board. Use a level to mark a line around the entire area you’re tiling, off the top of the mud bed or base an inch or so less than a full tile height. Screw a very straight board to the wall with the top edge right on the line.

This ledger board supports the first row of tile level. Find the center of the back shower wall, use your level to run a plumb line all the way up the wall. Mark the center of the first tile, and align it with the plumb line, and you’re ready for tile!

Use the ledger board line and plumb line to guide the rest of the tiles. It’s customary to let just two or three rows set first before continuing. Then you’ll remove the ledger board, form the mud bed, put the bottom row of wall tile on, and tile the floor.

Spacers – the little dividers that keep the tiles equidistant from one another and create the grout lines – are actually optional depending on the look you or your customer wants. Omit them for thin grout lines often used with subway tiles or use them for a more traditional tile look using thicker grout.

If you’ve come this far, grouting the job will be a breeze. You’ll need a hard rubber float, a good sponge, and a bucket of water.

Mix the grout to the manufacturer’s specifications and use the float to work it between the tiles a couple square feet at a time.

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Fully wring out the sponge and take one swipe at the tile before flipping the sponge over and repeating. Wash the sponge and continue with floating until you’re complete.

As with any job, different Pros often have effective variations of how to tile a shower. But if you keep it level, plumb, and waterproof, you’re on the right track.

Randy has been a Pro in the flooring business for nearly 30 years and working exclusively with tile for the last 10. When he's not making floors look incredible, his refined palette is in a constant search for the world's perfect beer.

From a professional tile mechanic, here’s an additional tip. *If* you choose to go with the smallest grout-line possible (butting tiles against each other at their factory edges), be aware the smallest amount of mortar that squeezes through onto the edge of the tile when setting them can (and probably will) skew that tiny grout line, especially on the row where you leave off for the day and resume the next (so clean thoroughly)! Additionally, tiles from the same box sometimes have slight variance in their dimensions, believe it or not – some bigger than others, or slightly bowed in… Read more »

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Thank you for this article, I learned from it. However, I’m confused by what you wrote here: “Start by setting a piece of the floor tile next to the 3-piece drain and then the drain down until it’s level with the tile. This will make it easier to find a level line on the wall.” Can you please explain that further? I know that you have to get the top of the drain set at the proper level before you figure the slope, but what does the piece of tile do? Thank you!

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