Master Disaster

We’re always told “kitchens and bath renovations sell houses” but they kindly forget to add in that DIY disclaimer: “…they also break marriages.” Luckily, I still find myself a married man, but I think it may be a while before we tackle a project house this big again!

So here we are, a few weeks back, coming home from this most recent deployment, an awesome trip to Puerto Rico, and a loaded down trip from Houston. Ines and I are feeling motivated to get our last projects complete and prepare for market listing should we get PCS orders. We know the Master bathroom is the last big hurdle between us and the finish line, but we’re unsure as to how much money to pour into it. Between the gold plated shower door frame, thatch-inlay glass, dated tile, brown trim/cabinets, and yellow countertops, we were a little overwhelmed. We were feeling confident about the counters and cabinets, since we had redone our guest bathroom counters and cabinets in a similar manner. However, the largest problem (and coincidentally the most intensive) was the shower.


So we discussed a few options:

Option 1) Paint the gold trim with a darker copper/bronze finish and call it a day (Easy)

Option 2) Remove the door all together and install a new shower curtain (Easy)

Option 3) Replace the door with a new glass slider (Easy, but expensive)


Option 4) Remove the frame, door, wall/curb/ceiling tile, drywall, insulation, and any remnant of our old shower (Idiotic)

Naturally, we opted in for more punishment.

Forewarning: what you are about to see here is both graphic and disturbing. Novice DIYers and those with OCD should watch only under the supervision of a trained professional.


We were “fortunate” enough to discover that our shower was previously installed using a mesh/mud bed on top of drywall instead of the modern concrete backerboard that has become so popular…yay. Suffice to say, removing the tile and this concrete-imbedded mesh with attached drywall was taxing. Concrete dust is not your friend, so remember to always use a 3M mask (or equivalent) prior to tackling any project of this magnitude.

It took a few nights, and though we were left with a NASTY dust-mess in our bathroom and adjacent stairwell, we finally removed all of the backing and debris:


I opted to use 1/2″ hardibacker as opposed to 3/8″ like we did in our guest bathroom to marry up to the void left by all the tile, concrete, and drywall, plus it add a little more rigidity/stability to the shower. The downside is that it is much heavier and your shower walls need to be (even more) level-spanwise or shimmed since the 1/2″ doesn’t have as much play. Unless you’re able to do all the math/measuring in your head, I would also highly recommend building yourself a little hardibacker cut layout to prevent waste.


Unfortunately, our shower length was JUST beyond the length of your standard 4×8′ concrete board, so I had to make additional cuts (not shown) to ensure coverage and strength.  Ideally, you would want your hardibacker to span the entire length or height of your shower section, but you will most likely have to make some cuts. The issue arrives when your hardibacker can’t cover the full length or width of a particular section. In this case you’ll want to ensure that you cut section that are big enough to be supported by at least two wall studs. Additionally, ensure that all seams overlap a stud (in other words, don’t let the ends of your concrete board pieces terminate in the space between the stud.

Depending on your prowess with cutting hardibacker, maneuvering around faucets and shower heads can be tricky. If you have a dremel or grinder, you could always freehand the cut around the pipes; if not, accurately measure where the pipe will fall on your concrete board once installed and use  utility knife to trace out a circle/square to fit around the device. Then you can use a hammer to bang out the traced shaped.

We eventually got the skylights drywalled (picture shows pre-mudding state)…


And the concrete backer up:


I was so full of enthusiasm with all of the concrete backer up and the skylights drywalled, that I convinced Ines to let me try my hand at installing a shower niche. Niches are a great way to snaz up a shower, but do involve a significant amount of extra work; why not, right? So, I got to measuring out the layout of our niche.

We had a couple of designs in mind:

Niche designs

And eventually went with #1, the single long nice with plans to include shelving which would subdivide the shape. The easy method for installation is building between the studs, which can vary between 14-18″. If you do plan on using the studs as your frame, it’s important to mark where your studs are before you make any cuts, or use a stud finder if you don’t already know the locations. I marked out the area on the concrete backer using some masking tape, and then traced out the area with a pencil.


I ran into my first hiccup when I forgot to account for the water line that runs to our 2nd shower head (doh!), but rolled with the punches, and adjusted to a single long niche plus an additional box niche above the line:



I then taped/mudded all the seams with concrete mesh tape and thin set and waited for the shower to dry before applying the moisture barrier:


There’s technically two ways to accomplish moisture protection (three if you count not using either of the following two): moisture barrier behind the concrete backerboard (usually a plastic/rigid membrane), or a moisture barrier applied to the front of the backerboard. I opted to use a product called Mapei Aquadefense (similar to products like “Red Guard”), which is applied like a paint to the surface of the cement; 1 bucket is sufficient for a standard size shower.

Follow the posted instructions on the membrane – ensure you mix the material thoroughly and then apply as desired. I watched some videos where individuals used a trowel to apply the membrane to the walls, which I for the life of me could not figure out. The most efficient way I found was to treat the green goop like paint, using a brush and roller to apply it to the walls, corners, and seams:



Apply the membrane to your ENTIRE shower, to include the curb; focus on all seams and corners, and any where water will collect (floor pan, niche shelves, curb step, etc.). The membrane should be left to dry for at least 24 hours (varies depending on your environment) before applying thin-set/tile. Also, ensure to cover or mask whatever areas of your bathroom/shower you want protected, because this stuff will likely stain them. Luckily, I wasn’t too worried about a couple drops hitting the floor (some extra water proofing can’t hurt).

After the membrane dried, we were finally set to tile; we chose a 1’x2′ ceramic tile for ease of installation and to play off our existing floors. IMPORTANT STEP! Ensure you have a level line to start your tiling. I cannot stress how important it is to start with a level first row; the effects of which will play out through the remainder of the tiling process (e.g. potential for different sized grout lines, grout lines that don’t match up, patterns that don’t match up, etc.). To begin, take a piece of your tile and dry-fit onto the wall as close to the bottom of the floor pan while also keeping the tile level. Score a line long the top of the tile and then use your level to trace that plumb-line around your shower case. If your shower pan slopes from the corners to the middle of each shower pan side, you will most likely need to make cuts to the bottom side of the bottom row to ensure there isn’t an excessive gap at the bottom seam.

I found it best to measure the height between the corner of the floor pan to my plumb line and then the height of a point 2′ down the row. I then transposed these measurements to my bottom row tiles in order to match the cuts to the slope of the pan. This isn’t a perfect process; provided you will be laying your floor tile after your wall tile is set, you can get away with a little more of a gap than normal. If either case, try to keep the gap between the tile and floor no larger than 1/2″ (not also not so small that you can’t grout/epoxy between the joint).

I would highly suggest letting your bottom row of tile set for a few hours (24 hours if you have the time) so that you don’t accidentally shift this row when applying subsequent rows. Consider that there is quite a bit of weight pushing down on this row – even more so if you’re using large format tiles. To keep the first row level during application, I like to use folded pieces of cardboard underneath the bottom row; if you have shims or tile spacers, those work as well:


From this point, it’s a matter of maintaining the pattern as you work your way up the shower. If you are staggering the tiles as we did, you should only have two patterns, let’s call them A and B. The “A” pattern should start with a full tile on your far left (or far right if you’re one of those weird people that likes to work right to left). The “B” pattern will always start with a half tile and continue around your walls; if you’re lucky, you’ll end with a full tile on the end of your “B” pattern row, but mostly likely, there will be some waste associated. The niche can add a little bit of a challenge, depending on how your cuts play out. Ensure that when the niche drives a cut, you account for the pattern when starting again on the other side of the niche.

Yay, all done:




We chose to use a mosaic for our niche to make it pop, and while mosaic sheets can make the tiling process a bit easier, they have their own inherent obstacles.

1) Mosaic sheets are usually NOT perfectly square. If you get a herringbone-type, you need to account for the “loss” of tile footage where the chevron patterns begin and end.

2) Mosaic sheets have a backing that does not work well with the bargain-type tile saws. Bottom line, you’ll find it difficult to cut through the tile AND the backing in a straight line.

3) If you choose to go with herringbone, you will have a lot of angular cuts (lots of tiny triangles) which can complicate your tiling.

4) Mosaics can get pricey, so mistakes are costly (measure thrice, cut once).

5) Use a tile sealer BEFORE you install your mosaic tiles (and all tile for that matter) so that grout cleanup isn’t as arduous.

Unfortunately, our niche was slightly wider than the width of our mosaic sheets, which meant a lot of cuts to fill the triangular gaps near the inner walls:


I used bullnose tiles for the inner walls of the niche and cut down some marble curb steps to act as shelving. The shelves were installed so that the inner niche walls pieces acted as the bracing. Let your thin-set…set…then get to grouting:




Make two or three passes with a wet sponge to clean off the excess grout; let set for at least 24 hours before exposing to water (no showers).

If you’re one of those lucky families that doesn’t have to replace the shower pan/tile, finish your caulking and then enjoy your shower! Otherwise, stay tuned for details on how we retiled our shower pan.