We have been making some huge strides in our upstairs bathroom remodel. We completed a full demo of the original bathroom, laid patterned floor tile, and now we’re ready to shine up the walls with a subway tile tub surround and chair rail. I just love subway tile so much. It’s classic yet modern, inexpensive yet chic, and you don’t even have to use spacers when laying it.
We usually purchase our subway tile at Menards whenever they have it on sale. It’s normally 21 cents a tile but we’ve been able to get it on sale for as little as 15 cents each, which adds up to $1.20 a square foot. You can’t beat that! I think I’ve tested the weight limits of the Menards shopping carts with the number of tile boxes I’ve loaded up, but it’s been worth it.
As we started with the tile in our bathroom, we tackled the tub surround first. Michael struck a few lines in red to help us keep the tile level. We decided not to use added spacers (the tiles have built-in 1/16 inch spacing) but we did use strategically-placed spacers to push the tile up at the base in areas where it wasn’t level. Michael had also rebuilt the walls after the demo using DenShield tile backer boards to give us a great surface to work on.
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Michael struck a few red lines to give us a visual reference we could use to make sure we were keeping the tile level.
Applying Tile to the Walls
We used a pre-mixed thin-set mortar that was antimicrobial and safe for wet areas such as shower walls to affix the tiles to the wall. With tub surround applications, you always want to make sure that your mortar is safe both for walls and for wet areas (not all are). I used a 3/16 inch notched trowel to apply the mortar to the wall and then started laying rows of tiles along the red level line Michael had struck earlier.
It’s really important that the first row is completely level because it will be the base for the rest of the tile. Be extra vigilant when laying these tiles so that you don’t end up with a tilted wall of tile that will haunt you forever. As the rows of tile grow, you might start to notice that the weight of the tiles will push down areas, making those parts uneven. Keep a level nearby to constantly check that this isn’t happening and, if it is, use spacers to carefully shift the tiles back up before the mortar sets. We have some very tall walls, so we had to keep an eye on this as we built up the tile.
It also should go without saying that you want to adequately cover the floors while tiling and grouting. Excess mortar and grout will fall onto surfaces below, and it will be impossible to remove if it dries. Throw a tarp down to save yourself the trouble of cleaning up.
We used spacers to lift the tile to make sure it was level across the entire tub.
Cutting the Subway Tile
We have some pretty tall walls so we had to cut a lot of tiles in two for the corners. Because it’s an old house and there’s nothing level, the measurement for each corner would change, sometimes with each row so I was constantly measuring and then going back and forth cutting tiles. We used my wet tile saw to make each of the cuts, but I think I would recommend a tile scorer in the future. I’m not afraid of power tools, but there were a few times when the wet saw would skip or grind and, because of the small tiles, my fingers were just a little too close to the blade for comfort. Still, I finished the project with all 10 digits, so it worked this time. Phew!
We did have to make some special cuts to fit the tiles over the holes for the shower fixtures. To do that, I just marked the part of the tile that needed to be removed. I then made many small cuts in that part of the tile. After those cuts were made, I used tile nippers to break apart the thin pieces of tile that remained. In that way, I was able to make curved, fitted cuts that would conform to the fixtures. I kept the nickel plates nearby so I could lay them over the tile and make sure that the jagged edges would be covered when the final knobs and faucets were installed.
Most of the tiles could be laid without cutting, but I did need to cut some shapes to fit some of the fixtures.
I had to use this shape cutting technique to cut out shapes for shower knobs and fixtures.
Here you can see the wall of tile in progress, with the brushed nickel plate for the shower knob laid on top to hide the edges of the cut tile.
Two walls of the shower done, and progress getting made on the third.
We almost had all of the tile laid in the shower at this point.
The view from our hallway. You can also check out the gnarly door frame, including the hole where the light switch used to be.
I had to precariously place the ladder in the shower to get the taller subway tile installed, but I still couldn’t reach the very top row. Michael had to finish that up. Did I mention we have tall ceilings?
Installing the Subway Tile Chair Rail
We applied subway tile as a chair rail in the same manner that we installed it in the tub surround. The one thing that we did differently was to screw some support brackets to the bottom of the wall. We measured the height of the base molding that we planned on using and installed the supports at that measurement so that we could seamlessly apply the molding when we finished.
We also built out a small ledge out of DenShield on the wall where the vanity and toilet will be located (on the left in the photos below). The ledge is only about 3 inches deep but it helped us hide some unsightly plumbing and it allowed us to create a small shelf at the top of the chair rail. We plan to make a wood shelf that slightly extends beyond the ledge to hold potted plants, hand towels, or maybe even a bunny cotton ball dispenser (I’ve always wanted one of those).
We decided to do a chair rail that would cover all of the remaining walls and the ledge we built on the vanity wall.
We made sure to keep a tarp over our recently-finished floors to prevent any mortar or grout drips.
Grouting the Subway Tile
We wanted a grout color that was dark enough to add some definition to the tiles but not overly dramatic. We have a very strong pattern on the floor, so we didn’t want to compete with it. We found the perfect color with DeLorean Gray. I love the color but I also love that I will never forget the name of it because, of course, I instantly think of the time machine from Back to the Future. Great Scott!
We purchased a pre-mixed bucket of unsanded DeLorean gray. We have very small (1/16th inch) tile spaces which require an unsanded grout. I used a grout float to scoop some out and push it into the gaps, then used the edge of the float to squeegee the excess grout off of the surface of the tile. I then wiped off any leftover residue with a wet sponge. I also kept a couple of rags on hand for mistakes or extra cleaning. You’ll want to keep a bucket of water nearby to wash out your sponges and you will also want to change that water frequently to prevent spreading the grout residue onto other tiles.
Once you’ve finished grouting, you’ll want to go back to the corners and joints where the tile meets the tub and caulk those areas in. You can get a silicone bathtub caulk for the areas where white will work. If you need to caulk areas that will match the grout, you can get a colored caulk to match your tile. We purchased TEC color match caulk in DeLorean Gray and it looked great with the grout. I was a little worried that the colors wouldn’t match but it looked seamless.
DeLorean Gray grout is the perfect medium gray for our subway tile walls. (Color chart via TEC by H.B. Fuller)
Great Scott Marty! DeLorean gray grout! (Photo via Universal Pictures’ Back to the Future)
You can see the DeLorean Gray color, which provides a nice contrast and makes the tile stand out.
Woo Hoo! The subway tile project is done and now we are one step closer to finishing this bathroom. It’s actually starting to feel like we’re rounding the corner but we’re not there yet. We’ve got to install the vanity and toilet, as well as the shower fixtures. Then we’ve got some painting, little fixes, and adding the final details. We’re looking forward to checking this room off of our list and sharing the results with all of you. Check back soon for further updates.