Boring bathroom prep work

Let’s say that you decide to make some updates to your bathroom. And you finally come up with a coherent plan for the finished product. You might then pat yourself on the back and think that it’s time to start rolling out the new flooring and slapping some tile up on the walls–you know, the fun stuff! Sadly, you would be mistaken. It came as a surprise to me too, but it turns out that before you can do any of the fun, “now we’re making progress”-type work, you have to do a whole lot of highly tedious and un-fun prep work. This post is dedicated to all those boring tasks:

  • tearing down drywall
  • tweaking the plumbing
  • adding minor structural supports
  • moving and adding electrical boxes
  • tearing out the old flooring and baseboards
  • hanging hardiebacker and taping and bedding the joints
  • sanding drywall in preparation for tile
  • waterproofing around the bathtub

Lest you thought a bathroom makeover was glamorous, that list should dispel your illusions. But if you’re interested in the “how to” for any of these things (or are just a glutton for punishment), read on…

You may recall that our plan is to tile the entire wall on which our vanity and medicine cabinets will be installed. The drywall on that wall was damaged from removing the old vanity, and frankly, we didn’t trust drywall to hold that much heavy tile, so we decided to replace the drywall on that particular wall with sturdier hardiebacker cement board. As an added bonus, the hardiebacker will also be more water resistant.

So the first step was to tear down the drywall. I left most of the demo work to Ben and handled the cleanup instead, although I did put a hammer through the wall once, just because I see homeowners on HGTV do it all the time. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as I’d imagined. But even with Ben doing most of the work by himself, it didn’t take much time at all until things looked like this:

This is obviously an exterior wall, as you can tell from all the insulation.

With the drywall gone, we had the opportunity to address some behind-the-wall issues to make things easier for us going forward. First up: plumbing. The most significant question we faced was whether we should attempt to move all of the sink plumbing to the left by six or eight inches so that we could center the vanity between the edge of the bathtub on the left and the wall on the far right. If we left the plumbing in its existing location, our 48-inch vanity would be significantly closer to the right-hand wall than to the bathtub. But in the face of the amount of work it would’ve required to re-route the plumbing–and we probably would’ve had to hire a professional plumber–I reluctantly decided that it was an asymmetry I could live with.

In the end, the only plumbing modification we made was to push the hot and cold water spouts as far back into the wall as we could. Our IKEA GODMORGON sink cabinet is actually made up of drawers instead of your standard hollow cabinets, and I’d read that they allow for only about three or so inches of clearance between the wall and the back of the drawers. So we did what we could at this point to avoid future drawer/plumbing collisions.

With the drywall out of the way, we also had the opportunity to anticipate where we might be able to use some extra structural support. The GODMORGON sink cabinet is a floating vanity without legs, so its entire weight–including the weight of the porcelain sink that will sit on top of it–will have to be borne by the wall. We determined that the left side the cabinet would be screwed into one of the studs, but the right side would not. Our solution was to add a brace on the right: we just cut down a 2×4 and screwed it in between the existing studs at the height where the vanity will be attached to the wall. Now the sink cabinet will be anchored to studs instead of just hardiebacker, so we feel slightly more confident that the weight of the vanity with all of our stuff in it won’t pull down the wall someday!

Our final behind-the-walls project was a bit of electrical work. Previously there had been just a single vanity light on the wall above the mirror, but I decided that I wanted to replace that light with two light fixtures, both operated by the same switch as before. To that end, our first order of business was to install two new electrical boxes that looked like this:

These are “new construction” electrical boxes that you use when your walls are down to the studs, like ours were; if you still have drywall in place, they make different “existing construction” electrical boxes for you. But these “new construction” boxes are super easy to install. You just decide at what height you want your new lights and screw the metal rods into the surrounding studs at that height. The blue box slides side to side, so then you just position it wherever you want your new light fixture. We installed two boxes, each about seven inches down from the ceiling, and adjusted the boxes horizontally until they each lined up with what will be the center of each of the two medicine cabinets. We then took the existing wiring from the old electrical box (which we removed) and threaded it through one of the holes in the back of the new electrical box we’d installed on the right side.

Next came the real electrical work. Before you do any messing around with electrical wiring, make sure you turn off the electricity to the circuit you’re working on at your home’s main electric box. We always do a double test to make sure we’ve flipped the right breaker switch: first we turn the light switch on and off (and leave it in the “off” position while we work), and then we use a voltage tester like this one.

Once we were sure the wires weren’t live, we cut a piece of 12/2 electrical cable (just ask for it at your local improvement store) that was long enough to cover the distance between our two electrical boxes and extend about six additional inches on each side. Using wire strippers, we removed about two inches of sheathing from each end of the cable, and then took off about a half-inch of insulation from both the white and black wires that were inside the cable. Then we threaded one end of the cable through the hole in the back of the electrical box on the right side (where the original wiring was also residing), and strung the other end of the cable to the electrical box on the left side and threaded it through one of the holes in the back. We had to drill small holes through the intervening studs in order to make a path for the connecting cable, of course.

All that was left to do then was to make the connections. In the right-hand electrical box, we had to connect three sets of wiring: the original wiring, the wiring from our new cable, and the wiring from the first light fixture. We just took the black wires from each of these, twisted them together with a pair of pliers, and slid a plastic wire nut over them; then we did the same with the three white wires, followed by the copper wires. In the left-side electrical box, we had to connect only two sets of wiring: the new cable and the second light fixture. Once everything was connected and tightened up, we turned the breaker back on and held our collective breath while we flipped the light switch…and (gasp!) it worked! We had two functioning vanity lights. We high-fived ourselves and then (after turning the breaker off again) removed the light fixtures for the time being, capped all loose wires with wire nuts, and tucked the wiring inside the electrical boxes so we could get on with the rest of our work.

Here’s what it looked like behind the wall once we finished with our plumbing, structural, and electrical tweaks:

The next thing we did was remove the old baseboards and flooring. We were initially meticulous about numbering both the baseboards and the walls they came from because we had vague hopes of re-using the original baseboards, but we soon abandoned that idea. They were in such poor condition and were so difficult to remove that, despite our best efforts, we wound up leaving a few holes in the drywall where we had to get rough with our little crowbar. They were ugly baseboards anyway, so I decided we’d just buy some more modern-looking, taller baseboards that would cover any holes in the drywall and save us the trouble of repairing them.

Then came the flooring. You may remember that we were dealing with vinyl peel-and-stick tiles laid over a sheet of linoleum, neither of which were put down beneath the old vanity, so there was a large area of exposed concrete slab where the vanity used to be. That made it pretty easy to just grab hold of the bottom layer of linoleum and rip. The entire floor came out in about ten minutes. Then I just used a putty knife to scrape the few remnants of adhesive off of the concrete. Easy-peasy.

If you’ve made it this far, now would probably be a good time to reward you with a shot of our cute little assistant:
He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty! (And he did, repeatedly.)

Next up: cutting and hanging the hardiebacker cement board where the drywall used to be. We used 1/2-inch thick hardie-board, which is recommended for wall applications, and it comes in sheets that are 3-feet by 5-feet. These boards are seriously thick and heavy, so despite what the installation instructions tell you, don’t even bother trying the “score and snap” method of cutting them down to size. We managed to break several boards that way, but never in a clean line and never where we meant to. As a kind Lowe’s employee finally told us, just use a Skil saw with a carbide blade. (Anything less dulls almost immediately.) Plan out ahead of time how the boards will be laid out on the wall, making sure that the vertical edges of every board line up with a stud. And measure carefully to figure out where you’ll need to use a hole saw to cut holes for the plumbing.

We eventually came up with a pretty good system for cutting and hanging the hardie-board: Ben measured and cut the boards and then held them in place while I used the power drill to put a couple of screws into the studs. He then went out to the garage to cut the next piece while I finished securing the board, inserting screws about every 8 inches along each stud the board crossed. After we got all of the hardiebacker hung, we taped and bedded the joints with all-purpose joint compound and fiberglass mesh tape. Then we called it a day. Our arms were tired!

When we got back to work again, it was time to address the walls surrounding the bathtub. We were already planning to tile the wall above the back side of the bathtub since that’s the same wall that the vanity and medicine cabinets will be attached to, and we thought it made sense to tile the other two walls surrounding the bathtub as well. But for some reason that I can’t recall at this point, we decided not to tear down the drywall on those two walls and put up hardiebacker. I think it may have had something to do with the difficulty of working around the window. Basically we got lazy, and after I read somewhere that it’s okay to put tile directly on drywall (even painted drywall) as long as you sand the wall first, I got out my orbital sander and got to work.

Because the walls around the bathtub will probably get wet at some point, we had to give some serious thought to waterproofing. Despite what you might think, tile and grout are not waterproof; they’re porous, so moisture can seep through them to whatever’s beneath. If what’s beneath happens to be nothing more than drywall with a few holes in it, that insidious moisture could dampen and weaken the drywall, spawn mold, seep through the gaps in the wall and pool up on the foundation, or even warp the wood studs–all very, very bad things.

As you can see, there were a lot of gaps in the walls around our bathtub:

So our first waterproofing step was to fill in those gaps with mastic–the same stuff we’ll be using to affix the tile to the wall. I just scooped up a blob of mastic with my putty knife and applied it to the holes, doing my best to keep the finished surface flat, since we’ll shortly be applying tile over it. See how much better it looked when I was done?

But there were still a few hairline cracks in the mastic that could potentially allow moisture to seep through the walls, so next I brought out the big guns: RedGard Waterproofing and Crack Prevention Membrane.

This stuff is magical. You can paint it on almost any surface and it dries to create a waterproof barrier–so water-tight that it’s even approved for use as a shower pan liner. I used a 4-inch textured roller to apply two coats of RedGard to the walls around our bathtub. The product instructions say to apply the coats “at right angles,” so on the first pass I ran my roller up-and-down, and on the second coat I ran the roller horizontally. I only went about two feet up the walls, since there’s not likely to be water splashing about any higher than that. The RedGard goes on pink…

…and when it dries in about an hour, it turns red. It does smell pretty bad, so take advantage of whatever ventilation you can. But once you’re finished, you’ll have a waterproof surface to hang your tile on and will feel a whole lot more confident that rotting walls will not be in your future. (In retrospect, I can see that we really should have filled in that gap around the tub faucet too; do as I say, not as I do.)

So that’s finally it. You now know all the dirty details of the exceedingly tedious things we had to do in the bathroom before we could get to the fun stuff. Sorry for the lack of pretty pictures. Next time there’ll be new flooring involved, so I’ll make it up to you!

For the full story of our master bathroom makeover, check out:
Part 1: Tackling the master bathroom
Part 2: Bathroom inspiration
Part 3: Prep work
Part 4: Rubber flooring
Part 5: Wall tile
Part 6: The bathroom is finished!

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