In today’s installment of “the great master bathroom makeover,” we’re talking tile. Wall tile, that is. I’ve always been a fan of tile on bathroom walls. It looks so luxurious. And in my house, where all of the walls are painted white, I thought wall tile would go a long way towards making the master bath really look like a bathroom, rather than just another room with white walls. Plus, tiled bathroom walls generally add value to a home, which is a factor I fleetingly considered, since this likely won’t be the last house we live in.
So yes, I wanted to tile the bathroom walls. The question was: what kind of tile should I use? I knew I wanted something modern looking, but that wouldn’t break the bank. So I turned to my trusty store of bathroom inspiration images (you can see many of them on my bathrooms Pinterest board), and alighted on these rectangular white tiles laid out in a stacked, straight-set pattern:
I love these! I thought that a 2×8 tile, the size used in that last bathroom, would be just perfect. But unfortunately that size tile ain’t cheap. No problem, I liked these white 6×6 square tiles too:
Okay, maybe I wasn’t quite as wild about the square tiles as I was about the wide rectangular tiles, but 6×6 tiles are much less expensive.
I considered using plain ol’ 3×6 white subway tile too, which is the cheapest option of all. Yes, it’s a very traditional tile, but I thought that maybe if I straight-set the tiles they might read more modern? Though I worried that the overall effect of so many smaller-sized tiles would be too busy, especially with the busy-ish pattern of small raised dots on the rubber flooring.
And my mind kept returning to those wide rectangular tiles–my original impulse, which is often so telling. So I spent hours and hours searching through what felt like every single online tile retailer’s inventory until I found a white 4×10 tile that wasn’t terribly expensive. It didn’t have quite the same pleasing height-to-width ratio as my 2×8 dream tile, but it seemed to be the closest I was going to get anywhere near my price point.
By this time I had tied myself thoroughly in knots, and I was having a tough time visualizing how the different tile options would look on the walls in our bathroom. Why isn’t there some website where you can enter the dimensions of your wall and the tile you’re thinking about, and it shows you a rendering of how it would look? And lets you try out different grout colors while you’re at at?? If there is such a website, I couldn’t find it. Computer people, get on this! Because I had to do things the old-fashioned way: I cut out paper tiles and hung them on the walls.
That’s a sample of the 4×10 tile on the left, the standard 3×6 subway tile on the right, and some actual 6×6 square tiles laid out on the floor. I stood in my bathroom doorway staring at those tile samples for a long, long time. It wasn’t until I took that photo of them that I finally got some clarity. It’s amazing how much more clearly we can perceive things in photographs sometimes, because it pretty quickly became apparent to me that the 4×10 tiles were the right choice for this bathroom. So that’s what I finally decided on. Hooray for decisions!
When we picked up the tile from the store, I was so happy with it. It’s a really beautiful tile. White, but a slightly cool white, and with a matte finish that’s lovely–little things that set it apart from off-the-shelf tile. The downside though, which I didn’t realize until much later, was that there’s no bullnose tile in that same color and finish–which means that we have a couple less-than-perfect-looking exposed tile edges in our bathroom. But that’s a small price to pay for tile that I otherwise love so much.
When it finally came time to start putting tile up on the walls, I got a little nervous. I’d never tiled anything in my life; Ben had tiled floors, but never walls. Luckily for us, Ben’s dad has tons of experience, so he came over and showed us how it’s done. There are a million tutorials and forums out there that explain how to tile, so I’ll just explain briefly how we did things. First, our tools:
Mastic, trowel, spacers, a small flat-head screwdriver, and large and small levels. We decided to use mastic to adhere the tile to the wall instead of thinset, which may have been a bit of a risk. Thinset is generally preferred for wet areas, but mastic has better holding strength, is easier to apply, and dries quickly, which generally makes it a better choice for tiling walls. Since we don’t anticipate a great deal of moisture coming into contact with our walls (we aren’t tiling the shower), we decided to go with mastic for its ease of use. It comes pre-mixed in a plastic bucket, so all I had to do was pop the lid off, load up my trowel, and get tiling.
To begin with, I used the trowel to apply the mastic to directly to the wall, covering just a small area at a time, and then I set the tile in that area. But after having to scrape half-dried mastic off of the hardiebacker two or three times when I didn’t manage to get the entire area tiled before it dried, I decided that I preferred buttering the backs of the tiles directly.
Tiling really isn’t rocket science: you just scrape a layer of mastic onto the back of the tile with the trowel, press the tile onto the wall and slide it into position, insert spacers where necessary, and repeat. I liked to check my levels from time to time and scrape out any mastic that bubbled up between my tiles with the small flat-head screwdriver. I also wiped down the tiles with a wet cloth every few minutes just to try to keep things clean. The hardest part of the whole job was actually figuring out where to start tiling: calculating where we were going to have just partial tiles, adjusting to make sure we wouldn’t wind up with awkward slivers of tile in prominent places…
There was a lot of tile cutting involved on this job, and Ben handled all of that on this wet saw that we were lucky enough to be able to borrow from his dad:
I never touched the thing because we had a system: Ben would make all of the necessary cuts and bring me stacks of tile, and I’d put them on the wall. We eventually got into a pretty good groove, through we took things slowly at first. Here’s how the bathroom looked after we finished our first afternoon of tiling:
Those neon green circles are the 1/16-inch spacers we used, but I really, really wish we’d foregone spacers altogether.
Although the spacing between the tiles looks okay here, the grout lines turned out to be waaaay too wide. See, a 1/16-inch grout line would have been perfect, but these tiles are designed to be self-spacing–so if you place them edge to edge along the wall, there will naturally be about a 1/16-inch space between the front edges of the tile for your grout. But because we added an extra 1/16-inch space between the tiles, our grout lines wound up being 1/8-inch wide–much wider than I wanted. It’s my biggest regret on this project. Oh well, live and learn.
You can see in the photo that some of my lines look a little wobbly. That’s because on the first day of tiling, when I didn’t yet know any better, I was overly reliant on the spacers, trusting completely to them and not using my own eyes. After seeing the less-than-stellar results, I figured out that I needed to insert the spacer like I’d been doing, but then remove it and line things up with my eyes. My lines looked a lot better after I began making those manual adjustments. Then I’d just re-insert the spacer to hold things in place while the mastic set. When I said earlier that tiling isn’t rocket science, I should also have mentioned that it’s not for perfectionists!
After another full day of tiling, we were able to finish the big wall:
As you can see, we opted to hang the sink cabinet and medicine cabinets before tiling. That’s because our budget was so tight that we didn’t want to spend money on tile that would be hidden, and because we have no intention of changing out the vanity or medicine cabinets in the future. If we’d had more money to play with, or cared more about what future owners of this house might want to do with the bathroom, we’d have tiled the entire wall.
After we hung the medicine cabinets, but before we started tiling, we used a hole saw to cut holes in the hardiebacker for our vanity light fixtures. We waited until the cabinets were mounted just to make sure that we got the holes centered over them, and to our relief they matched up perfectly with the electrical boxes we’d installed. Then we just tiled around the holes.
You can see that we screwed paint stirrer sticks to the wall to support the backsplash tile. We removed them later.
I spent one evening during the next week tiling halfway up the wall to the right of the vanity, just to cover up the damage to the drywall from where we tore out the old vanity. Then, with another day and a half of hard work the following weekend, we finished tiling the other two walls around the bathtub. Perhaps we were getting a little overconfident by that point, but we even tiled around the inside of the window sill:
After all that practice, my tiling skills were much improved. My lines on these two walls are a whole lot straighter thanks to my little trick of double-checking the tile spacing with my own eyes:
This, by the way, was all of the tile we had left over when we were finished:
Not a single full tile left among the scraps. In fact, we were actually short one full tile around the inside of the window sill, so I had to reconstruct a full tile out of two pieces. We didn’t want to order a whole additional case for just one tile, so we made it work.
I loved how the tile was looking at this point–especially the graphic grid pattern created by the layout of the tiles. It was exactly the sort of modern look I was going for:
So naturally I should have used black grout to emphasize those grid lines, right? Listen, if you thought I had a hard time choosing a tile, that was nothing compared to my angst when faced with choosing a grout color. Mostly because it’s not something you can change your mind about, like paint. Once you grout, that’s it, you’re locked in. And I really wanted to get it right.
I was having a hard time making a decision because while I much preferred the more graphic look of dark grout between the straight-set tiles, I was worried about how wide the grout lines would be as a result of the spacers we’d used. I wanted the grout to subtly highlight the pattern of the tiles, not become the focal point itself, so I did not want dark grout lines if they were going to be too wide. But how could I predict what they’d look like? In the absence of that tile-sampler website that would have been so very useful, I decided to whip up some samples. We were fresh out of tile, so I bought twelve of the closest off-the-shelf tiles I could find–some glossy 4x8s from Lowe’s–and, using the 1/16-inch spacers, mounted them on an extra scrap of hardiebacker we had lying around. Once the mastic set, I grouted half of the tiles with white grout and the other half with black:
My little experiment almost convinced me to go with the black grout, because in these photos it looked okay. But in the end I couldn’t pull the trigger–the lines were just too wide, wider than they appear in the photos. The first thing you’d have noticed when you walked into the bathroom would have been “black grout!” rather than the tile itself, so I reluctantly decided to go with white grout instead. My consolation was that white would do a much better job of hiding my wonky lines!
Have I mentioned lately that my husband is amazing?? He actually did all of the grouting himself one night while Quinn and I were in Iowa visiting my family:
He did a really great job. His tips: apply the grout with your float and then run the underside of a plastic spoon over the lines to press the grout down into the spaces. Then wait just a few minutes before wiping off the excess grout with a wet sponge–don’t wait for the grout to dry completely. But even with this proactive approach, you can still see the grout residue that was left on the tiles:
That’s where I come back in. When I got home from my trip, I sealed the grout with an aerosol sealer and then cleaned the tiles. I sprayed a small area at a time with a solution made up of one part white vinegar and one part water, wiped the tiles with a wet sponge, and dried them with a towel. This did a great job of cutting through the haze, so I’m glad I didn’t spend any money on “haze remover.” When I was finished, I just went back and buffed any streaky tiles with cheesecloth.
The very last step of this lengthy tiling job was caulking. We put the sink on top of the vanity first, and then I caulked around the countertop, the sink cabinet, the medicine cabinets, the bathtub, and the window, as well as in the corners and along the baseboards and ceiling.
I was once again amazed at the way caulk, like magic, makes everything look finished:
And with that, we were mercifully done tiling the bathroom walls. Here’s the finished product:
Definitely worth all of the work, but I wouldn’t want to do it again anytime soon.
Next up: the big bathroom reveal!
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!