If your bathroom is looking a little old or outdated, then new tiles will make a world of difference. You’re probably already dancing a happy dance just thinking about how much better your bathroom tile will look. Or, maybe your tile isn’t all that old, but like me, you had a bathtub leak, and the plumber ripped out the shower tile to get into the wall. Then you’ve got no choice but to replace the tile around your bathtub.
Sure, you can call a professional to get the job done. Or, in about 10-15 hours divided over a few days, you can DIY it. If you choose the latter, follow these 12 steps:
- Gather PPE
- Prepare to contain the dust
- Protect your bathtub
- Remove hardware and caulk
- Remove old tiles
- Clear rubble
- Replace Backer Board or Sheetrock
- Measurements for tile layout
- Lay the new tiles
- Re-grout the tiles
- Clean up
- Replace the caulk and hardware
This article provides the intrepid DIY enthusiast with a step-by-step guide to replacing bathtub tiles. You can do this as a purely creative project or as a way to save money. (But if you want to replace your tub surround with a material far easier to install and more budget-friendly, there are some great bathroom tile alternatives.)
Anyhow, being prepared for your DIY job will make it go as smoothly as possible, so make sure that you have everything that will be required to complete the project before you start it. All materials required are bullet-pointed in the steps below.
But before you decide to retile, now is the time to decide if you’re going to replace your bathtub. If so, you may be wondering how hard is it to replace a bathtub? Can you replace the tub yourself? Read my post to find out.
Resources to Help With a Bathroom Tile Project
Of course, you might get stuck simply choosing the tile for your project. In that case, be sure to read advice from bathroom designer Kathleen Finley on how to choose the right tile for you.
And this post will help if you’re stuck debating between glass vs ceramic shower tile. (Once you’re aware of the pros and cons, the decision should be a lot easier.)
One of the most important decisions you can make with bathroom tile is using the right size for your space. Large and small bathrooms have different needs, as do tiles for walls, floors or shower surround. See my detailed tile size guide for help.
You can also download a tile calculator by entering your email on the form just below. This will help you figure out exactly how much tile to order for your project.
Step 1: Gather Your PPE
The first thing to do when you are re-tiling is to make sure that the project is done as safely as possible. You don’t want to step on a shard of tile or inhale the dust. So here are the materials you’ll need to keep yourself safe:
- Closed and thick-soled shoes
- Eye protection
- A dust mask or respirator
While you re-tile around your bathtub, you will need to wear closed shoes with a thick sole. This will reduce the risk of cutting your feet on the shards of sharp broken tiles. Remember, depending on how frequently you clear away the removed tile and how big the area being re-tiled is, you may end up walking over piles of rubble as you progress.
Protective eye gear is particularly important when you’re chipping tiles off of the area around your bath and when you’re cutting new tiles to size. You need to protect your eyes from the dust created as well as any flying fragments of tile. For this purpose, it’s best to wear a pair of glasses or goggles that fit firmly against your face around your eyes.
Wearing earplugs during the demolition part of your re-tiling project will prevent you from finding grout and dust in your ears for the next week. Also, it protects your ears from the noise of chiseling tiles, tiles falling and breaking, and the sound of the tile cutting machine.
Wear a pair of gloves with a non-slip grip to protect your hands from breaking tiles while you remove the old tile.
Dust mask or respirator:
While you replace the tile around your bathtub, make sure you protect your respiratory system from the vast quantities of dust. If you get frustrated with wearing the mask or respirator, take a complete break, removing it only once you’re away from all the floating dust.
Step 2: Prepare to Contain the Dust
Replacing tiles is a messy and dusty undertaking. You’ll definitely have excess dust in your bathroom for a week or two, but you can make your life a little easier by taking a few steps aimed at dust containment. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A plastic tarp
- A towel
The biggest issue is to prevent the dust from moving into the rest of the house. You can keep your bathroom window open to provide ventilation. However, you don’t want any of the dust blowing out the bathroom window to blow into other windows that may be open along the same wall of your house. So be sure to keep those other windows closed while you work.
Cover the Bathroom Wall
Additionally, you can tape a plastic tarp to the inside bathroom wall above the door. While you are working, close the door and drape the plastic tarp over it. Make sure that this tarp is big enough to cover the door and door frame fully.
Seal the Crack Under the Door
As an extra measure, you can place a rolled-up towel at the bottom of the door to seal up the crack.
Remove Dusty Clothing
Replacing the tiles in your bathroom is unlikely to be a one-day job. At the end of the day, you should remove your dusty clothing just inside or outside of the bathroom to prevent traipsing it through the house. You should also keep the bathroom door closed.
Vacuum the Bathroom
If you can, try to vacuum the bathroom before you start your next session. The dust will have settled overnight, and you can suck it up off of the floor and other surfaces before starting again.
Step 3: Protect Your Bathtub
Before you start chipping off the tiles around the bathtub, you need to make sure that you will not have to refinish your bathtub at the end of it. Falling tiles can scuff and chip your bathtub finish, so you’ll need to cover it. Here’s what you can use:
- Wood board (optional)
Use your ingenuity on this one, but one option is to cover your tub with towels. Secure the towels to the tub itself with strong tape. Try to cover as much of the bathtub as possible. If you can’t cover all the edges with a towel, then cover them with painter’s tape.
If you can arrange it, an added measure is to place a wooden board over the towel-covered tub. This board will further protect your bathtub, and if it’s solid and secure enough, you can kneel or stand on it to help you reach the higher tiles.
Step 4: Remove Hardware and Caulk
Here’s what you’ll need for this step:
- Tools to remove hardware (pliers, screwdriver)
- Tools to remove caulk (razor, utility knife, caulk softener)
Remove any shower attachments and faucets that are secured onto the tiles you plan to remove. You don’t want to risk falling rubble and grit scratching up your hardware and ruining its finish.
Also, remove caulk from the places where the tiles meet the bathtub. This may involve simply running a utility knife or razor blade scraper underneath the caulk line, or you may need to buy a caulk softener to make the task easier. (For further instructions, this post includes a step-by-step guide for removing and replacing bathroom caulk.)
Step 5: Remove the Old Tiles
To remove the old tiles, you’ll need these tools:
- Multi-tool (optional)
- Flat bar
Although you may be tempted to just take a sledgehammer to your wall because it always looks so fun when they do it in the movies, resist! You have to protect whatever is behind your tiles, whether it’s waterproofing, plumbing, or just the bathroom wall itself.
Instead, take a hammer and a chisel and work methodically, or you can use a multi-tool like the one in this video:
I recommend the Dremel MM50-01 Multi-Max.
Another tool you might need (especially if you don’t have a multi-tool) is a flat bar like this one, which you can use to pry larger tiles off the wall.
Austin, Texas handyman extraordinaire Chris Powell says, “If the tile is glued onto sheetrock, you can remove the sheetrock with the tile attached to it. Just don’t take off too big of a piece or it will be too heavy to handle.”
Step 6: Clear Away the Rubble
Here’s what you need for this step:
- Dustpan and scoop
- Garbage can
- Vacuum cleaner
Using a shovel, scoop up the rubble and put it into a garbage can. A plastic garbage bag will probably just tear open, so put the old tile directly into the garbage can.
Use a dustpan and scoop to get the smaller pieces and shards.
Finally, once all the big stuff has been removed, vacuum as much of the dust as you can. Remember to empty your vacuum afterward; it’ll probably be quite full.
Step 7: Replace Backer Board or Sheetrock
You’ll most likely need to replace the backer board or drywall, especially if you’re in an older home and find drywall (aka sheetrock) below the height of the showerhead. (If you have older home, you may have sheetrock or a thick of wall behind your bathroom tiles.)
Say goodbye to all that. You’ll want to replace it with backer board, which is much easier to use.
Most wall sheetrock is 1/2 inch, and if you buy the 1/2 inch backer board, you can attach it to the studs and tile onto the backer board.
Once you expose the underlying wall, you can see if you need to do any maintenance and repair to the waterproofing and/or backer board. Here is an excellent video that should help you proceed with this step:
While you’ve exposed the underlying wall, check for signs of dampness or see if any of the backer boards or waterproofing need to be repaired or replaced. If you spot any mold, be sure to address it before moving on. This post about how to detect and remove bathroom mold should provide all the information you need.
Furthermore, if your backer board was damaged in the process of removing the tiles, you would have to replace it and weatherproof it.
Many people use cement backer board in bathrooms. But not all backer boards are created equal. Some are waterproof and won’t disintegrate if moisture seeps through the tile grouting. However, with some brands, water can pass through it to the studs behind and cause issues there. It’s safest to apply a waterproof sealant on top of the backer board, or else put a waterproof membrane behind it.
Speak to someone at your local hardware store about an appropriate water-resistant material that you can install before you hang your backer board. (Use a digital moisture meter like the MMD4E to find hidden mold and moisture that’s not readily visible.)
Seal up the cracks and seams on your hung backer board with water-resistant tape or caulking. You can even use specialized water-resistant paint to coat the backer board.
Step 8: Measure The Wall for the Correct Tile Layout
These tools will help out with this step:
- Spirit level
- Measuring tape
You cannot simply start in the corner and work your way outward and upward when you tile. You need to measure your space and compare it with the size of your tiles and the desired size of your grout line.
Use the Level
When you’re measuring, use the spirit level because your bathtub may be installed at a slight angle, or the walls on either side of the tub may be slightly thicker at some points, etc.
Tile from the Center
You’re actually going to start tiling from the center of the wall. This means that any partial tiles will get shared evenly on each side, creating visual symmetry.
Measure out the mid-point on the horizontal axis, and see how your tiles line up on either side of this. When you’re happy, mark off vertical grid lines using the chalk.
Then move onto the vertical axis. You won’t start tiling halfway up the wall. See how your tiles line up along this axis.
Balance Out Partial Tiles on Top and Bottom
Once again, you want to balance out your use of partial tiles on the top and bottom. If you can get away with no partial tiles, that would be great! As before, measure out the grid lines and mark them with chalk.
Step 9: Lay The New Tiles and Allow the Mastic to Set
For this step, you’ll need:
- Tile mastic (aka thin set)
- Tile cutter
- Measuring tape
- Marker or pencil
Once you have everything measured, you can start laying your pretty new tiles! Begin on the center horizontal line (half-way between the two walls).
Take Note of the First WHOLE Tile
If your first whole tile is at the bottom above your tub, you can go ahead and start on this center bottom tile. If the first whole tile is one above the tile closest to the tub, then start there.
Spread Tile Mastic & Rake Grooves
Following the gridlines, lay all of the whole tiles. To do this, you will apply tile mastic to a portion of the wall that you can tile before the mastic dries out. (Start with a smaller area until you get into a rhythm).
Spread a thick, even layer of tile mastic and then rake deep grooves into it with the notched side of the trowel. Lay the tiles on the grooved mastic. The thickness of the grooves should depend on the size of your tiles. Use a trowel with smaller grooves for small tile and a trowel with bigger grooves for large tile.
Use Tile Spacers
Use the tile spacers to ensure even grout lines, and make sure you press the tiles in securely and flush with each other.
Cut Additional Tiles
Once the whole tiles are laid, use a pencil and measuring tape to measure out the ones you need to cut, including those that are going around the plumbing. Cut the tiles carefully with the tile cutter, then lay them as you did with the whole tiles.
Let Mastic Fully Dry
Leave the mastic to set fully—check the instructions on the packaging.
Seal Unglazed Tiles
Glossy, glazed tiles do not need to be sealed (but the grout usually does need a sealer. More on that in the next step.) If you’re not sure whether to seal your particular tiles, check the manufacturer’s instructions. And consult my guide to sealing bathroom tile and grout. Here I really break it down and suggest best products for your particular tile and grout.
Step 10: Re-Grout the Tiles
To re-grout your bathtub tiles, here’s what you’ll need:
- Grout float
- Mixing stick
- Grout Haze Remover
- Grout Sealant
- Silicone Sealant
When the tile mastic is dry, remove the spacers and mix the grout up in the bucket as per the packaging instructions.
Then apply the grout over the whole surface and use the grout float to force it evenly into the spaces between the tiles.
Next, leave the grout to dry until it does not come out when you wipe it with a damp sponge. At this point, you can start to clean the excess grout off the surface of the tiles. Rinse the sponge at regular intervals.
“I suggest working on 3 foot by 3-foot sections at a time, so it doesn’t dry on the tile before you can wipe it all off,” says Handyman Chris Powell. “If it dries too much, it will get stuck on the top of the tile and you won’t be able to get it off.” (Get Chris’s expert tips on how to grout by watching the video just above.)
Once the grout is completely dry, use the grout haze remover to clean any grout residue off the tiles. Then wait a few days and apply a grout sealant to the grout. For details about the best sealer for your grout, be sure to see my post Don’t Forget the Sealer | Tile & Grout Guide.
And if you want. to make skinny grout lines, you’ll definitely want to read this post on exactly how to make thin grout lines.
Step 11: Clean Up
For this step, you’ll just need:
- regular bathroom cleaning supplies
- vacuum cleaner
You’ll probably need to clean the tiles again to remove the haze left by the residual grout.
Then you can remove your bathtub protection and the plastic sheeting from your door.
Give your bathroom a thorough cleaning—there will probably be dust everywhere! Ensure that you get up all of the dust and dirt around the plumbing and caulk lines because that needs to be clean for the next step.
Step 12: Replace the Caulk and Hardware
- Tools to replace hardware
Re-caulk the areas that you removed caulk from in step 4. This new caulk is also going to add to the fresh look of your newly tiled bathtub surround. Again, this post about how I caulked my tub might be helpful.
You’ll want to caulk around the perimeter of the tub and where the tile meets the sheetrock or ceiling.
Be sure to let the caulk dry thoroughly before attempting to use the tub again.
You can also replace your bathroom hardware at this stage.
Learning How to DIY Bathroom Tile
Learning how to tile is a great life skill, and it’ll save you money on this bathroom project and many future projects as well.
And if you’re retiling a small—or very small!— bathroom, you’ll probably want to read my post 18 Small Bathroom Tile Ideas to Make Your Space Feel Bigger before you settle on your design.
See 21 Tips for Perfect Bathroom Tile for links to all my best bathroom tile resources, including posts about how to choose the best tile materials, the best tile size, the best tile colors, and the best tile finish for your project.
The step-by-step guide provided above can be used in conjunction with videos that actually demonstrate the procedures, but by the end of your project, your bathroom will look fresh and new. And if you’re in need of a tile calculator to help you figure out how much tile to order, I’ve got you covered. Just fill out the form below and I’ll send The Bathtubber’s Official Free Tile Calculator straight to your inbox.