DIY tips for tiling a tub surround

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Tiling a tub surround doesn’t have to be a daunting DIY project. With the right materials and instructions, you can easily create a beautiful, custom tile around a bathtub in any bathroom. 

If you’re looking for a waterproof wall option for your bathtub, there are good reasons why people choose tile. 

It’s easy to clean, dries quickly, and you can choose a style that makes a statement or blends in for a more harmonious look. 

But if you want to turn it into a DIY project, that’s where most homeowners fumble. 

What equipment do we need to complete the job? How do we lay the tiles for a professional look? And how do we cut around fixtures like the shower head and tub spout?

Don’t worry, I’ve got the answers to all these questions below. I’ll walk you through how to tile a tub surround to create a water-resistant barrier and a majestic tile display. 

You can also check out my experience tiling a shower for the first time – I’m grateful to have both options in my home.

full bathroom Surround with white subway tile

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STEP 1: Prep the walls before tiling

Before tiling, you should waterproof the tub surround walls.  

You can use cement board but I prefer a waterproof membrane like Schluter Kerdi system. 

It’s easy to install and I have a full tutorial on how to prepare a tub surround before tiling with Schluter Kerdi Tubkit, so check it out before you start tiling. 

STEP 2: Create a tile layout

Before you start cutting tiles or mixing thinset, you need to plan the layout of the wall tiles. 

Do this by placing the tiles on the floor in different patterns and picking your favorite. 

Here are some inspiring tile layout ideas if you have the perfect tile but don’t know how to arrange it.

You also need to consider where the tiles will land on the pipe and faucet valves or how small a tile piece might be next to the wall. 

TIP: You want to avoid small cuts (smaller than 2″ for an end), so use this time to plan your layout carefully. Also, use spacers so you know the exact measurement! 

SIDE NOTE: I wish I would have centered my tiles on the 5’ wall (the one with the window) rather than starting with half of a tile piece. 

white bathroom tile layed out and pre-cut

STEP 3: Cut the tiles

I like to cut my starting tiles beforehand. This way, I am not running back and forth between the work area and the tile saw while the thinset is already mixed. 

Of course, you will still need to cut pieces while you’re installing the tiles but you can have some pieces cut ahead of time to make the job flow easier.  

There are different ways to cut tiles, but in this project, I am using a wet tile saw. 

Once you have the layout of the tiles, start cutting a handful of starting pieces. I recommend starting on the largest wall in one corner and working across. 

How to make straight cuts

To cut tiles straight, mark the tile at the desired cut location. 

Then, place the tile on the saw, align the saw blade to the mark, and cut. 

cutting tile with saw

TIP: If you are using a tile saw, I recommend wearing safety glasses and starting with a new blade. 

How to make rounded cuts:

If you need to cut tile at a point (e.g. window corners) or rounded (e.g. faucet), mark the tile for the desired cut, then take it to your tile saw. 

For rounded cutouts, there’s a special technique where you cut notches in the tiles to form a curved shape.

Tile around bathtub knobs and faucet

First, make all straight cuts, usually on both sides of the cutout. 

After, slightly shift the tile and start notching the tile from between the area.

using wet tile saw to cut tiles

Then, flip the tile over to the backside and cut again the same way, but this time, cut about a 1/4″ past the cuts. You are doing this to give you a straight-cut line at the point.

Break off the extra pieces from notching, and you’ll end up with a rough but rounded line.

Now, you’re ready for the next step.

cutting notches from tile with wet tile saw

This next step is a little more intense. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, use something else to cut the tile, like these hand tile cutting pliers.

Move your saw so it’s in an upward position. Then, you’ll run the tile against the moving blade to cut off these pieces to give you a rounded or straight finish.

cutting tile with wet tile saw for notches
cut half circle from tile with wet tile saw

After you wipe the tile with a dry cloth, you can install this piece into place.

How to cut tile for a pipe:

If you need to cut in the middle of the tile, you will use a tile drill bit. 

Here is the shower head pipe that requires a hole in the middle of the tile:

white bathroom tile with spacers and shower head pipe

 To make this cut, mark the tile for the desired cut. 

TIP: Remember to use spacers to give you the correct measurement. 

Follow the instructions for the tile drill bit and use the bit to drill a hole at the marked location.

drilling into bathroom tile with drill bit

SIDE NOTE: I tried the diamond drill bit (which has a flat top) and a pointed tile drill bit. The pointed drill bit was easier to work with. The flat-top drill bit moved around a lot, making it difficult to cut a hole at the desired location. If you predrill a piece of wood with a wood bit the same size as the diamond bit to make a template, clamp the board to the tile to help you cut the tile piece. 

Use a little bit of water in the area to help eliminate the possibility of cracking.

placing tile on bathroom wall with cut out for shower head

Now you are ready to mix the thinset and install the tiles. 

STEP 4: Mix the thinset 

Now, you can mix the thinset. 

Because I am using Schluter Kerdi Membrane as my wall waterproofer, I need a particular thinset. I decided on Schluter’s All Set, which was easy to work with. 

Schluter All set

Follow the exact instructions on the package.

I used a scale to weigh the water and the mix. This was an easy and precise way to ensure the correct consistency. 

Also, I only used a quarter of a 50-pound bag when I mixed each new batch. There are two reasons for this: 

1) It was a good amount to work with at a time (didn’t set up before I would use it all 

2) If you mixed the full 50-pound bag all at once, you would need a bigger drill, or you would risk overheating your cordless drill

To begin, fill the bucket with water and pour in the mix.

Next, use the drill paddle attachment to mix the thinset (mortar).

drill with paddle attachment to mix thinset

Make sure you follow the instructions on the bag. The package will tell you the amount of time that you need to mix. Normally, there’s a mixing phase, a rest, and then another mixing session. 

The product I used required a mix for 5 minutes, rest for 10 minutes, then mix for another 3 minutes before it was ready.

mixing thinset for installing tile

STEP 5: Tiling around a window (if needed)

After the thinset is all mixed, you’re ready to install your tiles.

In my case, I have a window that needs to be addressed first, so if you don’t have a window in your shower, you can skip this step. 

I decided to use engineered stone thresholds instead of tile around my window. Why? Because there would be fewer seams, making it more waterproof. 

I cut the threshold pieces with the wet tile saw at 45-degree angles, and I tested the fit to ensure everything would form a neat square. 

Using the notched trowel, apply the thinset to the bottom of the window seal. You want to make sure that you are covering the full surface with the thinset and putting in the notch. 

SIDE NOTE: Make sure you are using the correct trowel for your tiles. The larger the tile, the bigger the trowel needs to be. With my tiles, I used a 1/4″ x 1/4″ notched trowel. 

I then applied Schluter Kerdi Fix (a waterproof sealant) at the 45 degree joints and the outside edge of the tile piece (threshold) to ensure a better waterproof seal. 

Next, apply thinset to the back of the tile to ensure full coverage between the tile and the wall.

Then, set the tile (threshold piece) into place. 

TIP: It’s a great idea to check your thinset coverage while you’re working. To do this, remove the tile and see if it looks like every part of the tile came in contact with the thinset on the wall. If not, add more thinset. 

Once the bottom piece was installed, move to the sides. Install them using the same technique.

tiling window in bathroom shower surround

Then, complete the installation by adding the top piece. 

Adjust the pieces to ensure the 45-degree joints are aligned, and the pieces are level. 
TIP: You might want to have the bottom piece slightly off-level so it will slope to the tub. Water will run into the tub, but you can still place items on the seal without them falling into the tub as well.

bathroom wall window with waterproofing membrane

STEP 6: Install the tiles

Now you are ready to install the first row of tiles, starting from the part nearest to the rim of the bathtub. 

I am using a laser level to ensure that my first row is going to be straight.

But hold on – it’s not as straightforward as you think!

I recommend NOT installing the first row from the bottom – instead, skip to the second row and install that first. 

You want to start with the second row because you cannot guarantee the tub is level, so when you’re ready to install the first row of tiles, you can easily adjust by cutting at the bottom. 

SIDE NOTE: You can start tiling the first row first and use spacers to adjust the level, but it’s recommended to always start with the second row to avoid uneven spacing. 

Because you need to cut the bottom of the first row, you will want the edge of the second row to be at least a 1/2″ less than the width of the tiles. 

After your level is set up at this marked spot, use the notched trowel to apply the thinset to the wall. Make sure there are deep grooves from the trowel notches in the thinset and enough thinset to go from the bathtub into the next row of tiles (third row in this case).

Next, apply thinset to the back of the starting tile piece to ensure full coverage between the tile and the wall. 

SIDE NOTE: Remember to cut a handful of tiles beforehand.

putting grout on tile trowel

Then, set the tile into place, making sure it is level. 

TIP: It’s a great idea to check your thinset coverage while you’re working. To do this, remove the tile and see if it looks like every part of the tile came in contact with the thinset on the wall.

Because we are using a level and not a solid board to level the second row, I recommend you determine the first row’s first tile piece as you move along. 

Placing Tile on back Wall of bathroom

Using a tape measure, check the distance between the bathtub and the level line (the edge of your second tile piece). 

Subtract from the measurement two tile spacers to give you the width of the tile you need to cut.

SIDE NOTE: I recommend using 1/16” or 1/8″ tile spacers for shower walls.

Spacer for tiles

I am using the horseshoe 1/16” tile spacers, so I would subtract 1/8″ from the measurement (1/16 + 1/16 = 1/8).

This is the width I need to cut the first row of tiles. 

TIP: Remember, don’t assume it’s the same for the whole length. 

TIP 2: Measure where a tile will start and end and mark each tile accordingly. 

You only need to measure and cut the first tile in the first row.

Mark the first row tile and cut to this width.

Then, apply thinset to the back of the tile and set the tile into place, making sure it is level by using the tile spacers to add the space between the tub, wall, and the tile above.

Next, place a full tile piece next to the second row tile piece using tile spacers to space the tiles.  

Again, measure for the next first row tile piece. Then cut, apply thinset, and set the tile into place. 

Continue placing tiles for both rows until you reach the last tile piece for the rows that need to be cut.

TIP: Use the thinset removal tool to take out any excess thinset from the grout lines. Believe me, this will save you so much time later when you prep your tiles for grouting.

thinset removal tool

Once you get to the end of the row, measure the distance from the wall to the tile, just like you did for the width of the first row.

So, you will subtract from the measurement two tile spacers to give you the cut length.

Cut, apply the thinset to the back of the tile, and set the tiles the same way as before. 

bathroom tile started on back wall with waterproof membrane

You will continue this process to install all the tiles on the wall.

STEP 7: Install tile edging

To give you a professional finish, you will want to install tile edging. And I recommend using a PVC tile edging trim because it’s easy to install and cut. 

white subway bathroom tile with finished trim

Measure the distance from the floor to the ceiling to determine the length needed for the trim and mark the trim.

measuring for tile trim on bathroom wall

Once you have the PVC marked, use tin snips or PVC cutters to cut it.

tile edging or trim for bathroom tiled walls

After, the trim is cut, check that it fits and make any adjustments if needed. 

Use a laser level to mark the wall where the trim needs to be installed. 

Then, apply the thinset onto the area where this trim piece will be going.

Set the trim piece into place by pushing it into the thinset. Adjust it to make sure it’s level.

Then, use a taping knife to smooth all the thinset out and remove any excess.

Once the trim is in place, use a damp sponge to clean the wall. It’s best to do this now because it’ll save you the hassle of scrubbing your walls after the thinset has dried. 

And while you’re here, check that the trim is level again. 

Now, you are ready to install the tile to the wall.

full bathtub surround with white subway tile and spacers

Allow the thinset to cure for 24 hours before moving to the next step.

STEP 8: Remove the tile spacer & clean tiles

After the tiles are cured to the wall, remove the spacers from the tiles. 

If you have excess thinset seeping through the grout line, you can clean it up with a grout scraper or flat head screwdriver. 

Now, step back and take a good look at the wonderful job you just did!

full bathtub tiled with  white subway tile and black floor tile

Here’s our finished bathroom.

bathroom with black floor tiles, grey vanity, and white shower tiles

And now, if you are ready to grout the floor tile, I have a full tutorial on how to do just that.


Are you someone that does better with visuals? Check out the full DIY tips for tiling a tub surround project video below and don’t forget to subscribe on YouTube so you don’t miss out on future projects!

DIY tips for Tiling bathroom wall with video overplay

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