How to Beautify Your Bathub

Are the walls around your tub looking a little grimy? Are you obsessed with keeping the shower curtain closed to keep the horror out of sight? You are not alone.

Whether your old tiles are dirty and the grout is crumbling, or you have an old plastic surround that is cracked and stained its time to stop hiding from the truth. Those walls need fixing.

Most of us who live in the average American home find that our bathrooms are relatively small and when the walls around the tub look like they’ve been through war it can make the whole bathroom look bad, even if your tub is still good. Plus, these walls don’t just look awful they can be causing bigger problems for your home.

The surround around your tub is there for a reason. Aside from aesthetics, the surround protects your walls from being damaged by all the water and moisture of your showers and baths. If water gets behind or through your surround it can cause your walls and floors to rot and, even worse, it can cause a leak in the ceiling of the room below. This moisture can also lead to big mold problems, and we’ve all heard about the health issues associated with mold.

Even though it seems like a big project, putting in a new bathtub surround can be easy and inexpensive. Since you are only freshening up the walls and keeping your existing tub there is no major plumbing work needed. You can go at it alone, but I suggest having a second set of hands available because the pieces of the surround can be big and awkward to maneuver.

Bathtub surrounds typically come in three-panel and five-panel kits made from durable plastic, acrylic, fiberglass and a variety of other materials. Some manufacturers offer colors and faux finishes that resemble tile and stone. Many of these kits have shelves molded into them which are great places to keep the soap and shampoo.

Keep in mind, if the reason you are be replacing your existing tub surround is because of its dated look you may want to choose something neutral, like the simple white. It can help keep your new bathroom in fashion a little longer.

Believe it or not, you can find a complete five-panel kit at the home improvement store for as little as fifty dollars. It comes in basic white with molded shelves and is perfect for the first-timer. If you have a bigger budget you can look into the higher end kits. The reason for the cost difference can be found in things like the thickness of the material used to make the surround as well as the texture and decorative finish. All you need to do before shopping is measure your existing tub area. Length, width, and height are all important.

I like to use the five-panel kits with smooth finish because they are more forgiving if your walls are not square and plumb. Not the fruit, plumb refers to the walls being true vertical, and most of the time they are never perfect. You can easily trim the panels to fit and no one will be able to notice the adjustment.

The basic steps for installing the tile surround are simple, and the bulk of your work will be in your preparation. The whole project can be done in a day.

The first thing to do is remove the hardware from the shower wall. The faucet handle for the shower will likely have a cap in the center of it which can be gently popped out with a flat screwdriver. Underneath the cap there is a screw, removing this screw will free the handle. If the faucet does not have this cap, look underneath the handle and you’ll likely see a screw, typically an Allen screw which has a square hole. Once the handle is free the flange can be removed by pulling out a screw or two.

The shower head needs to be removed as well, but the stem coming out of the wall can stay.

That’s it for the plumbing.

The panels of the surround kit need to be installed over a flat wall surface. Some installers and manufacturers feel it is ok to put these panels over old tile. If your walls are in good condition you may be inclined to do so, but I recommend that you get rid of the old wall coverings instead of trying to hide them.

Remove the old tile and grout. This can be fun because you rarely get the chance to take a hammer and smash tile. If the walls have too much of the old mortar or glue stuck to them, cut out the damage, drywall and all, right down to the studs. Replace it with a tile backer board made for wet areas. This is the toughest part of the whole project and it sounds more difficult than it really is. The backer board is simply screwed into place and you don’t have to worry about doing any wall finishing because the surround kit will cover it.

Why is it a bad idea to go over the old tile, mortar and glue? Some of the less expensive tub surrounds are made of very thin plastic, and if you have bumps on the walls they could show through. It can also cause bubbles behind the walls of the surround. The old saying is true: if you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you have the time to do it again?

Once the fixtures are removed and the walls are ready it is time to install the surround. Each surround kit will come with its own instructions. Read them carefully and follow them step-by-step.

Here is a basic idea of what you are in for:

Familiarize yourself with how the pieces come together. In some kits the edges of the pieces simply lay over one another in others they click into a groove. Keep this in mind if you have to cut your panels to fit. If you cut your panel and don’t account for the half of an inch needed to click into the groove you’ll come up short. Luckily, most kits come “made to fit” in standard size tubs so there is a good chance you won’t have to make any big cuts.

On the wall where your faucet and shower head are located you will need to cut two holes into the surround panel. Carefully measure the location of the holes because you only get one shot at it. Mark the surround panel for the holes and make the cuts. These holes are not large. The hole for the shower head will be approximately one inch and can be cut with a one inch spade drill bit. The hole for the faucet will only need to be a couple of inches and gets cut with a jigsaw. Even though they both get covered with a flange, or escutcheon, there is little room for error. Measure twice, cut once.

If you shudder over the thought of getting only once chance at cutting the holes, use a piece of cardboard from the kit’s box and make a template. You can cut the cardboard over and over until you get it right.

Once the holes are cut, dry fit the pieces in place. This simply means you’re going to set the pieces in place without any adhesive. The corner pieces go in first then the side and back panels. By dry fitting first you can see if your panels need additional trimming and if everything measures up ok.

Some kits have corner pieces which get screwed to the wall, while others suggest you attach them with construction adhesive. Again, read those instructions. These corner pieces are usually put in first, then the side panels.

Attaching the panels to the walls is quite easy. A line of construction adhesive is run in an “s” pattern up and down the panel and a line along the edges. Sometimes the panels will come with an adhesive strip. Remove the strips backer before setting the panels.

The panel is set and firmly pressed into place by running your hands all over it to be sure it is flat.

After the entire surround kit is installed, a bead of mildew resistant silicone or latex caulk is run in the joints between of the pieces, and where the pieces meet the wall, to prevent any water from getting in between them. Before running a bead of caulk between the tub and the panels, fill the tub with water. This will weigh down the tub and keep your caulk from separating when you go to use your tub.

Everything should be left to dry overnight.

Once everything is set and dry you can reinstall your fixtures and finally leave that shower curtain open so everyone can see how fabulous your tub looks.