Sooner or later, every bathroom needs a tuneup—and the tub’s shower enclosure is often the best place to start. An enclosure is large enough to dominate the room and set the tone, yet it’s often the area most in need of repair. As always, the culprit is water. Tiled walls are especially vulnerable because every 4-in. tile has 16 in. of leak potential at its edges. When well installed and regularly maintained, tiled shower walls can last a generation or more. When not, they mold, crack and crumble until replacement becomes the best option.
When it comes to alternatives, you can choose from new tile, plastic tub surround kits and professionally installed solid-surface panels. A quick look at the numbers will tell you why tub surround kits are so popular. A professionally installed solid-surface job can cost between $1100 and $2000, and standard tile installations run from about $600 to $1000. Plastic tub surround kits, including pressed fiberglass, range between $60 and $500, with the most popular kits costing around $150.
This project was originally published in the January 2001 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.
Step 1: Choosing a Surround
Shopping for surrounds is fairly simple because quality and price are directly related to panel thickness. At the starter level, you’ll find ABS or PVC plastic panels so thin they won’t stand against a wall without additional support. Midpriced thermal-plastic units with formed features and appearances are generally more stylish and better made. And finally, there are pressed-fiberglass kits, with thick, nearly rigid panels that are very durable.
Because all these kits do a good job of repelling water, ease-of-installation, appearance and maintenance issues are the deciding factors. The flimsier the material, the more troublesome it is to install. Thin panels often require wooden bracing until the adhesive sets and they can mirror adhesive beads and imperfections in the walls. As for maintenance, it’s best to avoid a pebbly texture or a high sheen unless you have soft water and clean religiously. A smooth, low-luster surface does a better job of concealing water spots and soap scum.
Another important consideration is the number of pieces in the kit. Three and five pieces are standard. Three-piece units cost a little less, but they work well only when tub walls are framed square and plumb. Five-piece units are usually a better choice because they are more forgiving of crooked walls and out-of-square corners.
We opted for a five-piece, pressed-fiberglass kit at the high end of the price range. The Swan Model TW-32 is sturdy, rigid and has the surface we wanted (Swan Corp., 1 City Centre, Suite 2300, St. Louis, MO 63101). It’s fairly simple in design, with only three soap trays, and it carries a 20-year warranty—10 years longer than most professionally installed solid-surface products. Swan’s suggested list price for the TW-32 is $479, but you probably can buy it for less at local retailers.
Step 2: Getting Started
The first step is to remove the faucet trim and spout. Begin by prying the index cap from the faucet handle, and then removing the handle screw (Fig. 1). Next, remove the screws from the trim plate and pry the plate from the tile (Fig. 2).
To remove the tub spout, feel for a recess along its underside. If you feel an open area, expect a slip-fit spout, secured to copper pipe with an Allen screw. Loosen this screw and pull the spout straight off. If you can’t find a recess, assume you have a threaded connection. To keep from damaging the chrome finish, insert plier handles into the spout opening and unscrew it from its pipe nipple (Fig. 3). If your shower head is in the tiled area, you’ll need to remove it as well. Just grip the wrench surfaces of the head with an open-end wrench and back out the head, arm and flange.
Step 3: Handling the Tile
Tub surrounds can sometimes be installed over existing tile, but only when conditions are right. The old tile area needs to be smaller than the kit and you’ll need to build up the surrounding wall to the level of the tile, usually with 1⁄4-in. drywall. All things considered, removing the tiles is often a better option.
While you may find lower tiles ready to fall away from soggy wallboard, the upper tiles will be stuck tight. You may even have to break each tile and pry off the pieces. When breaking tiles, be sure to wear a face mask and protective clothing. In some cases, it makes sense to cut the drywall and pull it all down in a few pieces, then put up new drywall or backing board
to support the new surround. With a little luck, however, you’ll be able to pry the tiles off, one at a time,
as we did. This will leave rough and slightly damaged wallboard, but it’s nothing a little joint compound and paint can’t repair.
First, tape cardboard over the tub to protect it. Wearing eye protection, start at the top and drive a small pry bar about 1⁄8 in. under the edge of each tile (Fig. 1). Using a small piece of 1⁄4-in. plywood to lever against, carefully pry each tile away from the wall (Fig. 2). When you’ve removed all the tiles, peel off any ragged edges of torn drywall and skim-coat the entire area with drywall compound (Fig. 3). When the compound dries, sand it lightly, paint it with a stain-killing primer and allow it to dry completely.
Step 4: Installing the Panels
The back corners of tub walls are often out of plumb, so it’s a good idea to establish vertical reference lines above the front of the tub on each side. Before doing that, however, you’ll need to install the apron-trim pieces. Use a hacksaw to cut them to length, then peel the paper backing from the foam tape on each piece and stick the pieces to the wall (Fig. 1). Finally, use a 4-ft. level to determine plumb and draw a line from the outer edge of each apron strip upward about 4 ft. (Fig. 2).
With the front edges established, prepare to set the corner panels. It’s a good idea to dry fit each panel before sticking it in place. If
your tub and walls are far from square, you may need to file a little off the bottom of one or two panels. A belt sander works well here, but don’t overdo it.
After checking for fit, apply a heavy bead of the provided adhesive around the perimeter of the corner panel, about 1 in. inside the foam tape. Apply additional beads behind the soap dishes and across the center of the panel (Fig. 3). Then, peel the backing paper from the foam tape (Fig. 4) and carefully set the panel in place. Press the panel firmly into the corner so that it sticks on one side (Fig. 5). When all looks well, press down the remaining side until the tape takes hold. Finish by running a hand over the entire panel, top to bottom, to make sure the adhesive makes full contact with the wall. Install the second corner in similar fashion.
Measure the distance between the corners and mark the centerline on the tub. Then, lay the middle panel on sawhorses and mark its center on the bottom. Turn the panel over and apply adhesive to the perimeter, behind the soap dishes and in a large, looping pattern across the middle. Pull the backing paper from the perimeter tape, set the panel on the tub and carefully align the two center marks (Fig. 6). Finally, bend the bottom of the panel to the wall, sticking it in place. Gradually stick the rest of the panel, working from the bottom up.
Step 5: Plumbing Cutouts
The side panel opposite to the spout will go on like the center panel, but will be aligned with the vertical reference line you’ve drawn. The plumbing-wall panel, however, requires a little more attention. Begin by laying the panel on two 2 × 4s resting on sawhorses. At the tub, measure from the reference line to the center of the spout pipe (Fig. 1). Then, measure from the top of the tub to the center of the spout pipe and do the same with the faucet. If the faucet’s trim plate is recessed, like ours, you’ll also need to take its measurement, sizing the cut to fit the plate’s concave center.
Transfer each measurement to the panel, one at a time, and double-check each one. Use a 1-in. bit to bore the spout pipe opening. Then, use the same bit to bore a starter hole for the faucet. Enlarge the opening with a sabre saw to accommodate the recessed trim plate (Fig. 2). Of course, if your trim plate is not recessed, a 2- or 3-in. holesaw will cut a cleaner opening.
Dry fit the panel and make minor adjustments if needed. When you’re sure everything fits, apply adhesive to the perimeter of the panel, across its center and around each opening (Fig. 3). Finally, slide the panel over the spout pipe and faucet and arch the bottom of the panel against the wall. Apply gradual upward pressure until the entire panel is stuck in place. Finish by installing the tub spout and faucet trim.
Step 6: Waterproofing
Manufacturers often supply a tube of latex adhesive caulk. Use it to fill the gap between the walls and the panels around the perimeter, including the tops of the panels. For the fixture seams, at the joint between the tub and surround and the vertical seams, you’ll do better with a small tube of white kitchen-and-bath silicone caulk (photo).
To apply this caulk successfully, use only what’s necessary to fill the joint, and don’t wait longer than about 45 seconds to smooth
it with your finger. Apply a 12- to 16-in. bead, smooth it, and then apply the next section. If you find that you’ve applied too little, wait several hours and fill in the voids with a touchup application.