How To Install Subway Tile In A Shower & Marble Floor Tiles

I have to start off this post with a brief side story. I love Jones Soda, partially because there are random little fortunes under the cap. I got this one the other day:

Tasks where skill is essential (sounds like a bathroom remodel to me) may be accomplished. MAY? Only may?!? That’s not a very confidence-inspiring fortune. Good thing we seem to be doing more than “maybe” accomplishing our latest bathroom projects.

Take tiling for instance. Even though Sherry gave you a peek at the tile job last week, I’m back for the official tiling post as promised. You may recall from Chapter Three of our bathroom redo project that my dad and I spent a four day weekend-on-steroids putting up drywall and cement backerboard in preparation for re-tiling our shower surround and our floor. Thanks to a few “challenges” during the weekend, I barely got to start tiling the shower by the time my dad left that Monday evening. In fact, I was in the midst of it when this goodbye photo was snapped.

I worked for another couple of hours after he left, but by the end of the day I had only managed to tile a mere two rows. Sigh. Yes, it looked like another part of this project that wouldn’t be as fast or as easy as I had hoped. But why?

Well, our tub wasn’t level. So my original plan of using the edge of the tub as my guide went out the window (once we admitted to ourselves that having slightly unlevel lines would look “off” enough to bug us – and realized that we’d risk the tiles not lining up correctly at the corners). And while I’ve seen some people recommend finding the center point of your wall and starting there, with such small tiles it was more important to us that we didn’t end up with a sliver of tiles running along the edge of the tub or the ceiling (we wanted tiles to look as full as possible in those places for a more planned and balanced look). So I spent most of that first evening using a wet saw to shave off varying slivers of ceramic from the bottom side of each subway tile that sat against the tub to create one level line that I could build off of from then on. It was a good three or four hours of tedious trial and error-ish fun, but I got ‘er done.

I’m not being sarcastic when I say “fun” though. It was just the kind of home improvement project I love – it involved more mental concentration than physical strength (after all, I’ve already had my fill of that for this renovation) and it resulted in a big change that I could immediately appreciate. Plus I got to try out some new tools and learn some new skills. But since it was my first time tiling, I’ll give you the brief play-by-play about how I did, rather than an official “how-to” since there are definitely varying methods (all of which would work depending on your preferences) and because this was my first tiling fling. For true expert tutorials, I suggest checking out some of the sites that I referred quite a bit during my stint as Mr. Tile (I included the links at the bottom of this post for ya).

But on to the nitty gritty tiling details. First, let’s look at my weapons of choice:

  • Wet saw (borrowed from my dad)
  • Tile cutter (purchased halfsies with my dad)
  • A couple of big buckets of thinset mortar adhesive
  • Margin trowel (again, borrowed)
  • Notched trowel (ditto)
  • 1/16th” spacers (for the floor, the subway tile conveniently had built-in spacers that achieved a 1/16th” space naturally)
  • Tape measure (already owned)
  • Level (already owned)
  • Pencil and sharpie to mark cuts on tile (since pencil didn’t show up on dark marble)
  • Paper towels and a bucket of water (to help manage the mess)

The wet saw and tile cutter were my tag-team tools for trimming tiles to the perfect sizes. The wet saw is like a circular table saw with a thick masonry bit, but the blade runs through a tray of water to keep it from overheating, wearing down too quickly or spraying too much dust (it does, however, create a pleasant “mud” that needs to be cleaned up every so often). The wet saw was great for making small cuts (like when I needed to trim just a little bit of tile) and non-straight cuts (like notching semi-circles to go around pipes – though I did have to break out my dad’s hole saw drill bit once to go through the middle of one tile). You can make straight cuts with it – it even comes with an adjustable guide – but I found I couldn’t be as precise with it as I’d like. And as much fun as I had using it, it was a bit on the messy side. I kept it in the bathtub while working on the shower (it was conveniently at my feet) and in a heavily drop-clothed area in the hallway when working on the floor. Had it not been the middle of winter, I probably would’ve worked outside.

The tile cutter, on the other hand, was mess free – and pretty simple to use. It’s only for straight cuts (like when I had to cut half tiles to create the staggered, running brick pattern in the shower). Once I marked where to cut my line using a pencil, I lined up the tile against the flat guide surface then ran the tiny scoring wheel a few times across the surface of the tile. I always waited for the nails-on-chalkboard style scraping noise to know I was doing it right. Then with just a little bit of pressure, the angled pad helped me snap the tile cleanly. The only bummer was that this tool wasn’t powerful enough to cut our thick marble floor tiles, so I had to rely solely on the wet saw when it came to the floor (but at least by that point I was more of an expert with it since I did the tub/shower surround first to “warm up”).

Cutting was the slow, tedious and mathy part of the whole process. Setting the tiles was pretty speedy and painless by comparison – the only challenge was using the right amount (and a consistent amount) of thinset mortar to make sure there was enough to hold the tile, but not too much so that tiles would lay unevenly or cause excess thinset to squish out between the grout lines (spoiler alert: I wasn’t so hot at this).

So after slapping on a hunk of thinset to the wall and spreading it around a bit using the back of the margin trowel, I switched over to the notched trowel. This trickly little fella has two straight edges and two notched edges. First, I used the straight edge to even my thinset (by running it across the wall at a 45 degree angle with enough pressure to leave a thin-ish coat on the wall). Then I’d go back over the area with the notched edge (again at a 45 degree angle and a bit more pressure this time) to leave long grooves in the thinset. Then I was ready to press the tile into place using enough pressure to set it firmly into the thinset so that it laid evenly with its neighbors (which you can conveniently check with a level).

I picked up a tip along the way about how to tell if you’re using enough thinset by prying up a tile right after setting it and making sure the entire tile has thinset on the back of it. If it doesn’t you need to use more. Though this is where I made my life harder. I probably overcompensated and used too much in some places, which created a lot of extra thinset squeezing up between my tile grout lines. Not a huge deal… if you’re diligent about cleaning it all out before it dries (I suggest a combo of your finger, a paper towel or even an old toothbrush). I learned my lesson the hard way and spent a good chunk of a Saturday knocking dried thinset out of the cracks with a razor blade (which is a lot harder than removing it when it’s wet). Gotta leave room for that grout after all, right?

After that first evening of tediously tiling the bottom row, things moved pretty quickly since most of the tiles were whole (except for the edges and corners). I was able to accomplish the rest of it in two 5-hour sessions after work on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. Victory was mine! In fact, we would’ve had the whole thing grouted that next weekend had it not been for two errors on my part: the aforementioned messy grout line cleaning that had to be factored in at the end, and a simple label-misreading that caused me to ruin a batch of grout by mixing in twice as much water as it required. More on that later in the week, but just know that the snowstorm that hit that same weekend prevented us from driving out to get more so we were on tiling “pause” for a bit. Not to be deterred, we turned our attention to the walls.

We primed them with a special Valspar drywall primer and landed on Benjamin Moore’s Dune Grass as our subtle muddy greeny-taupe hue of choice. We actually didn’t use Benjamim Moore paint though, we just brought a BM swatch to Lowe’s and had it color matched to their no-VOC Olympic Premium semi-gloss bathroom paint (the base is no-VOC but we did learn that adding color to it makes it low-VOC, which was still extremely mild and low odor). We figured it was actually a nice plan to get as much painting out of the way before laying our marble floor so we didn’t have to worry about paint drippage quite as much. Hooray for happy accidents that cause grouting & floor tiling to be put on hold and painting to commence! It all worked out pretty nicely (and painting feels like 1st grade arithmetic compared to the advanced algebra-ish challenges of tiling).

But then it was back to the floors. I first finished the prep job my dad and I had started by installing the cement backerboard (that he kindly cut and set aside before he left the previous weekend) over the plywood subfloor (tip: we used extra long screws to ensure that they went all the way through the backerboard, through the 3/4″ plywood underneath, and deep into the diagonal subfloor for a super strong and uncompromising hold). Once the four puzzle pieces were securely set and generously screwed into place we used mesh tape and mud to fill the seams and any remaining gaps. After giving that a day to dry, we sanded off the extra and did a thorough sweeping so the backerboard was 100% free of any dust or cement crumbs that could spell disaster for our tile.

As eager as I was to break out my wet-sawing skills again, we first had to plan our placement strategy to ensure that the layout looked good and that it was the smartest plan when it came to tile cutting (we wanted as many full tiles as possible in the most visibly spots and since we had to work around the curved tub and linen closet entrance we didn’t want to end up with awkward slivers). Again, some recommend finding the center of the room and working out from there, but with such a small room we thought our criteria (having large tiles where the floor was most visible and avoiding dreaded tile slivers in corners) was more important in our case. So we did a dry run of a few arrangements with our actual 12″ x 12″ tiles (including spacers!) and settled on a layout that called for pretty simple cuts and allowed us to lay full tiles nearly the entire length of the bathroom. Here’s a shot of the guidelines that I drew to start everything off:

I won’t bore you by repeating the process of laying the floor tiles, since it was largely the same as laying the wall tiles. The only added challenge was that, as hard as we tried, our floor still had a teeny bit of a slope to it. So we opted to “back butter” our tiles to help compensate for this (we also heard that with marble many experts recommend this technique to keep things extremely firm and wiggle-proof for less cracking and long-tern wear and tear). This meant spreading a thin layer of mortar on the back of the tile in addition to the floor (using the same notched trowel technique) so that we could be more precise about making sure each tile was set level to its surrounding tile friends. And while we relied on a level as our main guide for levelness (is that a word?) we broke out a little quarter trick recommend by a friend to double-check ourselves. We gently ran a quarter across two neighboring tiles to see if it went smoothly or if it caught on one (meaning one was set too high).

The other trick someone taught us, which came in handy big time with the floor, was an easy way to measure any cuts that you needed to make against a wall. Once you’ve set the closest full tile, place the next tile that you want to use carefully on top of it (I found the rubber spacers helpful in creating a small buffer between my tiles so nothing got scratched). Then take a third, spare tile and place it on top of the stack, but this time slide it gently until it touches the wall. Just like that I’d exposed the portion of the middle tile that would be needed to fill the empty space. Then I simply used my Sharpie to mark a cut line on the middle tile and headed off to the wet saw for a little trim. Lo and behold, this worked like a charm every time.

Tiling the floor, since more than half of the 37 tiles required wet-sawing, took me most of Christmas Eve (as much as I could do before we had to hop into the car to spill the beans about our baby girl bean to the fam) and another few hours of the evening when we returned home on the 27th. So all in all it was a lot of work, but dang it felt good to be a gangster to be done with all that tiling. Though I was sort of gonna miss the wet saw. We had some good times together.

Laying the floor isn’t the end of this tiling adventure though, since we still have the grouting and sealing process to share. But once again, that’s enough for now. I’ll post later in the week about the rest of our holiday bathroom adventures so stick around (is that a Thinset pun? it wasn’t intentional).

As I mentioned above, we referenced quite a few experts for our first foray into tiling. We found that instructions can vary and are rarely exact to your specific situation, so be sure to keep in mind what will work best for you and your home. Here are some links that we used that will hopefully come in handy for you guys as well: All Bower Power, AskTheBuilder, eHow, Home Depot, and Lowe’s.

Psst- Wanna read about the first few chapters of the big bathroom makeover? Check out Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three and a little teaser post that we recently shared.


  1. Pamela says

    How did you cut the curve around the bathtub with the tile saw? It works like a table saw right? I my mind I just can’t picture how you cut curves with it (one of my biggest fears in DIYing our bathroom ourselves.

    • says

      Hey Pamela,

      Fortunately the tub’s curves aren’t actually that curvaceous – they’re more like straight lines that are just rounded slightly on the corners. So I was able to use the wet saw (which does work like a table saw) to cut straight edges that matched the tub’s angles pretty closely. It’s not 100% exact at the rounded part, but once we put a caulk seal down it will hide the tiny imperfections.

      But I did have to cut curves around the toilet flange in the floor. Again, it didn’t have to be exact because the cut side of the tile was going to be hidden under the flange (and eventually the toilet itself). Since I found the wet saw allowed me to cut at just about any angle, I made a bunch of little cuts at slightly different angles that created the effect of a mostly round side. Plus the wet saw is great a shaving off little bits which allowed me to sort of buff the edges to be more rounded. The only issue I found was that the marble, unlike the ceramic subway tile, was more prone to chipping and breaking – so I tried to keep the “buffing” to a minimum when I could.

      Hope that makes sense and helps calm some of your fears a bit.


  2. says

    It looks great so far John!! I am really interested to see the shower curtian. I feel like they are the throw pillows of a bathroom- brings the whole look together!

  3. says

    SA-weet tiling job there friends! I am so proud of you…now that you have officially tiled, basically the only thing left for you to learn is to how to move to GA :)

    XO -kb

  4. says

    Great job with the bathroom renovation and the tile tips. It is so important to make sure the layout is planned early in the process for the flooring so you don’t end up with small tile slices at the borders. Again, great post on the bathroom remodeling process.

  5. Janis from Scotland says

    Firstly – Happy New Year. The bathroom is starting to really shape up and the tiling is looking really, really good – I especially love the flooring. Can’t wait to see the finished product.

    I so admire your guts and tenacity in doing this work – I would just have begged family/friends/saved up for someone to do it for us!!

  6. Lesley H says

    Wow, what an incredible amount of work but well worth the amazing results. Your tiling looks awesome John and you’ll rest easier for years to come knowing it’s all straight! Thanks for sharing the gory details (and the bum shot, ha ha!).

  7. Betty in Munich says

    Wow! That is an awesome job on the tiling. Not being a DIY person at all, can only say what they say here in Germany, “RESPEKT!”…Usually said with a slight bow…I think no translation is necessary…

  8. says

    Our basement bathroom currently looks like yours did a few weeks ago – a blank slate, ready for the re-do. We’re only tiling the floor, and I am excited about it and not looking forward to it at the same time.
    Your walls and floor look great, and I appreciate all of the great info and advice!

  9. says

    It’s looking wonderful! I can’t wait to see it with the grout – which always really finishes tiles off and makes it look complete. Awesome job!

  10. Amy says

    Hey! The bathroom is looking awesome! One question: what did yall do to prep the walls for painting (other than prime)? I know there was alot of patching and sheetrock work and I cannot imagine the walls being smooth and ready to paint- I am wondering because wall work (patching, texture, etc etc is a big problem for us). I can see in the pics that yall mudded where pieces of sheetrock were joined- but how did you achieve a seamless, smooth, “finished”, paint-ready wall?
    thanks :)

    • says

      Hey Amy,

      You’re right, we did do a few rounds of mudding and sanding to get the greenboard/drywall ready for paint. I’ll admit it’s not as perfect as I’d like, but I’m pretty satisfied for my first time every doing it. We mudded and taped where the drywall joined, as well as over the exposed drywall screws. Plus we had to install a metal corner piece on the outer edge of the linen closet to create a crisp edge. Some places were easy (like some screws only took one coat of mud) whereas others I had to do 3 or 4 times (corners, mostly).

      I’m not an expert yet, but a couple of lessons learned were: (1) opt for larger spackling/putty knives, even if you’re filling small areas. It really helped the edges feather out more smoothly than when I was using a tiny putty knife. (2) We sprung for a special corner tool to help get the corner smooth. It was a huge help. (3) Sand. Sand. Sand. It won’t fix everything, but when in doubt, sand it a bit more. The places where I said “that looks good enough” don’t look as great as the parts where I said “I’ll sand it once more just to be safe.”

      Here’s another good article, from an actual expert, about tips for getting a clean, smooth finish:

      Good luck!


  11. says

    Looks incredible – I’ve got a big Guest Bath Demo/Re-mo job scheduled for later this summer (after our spring kitchen redo).

    One thing I’ve heard from lots of my contractor friends in Europe is that the tiniest bit of unevenness is OK, is shows that the job was done by hand, and not by a machine. And people really value things that are done by hand, as you know.

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