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Designing a Tile Layout For a Bathtub Shower Surround

At this phase of your bathroom remodel, you have completed the design, demolition, and preparation phases. Your bathroom remodel is nearing the end.

You are now ready to set your tile. Designing the layout is the first step in setting your tile. Do not rush this very important step! This process could take 10 minutes to 2 hours. It is worth taking as much time as needed. Once you start setting the tile, there is no turning back.

Start on the back wall of the bathtub surround. Determine how high the tile is going to be set. Six feet above the tub is a common height. However, you can set the tile all the way to the ceiling or any other height you choose. Mark this location.
Below is an example to help you visualize this process:
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  • Tile size 13 inches by 13 inches
  • 3 inch trim tile
  • Tile height 6 feet above the above the tub deck
  • Grout line width is 1/8 of an inch

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Start from the top and work your way down the wall marking these locations on the wall.
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  • Trim tile
    • 3 inches
  • 3 inches
  • Grout Line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 3 1/8 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 16 1/8 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 16 1/4 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 29 1/4 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 29 3/8 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 42 3/8 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 42 1/2 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 55 1/2 inches
  • Grout Line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 55 5/8 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 68 5/8 inches

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You now have a decision to make. If you are going to set the tile to a height of 6 feet above the tub deck, using our example you have only 3 3/8 inches of space left between the tile and the tub deck. I prefer not to use tile less than half its width. A 13 inch tile should not be cut less than 6 1/2 inches. However, this is just a rule of thumb. It is not always possible to follow this rule.

If you want the bottom tile bigger than 3 3/8 inches, you have the option to move the tile up the wall an additional 3 1/4 inches. Instead of the tile being 6 feet above the tub deck it will be around 6 feet 3 1/4 inches. This would give you the minimum tile width of 6 1/2 inches, plus a 1/8 inch grout line between the tub deck and last tile.

If you choose to keep the tile height at 6 feet above the tub deck and keep the bottom tile and the upper tile the same width, below is an example of how this can be accomplished.

Take the space left between the last row of tile and the tub deck, which in the above example was 3 3/8 inches, and add this to the tile width of 13 inches, and divide by 2. Take your answer and subtract 1/8 of an inch for the grout line. Please see my example below.

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  • 3 3/8 inches + 13 inches = 16 3/8 inches
  • Divide 16 3/8 inches by 2 = 8 3/16 inches
  • Subtract 1/8 of an inch (grout line) from 8 3/16 inches = 8 1/16 inches

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8 1/16 inches would be the size of the upper and bottom tile and the tile would be to a height of 6 feet above the tub deck.
Let’s calculate this to double check the math:

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  • Trim tile
    • 3 inches
  • 3 inches
  • Grout Line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 3 1/8 inches
  • First field tile
    • 8 1/16 inches
      • 11 3/16 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 11 5/16 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 24 5/16 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 24 7/16 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 37 7/16 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 37 9/16 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 50 9/16 inches
  • Grout line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 50 11/16 inches
  • Field tile
    • 13 inches
      • 63 11/16 inches
  • Grout Line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 63 13/16 inches
  • Field Tile
    • 8 1/16 inches
      • 71 7/8 inches
  • Grout Line
    • 1/8 of an inch
      • 72 inches

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Now it is time is time to mark the location of the tile horizontally. Find the middle of the tiling area horizontally. Mark this location by drawing a vertical line and a horizontal line with a level.

Start dry laying the tiles on the ledger board. Using a ledger board is explained in the next article. Center a tile on the center of the vertical line you drew. Use spacers to create the 1/8 of an inch space between the tiles to represent the grout lines between tiles. Adjust the tile as needed to have a same sized tile on both sides of the shower wall, similar to how the tile was laid out vertically.

Take the time to draw this out on paper. Draw a box that resembles the tub wall size and layout the tile on this drawing. This does not have to be to scale. This helps to double check the math. Be sure to add the grout lines. This will help to create a visual picture for you.

You may want to create a story pole is a good idea to double-check your measurements. A story pole is a straight edge made of metal, wood, or plastic. Tiles are placed on the ground against the straight edge and are arranged with the desired tile layout including the grout joints. Once you have the desired layout, mark this layout with lines on the story pole with a marker.

The story pole can then be placed against a wall or floor. A story pole also helps if are using different sizes of tile in your design to keep the design straight and to make sure your measurements are correct.

To create a story pole using our example above, start by cutting a 1-inch by 2-inch board the height of the finish tiled height. In our example, this would be 6 feet. Lay the tile out on the floor; include the spacing between the tiles. With the story pole next to the tile start at the top, mark the locations of the trim piece with a line, mark the grout line, mark the location of the next tile and work your way to the bottom.

Once the story pole is complete, temporally fasten it to the wall. You can also create a story pole for the horizontal tile and temporarily fasten the story pole to the wall.

For the remaining walls you will repeat the process as above. Always be sure to account for the trim tile. You are now ready to set the tile on your first wall. My next article will explain the process of setting tile.

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