Even though I am primarily a carpenter, I feel that those skills translate directly into tile work. The first step in any construction job should be the right assessment and layout of the project. In tile, this is especially important, as recovery from an oversight is usually much more ghastly and costly than a carpentry job.
In any tile job, the substrate, or that to which the tile is bonded is of primary importance whether the tiles are for flooring, walls or showers. In order for the tiles to lay down uniformly, the wall or floor must be flat. Plumb and level are ideal, but flatness is of greater concern. Before the first tile is set, I make sure that the surface is free from humps, lumps, bumps, gulleys, pockets and ridges. If the tile is being set onto concrete, I will use a self leveling compound or thinset mortar spread over the surface to eliminate such surface defects. In recent years a company called Shulter Systems (http://www.schluter.com/schluter-us/en_US/) has been gaining prominence for their innovative tile installation products, especially their uncoupling membranes (http://www.schluter.com/schluter-us/en_US/Membranes/Uncoupling-%28DITRA%29/c/M-U). Basically, the uncoupling membrane is a plastic grid similar to a waffle set into unmodified thinset mortar that provides a forgiving layer between the tile and the substrate so that the tile is far less likely to crack or pop out should the substrate move. It is of primary importance if the substrate is wood framing, though I have come to appreciate using it over concrete slabs as well. I highly recommend its use.
Once the surface is nice and smooth, and the uncoupling membrane has been installed, then I will layout and install the floor tile. For walls, once I have aligned the framing of walls, I will install cement board that is taped with mesh and floated with thinset mortar at all seams. Each screw hole is likewise floated over with thinset mortar. Then I will layout and install the tiles.
One of the biggest and ghastliest complaints in tiling is when a shower is installed improperly. You wouldn’t believe some of the horror stories. I have seen beautifully laid out tile showers that do nothing but leak water and collect mold because the pan was built entirely of cement board (?!?!?). The key to building a nice, waterproof shower starts with the pan or shower base. Pans can be either prefabricated or site constructed. Shulter Systems makes a pan system for showers, but I haven’t personally used it as of this writing. I make pans the new old-fashioned way (sounds redundant, but its not) because that is how a master taught me to do it years ago and it has served me well (though not my back so much). Before I begin work on the pan, I make sure that the drainage and plumbing are all taken care of and properly roughed in to their final locations. The pan is constructed of dry pack mortar (little water content), a 3 part drain, and a thick pvc membrane (and felt and screen for wood frame substrates). I will then usually install a curb of 3 stacked, pressure treated 2x4s across the open side of the shower, unless it is a wheel in or curb-less shower (which is a completely different process) For most showers, I set the drain in its final installed location and pre-slope the mortar from a level 1-1/2 to 2″ around the perimeter of the shower area to the first step on the drain. I will then install 2×6 blocking between the studs so that the pvc membrane has an attachment point. The membrane is then laid down and folded up about 5-6″into a tray (I will usually spread the corner studs so I can pull the membrane through there
without a big build-up of material) and laid over the curb. I use pvc membrane glue at any overlap point. The drain is 3 pieces and the bottom pieces come apart with bolts and clamp the membrane
in place. I do this now, very carefully cutting the membrane at the drain and allowing plenty of material to overlap and be cemented or silicone caulked and clamped between the bottom and middle piece of the drain. There are weep holes here that allow water that gets past the tile, thinset and second mortar layer to drain– I put some pea gravel or crushed tile here for drainage. The top piece of the drain is threaded and screws in so it is therefore adjustable, height- wise. This is installed so that the finished height is such that it sits flush or below the final installed height of the tile plus mortar. Then I make a level line around the perimeter about another 1-1/2 to 2 inches (or more, depending on size and drain location) above the horizontal surface of the pan. I build a mortar block about 2-3 inches wide around the perimeter and as high as the line, checking frequently with the level. More mortar is added and sloped from this mortar block to the tape-protected drain. It is a tedious process of troweling and checking for flatness of the slope (no bows in the slope!) with a straight edge. Once the mortar is set (overnight) it’s time to install the walls.
I almost always use 1/2″ cement board for the walls. Unlike a drywall installation, I start at the bottom and work my way up. The bottom panels are installed about 1/4-1/2″ above the surface of the pan, and overlap the bit of exposed pvc membrane that the mortar did not cover. Once all the panels are in place and there is total coverage of cement board over all areas, each seam is taped with mesh and floated with thinset mortar and every screw hole is floated with thinset mortar. Many tile installers would start tiling here. I do not. I apply 2-3 coats of an elastomeric sealer such as Redgard or equivalent to every seam and another coat or two to every cement board surface. Once dry, I will then lay out and install the wall tile, followed by the floor tile. Then I grout it all.
The above photos are of my most recent tile shower install. This was a really nice sized shower, at 4′ x 5′ and was constructed using the methods described above. The picky and well-informed/knowledgeable of building trades customer was very pleased with the results of his new shower. It took me about 2-3 weeks from start to finish on this shower install. The glass door and panel on the right 2 pictures were installed by a glass contractor. Before installing the walls, I made sure that there was adequate framing so that the glass door and panel and the stainless handrail had something to screw into.