Trying to decide what to put on the walls of your shower or bathtub surround is more difficult than most people expect it to be. There are several factors to consider and each one is very important:
- The material needs to be water resistant
- The material needs to be decorative
- The material should be easy to clean
- The material should be long lasting
Most Homeowners are not well-versed in evaluating material choices for each of the important characteristics listed above. This is where Martin Moss’ approach can help. With more than 30 years of successful bathroom remodeling experience, Martin has been able to get a first-hand look at which materials work well and which do not. Unlike many other contractors who try to steer you towards what is easiest or most profitable for them to install, Martin helps you understand the pros and cons of each material choice so you can make an informed decision based upon an expert’s actual experience.
Here is a discussion of the most commonly used Bathtub and Shower wall covering materials and Martin’s opinions on each:
Fiberglass One-Piece Units
These units are often installed by builders when the house is first built. They are fairly inexpensive and easy to install before the Bathroom walls have been constructed. Their seamless design helps prevent water leaking into the surrounding walls. Unfortunately, this product is a poor choice for remodeling applications since the Bathroom partition walls will be in place and a one-piece unit will not fit through most doorways. Ripping out the Bathroom partition walls and doorways is not cost-effective. Another disadvantage of this material is that it usually becomes yellow with age and can scratch from years of continual rubbing and cleaning. Once this happens, the fiberglass will be hard to clean. Martin does not recommend fiberglass one-piece units.
Acrylic Sheet Materials
This material is usually available in decorative designs and various colors. Some manufacturers even make kits that contain separate acrylic sheets to cover each wall of the tub or shower. They are easy to install, fairly inexpensive and will fit through any doorway. For showers, a pan or floor covering piece has to be used in addition to the wall covering sheets. The pans usually come in a limited number of standard sizes which can present problems if you have a non-standard sized shower. These plastic type materials can scratch easily and become hard to clean over time. Martin feels that the biggest problem with this approach is all the seams. In showers, there will be seams in each corner where two walls meet and seams all around the bottom shower pan where the wall covering sheets meet the floor. Tubs will have similar seams in each vertical corner and where each wall meets the tub. Each of these seams is a leak waiting to happen. Most contractors slap these sheets up quickly with glue and caulking. While caulking looks pretty good at first, it actually presents a lot of headaches down the road. Most tub and shower caulks don’t provide adequate long-term water proofing of the seams. Especially in the high pressure water streams from a shower. To make things even worse, most caulk seams allow fungus (mildew) to grow behind the caulk where you cannot get at it and it looks really discolored and ugly. Once water begins to seep behind the panels, you will have water damage occurring but you will not able to see it until it gets really severe. This can result in thousands of dollars in dry rot repairs and mold abatement costs. Martin definitely does not recommend this material.
Corian®, Engineered Quartz, Cultured Marble or Solid Surface Sheet Materials
Although these products feel stronger than acrylic sheets, they are still sensitive to all of the same problems as acrylic sheet materials. Scratching is a worry and long term water-proofing of all the seams is virtually impossible without making a waterproof barrier underneath it (see the discussion of acrylic sheet materials above). This type of material will cost considerably more than acrylic sheets because each shower or tub surround is made-to-order from materials like Corian® or engineered quartz, that are fairly expensive. Many contractors who install these materials will insist that you use a squeegee after every shower or bath. That’s definitely not what Martin considers easy to take care of !!!
This material is man-made and has a clear protective glaze coat baked in an oven. Tiles come in a variety of sizes, qualities, colors, textures and patterns which allow for a lot of creativity and decorative designs. Proper tile installation is best done by a professional tile setter and requires a lot more labor than the other approaches listed above. Tile material costs may vary greatly. A durable, high quality tile installation will often cost as much or more than a solid surface sheet material installation but the excellent durability and custom look of tile are well worth it.
Although many contractors are using new shortcuts for tile installation, Martin has found that the shortcuts do not work as reliably as the old-fashioned way. Martin’s tile installers do what is commonly referred to as “full mud floats”. This means that the walls around your tub or shower are stripped back to the bare studs, then covered with water-repellent black paper and chicken wire (metal lath). A first cement coat (scratch coat) is applied to the wire mesh and allowed to dry overnight. A second cement coat (brown coat or “float”) is then applied over the scratch coat and the brown coat is evened out to make the walls plumb and straight so that the tile installation will look good. Many other contractors want to hurry things up, so they use pre-cast cement sheets (Wonderboard or Hardibacker) screwed to the bare studs around the tub or shower. This may be quicker than applying two separate coats of cement but it creates the serious problem of having water-sensitive seams just like the acrylic sheets described above. When subjected to pressurized water streams such as showers, the “short-cut” tile installations are more likely to fail and allow water to get inside the walls, causing damage and costly repairs. This is why many building inspectors recommend Martin’s approach (full mud floats) instead of the short cuts that many other contractors are using.
Many people wrongly assume that tile grout has to be hard to clean. The reality is that wider grout joints (approx. 3/16”) allow for easier cleaning than narrow ones. In addition, the wider joints use grout that is sanded and gives a stronger bond. Today’s advanced bathroom cleaning products also help by allowing you to spray them on the tile, let them foam up and then simply wipe off without having to scrub (like in the old days).
Ceramic tile over a full mud float of cement is definitely Martin’s top recommendation for decorative, long-lasting, low-maintenance showers and tubs.
Marble and Natural Stone Tiles
Natural stone such as tumbled marble or Travertine is a very popular Shower and Bathtub wall covering here in Southern California. This is somewhat surprising when you consider that it can be one of the most difficult materials to take care of in a Bathroom. Most natural stone of these types is quite porous and will absorb soap scum and minerals from the water, leaving them discolored and unsightly. Once the stone absorbs the discoloring substance, it is difficult or impossible to restore the stone to its original beauty. Sealers are available for natural stone but they do not last long (approx. 6 months) and they can be extremely messy to reapply (you have to acid wash or acetone clean every inch of the stone before sealing it a second or third time).
Although Mother Nature has made natural stone beautiful, she has also made it somewhat fragile. Many types of marble are fairly brittle and are subject to cracking along fissure lines in the stone. Costs for good quality natural stone tiles are usually near the high end of all the bathtub and shower wall covering materials.
Currently, some Contractors are trying to decrease costs by importing low quality natural stone tiles from overseas. Of course, the lower quality stones will tend to have even more problems than the better quality ones. Although Martin likes the look of natural stone, he does not recommend it for a long lasting, easy care shower or bathtub. Instead, Martin has an excellent selection of beautiful man-made tiles which look just like natural stone but do not have all of the maintenance headaches.