Doing the Bathroom

The Soap Dish of Damocles

I went off to Connecticut on a three-week business trip, and when I got back Linda handed me the soap dish off the shower wall. It had been sagging for a month or so, but I figured that eventually I would just stick it back on. When I looked behind it, though, there was nothing behind it. I could stick my hand into the wall and feel the studs. Linda had taped up some plastic so she could still use the bathroom.
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I thought about just patching the wall and putting the soapdish back up, but the bathroom had always been really ugly. It had little brown tiles with black spots, the tile was all buckled around the window, the cabines were dark wood from a Sears contractor, and the bathtub was very badly pitted. Most of the porcelain was gone, and although we could clean it, it got dirty the next day. I got this really good book on tile from the library on remodeling bathrooms, and it just didn't look too hard.
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So Saturday morning we started taking things apart. We got the toilet out and the cabinet down pretty quickly. Then I started on the sink.
The sink came out quickly, and we tore it into a pile of wood. I had a shiny new pair of gloves from Home Depot, and I started on the tile. I was able to pull it down by hand. It came off the wall in sheets.
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My dad came by with his utility trailer, and the debris began to pile up in it.
I got off all the tile I could by hand. My dad had also brought his Sawzall, and I started using it to trim off the wallboard at the tile line.
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Bam! Kicking It Up A Notch

About then Rob showed up, and things really started happening. We traded the Sawzall and the prybar back and forth, as we ripped and tore at the bathroom. Rob actually works with his hands for a living, so his cuts were a lot smoother.
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My dad was there to act as project supervisor.
And Linda put down the camera long enough to try her (left) hand at smashing some tile.
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I pulled off the last of the tile. I had been worried about how we would get the tile off the floor, but my dad had brought over a tile scraper. Rob grabbed it and began popping tile off the floor, just like sweeping a broom.
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Hello, Bathtub

All the tile was gone, and we were faced with the bathtub. That sucker looked really heavy. We couldn't budge it. Then I remembered reading in the bathroom book that a cast iron tub could be smashed with a hammer to remove it. We had a hammer. So we hammered in the morning. It was actually pretty easy. Soon we had the tub quartered, and we picked up the pieces and carried them outside to the trailer.
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Now we had a mostly empty bathroom. We swept up, and Martha came in to check things out. She seemed to approve of our adding a hole to give her easy access to the crawl space under the house.
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The trailer was loaded up and ready to go to the dump. Well, almost ready. We had a leaky tire. So I fired up the compressor and topped it off, and we were on our way. We got to the dump and admired the thousands of swarming seagulls. It was like being in The Birds. Dumping everything out of the trailer took a lot less time than loading it. On the way out the scales said that we had lost about 1200 pounds of ugly bathroom fat.
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Hello, New Bathtub

It was late afternoon, and my dad took his trailer and went home. But we weren't done yet. Now it was time for the hardest part of the whole project. Putting in the new bathtub. There's a Home Depot about eight minutes away, so we took Linda's truck down there. I wavered between a lightweight fiberglass tub, and a heavyweight cast iron one, but finally went with the cast iron. We got a toilet also.
Back at the house, Rob and I had a couple beers to work ourselves up, and finally went after the tub. After what seemed like hours of sweating and grunting we got it into the bathroom. Some sawing and pounding, and it slid right into place. Whew. Everything after that was downhill. Like putting in the toilet, which took about ten minutes. And that was it for the day.

Fortunately we got a supply of wax rings for the toilet, because it kept going in and out while we did the drywall. Despite having no drywall experience it was pretty simple. The book helped. And Tim came by and did some finishing, in exchange for help with his web site. The cement backer board for the shower was straightforward too. Using Rob's 18v cordless drill really helped. We put 2" thick styrofoam behind the cement board on the wall with the window on it, in hopes of cutting down on the traffic noise from outside.

The Window

Now it was time for the window. The existing window was a corroded leaky aluminum jalousie window. It had to go. But what would we replace it with? To get another jalousie window would be a custom order, and that would take a few weeks. Then Rob suggested using glass blocks. Great idea. Plus it would help with the noise from the street. I did some research, and decided on 8"x8" blocks, 4" thick. I decided to go with a 4x4 pattern, making the whole window 32" square. I framed in the window, and then used some cement board to cover the lumber and make the opening precisely the right size. We used the Dow-Corning system, which has its own mortar, spacers, channels, caulk, etc. I had never laid bricks, so my dad came by to supervise. The job went pretty quickly, just an hour or two. I put some trim on the outside to fit the new opening, and the window was done.

Linda took over and put on a couple coats of primer, which made things look a lot better. It was starting to resemble a real bathroom again.

Now it was tile time. We had finally decided on 4"x4" white tile. We looked at lots of different color accents, but didn't like any of them, and just kept it all white. I borrowed a tile saw from Dean, which made things much easier. I read the book over, gathered all the materials, and went to work.

We started by putting bullnose tile around the window. The first attempt looked terrible, and we ended up pulling it all off and starting over. The second time we built a wooden frame to hold the tile in place, and that worked a lot better. The miter cuts at the corners didn't look too great, but we figured the grout would help some.

Then I started on the window wall. It was slow going, as I tried lots of different techniques. I did it slowly, over the course of four or five evenings. Toward the end I was getting a little faster. I did make one mistake, you can see to the left of the window where the tile didn't come out right, and there is a 1 inch space to be filled in with little pieces of tile. Maybe the grout will cover that, too.

We got faster, and in a few more evenings we had the side walls done. I left spaces in the corners for shelves, and a hole to put up the very same soap dish that started this whole thing.

Then I put the grout in. The book was right, it made a huge difference. All those obvious mistakes weren't quite so obvious anymore. In fact, it looked pretty good. Especially once the shelves and soap dish were in.

Starting To Come Together

Now we started doing details. Taking out the jalousie window meant that we needed a ventilation fan. I thought it would just snap into place, but it ended up taking several hours, with me in the really really hot attic, and Rob down below. Then I had to wire it into the light switch. Another couple hours.

I wanted a bigger medicine cabinet, so the GCFI outlet next to the old one had to move down. Another couple hours to reposition it, and fill in the old hole. I had planned on a flush-mount for the cabinet, but there was so much old framing in the way from the past couple medicine chests that I finally gave in and accepted surface mounting.

After all that it was time to paint. I masked off the shiny new tile to keep it white. In keeping with the white theme, we went with semi-gloss latex. Linda primed all the work we had done since the last time she had primed, and then I put on a couple coats of white paint. Mmmm, white. When the paint dried we did a little detail work, like towel bars, toilet paper holder, and plates for the light switch and outlets. You can also see how the grout looks.


Finally Time For The Floor

At last it was time to do the floor. It was mostly plywood, with a thinset patch I had someone do shortly after I moved in. It was kind of rough, but I was planning on sweeping it clean and putting a layer of thinset down before I set the tile. But Friday night I was talking with Frank at the beach, and he suggested using a thin cement board instead. So I checked at Home Depot, and sure enough there it was. I got a couple sheets, and we cut them to fit with an abrasive blade in a saber saw. Then we put down a layer of thinset, and laid the sheets over it. It looked pretty good, and gave a nice surface to set tile on. Then we put the toilet back in and called it a day. I think that was the fifth wax ring so far.


Update: (11/14/05) I got an email today from someone saying that she like the bathroom, and was looking for tile ideas. She pointed out that I had never updated this page with any tile floor photos. So Linda took some photos, and here they are. The bathroom has held up pretty well over the last two years.