Shower Tile Basics or Shower Tile 101

by Roger

I get a LOT of questions from my readers about basic shower construction. I understand that my readers don’t consider this stuff basic and there’s no problem with that. The problem is that I end up answering the same questions over and over and over… So, to save what very little is left of my sanity (which is a number roughly equivalent to absolute zero) I will cover some basic things here so I can simply reply ‘read this’.

If you’ve been channeled to this page by one of my smart-ass comments please take no offense to it, I’m here to help. Please understand that I currently have over 12,000 comments (questions) on this site (seriously) which I’ve answered – every one of them. I’m just trying to make your life (mine) easier.  I will continue to answer every question I’m asked, I’m just super cool like that. 8) If, after reading through this, you still have questions feel free to ask them in the comments below.

You can also download my shower waterproofing manual which should answer a lot of questions and cover basic techniques and methods you may be confused about. Go ahead, it’s free.  So without further ado (doesn’t even look like a word, does it?) let’s get on with it. (For all my readers who feel the need to correct me: I KNOW it’s actually ‘adieu’ – I was being facetious. Thanks. :D )


First and foremost – tile is not waterproof. Grout is not waterproof. Adding sealer to your tile or stone will not make it waterproof. Your shower should be completely waterproof before a box of tile is even opened! No matter which waterproofing method you choose, proper substrate preparation is the only thing that will make your shower waterproof.

If you have a leak in your shower – stop using it immediately if at all possible. If that is not possible (it’s your only shower) have the shower repaired – immediately. If you see water leaking it is likely not nearly as much water as you don’t see leaking into your wall cavity and structural framing. By the time you ‘see’ most leaks the framing is normally already considerably compromised.

No, there is nothing you can put over your tile to make your shower waterproof if you have a leak – not even sealer. A tile or stone sealer is made to make your tile and grout stain-resistant, not waterproof. It does this by sealing the pores of the tile and stone to slow (NOT STOP) the absorption of liquid and prevent staining. It only means you have more time to clean up the spilled red wine cherry kool-aid before it stains anything.


Drywall is not an acceptable substrate for your shower unless you are using Schluter Kerdi waterproofing membrane – that’s it. Cement backerboards are the standard and there are also other products such as waterproofed, gypsum based boards like Denshield and waterproofed, foam-based sheets like wedi or kerdi board.

Cement backerboards are not waterproof. They are water stable, which simply means that they will not swell or disintegrate when exposed to moisture or water – they won’t change size. But they are just like your driveway, they will soak in water, hold water, and dry out, just like your driveway when it rains. If using backerboards there needs to be a waterproof membrane utilized as well.


If you are using a topical waterproofing membrane such as a liquid like redgard or hydroban, or a sheet like kerdi, do not use a moisture or vapor barrier behind your substrate. If you have a vapor or moisture barrier behind your substrate do not use a topical membrane on the front of it. This combination creates two waterproof barriers with your substrate sandwiched between them. any vapor or moisture trapped between them has absolutely no way to dissipate. This is lovingly referred to as a ‘mold sandwich’. It is not tasty. Use either a moisture or vapor barrier behind your substrate or a topical membrane on the face of it. One or the other – never both.

With that said, if you want to use a topical liquid such as redgard on the seams of your backerboard, after you tape and mud them, you can do so without problems. If your moisture barrier and backerboards are properly installed there is no real reason to do so – but if it will help you sleep at night go ahead and do it.

If you are using a topical membrane and you have an exterior wall with either plastic facing or kraft paper facing you need to cut slits into that facing before installing your substrate. If you do not it will create the aforementioned mold sandwich. Give moisture or vapor somewhere to dissipate.

Shower-tub transitions

There should be a gap between your tub or acrylic shower base and the bottom of your backerboard. If you are using a traditional barrier waterproofing method you do not need to do anything with this gap. Do not fill it with silicone! This will trap moisture running down your barrier and it will have nowhere to go. If you are using a topical method you can fill it with silicone if you want. If you are using liquid you should fill it with silicone. This creates a waterproof plane between your membrane and the tub or base so water or moisture ends up in the drain rather than in your wall.

When you tile you can tile right over that gap. You should not fill this gap with thinset behind the tile – it will crack due to movement. Your wall and tub or base will expand and contract at different rates – it will crack any cement-based product you place between the two. This includes thinset as well as grout. You do not need a solid backing behind your tile over this gap – it should be less than 1″ wide. You shouldn’t normally be walking on that tile in that particular spot. Yes, it can just hang there.


If your grout is cracking it is due to movement 99.9% of the time. Type ‘cracking’ into the search box up there and you’ll find in-depth explanations for your viewing pleasure.

If you have white, or lighter than normal grout when you’re finished grouting it may be efflorescence. This is mainly due to minerals in the water being left on the surface of the grout when the water evaporates. It is usually indicative of either incorrectly mixed grout or using too much water while cleaning the grout – not wringing out your sponge enough. This is normally only on the surface of your grout. Scratch the very top layer of your grout in an inconspicuous spot with your fingernail. If you have the correct, or at least a darker, color beneath the surface that is the likely cause. The easiest, quickest fix, provided it is only the very top layer, is to get some drywall sanding sponges and go over the grout lines very lightly. Just like burnt toast – scrape it to the color you like.

Corners and changes-of-plane

Caulk. :D

Disagree with me?

Like any other website I get my fair share of people who disagree with my methods or techniques – it really doesn’t bother me. I am more than willing to have a civilized, intelligent conversation about anything tile related. If, however, you simply attack me personally and act like an uncivilized ass I will call you on it – and not in a nice way. I write this blog in a particular manner, it does not mean that I take my profession lightly – I most certainly do not. If I wanted to be a pompous bastard I currently have 19 letters I can place after my name – all tile related. But I’m not a pompous bastard – you can just call me Roger. :D

If you are a contractor with a customer who has come here for information and I’ve told them you’re wrong – realize that the extent of my knowledge of that particular project is limited to what I’m told by your customer. It does not mean that I am ‘out to get you’ or anything of the sort. I normally limit my replies to those situations by stating the current TCNA and/or ANSI standards pertaining to what I’m told. If you disagree – please let me know in a civil manner, If you’re correct I’ll back it up – I do this everyday, too! If you’re an asshole about it expect the same in return (It’s the comment by ‘Kanela’ with the bold print before it) – and please have a thesaurus handy to interpret my reply – I’m a very well educated asshole.

That’s it for now. I will likely add to this post on a regular basis. If there is anything I’ve caused confusion with please, for the love of God, let me know. I can change this page since, you know, it’s my website and all. If you have any questions at all please ask them below – I’ll answer, really. :D

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I am putting a tile shower in the basement. I have 2×4 walls on the outside wall of the house with fiberglass batt insulation with a vapour barrier. Can I put a kerdi wall right over top of the vapour barrier….or do I need to drywall first or????
Can you please advise me the correct way.
thanks …much appreciated



Hi Richard,

I’m unsure what you mean by a ‘kerdi wall’. You can put kerdi-board directly over it, or you can put cement backerboard or drywall over it with the kerdi membrane on top of it. You can not put kerdi directly over the barrier.


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