One of the most asked questions by do-it-yourselfer’s is whether they should use caulk or grout in the corners. Industry standards state that a flexible material be used at all changes of plane. But! – if you ask a hundred different professionals you will more than likely receive fifty of each answer.  While there are pros and cons of each, I am in the camp that uses caulk. That being the case, I will discuss using grout first. I’m backwards like that.

Using Grout at Changes of Plane

While the phrase “changes of plane” may sound a bit uppity or technical – it’s not. It simply describes the corner or edge of any surface that changes direction such as a corner, a wall to a floor, or a wall to the tub edge. Many professionals simply grout that corner as they do any other space between the tiles. There are a couple of things that must be taken into consideration before choosing this method.

  1. Your walls and the framing of your shower must be absolutely rock solid. I do mean absolutely. Grout is a cement-based product and as such is not meant to flex. If your wall moves your grout will eventually crack – it’s that simple.
  2. The space between the tiles at the change of plane must be large enough (for sanded grout) or small enough (for non-sanded grout) to be able to support the grout. That simply means that if you are using sanded grout you cannot butt the tiles against each other at the corner and expect to be able to force grout into it. It will not stay if the grout has no grout line to hold onto – if it is simply attempting to grab onto the face of the tiles at a 90 degree angle. There must be a grout line at the changes of plane.
  3. You must decide you are going to use grout at the changes of plane before you install the tile. You can then make sure to leave a line for the grout as well as adding additional support for any spots that may move even the tiniest bit (which it should not do anyway).

If you have taken the above points into consideration and still decide to use grout in the corners – go ahead. The big advantages of using grout here is that it will match all the grout lines and it will never have to be replaced. So although extra care must be taken to properly use grout at your plane changes, the advantages for some people are worth the extra time.

Using Caulk at Changes of Plane

There are several advantages to using caulk in corners and any other area where there may be a plane change or where tile meets another material such as your bathtub or sink.

  1. Unlike grout you are able to use caulk in a corner where tiles are butted against each other. It will stick to the face of the tile rather than needing a space between the tiles to grab.
  2. Caulk is flexible. If there is any movement the caulk is flexible enough to move with it and remain in place. It will not crack out or fall off.
  3. Caulk is waterproof – grout is not. Water will collect in corners such as where your tile meets the tub more than it will on the face of the tile.
  4. If your caulk does crack out or need to be replaced it is easily done.

The only two disadvantages to using caulk instead of grout are that you need to periodically remove and replace the caulk and, depending on your choice of grout, you may not be able to find a caulk that matches exactly. The first reason I consider to simply be regular maintenance and the latter is less of a problem since most major grout manufacturers sell matching caulk.

When to Use Grout

The only time I will use grout for a plane change is when I am using epoxy grout. Epoxy grout is bulletproof! OK, maybe it’s not bulletproof but you can hit it with a hammer a couple of times before it chips. (Don’t do that.) If you are using epoxy go ahead and grout the corners and changes of plane as well. Although it is not flexible it will grab the tile well enough to prevent it from splitting or cracking out. Precautions must still be taken but the Epoxy is strong enough to withstand normal structural movement.

How to Decide

Given the above parameters I believe caulk to always be the best choice. What you must understand about tile installation is no matter where you are installing the tile, it is always a structure that moves, no matter how minutely. Concrete moves, (the ground beneath it) that’s why it has expansion joints – to control where the movement goes. Most shower installations are over a wood structure of some sort. Whether you have drywall, backerboard, or a membrane, if you go far enough behind the tile, you’ll find wood. Wood moves, it’s just a fact of life. Humidity, weather, even the structure’s foundation all affect how much it moves. By taking proper precautions you can minimize the movement, but it’s still gonna move. Taking structural movement into consideration caulk is, for me, the logical choice.

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  • Wayne Spence

    Yeah… The Elf rules.

    Reply
  • Ranada Hawkins

    Recently I was fortunate enough to have my dream bathroom become a reality.. We hired a licensed contractor do the work. It’s a bathtub/shower combo with porcelain tiles measuring 3×9 in size. Tiles start at the base of the bathtub & go up to the ceiling. After, cleaning the shower I noticed a Slight discoloration on a few areas on the grout. The discoloration is more noticeable on the very bottom row of tile l, where the tile meets the top of the tub & The bottom corner, but also, appearing along the very bottom row of tile where it meets the tub… The grout is a very light gray & the discoloration appears to be a reddish orange in color.. I just cleaned my shower and I do not have any soaps or shampoos that are that color… I am sick to my stomach about this, as we recently had it done in June of this year.. Do you have any suggestions that I may be able to pass along to the contractor to correct this if an issue?? Thank you, Ranada

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    • Ranada Hawkins

      Picture listed

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    • Roger

      Hi Ranada,

      First: Don’t panic. :D Everything I’m about to tell you is fixable easily.

      The orange discoloration is mold. It’s actually likely Serratia marcescens, which is a bacteria. It is cause by permanently damp conditions (like a shower), especially at the bottom of the tile wall, which is where the water drains to. It can also be caused by hard water deposits. More likely, however, the biggest issue is that the water behind the tile (completely normal) drains to the bottom of the wall and has no way to escape into the tub.

      Here’s how to fix it: Locations of weep holes in showers

      Reply