This four part series describes methods to create a niche in your shower wall for tile. Please read through all four parts before starting. Your layout dictates the size and placement of your niche. You need all this information before making a hole in your wall! Or don’t – it isn’t my shower, eh?
A shower niche, shelf, cubby, beer Pepsi storage, whatever you want to call it is one of the most requested add-ons for any showers I build. After all, everyone needs a place to store the important stuff – like your rubber ducky, as well as the unimportant stuff like soap and shampoo. So being the super-cool, quirky, lovable (with a healthy dose of jackassery) guy that I am – I’m gonna show you how to build one.
To the left you will see a photo of a niche with a shelf – we’re not gonna build that one. It’s just there to show you what you can do with the technique I am describing. I will explain how to do that in the last part of this series.
With any shower niche there are a couple of details you should pay attention to which will make it look like it belongs there rather than something you looked at drunk one night and thought “Hey! Let’s cut a hole in the shower wall so I can put my rubber ducky in there.” That’s not really a good look – rubber ducky or not.
One of the most important things I always do is line up the top and bottom (and sides if possible) with the grout lines in the field tile. The field tile is just the main tile on your shower wall. In doing this you keep the flow of the shower consistent and the niche doesn’t look like an afterthought – I hate that.
The way I do this is to actually install part of the field tile up to that point then I cut my niche out of the wall. This ensures you fall exactly on a grout line and don’t miss it by 1/4″ because you miscalculated. So, you need to have your wall all prepped and ready and some tile already installed before we start with the niche.
Before you start installing tile there are a couple of things you need to do. As you are preparing your walls for tile with backerboard, drywall and Kerdi, elastomeric liquid topical waterproofing membrane (No, I didn’t have my pinky in the air as I typed that. It’s just liquid membrane like Redgard) or whatever waterproofing method you’ve chosen, you need to write down the measurements to the inside and outside of the two studs between which you plan to install your niche.
Your niche needs to be placed between two wall studs. These are (normally) 14 1/2″ apart so assuming you have 12″ or 13″ tiles you can build a niche the size of one full tile wide. If you want one like the photo above it will be one tile wide and two high. Write those measurements down because once you get your walls up and ready to cut the niche out you need to know exactly where to cut.
If you have unusually placed studs (insert lame joke here) you will need to frame out the sides of the niche before covering them up with your wall substrate. Do not frame the top and bottom, only the sides. The top and bottom will be framed after we figure out exactly where they need to be placed and that happens after you already have some tile installed.
If you do end up framing it you need to add an inch to the measurement. If you have 12″ tiles make the studs 13″ apart. This is so you can add a 1/2″ piece of drywall or backerboard to each stud and have the correct measurement for your tile.
The photo to the right is the niche I am going to walk you through. I chose this particular niche because it illustrates the point about the grout lines. And because I have pictures of it from start to finish. See how the sides and top and bottom of the niche all line up with the grout lines in the rest of the tile? It looks like it belongs there. That’s what I mean when I say type that.
This niche is 13 x 13 x 3 inches. The 13′s because that is the size of the tile and the 3 because that is the width of the bullnose. You can make the niche as deep as your wall will allow if you chose but(!) if your bullnose is only three inches wide and you choose to make your niche 3 1/2 inches deep (which is usually the amount of space between walls) you will have a 1/2″ sliver of tile on each plane of the niche behind the bullnose – and that looks like crap! So don’t do that.
Or if you chose to do that please tell everyone “the FloorElf showed me how to make that! Yeah, I know it looks like crap – he said it was gonna look like crap – but I did it anyway.” I’d appreciate it.
One more thing before we start (get on with it already!), this shower is built using the Kerdi membrane and drywall. You can, however, utilize this method with any type of shower you are building.
If you are using simply cement backerboard with a moisture barrier you will need to get Kerdi or one of the aforementioned fancy-ass word waterproofing liquids to make the niche waterproof. You cannot place a moisture barrier behind this and have it be waterproof – it simply won’t work. And your rubber ducky may burst into flames and who wants that? So snuff out your rubber ducky and lets get this damn thing built!
You may click on any of the photos below for a full-size version of how horrible my photography skills actually are.
Photo 1: I have marked and cut out the opening for the niche. To the right of the niche I have installed a vertical row of tile and marked the lines with a level line from the grout joints between those tiles. That’s the big secret to getting everything lined up.
The opening is cut to the exact size. Notice on the right side of the opening you can barely make out the wall stud? That’s because there is 1/2″ space between the right side of the opening and the stud. I will install a 1/2″ piece of drywall there to bring the side flush with the opening.
In case you are unfamiliar with it – the bright orange on the wall is the Schluter Kerdi membrane. It is a thin polyethylene sheet which is installed directly to drywall to waterproof your shower. And its awesome. Just sayin’.
Photo 2: Measure the exact distance between the studs. Measure the top and the bottom – they may be a bit different and these measurements need to be exact. Now add 1/16″ to the measurement and cut a 2×4 that size. One for the top and one for the bottom.
Place the 2×4 between the studs and tap it down with a hammer. Don’t bang on it like its the last DMV employee you spoke with – just tap it lightly. You do not want to pound it down too far. If you do you’re SOL.
If you do happen to pound it down too far you can drive a screw into the top of it and pull it back up. You may want to use the claw on your hammer to get a good grip on it. Do not pry your hammer back like you are attempting to pull the screw out! Just place it on there in the same manner and lift the 2×4 back up.
Photo 3: Tap the 2×4 down 1/2″ past the edge of the opening you’ve cut out. Exactly 1/2″. This will allow you to install the 1/2″ drywall or backerboard to bring the top and bottom flush with the opening. Now put two screws into each one. Screw them from the front right through your substrate into the 2×4′s. You can see that in photo 4 – two in the top and two in the bottom. This keeps them in place.
If you did not previously frame the sides to the exact width (which I did with this particular niche so it is not shown) you will need to add additional framing to the sides to bring them in 1/2″ from the opening as well. You need every side of the niche 1/2″ away from the opening you’ve cut out of your wall.
Just screw any additional pieces directly to the side studs. You can use a 2×4 (1 1/2″ wide) a 1×2 (3/4″ wide) or build up 1/2″ and/or 1/4″ plywood strips to whatever you need to get them to the correct spot.
Photo 4: Notice the two screws through the wall into each horizontal framing member?
Cut strips of your drywall or backerboard to the correct dimensions for the inside of the niche. In this case two each of 3 1/2″ by 14″ and 3 1/2″ by 13″. The 14″ place on the top and bottom and the 13″ on the sides. Screw those directly to the 2×4′s.
The bottom piece needs to be slightly higher in the back than the front! It needs to slope towards the opening. This is to ensure that water drains correctly out of it. By slightly I mean very – less than 1/16″ higher in the back than the front. You can just place a small cardboard drywall shim or something similar under the back part of the bottom piece. It cannot be level but you don’t want the top of your shampoo bottle sticking out of the niche – knowwhatimean? Just slope it VERY slightly. Just enough for water to drain but not enough for your soap to slide out of it.
If you have installed the niche framing correctly the sides of the niche as well as the top and bottom should all be absolutely flush with the opening you have cut out. If not remove the offending piece and redo it. If it is not flush your niche will not come out correctly. Fix it now – later is too late.
At this point the top and bottom of your niche should be exactly level with a grout line. If so, well done, move on. If not, well, start over.
Now the final step in framing out your niche will be installing the substrate on the back. If you do not want a 3″ deep niche – you need to figure out the math yourself. If you do want a 3″ deep niche – hey, your in luck. I just happen to have photos of one.
Photo 5: Cut a piece of your substrate about 1/2″ smaller than your niche opening. This is simply a filler piece for the back. You want a 3″ niche and a 2×4 is 3 1/2″ thick. If you place a 1/2″ filler in the back of the niche POOF! – 3″ niche. (That’s a good name for a band)
Install this filler piece with thinset. If you have a wall on the other side of this wall you do not want to use nails or screws or your wife is gonna kill you for drilling a screw through grandma’s eye in the portrait hanging on the other side of that wall. Thinset is less heartache.
This is a perfect example of why you want to have at least a very general idea of your layout and tile sizes before you start any tile installation. Any add-ons you choose to use will usually center around the specific size of the tile to look correct. If you build your niche for 13″ tile and end up with 12″ tile, well, you’re screwed. It won’t look right. It will look exactly like what it is – an afterthought.
Photo 6: Then take the piece you cut out for your original opening and it will now become the back wall of your niche. And it better damn well fit. If it doesn’t, start over. Use thinset on this piece as well.
And that’s it, the basic building of your niche. General rules to take into consideration are:
You usually want to keep your niche the width of one tile. This eliminates any skinny pieces on either side of the niche or strangely placed lines and allows you to line everything up with a grout line. It also eliminates the need for a grout line through the back of your niche to keep the lines consistent.
Keeping the niche the width of one tile is the least important. It is open to interpretation more than the others. If you make it skinnier it may look better. Sometimes a square niche just does not look right and usually looks better in a rectangular shape instead. As long as your top and bottom measurements fall on a grout line you do not need to worry about funny cuts or lines. It’s your shower – make your niche however you think it looks best.
You want to make your niche the height of one or two tiles or one tile plus your liner piece or whatever else you’re placing in the field tile. You want it the height of whatever the space between two horizontal grout lines may be. This eliminates any “L” cuts in your tile to accommodate the niche.
Use common sense regarding whatever is on the other side of the wall you plan on installing the niche into. If there is a handball court on the other side of that wall – pick a different wall. Do the same when placing anything onto that wall. Don’t drive a 16 penny nail into it to hang a portrait of your gerbil – you’ll probably hit tile (or your rubber ducky).
If that particular wall is an outside wall and you live in a cold climate – choose another wall. You only have essentially 1/2″ of free space (your filler piece) between the back of your niche and the outside wall. You cannot get enough insulation in there to prevent freezing. And your shower will be cold, really cold. And your shampoo will freeze. Really, pick another wall.
If you have a liner or listello or row-on-point going through your shower a niche will usually look better with the top either right below it (as in the photos above) or even with the top of it. Make it look like you actually planned it. Not like this photo here:
This is a photo of the shower I tore out and replaced with the one you see at the very top of the page. This is garbage! It was done by someone claiming to be a professional – bullshit! Click on it – I dare ya. Partake in the full glory of an improper tile installation. The person that installed this is what I fondly refer to as a hack. If inflicting serious bodily harm ever becomes legal – these people are on my list. You just don’t take someones money and give them shit work and run like a little . . . sorry, I digress. Hacks piss me off.
I will, however, save all that fun for another post. My point was the overall look of the placement of the niches. It is way too low, it looks like a shelf for a phone with that corner bench. It does not line up (except for the very top) with any grout lines. It is not level, although you cannot see that very well. Basically it looks like someone drunk cut a random hole in the wall, stuck tile to it and called it a niche. It looks out of place – that’s what I want you to avoid.
The photo below it is from almost the same angle after it was redone correctly. See the difference? It’s all in the flow, baby! (Sorry, I had Sammy Davis Jr. going through my head just now – yeah!) It simply belongs. Very existentialistic, dont’cha think? (I learned that word in college. Comes in very handy in my day to day life as a tile contractor. )
In my next post I will describe how to waterproof your niche so all your hard work doesn’t disintegrate in three months. It is currently 2am and I am out of beer need to get some sleep. Until next time I would like to leave you with a photo that explains one of the biggest reasons I put my time into this blog to help you guys out. If you’re squeamish you may want to look away. Have a great night.
I give you: The Incorrect Way to Build a Niche!
Now that your niche is ready to waterproof let’s do that – you know, since you’re building a shower and they tend to get moist…Part 2 – Waterproofing a niche.