How to Install Tile on a Shower Ceiling

by Roger

Finished tiled shower ceilingMichael has recently pointed out (a bit more eloquently than I would have) that I have indeed been a lazy bastard and have not yet written this post. Apparently people actually want to know how to do stuff I do – weird, right? So here you go – making your ceiling shiny.

The main problem people have with tiling a ceiling is getting the tile to stay where they put it. Believe me, I’ve had more than one tile fall on my noggin before I figured out what works. Since I’m relatively certain you aren’t very interested in what doesn’t work I’ll tell you what does, it saves headaches – literally.

You do not need a $75 bag of non-sag thinset to tile a ceiling. Non-sag thinset is basically just thinset that is sticky – it’s great stuff! It’s also expensive stuff. You can accomplish the same with the $15 bag of regular modified thinset.

Before you start hanging head-bashers (ceiling tile) you should, as always, have the substrate properly prepared. They do not always need to be waterproof. It’s a good idea and never hurts, but it isn’t always necessary. The photos of the shower I have here was in a small bathroom with limited ventilation so I waterproofed the ceiling as well.

Burning thinset into the substrate

Photo 1

You should always ensure that the ceiling substrate is screwed onto the joists securely. There is a whole different set of physics at work on a horizontal surface that don’t apply to your vertical wall tile. Basically the entire weight of the full tile is pulling constantly on every inch of your tile. So you want whatever it is attached to securely fastened.

Back of ceiling tile

Photo 2

Thinset burned into the back of the tile

Photo 3

The first thing we’re gonna do is burn your thinset into the ceiling substrate – in this case it’s Kerdi. ‘Burning’ thinset into something simply means using the flat side of your trowel and skim-coating the surface. I use the term a lot and that’s all it means. It fills all the areas of your substrate or tile (whatever you’re burning it into) and ensures that your thinset gets a good grab on whatever it is. Photo 1 shows about half of the ceiling with thinset burned into it.

Thinset burned into the back of the tile

Photo 4

Photo 2 shows the back of one of the tiles we’re installing on the ceiling. See all those white lines? Those are actually raised just the tiniest bit so the back of the tile is not entirely smooth. You need to burn thinset onto the back of the tile. This will fill all those little squares and ensure that you have every area on the back of your tile adhering to thinset. You want to give it every square inch possible to grab onto that ceiling. Photos 3 and 4 show the tile with thinset burned into the back.

Thinset combed onto the back of the tile

Photo 5

Now you want to flip your trowel over and comb thinset onto the back of the tile. “Combing” thinset is another term I use often – it just means using the notched side of your trowel to, well, comb the little lines all in the same direction. That is – wait for it – Photo 5. You are not allowed to give me crap about my lack of photo labeling originality!

Bullseye combed into the back of the tile

Photo 6

Now we get to the secret ingredient of ceiling tile installation – suction! All that thinset you combed into pretty little lines on the back of your tile? Take the end of your trowel and draw a bulls-eye in it like Photo 6 (believe it or not I was totally sober when I drew that ‘circle’). This bulls-eye is what keeps the tile from dropping on your head – because that hurts like hell. You should just take my word for it on that one without testing it for yourself.

Tile stuck to ceiling of shower

Photo 7

Now that you have your bulls-eye on the back of your tile go ahead and press it up onto your ceiling. (Photo 7) You want to push hard! You will actually hear air squishing out from inside that circle of thinset. This creates suction on the back of your tile and helps the tile stay put until the thinset cures. Once that happens it doesn’t matter what shape your thinset is on the back. The suction is needed to keep it there only until the thinset is cured.

Ceiling partially tiled

Photo 8

Continue to do this with the rest of your ceiling tile – every one of them, even the cut tiles. Draw the bulls-eye and stick it up, draw the bulls-eye and stick it up, etc., etc. To get them to stay in the proper spot with correct grout line size and lined up you can actually stick spacers in them (Photo 8 ) and use blue painter’s tape to keep them in the proper spot relative to one another. Just get a piece of tape about 3 -4 inches long and stick half of it to one tile then pull that tile slightly toward the one next to it and stick the tape to the next one. This will keep each tile tightly against the spacer and the tile next to it so your grout lines don’t go all wonky. (Did I just type ‘wonky’??? Jesus…)

You do not need to comb thinset onto the ceiling. I know that sounds counter-intuitive but simply burning the thinset into the substrate will give you plenty of grab onto the tile. You do not need to be concerned with 100% support as you would on a floor – no one will walk on your ceiling except Spiderman – he’s an ass sometimes. But he always pays to replace any ceiling tile he cracks.

Once you get all your tile up there you can still push them upward to get them flat with each other. Just lay your straight-edge across them as you would on a floor and make any adjustments needed. You do not want to pull them down to adjust them! You will lose the suction doing this. You want them really close to flat before you make any final adjustments.

Completed tiled shower ceiling

Photo 9

You can see in Photo 9 (if you click on it) that there are two tiles that have slightly low corners which I still need to push up (they’re in the back row – the left corner of tile two and the entire front edge of tile four). Always push up to make adjustments. If your tile is way out of whack pull it down as you are setting them to add or take away thinset on the back. Do not pull them down once you have them all set and taped.

That’s it. That’s how you get tile to stick on the ceiling with regular thinset. Easy. Okay, it’s easy for me. You may have a bit of a learning curve.

There are two basic designs for your ceiling tile. You can either line up all the grout lines (which requires planning!) or you can install the ceiling tile on-point (diagonally). This is simply a personal preference – whichever you think would look better in your shower is the one you should choose. The photos here have all the grout lines lined up. If you do not install your ceiling tile diagonally please line up your grout lines. If you don’t it looks like crap – that simple.

When installing tile on the ceiling you want to install the tile on the shower walls all the way up to the last row before the ceiling – as I’ve done in these photos. If you are lining up your grout lines rather than installing them diagonally you can then draw lines on your ceiling as guides to where your tiles should be. You don’t see lines in these photos because I use a laser – I’m Star Wars-ey like that. 8)

Once you get all your ceiling tile up then install your last row of wall tile. This will help hold all the tile around the edges as well. Be sure not to cut the last row of wall tile so that it barely fits in there! You need an expansion joint of about 1/16″ and you do not want the pressure of a wall tile that is not short enough pushing one side of the ceiling tile up – the other side will push down – leverage, you know. Cut them about 1/16″ shorter (plus your regular grout line size for the line below it)  than your measurement and use plastic wedges for that gap. And when you are finished – caulk or silicone that space, don’t grout it.

The thinset I’m using is a basic modified thinset – nothing special. It’s Versabond which is commonly sold at Home Depot. You should know this, just to avoid confusion about an issue that is confusing enough anyway. Schluter recommends UNmodified thinset for the Kerdi membrane. If you choose to use modified thinset over the kerdi membrane it will void your warranty! Just be aware of that.

I use modified for two reasons: 1) I prefer modified thinset for everything – period. I give my own warranty to my customers which happens to be longer than Schluter’s warranty anyway. I take that risk and choose to do so – consciously. Should you choose to use modified thinset over kerdi you should be aware of this. And no – it does not create any problems that I have ever been aware of. Doesn’t mean it won’t, just means I have never heard of it. And 2) I’m a rebel like that. 8)

If you have any questions at all please feel free to leave a comment and ask there – I’ll respond when I sober up! The gist of this post was shrunk down into a handy little four paragraph email for TileTips. You can click that link for more information or simply sign up in the box at the top right (under the pretty picture).

This post was brought to life by the suggestion of one of my readers in a comment. I really do read them! So I would like to thank Michael for kicking me in the ass and making me do something productive! My wife thanks you, too. If there is a particular subject you would like to see a post about just let me know – I’m a wealth of useless information.

UPDATE! A lot of people have asked me if their particular size of tile would work using this method – yes, it will. The size of the tile is rarely a factor. Think about it like this: A 2′ x 2′ tile is four square feet. If one square foot of tile weighs five pounds and one 2′ x 2′ tile weighs twenty pounds – it still weighs five pounds / square foot. It weighs the same – it just takes up more area at once.

Here are some photos of some 2′ x 2′ tiles I installed on a ceiling – they weighed 23 lbs. each! And they hung up there just fine. So if you think you’ll have problems with your little 18″ tiles – well, you won’t. :D

 

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Jeremy

Hey Roger,

I’m working with a more linear tile that is about 3″ x 20″. I’m not sure how to put a bulls eye on something as narrow as this. Is that needed?

Thanks!

Jeremy

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Roger

Hi Jeremy,

With tile that narrow you shouldn’t need it at all.

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Jeremy

Awesome, thanks for the reply!

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Dennis Depeder

Just read ur informative piece on ceiling tile. Am doing my first ceiling this coming week and thanks to your clear explanations I am NOT freaked out anymore. Whew! The circles maneuver makes such great sense. The rest of the world should take note of ur benevolence and respond according. Thank YOU! Dennis

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jb

Hey Roger huge fan! Im using epoxy grout(laticrete pro premium) for my huge DIY bath project and was curious if you had any pointers for grouting the ceiling? I saw a gentleman use a cake decorating funnel to apply and thought it could work well, at least help with less clean up(three step cleaning process) If you for see any potential issues/challenges please let me know. I will still caulk the wall/ceiling joint,also tape off the walls and floor for doing ceiling first. I have done much homework on your site and appreciate all the tips, especially keeping it interesting so i dont fall asleep like many other websites i have visited!

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Roger

Hi JB,

The cake baggie may work, but the grout NEEDS to be forced into the grout line to ensure it’s completely full. Ceilings are messy, there’s really no easy way to do them. A very little bit at a time is the best option.

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Tom

Roger I just want to thank you very much for sharing all your knowledge.
Im sure it’s very time consuming taking time away from your spare time to help others. You the best.
By the way my washroom is completed with my 1st tiling job and it looks fantastic, used all your advise and could not have done it without your tips and know how.

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Roger

Thanks Tom, glad I could help. :)

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Paul

Hi Roger, would this technique also work for 12×12 sheets of mosaic tiles. What would you suggest as I can see it being difficult to apply the thinset to the backside of the sheet?

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Roger

Hi Paul,

You don’t do this with mosaics. You just want to comb the ceiling and place them up there. Use a grout float to pound them into the thinset, they’ll stay just fine. Be sure to get them all embedded well, if one or two are left hanging it will pull the entire sheet down.

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Kevin

Great article and have a question[s] on this technique with smaller tiles. Intermediate DIY with tile, done mostly floors and walls. We have a OLD House now (1901) and we turned a bedroom into a much needed full bath. the shower (30″ x 60″) is on a wall that has a 70″ high knee wall then inclines out for 39 inches to an 8′ ceiling. I’ll be using 3 x 6 subway tiles in this area in a horizontal running bond pattern.
Would a diagonal comb work (E.g. [\ \ \ / / /] )or a wavey comb? Any recommendations to spare my noggin???

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Roger

Hi Kevin,

Wavy comb or horizontal comb would work just fine.

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Jonathan

What’s the big difference between modified and unmodified thinset? I’ve applied all my kerdi membrane with unmodified as in the kerdi instructions. I was planning on using it for my tile setting until I read your article. Now I’m unsure

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Roger

Hi Jonathon,

Modified thinsets are modified. :D Not sure why you are unsure about the thinset, if you are using kerdi use unmodified.

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Gord

Thanks for the tips Roger! I’m a diy guy who’s normally a stucco contractor but I dabble in all sorts of things. I googled a fair bit to find a simple answer to doing ceiling tile as I’ve never done it before. Skimming the ceiling and then the bulls-eye technique worked like a damn! I was surprised they didn’t move at all and I’m using a 12″ by 24″ tile so it’s fairly big. I assume if you don’t skim it (or burn it as you say), you’ll end up ‘freeze’ drying it and it’s bound to fall off?

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Roger

Hey Gord,

Not necessarily, it does lead to a much better bond, though.

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Tom

No I was serious with my question about the bullseye setting material on a 12×24 tile.
I what to be sure the tile does not fall. I need to get that suction till the thin set dries.
Mary for your information I am in the construction business and I am damn good at what I do, but tile work is not one of them. This is my 1st time doing tiles and I want to get it perfect. I’m asumming Mary you to are a novice at this too.

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Roger

Mary was kidding Tom, this is a very snarky website. We try to keep things light. :D Tile is stressful enough anyway, no?

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Mary

Tom, I was indeed being snarky (my fault for not inserting one of these guys: ;) ) . I am, in fact, as novice at tile as I am at snark!
I admit it take some cojones to try and stick 12×24 tile to a ceiling. If your goal is perfection, I would hire you in a heartbeat!
PS: I think I like the “two circle” method best.

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joseph

first time reader,very pleased to have come across your page,especially in comparison to others i may have inquiry of.its clear,complete and concise.a real treat for the lame such as myself who take considerable pride in all work i perform for myself or others.Safety,Quality and durability,oh and of course satisfaction are my priorities.this pages’ information meets those prerequisites.i even appreciate the sarcastic construction (worker) speak,healthy humor guaranteed to draw a smile.thanks again.

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Mary

Really Tom? Why don’t you try making a figure 8?…gheesh!

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Roger

That works too. :D

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Tom

Hi Roger
when using a 12 x 24 tile on the ceiling, how would you do the bullseye?
would you make an oval shape or 2 12″ x 12″ bullseyes on the tile?

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Roger

Hi Tom,

I do two bullseyes.

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John Walls

Roger,
Just to be clear,
—You use straight combed lines of thinset on floors to avoid air pockets and the resulting hollow spots.
—-You use a circular (bulls eye) pattern for thinset on ceilings so that the resulting air pockets act as a suction device. And since you are unlikely to walk on the ceiling, the hollow spots don’t matter.

Is that right?

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Roger

Yes

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Dr. Steve

Wow! Thanks Roger that is exactly what I was looking for… I would prefer to read and look at pics rather than watch on YouTube. I can stop and go over sections again and again! I really feel confident that I can do a great job of my shower now without having a tile drop on my head, etc.

Great teaching tips! Much appreciated!

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Lisa

Hello, I was asked to find out what product you use to waterproof the substrate. Where can I find the product? Then how long do you need wait before putting tile in?

Thank you
Lisa

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Roger

Hi Lisa,

What substrate might you be talking about? On shower floors I use kerdi (google it for your local distributor). Once it’s installed you can tile right away. If it’s shower walls I use kerdi-board, you can also tile that right away. There are hundreds of different products out there, mine are the priciest. They all work when installed correctly and the amount of time before you can tile depends on the product you use.

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Dave

After finishing my pan what’s the best way to cut and fit the membrain around my shower dam

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Roger

Hi Dave,

Just like described under the ‘how to cut a hole for your drain in the liner’ portion of this article. :D

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James

Why is that u would not grout the top tile that meets the ceiling tile? Wouldn’t this look funny with just silicone? And what’s the point? Just for bondage? Or is there some other reason? I’ve tiles dozens of bathrooms but looking for some advice on this new one where the tiles on the ceiling are about 20 PDs each. Rather than thinset would you risk tile glue or is that a big no no? And as far as the walls..do you also use thinset or glue? Thanks :rockon:

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Roger

Hi James,

I ALWAYS use thinset. Glues won’t last in a shower, they tend to emulsify with exposure to water and vapor. The silicone will look just fine, get a silicone that matches the color of your grout (all grout manufacturers make them). The reason is so it doesn’t crack. The change of plane at the ceiling where it meets the wall (as well as all changes of plane in your shower) will expand and contract in different directions. If you use grout it will crack, silicone can compensate for that movement.

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Sandra

Hey Roger this will be my first time doing ceiling tile and I will be using 3 x 5 subway on walls and ceiling do you recommend the bulls eye on those or the blue tape. Not sure if just the burning will be enough what do you think thanks for the help

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Roger

Hi Sandra,

With tile that size you don’t really need the bullseye. Just comb thinset onto your ceiling, backbutter the tile and embed it in there by wiggling it back and forth. It will stay.

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Pascal

Hi, really great tips. Thanks

For my ceiling, I’ll put 6×6 tiles. Do I need to bullseye the back of the tiles? Up to what tile size is it necessary?

Thanks

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Roger

Hi Pascal,

You normally do not need to do this unless your tile is about 12″ or larger.

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Robert

Can you install ceramic tile over 1/2″ drywall on a shower ceiling that has been painted before without installing 1/4″ cement board?

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Roger

Hi Robert,

Yes. I would scuff up the paint a bit to ensure a good bond with the thinset, but yes, you can do that.

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Donna

I see you are talking about grout lines. I am stacking the walls so do I need to grout or can I continue to the ceiling without grout or is that required?

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Roger

Hi Donna,

Where am I talking about grout lines??? You need to grout all your tile. You can grout it all once you’re done installing it all. If you are stacking walls without grout lines (that’s not what ‘stacking’ means) then you are doing something already that you shouldn’t be doing. If I have completely missed what you mean, you’ll need to be a bit more specific. :D

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Jerry

Hello Roger, you are a plethora of knowledge. One question on picture # 7 you show the burning no combing. At the bottom of the page one of the 8 photo’s CIMG 4941 shows burning and what looks like you combed it too.
If I’m burning the substrate do I have to comb it or is it a choice?
Is there a time limit on how long or how much to burn before I start to tile.
Thank you for your expertize.

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Roger

Hi Jerry,

You don’t have to comb the ceiling at all. You can just burn it in. I chose to do that with the 2×2 tiles mainly because tiles that large require more thinset (cupping of the tile) to achieve full coverage, I wanted to ensure the entire thing was bonded. And I didn’t want a damn 20lb. tile crashing down on my head. :) Burning the ceiling and combing the tile with a bulls-eye is normally sufficient. No time limits, you can put them up there while the ceiling is fresh, or after it cures.

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Matt

Hey Roger,

I’m on my second shower now and I’ve gotten an amazing amount of knowledge and advice from your website. My first shower included turning a 3×3 faux marble slab EVERYTHING improperly built by the original builder of the house…uneven studs, uneven curb made from wood, regular sheet rock, no vapor barrier, etc, into a 3×5 with a shower panel system. That included making my own mud bed as well which I also learned how to do from this website. (what a learning experience that was)

So the first thing I want to say is….THANKS!

Now onto my ceiling tile question:

Say I decided to change my mind and tile the ceiling when I was done tiling the walls up to the ceiling. Is there anything wrong with running the ceiling tiles up to the wall tile as long as I still leave a 1/16″ gap and then caulking with silicone?

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Roger

Hi Matt,

You’re welcome! :D Yes, you can run the ceiling tile up to the wall tile with the same 1/16″ gap.

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Matt

Hey thanks for the quick reply! When I’m done with this bathroom I’ll put some picture in the “readers projects” section. Thanks again for all the great info on here!

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