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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  • Art

    Excellent post -thank-you!
    planing to Tile my first shower -ceiling walls and floor.
    Question -if you have ever used kerdie shower pan -ie foam. I plan to put 2″ x 2″ tile on top of the kirdie membrane on top of the kerdie foam base. My concern is that the foam does not seem like a solid enough base. I am afraid walking on the small tiles will begin to break through the mortar and I will have loose tiles. Are there any tricks to prevent this from happening? Or should I be concerned about it? Also should I tile the floor, then the walls up to second last row, ceiling and then final row on walls?

    • Roger

      Hi Art,

      No, you do not need to be concerned about it. Just make sure the tile is properly installed and it will be fine. I’ve seen someone drive a FORKLIFT over a tiled pan and it didn’t crack anything – seriously. Yes, up to the second to last row, then the ceiling, then the last row.

    • David

      I just put in 5/8″ x 2 1/2″ mosaic directly on a sloped Kerdi shower pan. Yes, the Kerdi foam pan feels soft, but the tiled floor feels solid as a rock after grout. I was careful spreading the mortar very evenly with notched trowel since every little piece of tile needs to get the right amount.

  • wade allen

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this it was so helpful. I building a new bathroom and have been reading a lot of article and video online ! Yours was one of the most informative ! God Bless you, your family, and your business!
    Thanks
    Wade

  • Dennis Warr

    When you burn the mortar, do you need to let it dry before you do the combing? This helped a lot. Thanks.

    • Roger

      Hi Dennis,

      No, you do it at the same time you set the tile.

  • Tim Sullivan

    Read this a few years ago and it helped me do a great ceiling and was thrilled to find it again as I do another. Very refreshing to get advice from someone with a sense of humor that doesn’t take this stuff too seriously.

    thanks for your help

  • Charles

    Hi I’m trying to install accent style like Tile you know the little squares that come on mesh on a shower ceiling whats the best way to spread my thin set so I won’t have alot of excess coming threw and having to scrape.

    • Roger

      Hi Charles,

      Once you comb the thinset onto the ceiling, flip the trowel over and knock down the ridges with the flat side. This way you’ll have a solid bed of thinset rather than a mountain range of thinset. You could also just burn the thinset onto the ceiling and backbutter your mosaics instead.

  • Pam

    We have existing tile on our shower ceiling. Can we install new tile directly to that tile? I know you can do that with floors and walls, if you ensure the existing tile surface is level and you roughen the surface with a sander. But I wonder if it would be too heavy for a ceiling.

    • Roger

      Hi Pam,

      You can, but I’ve never known anyone who has – and I certainly wouldn’t. You would be relying on the bond of the existing tile. That may be fine for a floor or vertical installation, but I would never trust it for a hanging application. The bond would essentially be supporting double the weight, no one knows if it will actually do that (until it falls on your head…).

      • Pam

        Actually never mind my last question,I see that you’ve said 1/2″ works! I am going to install goboard in my shower. I have heard that you don’t have to waterproof above the shower head, so I plan to switch to fiberock a few inches above the showerhead, since its cheaper. But, my shower is not very open. It is 9′ tall, and fully framed in… the only opening is the 27×80″ entrance, which will have a 27×68″ frameless glass door. It is a 48×48″ space if that matters. Do you recommend that I seal all the fiberock seams and fasteners with cementboard tape and Redguard? If so, would I have to use thinset to embed the tape in, or just stick the tape to the fiberock and paint Redguard on it? I do plan to follow mfr instructions on using sealant to waterproof the goboard seams and fasteners. Thank you!

        • Roger

          Oh. :) I get the questions in the order they were asked.

          Using redgard over seams and penetrations in fiberock will do nothing – the face of the board is not waterproof like the goboard is. I would strongly suggest, since your shower is ‘enclosed’ to a large degree, that you fully redgard all the fiberock or use goboard there as well. While the water won’t technically be an issue, trapped steam will and it can get through unsealed fiberock.

          • Pam

            Great info, thank you!

    • Pam

      Thank you for the answer! Removing those tiles really tore up the plain drywall that they were adhered to. What thickness backerboard should we use on the ceiling? Is 1/2″ fiberock strong enough?

      • Roger

        Hi Pam,

        Yes, provided your rafters are 12″ apart. Yes, the fiberock is plenty strong.

  • al

    i am using 3×6 tile on the ceiling of a shower.
    what do i use for the backer durock or drywall?
    what is the rafter spacing on durock 12″ or 16″

    • Roger

      Hi Al,

      I would use backer, but drywall works also. You should have 12″ oc for backer (for drywall as well if you are hanging tile).

  • jesse rhodes

    Hey floor elf. I’ve been in the construction field for 15years, I’m down in Florida and I’m currently working on getting my general contractor license. I’m a carpenter by trade but have fallen in love with tiling lately. the more I learn about tiling the more I realize how much I don’t know. I greatly admire you and your fellow tradesman, and greatly appreciate your real world views and knowledge. Thank you for sharing a lifetime of experience, as a young guy getting into the field I can’t tell you how valuable your shared experiences are to myself and I’m sure others, keep up the great work sir.

  • Matt Birrell

    What if ive tiled the wall up to tge ceiling already ??

    • Laurie

      Hey Matt,
      In case you haven’t done this yet here is my DIY opinion. Once you caulk where the two come together you will be hard pressed to tell which one went up first. Someone would have to stand in your shower and stare at it. A pro might know if they came in to look, but anyone else is just going to see a nice tiled ceiling. Go for it!!

      • Roger

        Laurie is right, you know. :D

  • Laurie

    THANK YOU!! I have been reading every tip and trick on the website and even bought a few downloads. We just tiled the ceiling to our walk in shower yesterday and not a single tile fell! We followed your method of the bulls eye on 12X12 porcelain tiles with 6X24 tile border around the edges. On the 6X24’s I actually did 2 bulls eyes. Thank you for all the expert advice (and comedy!)

  • David

    Do you have any advice on installing this segmented small tile on a bath ceiling? Since the “bulls-eye” and suction won’t work, I think I’ll need a full support structure holding it up overnight. Also, should solid cement hardibacker be burned ahead, or just if Kerdi? Thanks, David

    • Roger

      Hi David,

      Backbutter your mosaics, burn the thinset into the ceiling (backer or kerdi), then place them up there and pound them in with a grout float. They won’t go anywhere.

      • David

        I finished the ceiling with the mosaics. Since the 12×12 grids are so floppy, I made a 12″x12″ padded platform with handles to press them in place. The mosaics have to be very evenly buttered, plus I found I needed a little extra on the long ends sticking out as that is where any falling starts. A fresh pot with slightly stiffer mortar worked better than the opposite. It is hard to get enough force up on a full square-foot, so I had to come back with a rigid 2″ level pressing into them. Also, when I was doing just a few tiles instead of the 12×12 grid (like around the fan), they would not stay up, so built a little support. Finally, I did not tell you, but my ceiling was on a 1:6 angle, and unless I added some spacers, the mosaics slid just a bit down. I agree with you that they would not have stuck without burning the backer, and do it evenly. Prepare for tired arms and a little ball of mortar dropping in your eye.