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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Brad

Roger,

We are attempting to tile the ceiling with 1.5″ square mosaic tiles. The mosaic tile is in 12″ x 12″ sheets. I have struggled in the past with back buttering mosaic tiles, primarily because the thinset is pushed through the mosaic grout lines. Do you have any suggestions/recommendations for installing mosaic tile on ceilings?

Thank you.

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Andy

Roger,

WONDERFUL advice, especially the cost! I read through your PDF about shower waterproofing, but am left with a question. As for my experience level, I’d be somewhere in the vicinity of “I own power tools, I can build a coffee table in my sleep, and cherry wood trembles at the sight of me” and my price/budget is “If my wife is happy with the result, the $ was worth it.”

You have a section on “Faced topical membrane.” Is this where Schluter’s Kerdi-Board would come in? I saw other Schluter products mentioned but not this one.

So here’s my question. You say waterproofing can be done, in most cases, with silicone on the joints, whereas Schluter has a whole method involving strips of kerdi-whatever and mortar, fairly similar to mudding/taping drywall joints. Obviously a few tubes of silicone would be significantly cheaper. Which method would you recommend for kerdi-board? And yes, I promise not to sue you if I do something wrong.

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Connie

How thick is the skim coat on the ceiling? Putting up marble this time. Really wish I had this trick for the slate in other shower I used 2×4’s to hold them up!

I dont want to have a lot of excess mortar coming out so I’m gonna do a pretty thin skim coat. Using 1/4th 3/8’s trowel for 12×12 marble tile. Doing first row tonight. This should also work on sides or will I be using a nail again to hold them from slipping down wall? Perhaps it’s just adjusting my thinset?

Good blog ! Thanks.

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Bob

Connie, it may be too late, but the skim coat is done with the flat (not notched) edge of the trowel. Think thin like a coat of paint (almost). You’re just trying to set up a nice, even bond between the mortar and the backer board. (Then, when you put up the tiles with their coat of mortar, all the mortar will form a continuous layer that will eventually harden into one solid layer of concrete.) When you do the circle of thinset on the backsides of the tiles, I’d recommend that you use the notch size that the thinset manufacturer recommends for your tile size (12×12, in this case). I’m guessing that it will be 3/8 x 3/8. Also, I’d make the mortar a bit on the thick side (not excessively thick, just a bit more than usual). If you do this and follow the rest of Roger’s instructions carefully, you should have no problems with excess mortar.

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Connie

Ceiling is perfect – no support needed using bullseye this time.. Having to still use nails on wall to keep tiles from sliding – know of any tricks for heavy tile like marble to keep them from sliding down the wall ? I start w ceiling and work my way down the wall – using finishing nails to keep my tiles from sliding and can only do 1 row at a time. Ceilings conquered walls suck.

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Bob

Gravity is persistent; there’s not much you can do to keep tiles from sliding down walls short of resting them on something. On my most recent project, I used Laticrete 254 Platinum mortar, which is pretty aggressive stuff — but tiles will even slide on that. I’ve always used the tried-and-true bottom-up approach. Nails hold the bottom row, then put spacers between subsequent rows. (If you want really thin grout lines, you can use nails for your spacers, too; you don’t have to drive them into the wall — except to hold the bottom row up until the mortar sets, of course.) Hope this helps/reassures…

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Rick Tidwell

Roger,
Hello, we are installing a 4′ x 8′ walk in shower with no door.
1. I would like to make the wall with the opening two foot shorter than ceiling height? That wall would have no support at the top, so I’m concerned that the wall would have some movement in it, is there any tricks to make that wall strong enough to use tile?
2. If I do have to run this wall all the way up to the ceiling, enclosing the whole shower do I have to tile the ceiling or can I drywall it? My concern is the moisture, there would be a ceiling fan?

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Shelly

Thank you for your informative lesson! I can tell also, that you’d be a very humorous instructor in person. I thought your comments were funny.
My boyfriend and I are updating his house to put it on the market. His bathrooms have an overload of outdated tile, however they are in great shape…none cracked or loose.
My question for tiling over tile is what can I do with all of those annoying soap dishes, towel racks, toothbrush holders etc that the tile addicts of the 60’s put all over the walls? I would like to get rid of them.
His walls are plaster, which is why I wanted to tile over tile, I am afraid to remove the tile….

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Mike B

Roger,
I read where you indicate (type) where its best to line up ceiling joints with the wall joints. However, the wife selected 9″ x 18 inch tile, which is run vertically on the walls, making it difficult to line up the joints. (Side walls vs rear and front wall joints) Thus, we were thinking of aligning the joints of the front and rear walls; as if the tile was continuous. However, I do get the issue of the side walls, though!! I guess I could cut the tile into 9 inch squares….thoughts??
Thanks…

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Jessica

How does the swirl pattern work with 12×12 sheets of 1″ hex tile? Doesn’t the burning cause too much thin set to get into the spaces between the tile? And I’m also concerned that while drawing the circle the small tiles would shift or pull off the mesh. Any suggestions?

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Bob

Jessica, the way Roger’s “swirling” method works is this: the rings of mortar formed by the trowel notches create a seal (several seals, actually) between the tile and the ceiling. If you try this with small tiles held together by a mesh fabric, the sealing effect will be lost because air will travel easily through the mesh. In your situation, I think the most important thing would be to use a drier (i.e., thicker) mortar mix. For walls and floors, a peanut-butter-like consistency is usually recommended; I’d add a bit more powder to the mix for your tiles to make it less likely to sag while it’s drying.

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Jeff Snegosky

Quick question. I’m tiling a shower ceiling that continues to the rest of the room. Do you recommend using 5/8″ Sheetrock on the whole room and tiling on that in the shower (there is no header and it is a slanted ceiling so the steam will go out of the shower area) or 1/2″ Sheetrock on the ceiling of the rest of the room and 1/2″ backer in the shower? I can’t do 5/8″ in the rest of the room and 1/2″ in the shower because it won’t match up when done right??? Thanks!

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Bob

I’m not an expert, but I’ve read a LOT on the subject over the past six months in preparation of remodeling my bathroom (only the third time in my life I’ve tiled a bathroom). As for sheetrock in the shower, I’d avoid it. You CAN get away with it if you do a thorough job of waterproofing it with a waterproofing membrane, but it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette -most of the time it will probably be okay, but what if your house shifts just a bit and that seal is compromised? Bad news. I’d highly recommend using a backer board made to withstand getting soaked. I used Hardie Backer 500 – but plenty of other people like other brands better. (Others are easier to cut, but I like Hardie because it doesn’t crumble and clean edges can be had – but that’s probably just the persnickety carpenter in me.)

A word of caution: Hardie doesn’t come in 1/2″; they have it in 1/4″ and 0.42″ I’m not sure about the other backer boards, but check for an uneven transition at the shower between the drywall and the backer, before setting tile. I’d recommend tiling over the *thicker* material first. Then, when you tile over the thinner material, you can always lay the thinset (mortar) on a bit thicker to bring the tile faces level with what you laid before. (If you tile over the thinner backer first and use just enough thinset to do the job (with the recommended notched trowel), you might later find you can’t spread the thinset *thin* enough under the rest of tiles (over the thicker material) to keep them even with your first tiles. (Maybe you can spread the mortar thin enough to make everything even, but will you then have enough of it to hold the tiles in place?)

My 2¢ worth: use the heavier drywall outside the shower and the thicker cementitious backer board inside the shower. You will probably be happier with the more solid end result. In order to minimize the transition between the materials, you can nail, glue, and/or staple wood lath (sold in inexpensive bundles) to the studs under the thinner material and you will end up with little to no difference to to fix with extra mortar later.

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Bob

Thank you, Roger, thank you. This post was very instructive and entertaining, as always. I think I’ll go have a beer, now and get to work on tiling my shower ceiling tomorrow or the next day. Seriously, though, this will have been very helpful, I’m sure.

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Bob

Just a belated follow-up… This worked *great*. I had 10″x10″ tiles (10×13’s cut down to match the width of the tiles coming up the walls). The suction created by this method was such that i had a hard time pulling the tiles off just seconds after pushing them up! (I had to adjust the amount of thinset a couple of times to keep the ceiling even.) Anyone on the fence about this needs to just try it. Thank you very much, Roger.

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John Boyer

I’m using sheet tile with 2″x2″ tiles. Do I use this same process?

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Roger

Hi John,

I have no idea what ‘sheet tile’ may be.

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ERIC

You can use 3/8 thick tiles on a ceiling without a problem? On top of 1/2″ hardie backer board? I have a sofit in the shower in questioning if a should tile or just paint over hardie board?

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Roger

Hi Eric,

Yes you can.

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J

Roger, wondering if MAPEI Type 1 tile adhesive will work. I was given a bunch of it. Thanks

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Roger

Hi J,

Yes, it’ll work. But it may not last.

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Roger Alexander

Hi Roger. This is also Roger. 2 questions.
1) When I “burn” the thinset on the ceiling, do I let it dry before proceeding?
2) I have 9 by 12 tiles. I cant get grout lines to line up in both directions (or can I?)

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Roger

Hi Roger,

1. No.
2. No, you can not. But you can install the ceiling diagonally so that no one will know that. :D

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Bob

I have 10×13’s and lined up the grout lines by cutting the ceiling tiles down to 10×10 with a tile (wet) saw. (A snap cutter makes a sharper edge with some unevenness away from the outer (finished) surface, which would require more work to get your spacing right later. Those little spacers won’t work right if your cut isn’t flat. You want a nice, flat cut throughout the thickness of the tile.) Then I rounded off the cut on the finished side of the tile by sanding it a bit. (I used a table-top belt sander, which made this task almost too easy.) (Here, too, if you used a snap cutter instead of a tile saw, you’ll probably see some waviness in the edge as you sand it down. I learned this the hard way. :bonk: Best to avoid that and just use the tile saw to start with.) Finished result looks good.

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Bob

Great site Roger. I am looking at the WEDI system and will be tiling the ceiling. Any comments on this?

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Roger

Hi Bob,

Wedi is a very good system. Nothing about the tile installation itself would be any different.

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John

Hey,
Thanks for the advise on tiling a ceiling. Your process worked great. No tiles falling on my head.

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Dan

Roger, you have said to use 1/2″ backing for the ceiling but what is the material that you are using? Is 1/2″ HardyBacker screwed to the ceiling trusses enough? or OSB then HardyBacker? or just 1/2″ OSB?

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Roger

Hi Dan,

That is 1/2″ hardi with the kerdi membrane over it.

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"G"

Roger,

You must get tired of reading this, but thanks for such a great site! I am on my 3rd bathroom remodel since I first found your site, and constantly review the various manuals I have purchased.

I am about ready to tile the ceiling of a shower, with travertine. The bottom 2/3’s of the walls are scheduled to be in a running bond pattern, with the top 1/3 to be in a diagonal pattern. My initial thought was to line up the ceiling with the top 1/3, and keep it in the diagonal pattern, but after looking at several photos on line, more often than not I saw the ceiling with a “standard” layout (?? -I think its called that, all four corners touch). So all the showers I looked at had all of the three basic tile layouts going on which seems kind of busy to me, but maybe I am missing something.

PLEASE share your expertise so I know which way to proceed.

Thank you in advance, it is appreciated.

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Roger

Hi G,

I prefer having the ceiling line up with whatever is at the top of the walls. It’s normally done the other way because it’s much easier. It’s really just personal preference – whichever you think looks correct is the correct way.

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Ernie

Is there any difference on a sloped 9/12 ceiling/ I am assuming not.
Thank-you,

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Roger

Hi Ernie,

Nope, all the same.

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Joe

I have read separate forum indicating a bead of thinset around the edge of ceiling tile. What is that?

Also, I am using 6X24 tiles. How do you do the bullseye on that?

And what size notch trowel for the combing on a ceiling?

Thanks!

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Roger

Hi Joe,

That also creates the suction I reference, but it normally doesn’t allow full coverage as the bullseye does. Do four smaller bullseyes on those tiles. Same size trowel you use for the rest of it.

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Larry

Thank you for your brilliant site. Tip and techniques found here were a life saver. Can’t tell you how many people told me the tile would just fall off the ceiling (it didn’t). 12X24 tiles and they were not a problem.

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Eric

Thank you so much for your site- I am building a new home and have been charged with tiling a walk in shower. The shower has been constructed and now I am told to “Go to work!”-lol. Can you tell me the best substrate to use or process to go from stud to ready for tiling? Looks like the ceiling is in the plans also.
Thanks!

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Roger

Hi Eric,

Start with this: Shower waterproofing guide

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Ken

Hi: I know you said use 1/2 backer on thhe ceiling, but what if you already have two courses of sheetrock up there?? That’s what I have and I planned on using 1/4 backerboard over the existing sheetrock (fastened with many backer screws). I didn’t want to use the 1/2 backer because I was worried about the weight. Would the 1/4 suffice in this case? If not, why?

Thanks in advance.

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Roger

Hi Ken,

No, it won’t suffice. The problem is the weight of the tile pulling on the 1/4″ board and the screws not having a great deal of board to hold on to. It simply won’t support it well.

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Ken

Thanks for the quick reply. I forgot to mention that in addition to the screws I would be using thin set to stick the 1/4 inch to the existing ceiling. I figured the screws and thin set would keep the 1/4 inch up there. I’m really concerned that there is more of a chance of the weight bringing the whole thing down if I used that heavy 1/2 inch board.

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Roger

1/2″ is a better, safer option. Really.

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Ken

I took your advice. I ripped down the entire ceiling, ripped out the old thin strapping and replaced it with numerous courses of 1×4’s fastened to the joists with long, course screws. I’ll mount 1/2 cement board to the strapping. Lots of work, but with all that weight, better safe than sorry. Thanks.

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Ken

Hi Roger – 2nd reply – I also forgot to mention that my plan is to tile the entire bathroom ceiling, not just the shower area. The entire ceiling is 9 x 5 for 45 sq feet.

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James

Hello, if I am tiling to the ceiling but stopping there (the ceiling will be painted), do I fiberglass tape/thinset the joint first where the wall meets the ceiling?

I was thinking of just filling the joint with silicone, then I’ll tile up to the ceiling and then apply caulk to the top of the tile where it hits the ceiling.

I’m using denshield backboard and the ceiling is greenboard. Thanks! I cant find the answer to this anywhere. This is for a tub surround.

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Roger

Hi James,

You can do either. I normally just silicone it.

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Tim

Hi,
Thanks for the good information…If you have answered this post I apologize…My question is; Can you use 1/4″ hardibacker for the ceiling substrate or does it need to be thicker (thus more weight on the ceiling/)

Thanks-Tim

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Roger

Hi Tim,

It needs to be 1/2″

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Melissa

Follow up, I’m using 3×6 in subway tile. I was hoping the simplemat would work (despite the label saying not for ceilings).

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