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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John Walls

I want to use 3/4″ thick granite (or Silestone) slabs for my shower–walls and ceiling.The ceiling slab will be 4′ x 4 1/2′ (one single piece). I read the part about your installation of 2′x2′ tiles and how “the size of the tile is rarely a factor”, but mine is an extreme case–just one big thick tile. I have 2×12 ceiling joists on 16″ centers and plan to attach 1/2″ Hardi board as the substrate. I plan to do the ceiling first so that the walls would provide a fail-safe support around the edges (but still leaving the 1/16″ expansion gap from wall-to-ceiling that you recommend).
So, my questions regarding the ceiling slab are:
1) Is this a reasonable thing to do?
2) Any special things I need to do to make this work?
3) Would I get a better (safer) bond between granite and substrate without a membrane?—-some installers are telling me not to use a membrane on the ceiling so as to achieve a better bond

Reply

Roger

Hi John,

1. It’s fine
2. Make sure you have complete coverage, and I mean complete, on the ceiling slab
3. Install it directly to the backer with no membrane.

Reply

Katie

My bathtub/shower surround has a plastered ceiling. My house is over 70 years old. There is no fan in the bathroom. The moisture has caused the shower ceiling to crack. I would like to tile the ceiling, but I do not know what to put on the ceiling before I put the tile on. My concern is that the heavy tile will pull the old cracking plaster ceiling down. What is a solution?

Reply

Roger

Hi Katie,

Removing the plaster ceiling in the shower would be the ideal solution. You can also anchor and screw backerboard up on it. You could also just go right over the plaster. Cracking does not necessarily mean it’s coming loose from the slats, that rarely happens. More like the slats are expanding and contracting and the plaster doesn’t deal well with that. It may be nice and solid, cracked or not.

Reply

nancy

I’m tiling the entire shower with 3/4″ glass mosaic tile,(mesh Back). Do I still apply thin-set to back of tile & press hard? I ‘m concerned the thin set will push thru the grout lines.The tile is only 1/8″ thick.

Reply

Roger

Hi Nancy,

No, with mosaics you do not backbutter.

Reply

Ken

Does it matter if you use cement board or green drywall with the Kerdi membrane? If cement board, should it be the entire wall/ceiling or just the bottom 4′?

Reply

Roger

Hi Ken,

Although opinions vary (not by schluter, by contractors) it makes absolutely no difference at all. When installed correctly your substrate will never see any moisture at all.

Reply

FRED

the ceiling has plaster board and thin coat of plaster. can i put duraboard over this or should i take the plaster off and then burn the old plasterboard which has been in place since 1960 and then place 12 by 12 ceramic tile on this. or use 1/4 inch duraboard on top of plaster.there is wire mesh at the corner where ceiling meet wall.

fred

Reply

Roger

You should be able to use the board over the plaster. I don’t know that I would bond tile right to the plaster.

Reply

Jim

Peter
this may not belong here but wanted you opinion.
We are doing a shower reno 32″ x 60″ utilizing Schlutler Kerdi want to install a seat mounted on the end wall have provided ¾” backing right across the wall to securely fasten to the 3 framing studs utilizing cleats on the end studs and notched into the center stud. The seat will be 24″ wide x 12″ deep ¾” plywood with ½”Kerdi on top, 2 plywood braces down the wall 15″ cut at approx. 60* going 15″ down wall and closed at the front with kerdi board the side braces would be also be covered with Kerdi cleats would be installed inside to provide solid mounting.
What would be your opinion on flexing and should the existing ½” Kerdi be cut away on the wall behind the seat to eliminate the flex in it as the seat its self would be fully tiled?
Would you recommend sealing the seat to the wall with Kerdi fix or does Kerdi band have to be utilized?

Reply

Roger

Hi Jim,

With 3/4″ ply on the top under the kerdi-board you should have no flexing at all on a bench framed like that. You do not need to cut away the wall substrate for it, but you should use kerdi-band to tie the two together. Kerdi-fix will waterproof it but if you get any movement it may compromise that.

Reply

LaNell in Lanai Land

Just a note about HD. Was trying to buy the pack with SCHLUTER / KERDI water mixer and shower head water proof deal. Noooo… They carry rolls of the band and some floor ditra and nothing else. Let me try to quote what I was told…. “HD company decided since KERDI was new and unproven they won’t carry the shower products”.
This is the same chain where I find things for people after the employee has told them ‘we don’t have that.
Yes, these stores are nuts. But nearly EVERY building contractor is worse.
So, I order on line… and am doing my shower with advice from you, Roger, also on line. (still not getting mail notices)
:dance: :dance: :dance: Have a great Father’s Day :dance: :dance: :dance:

Reply

John H.

What do I do about un-even walls?

Reply

Roger

Hi John,

Makem even. :D

Why are your walls uneven, the studs, the substrate, the framing? It depends on how it’s uneven. Not level, not square, not plumb, all of the above? Do you have it down to the studs? (That would be the first step). Once you do that check the studs to see how even/level/plumb they are and take the necessary steps to make them that way. Once that’s done any substrate you place over them will be the same.

Reply

Peter

Roger,

I just found your post on tiling a shower ceiling and read through all the questions, and I came up with 2 more I would like to have answers for.

1. I have a new moisture resistant unpainted sheet of drywall for my shower ceiling. Do I need to paint or prime it before installing tile? Does it need any prep or just burn in thin-set?

2. I am using Versabond thin-set for the bathroom floor tile made of porcelain. (The Home Depot rep. said it would be fine for a bathroom. The porcelain thin-set was for very high traffic areas.) I saw at the Home Depot a thin-set that was manufactured for porcelain tile. Should I use the porcelain specific thin-set for any of the tile being installed in the shower floor, walls, and especially ceiling.

Thanks,

Peter

Reply

Roger

Hi Peter,

1. If you are installing tile on it you should use a proper tile substrate like backerboard or densshield. If you use that drywall you don’t need to do anything else with it, just burn in the thinset.

2. The versabond is fine. The ‘porcelain specific’ thinset is simply medium-bed mortar. Nothing particularly special about it. And it has nothing at all to do with whether it’s in a high traffic area or not. :D HD people drive me nuts sometimes.

Reply

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