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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Annette

Dear Elf,
You are an angel!! I am in the process of having my bathroom remodeled and my contractor is giving me fits about tiling my curved shower ceiling. I had the tub removed and the area made into a shower instead. The curved ceiling is charming but I’m tired of priming and painting, only to have it pucker and peel off!! I want the entire area tiled, so I am going to have him use glass mosaic tiles on the ceiling which are also the trim inserts in the wall tiles. Your column has given me the courage to get what I want and not accept any more excuses from him that mosaics sheets won’t fit the curves. He may have to do some cutting on the face of the curve but that’s okay with me. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any kind of bullnose to finish off the face but my new bathroom will be lovely! Thank you for so much really good advice!!

Reply

Blayne

Based on the comments, If I am laying 12×12 sheets of 2×2 mosaic tile on my shower ceiling I…
#1) want to use regular modified versabond thinset from HomeDepot.
#2) apply the thinset as normal, comb it onto the ceiling only rather than burning it on the ceiling and then combing the bullseye on the back of the tile.
#3) make sure to press each 2×2 tile firmly into the thinset to make sure each individual tile is set.
Question – Is there anything else that you can think of that I would need to keep in mind or watch out for from your years of experience?

Question about the shower wall-
I have searched your site for a how to or a step by step process for laying tile on a shower wall and cannot find anything. Do you have anything written up explaining your method for tiling a shower wall? If not can you give me a quick listing of the steps you take for the shower walls?
Do I need to use regular thinset or a no-sag thinset for the wall? I am using 12×12 porcelain tiles. Should I start one row up from the bottom? Let it cure before continueing? Do one row at a time letting each cure? do the ceiling first and floor last?
Sorry for the barrage of questions, just throwing some of my concerns out there.

Thank you in advance for your help. Your site has helped me out so much!

Reply

Roger

Hi Blayne,

Nothing else at all. As long as you have every mosaic piece embedded it won’t go anywhere. Shower walls are just beginning at the bottom (I normally begin with the bottom row and work up, but you can do the second row first if you have an uneven base) and installing one row at a time up one wall at a time. I normally do the back wall first, then the sides. I normally do within one row of the ceiling if it’s getting tile, then the ceiling, then the last row. I always do the floor first.

Reply

Adam

Hi roger, nice post.
I’m about to start a full bathroom build/ Reno. I would like to know the difference in cost and difficulty between a regular shower with tiled ceiling and a steam shower. Both using a premade shower pan and bench from simple shower solutions. Would it be best to use kerdi membrane or the other “paint on” membranes. I was thinking that I could build it to steam shower spec and add a steam generator later. What do you think?

Reply

Roger

Hi Adam,

Cost-wise between the two for DIY is about the same, time is what it different, it’ll take a LOT more time to build to steam shower specs. Difficulty is also much more with steam specs. For steam specs kerdi would be better. I have no idea whether you could add a steam generator at a later time or not.

Reply

Garrett

When you “burn” the thinset onto the tile, do you allow it to dry before applying the thinset used to set the tile?
thank you!

Reply

Roger

Hi Garrett,

Nope, do it right away.

Reply

Bob

Hi Elf,
Great info on ceiling tile in shower. I’m about to start with 12x24x3/8″ porcelain and have been worried about the process. My tile guy has done a ton of tile work, but never a ceiling.
One comment re. flex. You mentioned you don’t need to worry about this on ceiling (except with Spiderman), however, if your shower ceiling is actually floor joists from floor above, you will likely have some flex. The same issue with a roof rafter (my case in central WA. state) in an area where you get wild temperature swings from season to season, including fairly heavy snow load at times.
I’m thinking I should tear off the drywall attached to the bottom of the rafters (24″OC) and add another rafter at 12″, then apply 1/2″ hardie backer board screwed directly to the bottom of the rafters. Does that sound right?
Thanks for all your good work.
Bob

Reply

Roger

Hey Bob,

Yes, definitely won’t hurt at all.

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Linda

Questions that I can’t find a definitive answer to, dear Floor Elf:

I want to install stacked travertine on a powder room wall. Can I use the Schluter membrane right over the drywall, or do I need backerboard? Also, do I need to grout the stacked travertine? Thank ya!!

Reply

Roger

Hi Linda,

Yes, you can install kerdi right over the drywall. Yes, you need grout.

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Linda

Thanks much!

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Celeste

Hi Elf, I’m not sure why I haven’t received an answer for my question. I don’t know if you thought it wasn’t worth replying to or what. The area that I plan to tile is about 33″ by 33″. It’s not very big but I have decided that it would be best to tile after installing backerboard because of weight purposes. I like your website and I think it is very insightful, I just think that I will keep my questions to my self or ask someone that can give me immediate feedback.
C

Reply

Bruce (real name)

Usually the best way to get free and useful advice is not to be impatient and nasty to the person from whom you are asking a favor. Just a thought.

Reply

Roger

+1. :)

Reply

Linda

Ditto.

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Roger

Hi Celeste,

It could be because I answer approximately 75 questions a day, work a full time job, do proposals and look at jobs after hours and raise three kids – your question may have just been missed or overlooked as I was doing all this. I usually miss one or two a year. :) I’ll see if I can find your question, I’ll answer it in a minute.

Reply

Judy

Dear Floor Elf. You are adorable. Anyway, my question is: I have sheet mosaics going on slanted shower wall. The to row will be cut at a slant. Does the cut edge come up to meet ceiling tiles? Meaning cut edge will show on back wall?

Reply

Roger

Hi Judy,

You can install it either way, up to the ceiling tile or the ceiling tile up to it.

Reply

Celeste Reynolds

Hi, my shower walls were tiled years ago and now I want to tile the ceiling. The wall tiles are at an angle so, should I also make the ceiling at an angle? Also, can I tile the substrate first, leaving tiles out for installation, then screwing it up to the ceiling?

Reply

Roger

Hi Celeste,

The only reason to install the ceiling at an angle also would be to line up the grout lines. If you can not cut them so the grout lines line up on all three walls they usually look bad. It is normally better to install the ceiling straight in that case. It looks just fine.

I suppose you could install the tile to the substrate first, but if you flex the backer while you’re installing it the tiles may pop off of it, which defeats the purpose.

Reply

Mike Stuller

Great article Elf, I’ve always wanted to tile my fiberglass tub shower. Everyone thought that I was crazy, but I know it will look great if I’m successful. My question is: My walls & ceiling are plaster. Do I still need to install a substrate, or is this surface acceptable? If it is OK, what do I need to do to prepare the surface? Do I still need to burn in the plaster?

Thanks

Reply

Roger

Hi Mike,

You still need to waterproof it with either a liquid membrane like redgard or a sheet membrane like kerdi, but yes, you can use that as your substrate.

Reply

Glen Huffman

Hi Roger – 2 questions. I’m using Hardi Backerboard in the shower area. How important is it to either cover all the Backerboard with Kerdi? Or can I just use Kerdi band over all joints? Secondly, on the ceiling if I understand you correctly, I can let the thin set that I have “burned” in fully set up before installing tile. Is that ok or would you “burn” in a small area and immediately place the tiles? Many thanks roger. Glen

Reply

Roger

Hi Glen,

You need to cover the entire board with kerdi. Backerboard is not waterproof. You can let the thinset cure on the ceiling. I do it as I’m installing it, but either works fine.

Reply

Ian

Have you had or heard of this?

We moved into a new home back in August. Our ensuite shower had a tiled ceiling that dropped. They used resilient track but it still dropped. We had extreme cold weather this year & from what our builder told us the trusts moved more than normal due to the extreme cold.

We really like & want to keep the tiled ceiling however the builder is not recommending it nor will he warranty it if we choose to have them re-do it.

My question is….I get that the trustees move with the extreme temperatures but I now wonder if we have them install the tile again say in late March early April, will the wood( trustees) have enough time to cure to prevent this from happening again.

Thoughts/ suggestions?

Reply

Roger

Hi Ian,

I haven’t had it happen, I’ve heard of it. Not necessarily due to ‘seasonal reasons’, but only because the ceiling was not framed properly to support or suspend a tile installation. Properly framed and installed with a proper substrate a tiled ceiling is just fine. Sounds like a BS excuse to me. Ask them how they build steam showers there, they require a waterproofed and tiled ceiling.

Reply

Ian

Thanks Rodger

I like the idea of asking how theyu build steam showers. I will try that & see what they have to say. :)

Reply

Earl Hatch

Thank for the link. One other question. I am using 12 x 12 marble tiles and there will be a cut. Would you put the cut ( heighth) at the bottom of the shower or at the top?

Reply

Roger

Hi Earl,

At the bottom.

Reply

tallDan

Hi..great right up. I am doing my shower stall and have done all the walls with great success. now I just have the ceiling to do yet. doing 12 x 12 tiles. Does the “burn” coat on the ceiling need to dry, before installed the tile? So do you let it dry, or keep it wet? can it be dry??

Thanks
Dan

Reply

Roger

Hi Dan,

I do it before it cures, but it can be done either way.

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Earl Hatch

Floor Elf. I am installing a shower and want to use Red-Guard topical membrane for my floor but I do not have a Kerdi floor drain but one that you apply to 40 mil PVC membrane. Can I cut a small square of the PVC membrane and install the floor drain in the traditional way and then cover the membrane patch and the rest of the floor with Red-Guard? Will Red-Guard adhere to the PVC shower pan liner? I have already bought the shower drain and want to incorporate it into my shower installation. Your thoughts?

Reply

Roger

Hi Earl,

No, you can not do that. Well, you can, but I have no idea whether or not it will last, so I would not do it. You can, however, do this: Divot method

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Linda Schneider

I like this post. Well, really, I like all of your stuff that I have read. I DID read when you said “it will work for your size tile”. I did. Really. But, my problem is not big tiles, but that I am using 12″x12″ mesh sheets of small subway tiles, 2″x3″. So, do I bullseye the whole sheet, or do I bulls eye the individual tiles (frankly, in that case I will just skip the ceiling).
Thanks in advance.
Linda

Reply

Roger

Hi Linda,

With mosaics just comb the thinset on the ceiling and wiggle the sheet into it. The key with mosaics is making sure each individual tile is pressed in well. If one or two are hanging they’ll pull down the entire sheet.

Reply

Eric Wagner

I’m just about to start tiling my bathroom ceiling using your bullseye technique and had a question as to whether using a SimpleSet Pre-Mixed thinset would work the same as a bag of dry mix? Other than the Premix is more expensive.

Reply

Roger

Hi Eric,

Yes, but if you are using it in a shower I would rethink the premixed stuff.

Reply

Eric Wagner

If I “burn” coat the entire ceiling it will cover up my chaulk lines. Should I apply only enough up to the line to get the first tile located and then burn the rest of the ceiling afterwards? Also how long do I have once I mix up the Modfied Thinset until it is unuseable? I’m using the FlexBond for porcelain tiles from HomeDepot.

Reply

Roger

Yes, you can just go right up to the line. The open (workable) time on your thinset will be stated on the bag – they vary.

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Eric Wagner

Roger,

I’m just about finished with my tiling project. Your tips on tiling ceilings were spot on. Tiles held in place beautifully with the Bullseye trick. My next question is about grouting and caulking. I read your posting on caulking versus grouting at plane changes. Should I caulk first or grout first? If grouting first what do you suggest I use to keep grout from getting into the caulk areas? I already placed the tile and didn’t read your article until after the tiles were installed. I spaced everywhere with 1/8″ spacers.

Reply

Roger

I normally grout first. You can do either. If grouting first just scrape down the corner before the grout cures (right after you’re done grouting) to remove the grout. You don’t necessarily need to keep it out while you’re grouting, but you do need to remove it when you’re done.

Reply

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