It’s there. Really.
When you tile around a jacuzzi or heated tub you need to have an access panel in order to work on the motor or heater or fix any problems that may suddenly appear with your brand new fancy-pants uppity bathtub. You also need access to any outlets. This is required by code – DON’T SKIP IT!
Many bathtubs can have access panels on the backside of the wall in a closet or something similar right next to the bathroom.
If you have a tub like the one pictured there – this isn’t always possible. When that’s the case you need to create one in the tile installation itself and magically make it disappear so no one knows it’s there.
This is how I do that.
Before we start let me explain a few things about this particular tub. This tub is an undermount, that means that the tile runs over the top to the edge of the tub rather than the tub sitting on top of the tile – yours probably isn’t like that. It doesn’t change anything.
The substrate on top of the tub deck is deck mud waterproofed with redgard. Again – yours probably isn’t like that. It doesn’t change anything either. My substrate around the sides of the tub is drywall. Yes, regular drywall. If yours is cement backerboard, a topically waterproofed board, or nearly anything else, this still works exactly the same way.
So let’s get on with it.
IMPORTANT! Your access panel must be the same size as the distance between grout lines. You need to have grout lines directly over the perimeter of the access panel. If you don’t this will not work the way I describe it. You’ll need to make modifications based on your particular tile or pattern. For this tutorial I am making the panel the same size as one full tile. That is easiest.
The first thing you need to do is have two vertical studs on each side of where your access panel will be. This photo shows the end of the tub framing and the motor for which we are creating access. The open space on the left side between those two studs is where we’ll install the access panel.
The next thing we need to do is cut your substrate – in this case drywall – to the correct size to cover that portion of the framing. This shows the panel portion held up to the space.
Notice how it goes all the way from the corner on the left to about halfway over the center stud (you can click on it for a larger version). You need it to be big enough to be supported on all sides – you don’t want any unsupported areas.
As you are holding it up there in the correct place take a pencil or pen and trace around the inside of the studs from the backside of the panel substrate. This will outline where the panel sits on the frame. See the rectangle drawn on the back? That is the inside of the studs on the tub frame.
Then take a 2×4 and cut them about 1/8″ shorter than the distance between the vertical lines. These will be your cross-braces for the backside of the panel. Those two 2×4’s at the bottom? Those are your cross-braces.
While you have the cross braces in the correct place between the studs place your access substrate over it and place screws through your substrate into the cross braces. This will attach the braces in the correct spot on the back of the access panel.
This requires holding the cross braces in place with one hand while screwing into them from the face of the panel substrate (drywall). This may also require standing on your head – you may want to enlist the help of a spotter.
You can also utilize double-sided tape to hold the cross braces in place, then pull off the panel and fasten the braces to it. You know – if you want to do things the easy way…
Place the access panel back into place and take your pencil again and draw a line on the top and bottom vertical pieces along the back of the cross braces. This will give you a guide to show where the back of the cross braces sit once it’s in place. If you look closely you can see the line across the bottom stud from side to side.
You can click on any of these photos for a full-size version.
I use four magnetic cabinet latches. These are just regular latches you can buy at any big box or hardware store. They include a magnet in a plastic casing and a metal strike plate – that’s the little square. The strike plate is attached to the access panel and the magnets are attached to the frame. The magnets grab the strike plates and hold your panel in place.
Take your magnets and screw them into the tub frame – two on top and two on bottom. I install them about 2 – 2 1/2 inches from the sides in all four spots. Place the face of the magnet, the part that grabs the plate, right up to the line you marked on the upper and lower studs on the frame in the last step. This is where the back of the cross-braces sit.
Place your screws into the casing at the back of the oval. The sides of the casing should have an oval rather than a small circle for your fasteners. Place them at the back, toward the tub, so you can move the magnets back to adjust them.
Once you get them installed measure the center point of the magnet from the side studs. This one is at about 2 3/8″.
Take that measurement – the 2 3/8″ – and mark a line on your cross braces and lay the strike plate centered on it. This will line up the strike plate with the center of the magnet to ensure it sits in the right spot and grabs fully. Do this with each strike plate! They will likely all not be the same, just make sure you have the right ones in the right place.
Place your access panel into place until the magnets grab it securely. It will likely be out from the frame or substrate next to it a little too far. You can see how the left side (access panel) sticks out a bit further than the piece next to it. Yours probably sticks out quite a bit further – I think I already adjusted this a couple of times before I took the picture.
All you need to do is loosen the screws in the magnet casings on the frame and move them back a touch. You will probably need to do this several times to get them all lined up correctly. Once the access panel sits flush with the pieces next to it you’re all ready for tile!
In part 2 we’ll show you how to do all the cool stuff like install the tile onto it, line it all up, and even do neat little stuff like have an insert right at the edge of it like this one here. Once we get done your access panel will be nearly invisible and no one will know it’s there.
This method also works well for long-term rubber ducky storage. Or, you know, put some wine back there and it will prevent you from drinking it before it gets really, really good.
Keep an eye out to see how to work the rest of the magic!
UPDATE: I would like to thank Curtis for pointing out the painfully obvious and suggesting that it would be easier to install the magnets to the cross braces and get them all lined up BEFORE attaching the drywall to them. I have never been one to do things the easy way – but he’s absolutely correct, that would be much easier. Thanks Curtis!
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