Magnetic Access Panels in Tile Installations

by Roger

See that tub right there? Find the access panel. Completed access panel

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.

Photo 1The 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.

Photo 2

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.

Back side of panel substrateAs 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.

 

 

Back of panel marked and 2x4's cut

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Ensuring the cross braces fit correctlyThis is showing how the cross braces will fit into the frame once attached to the access panel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holding the substrate panel up to screw 2x4 braces on back

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.

 

2x4 braces screwed to substrate panelThis is the access panel with the cross braces fastened into place. Make sure you place enough screws to hold it securely.

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…

 

 

 

2x4 cross brace marks on tub framePlace 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.

 

 

Lining up magnetic latchesI 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.

 

Measuring placement of latches on tub frameTake 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″.

 

Placing magnetic catch onto access cross bracesTake 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.

 

 

 

 

Backside of access panel next to tub frameOnce you have all your strike plates fastened onto your cross braces the back of your access panel should look like this.

 

 

 

 

Access panel initial placementOne more step, then you’re ready for tile.

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.

Marking line-up marks after adjustmentsAll 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!

 

 

Access panel completed with tile installedIn 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.

 

 

Completed access panelAnd now you know where the access panel is!

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! :D

 

 

 

 

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S Saw

So, what if you need to build an access panel for the pump (right side) and heater (left side) on the end of a tub that butts up against an open shower? Is there another way to access those components that doesn’t require an access panel in the shower?

Reply

Roger

Hi S Saw,

Create access panels in the front of the tub deck. You don’t need to have them on the sides. As long as you can reach whatever you need access to the problem can be resolved if need be.

Reply

bill heatherington

I’d like to install a travertine marble basketweave tile floor in bath. It has ceramic floor now. Can i install marble over the current tile? Thanks much

Reply

Roger

Hi Bill,

You can. I don’t do it, but if you use a thinset approved for a tile over tile application it can be done. You’d need to scarify the surface of the existing tile and use the correct thinset, like mapei ultraflex 3 or laticrete 254.

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Kay

Access panel…where art thou? Our Lifestyles jetted bath tub seems to be leaking, because the room under it seem to have water dropping from roof. Draindoctors Plumber came and said there is no access panel ( there is one for pump on the wall away from the tub)- you have to cut the roof of room below and make big enough hole and then I can try to find leak, no guarantees. If you cut tiles on side, it will be more expensive.
It is hard to believe there is no easy way, if this was the case, it should come with no leaks guarantee :)

Reply

Roger

Hi Kay,

It should come with a no leaks guarantee whether it is the case or not. :D

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Bob

I am building a deck frame around a kohler tea for two tub to be undermounted. The deck if two 2×4 widths from the wall and the opposite entry side has just one 2×6 on edge touching the side of the kohler tub. The tub top edge is about 3″, so the marble will be abour 6″ on the wall side and about 6″ on the entry side, once the overhang on the outside is considered. My question is can the marble be set directly on the 2x4s which are now level with the tub top? What coating or adhesive is used to attach the marble to the 2x4s? Thank you so much.
Bob

Reply

Roger

Hi Bob,

No, the marble can not be bonded directly to the plywood. With an undermount tub you need to have the top of the tub flush with the tile substrate unless you want to have a return from the tub deck down to the tub. About the best you can do is use a membrane such as kerdi which will place your tile about 1/8″ above the top of the tub.

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Roland Lotz

Hi Roger,
I’m just reading your very useful info on how to install an access panel for a Jacuzzi tub. In part I the pictures show the drywall panel going all the way to the plywood floor. In part two of your illustrations the floor tiles are installed under the tiled access panel. Did you just cut the thickness of the floor tiles off the access panel when you installed the floor tiles so they would fit underneath the tiled panel?

Reply

Roger

Hi Roland,

The drywall still goes to the floor, the floor tile is up to the drywall (1/8″ from it) and the tiles on the panel are installed 1/16″ above the floor tile. It creates a ‘lip’ with the drywall sliding between the floor tile and frame to keep the bottom in place.

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jean

we are building near elizabeth,co. Since you serve northern colorado can you refer any great elf shower pan builders in our neck of the woods (or backwoods)..

thanks

jean

Reply

Roger

Hi Jean,

You’ve picked the one area of the state that doesn’t have anyone. :D The closest I know of are these guys: http://www.marinotile.com/

Reply

Donald

Hi Roger,

Great blog!

I have an old tub with a rounded corner on the floor. The radis of the curve is about 18″ (if it was real small, it’d look like a bullnose tile, on end). I wish to install a 12 x12 marble tile floor where this curved tub is. Any tips on how to cut the marble so the curve look perfect? Or even near perfect!

Thanks

Don

Reply

Roger

Hi Donald,

Lay a line of tiles out in front of the tub along the length of it with the part that juts out the most touching one of the tiles. So the row of tiles is straight and actually touching the tub. Then measure the part of the tub furthest from that row. Scribe a line along that row the distance of the furthest tile.

For instance, if after you lay down that row of tile the furthest tile is 8″ from the tub get a stick or rod or something 8″ long and hold your pencil at one end of it and run the other end along the profile of the tub while marking the line on the tile. Once finished you should have a line 8″ away from the tub along the entire row of tile. Just cut along that line and the tile should slide perfectly against the tub.

Reply

Joel Rutledge

Oh, Mr. Elf, I just noticed you said the tub pier deck had mud and redguard. I can’t just redguard directly on the wood 2×4 deck? Should I mud it (not likely to be smooth and level) or hardi it before redguard? The sides are cement board; do I need to redguard yhem? And is the mud bed for the tub just like the shower mud? Thanks!

Reply

Roger

You should not redgard directly over plywood (it moves too much). You can mud it if you want to, I did because it was an undermount tub. The mud is just regular deck mud – like a shower floor. Hardi on the top would be your best bet. No need to redgard the sides, but you can if you want to.

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Joel

Thank you again. I thnk I’ll use hardi: it’ll be easier and smoother than if *I* try to mud it. I’ll try to send some pics of the project when I get some spare time (aka “no longer having to use every spare moment on this project”). Thanks Roger!

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Dave

Roger,

I am building the vertical sides of a Jacuzzi drop in tub. The deck will be marble which will obviously be supported by the 2 sides of the tub as well as the other 2 side supports which are attached to the walls. My question is what should the finished height of the marble deck be relative to the height of the underside of the tub flange which sits on the marble deck but is not supported by the deck. I am thinking that the finished height should be slightly higher ( say 1/4 to 1/2 inch) and when the tub is placed in the deck opening, a product ( sand? bed of thinset? what?) is placed under the tub and the tub set into this so that it is supported by it as opposed to the marble deck. Do I have this right, can you kindly elaborate?

Reply

Roger

Hey Dave,

You are correct. I normally measure the finished height to be 1/2″ higher then use either mortar or cement to set the tub in.

Reply

Gene

I need to install an access panel in a tub surround that is next to an open shower. The tile on the tub surround will be subject to a constant spray of water when using the shower. The tile substrate is kerdi board.

Do you have any suggestions on how to make the access panel waterproof?

Thanks

Reply

Roger

Hey Gene,

Yeah, don’t install it in the shower side of the tub deck. :D You can frame out your opening then silicone the cover in place (kerdi-board as well as the grout lines in the tile) in case removal is ever needed. That is, however, an extremely horrible spot for an access panel.

Reply

Brad Luczywo

I’m installing a new Jacuzzi tub that allows for undermount or drop-in installation. Before finding your pictures, I was thinking an undermount install wasn’t possible with tile. Can you point me to any resources for undermounting with tile? Is there any concern of the tub edge bowing or bending and thus cracking the tile? How do you ensure the edge of the tiles aren’t too sharp?

Reply

Roger

Hey Brad,

Yes, there is concern for movement in the tub. It needs to be properly supported to minimize it. I know of no resources which describe undermounting with tile. Any time I’ve done it I used natural stone and bullnosed the edges so they were rounded off down to the tub.

Reply

Moad

Is it possible to make something similar to be used on the floor? I was thinking about laying a thin layer of wood underneath the tile to make it even and then using silicone instead of grout (same colour). My drain would still be accessible if anything happens, just need to re-silicone afterwards.

Let me know if I’m being dumb, my wife would like you to confirm that.

Cheers,

Reply

Roger

Hey Moad,

The floor won’t work. That is the most vulnerable spot in the entire shower, it must be constructed properly with no breaks for ‘in-case’. Sorry.

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Jasmine

I can now show this to my contractor that had no idea how to implement an access panel using tile. THANK YOU!

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Dave Hindman

Roger,
I have been rehabbin old houses for over 20 years. In that time I’ve torn out and retiled more than a few bathrooms and kitchens. Since I would research the internet, I always thought I was doing it “the right way”. (There is a lot of bad information out there.) I bought your e-book because after reading the articles on your web site I could tell you know what your talking about.
Now for my question, I told my daughter I would tear out and rebuild her shower. Since I was installing the tile, her in-laws bought the tile. They bought un-honed, un-filled, travertine with a 4 foot x 4 foot pattern match, 3 different size tiles. In the past i’ve only installed ceramic and or porcelain tile and I’m thinking there is more than one difference.
Any help would be great.
Thanks, Dave

Reply

Roger

Hey Dave,

Stone needs a more sturdy substrate normally as well as absolute full coverage. Stones are more brittle than manufactured tile and it takes much less pressure or movement to crack or chip them. Normally if you have full coverage and a good, sturdy substrate you’ll be fine.

Maintenance is a different story – not your issue, though. :D

Reply

Curtis

Roger,

Great timing! I will use this method for my tub.

I would also recommend that the 2×4 studs and magnets be set first before screwing the drywall to the studs. This would simplify the magnet/stud alignment and also hold the studs when screwing on the drywall.

Keep up the great tips.

Reply

Roger

Great idea Curtis! Thanks. I’ve never been one to do stuff the easy way. :D

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Chris

This sounds great, how do I find the second half of the instructions?

Reply

Roger

Hi Chris,

You check back to the site later this evening. :D I just wrote this, part two isn’t finished yet.

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Carol Dawson

WOW Roger this is awesome my tub has side back panel and I was just tring to figure out hoew to make it all look better
Thanks I will be watching for the rest of the story
Carol

Reply

Debbie Todd

Hi Roger!
Wow, this was amazing timing for this e-mail tip to arrive! Do your elves have little radars on your readers’ projects? We just finished the black marble in our bathroom floor late yesterday and Doug said “hey, we need to ask the TileElf (he calls you that ya know as he says you put tile in lots of places other than floors) how to install an access panel for our fancy schmancy tub motor…..too weird!

Anyway, our panel will be inside the walk in shower area as the County made us install the jacuzzi so the motor was near the same wall as the shower heads (don’t ask us why as it sure makes life difficult). Can we use the same process with the silicone as you noted for Angus to create a seal so it does not leak behind the panel? Our only other option is to have an access panel on the outside of the house – on the second story – not such a good idea in our mind…we eagerly await your reply…. :dance: Best, Deb

Reply

Roger

Hi Debbie,

Yes, I attempt to the best of my ability to read my readers’ minds. It goes something like this: “I need to write a blog post. What do I have pictures of?”

That’s pretty much the process. :D

Yes, you can use the same method. Just make sure that before you permanently place it in there, after it’s tiled and grouted, that you place a bead of silicone around the perimeter of the access panel substrate as well as the opening. This way you’ll get a watertight seal there and water won’t creep in.

Reply

Angus McLean

Angus McLean: this is forward-looking and a great idea! There is in general a lackof access panels in houses here.
How about access panels to the valve in the shower? I have a shower project currently and the only way prospectively to get access to the valve would be to remove tile around the valve. The tile will be stuck to the Durock by thin set. I have not as yet tiled it. I have thought a lot about this but can cannot think of anything. BY the way your strategy about using the 2 x 4″ to lay the shower mud worked fine for me. One thing though and that is that the 2 x 4″ has rounded edges and it would be better if they were sharp rightl angles.

Reply

Roger

Hi Angus,

You could conceivably do the same for an access to the valves. You would, however, need to silicone the perimeter of the panel-to-panel transition as you place it in there, not just the grout lines in the tile. If you don’t water could get in between the openings around the perimeter of the access panel and negate any waterproofing you’ve installed.

Reply

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