Installing the tile

So now that you have a big waterproofed hole in your shower wall whaddya gonna do with it? (If you do not have a waterproof hole in your wall start with Building a Shower Niche Part 1 and Building a Shower Niche Part 2.) I’ll just kick back and finish my beer Pepsi while you read those.

Once your niche space is waterproofed you can do just about anything you want with it as far as design is concerned. That is not to say you should cut out and build the niche space then decide what to do with it – you need to know what you’re going to do with it before you start.

Finished waterproof shower niche

Run tile up to niche sides

The niche I’m using for these posts is simply an empty shelf in the wall. There are no additional shelves or design elements incorporated into it. We’ll get to that in a bit. This one is very simple, though. We will just place one full tile in the back and install bullnose pieces on the sides.

You can start by running the remainder of the wall tile up to and around the bottom of the niche and the sides. (I did not do both sides of my niche yet because of the distance to the back wall – you should.) Do not run the tile over the top of the niche yet.

If you’ve planned it correctly your grout lines should be lined up with the top and bottom of the niche like they are in the photo. Depending on your layout, design, or framing this is not always possible but if you can line them up it looks better most of the time.

I’ve built this niche to be the exact size of one full tile and exactly as deep as the bullnose is wide. The overall size is 13 x 13 x 3 inches. We will install the full piece on the back wall first. With the field tile installed up to the niche you will notice that there is actually more than three inches from the back of the niche to the face of the field tile – that’s normal, don’t panic.

Spotting the back of the tile

Photo 1 - Spotting the back of the tile

To enable you to adjust the back piece of tile we need to install it differently than normal. We will not be simply spreading the thinset on the wall and back-buttering the tile and slamming it in there. If you do that you will never be able to adjust it. What we need to do with the back piece is called ‘spotting’ the tile. Place five big globs (that word just made me giggle – I don’t know why) of thinset onto the back of the tile like photo 1.

Spotting the tile will allow you to move the tile in or out and make small adjustments to get your bullnose absolutely even with the field tile. If you install it normally (with full coverage) any adjustments would be impossible.

Placing the back wall tile in the niche

Placing the back wall tile in the niche

Place that tile into the back of your niche. Do not push it all the way in yet! Get it to about 2 3/4″ back from the face of the field tile.  In other words you want the space from the face of the tile on the outside wall to the tile in the back of the niche to be about 2 3/4″.

If you push it back any further than that it will not be out far enough to contact the back of the bullnose piece and you will have a space between the back and bullnose piece. If it is too far back at any point you will need to start over. Pulling it out is a pain in the ass – so don’t do that.

Now start with the bottom piece of bullnose. Just backbutter the tile and stick it onto the bottom part of the niche.

Bottom piece of bullnose installed

Bottom piece of bullnose installed

Notice in the photo above how the front of the bullnose is not yet flush with the field tile? That’s the way it should look when you first get it in there. Now you want to SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY wiggle the back piece of tile back and forth just enough to make the bullnose flush with the field tile. Remember, if you go too far you get to start all over. Unlike most things do-overs in tile installation aren’t always a good thing.

Concentrate mostly on the bottom of that back piece, we’ll take care of the top after we get the bottom flush. When it is flush you should place a small level on the bullnose piece to ensure that you still have the small slope towards the front so water drains properly.

Bottom piece of bullnose installed

Bottom piece of bullnose installed flush

When you have the bottom piece installed you need to install the top piece next. The niche tile installation should be completed in this order so that when you install the side pieces they will support the top piece without any additional bracing. So what are you waiting for? Get the damn thing in there already.

Top piece of bullnose installed

Top piece of bullnose installed

Since there is no tile above your niche to gauge how far to push it in we need to figure out another way to do it. Lucky you! I’ve already done that. Take your straight-edge or level and place it against the face of your field tile from below the niche to above the niche. You should lay it so that the entire front of the niche is flat and flush. You will probably need to wiggle it back and forth to get everything pushed back flush. You can also hold a scrap piece of tile up above the top piece of bullnose to ensure it is in the correct place.

Once you get the top piece in there you need to measure and cut the side pieces. Measure and mark the cuts for the bottom of the side pieces. The measurements at the back of the niche will be different than the front due to the small slope of the bottom piece. If you try to cut the top of the side pieces they will not fit correctly.

Side pieces of bullnose installed

Side pieces of bullnose installed

Now take your straight-edge or level and place it against the face of your field tile and niche in several different directions to make sure everything is flush and even.

And there you have it – rubber ducky storage!

Tiling the niche is complete

Tiling the niche is complete

Now at this point you can either let it set overnight and cure fully so nothing moves as you are finishing the remainder of the tile, or you can go ahead and finish the tile now.

Due to the order in which you’ve placed the bullnose pieces in the niche you can go ahead and place the tile over the top of it and the top bullnose piece will support it since it is braced by the side pieces.

Be aware, however, that before the thinset is fully cured there will probably be movement in one direction or another as you are working around your niche. So pay close attention to anything that moves and make sure you either brace them to remain where you want them or use some blue painters tape to hold them in place. Believe me, it sucks when you come back the next day and something has moved.

I was going to describe different layout and design choices but I’m already half drunk this post is already so long I’ll just put all that in a separate post. With my tendency to babble endlessly give you as much information as possible I’m certain that post will be long enough anyway.

If you simply want a square niche the size of one tile that is as far as you need to go. The entire process is there. If, however, you want all that fancy-ass stuff like listellos, shelves, arches, or any of that you should probably read the next post before starting. Either way, take a break. Too much of a good thing can be draining.

Completed tile shower with double nicheI’ll leave you with a photo of the completed shower with the niche I’ve used for all these posts. If you look closely, or you know, click on the damn thing, you will actually see two of them – one on each wall. If you want that just start at the beginning and repeat, but turn around and face the other wall first. :D

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  • Wish i was fishin...

    So as an after thought cause i was looking up pics, i mean ideas of showers with this type of tile, the majority of tile used is all horixontal instead of vertical. give the shower a wider feel, rather than a tall one. I’m the tall one, she’s petite, so i think i’m gonna give in, i mean change the design pans and make the tile horizontal and line up the bottom and top with the grout lines. the sides though i was thinking about just cutting like normal. whatcha think?

  • Wish i was fishin...

    We are making a shower using porcelain tiles that look like old wooden boards. The tile on the walls will be placed vertically. tile size is like 6×28 so it looks like reclaimed barn wood, so theres not real grout lines to line it up with other than the long vertical lines. would it be better to line up the tile with the niche first and work my way out, that way the major cuts are in the corners of the wall? The link is what we are shooting for, minus the shelves. Post is awesome by the way.

  • terri


    I have a question about the tile at the back of the niche. You say, “Do not push it all the way in yet! Get it to about 2 3/4″ back from the face of the field tile.” At what point do you push it all the way against the backerboard?

    Thanks for the detailed explanations!

    • Roger

      Hi Terri,

      As you are installing the sides. You don’t want to push it all the way back until you know how far in the side pieces will go. If you push it too far back before that you’ll need to pull it out and start over.

  • ttapley

    Fantastic information. A Well written and detailed explaination. Thank you for taking the time to post it.

  • Laurie

    Hi Roger,

    I’m tiling my shower niche. I read your tile and stone installation e-book and this post, but still have a question. Are the top, bottom, sides, back and shelves just butted directly against each other with no grout lines? If so, do I apply caulk to the face of the tiles at each change of plane? Thanks for all the help/answers you’ve given me in this process.


    • Roger

      Hi Laurie,

      There is about 1/16″ of space between all the tiles. That gap gets silicone all the way around except the outside where the niche tiles meet the wall tiles, that can be grouted.

  • Mike Goodwillie

    This is a really helpful series, especially the part about cutting the opening a little later in the process to be sure you get the opening on a grout line. (I had been worrying about that.) But I do have one question about the bullnose pieces for the bottom, top, and sides. Do you make straight cuts and leave a little space between the edge of the side pieces and the top and bottom pieces or do you cut them at 45 degree angles? From the picture it looked like you made straight cuts but sometimes from pictures on the net, its hard to tell.

    The other question I had was about finishing the niche off. I think I saw on the John Bridge board that the industry standard is to caulk, rather than grout, where there are changes in plane. Does that advice hold true for the inside of the niche?

    Thanks in advance for your help.

    Mike Goodwillie

    • Roger

      Hi Mike,

      I do both, it depends on the shower. Both work fine. Yes, silicone on the interior of the niches at the changes of plane.

  • Westbrook

    Where can I get the horseshoe tile spacers you use?


  • mike

    My question concerns size of niche. I have a shower wall 36″ wide and am using 9×12″(measured) tile. I would like a centered 27″h x 18″w niche but when I lay it out, it looks like a lot of cuts. The wall is unfinished on both sides, so I can move things around. Any suggestions?

    • Roger

      Hey Mike,

      If you have room to center that niche in your wall (between studs so it’ll be centered) then all you have to do is line up the bottom of the niche with a grout line. If you do that (and your wall tile is laying vertically – 9″ wide) then it’ll line up perfectly. If your wall tile is horizontal (12″ wide) then you’ll have a lot of cuts. You can either have the cuts or adjust your niche to meet up with grout lines. If you line up the grout lines on the top and bottom, only the sides will be cut, if you line up the grout lines on the sides only the top and bottom will be cut. If you don’t line up the grout lines anywhere every tile will need to be cut.

      It’s up to you how attached you are to the specific size of the niche. If you’re willing to adjust it accordingly you can do so with minimal cuts. If you leave it, and all the sides are cut, then you’re stuck with that.

      I can not give you any further suggestions unless I know how your wall tile is oriented and where, in your wall, you have space for the niche.

      • mike

        Wow! Thanks for the quick response! The wall is being built now, so some latitude in stud placement is ok. Not a load bearing wall either. Only restrictions are a three gang box on one end and a double gang box at other end of wall. Wanted to put an accent border above niche, so vertical orientation of tile means more cuts in field. Suggestions?

        • Roger

          If your wall tile is going up vertically (12″ up and down and 9″ across) I would cut the size of the niche down to 24″ high by 18″ wide, it will fit perfectly with no cuts around it (unless you’re doing a subway / running bond pattern). As long as both the niche and wall tile are centered it’ll work fine. Just have your studs placed so each side stud is 9 1/2″ – 9 3/4″ from the exact center of that wall. That will leave you with room to build your niche, plus the substrate for the sides, and get the tiles all in there in the center of the shower.

          • mike

            Thanks for your suggestions but wife really wants a running pattern. I’m not set on the size of the niche, but I was trying to obtain as close to the “golden ratio” for the opening, hence the 27 x 18. Another is 24 x 15. Will the running bond pattern, will so many cuts make the wall to busy or sloppy, in your opinion?

            • Roger

              If you’re doing a running bond pattern then leave it at phi. You’ll have the same cuts on the top and bottom anyway, Just line up your sides. The cuts at the top and bottom will be negligible with that pattern. It won’t look busy at all – it’ll hardly be noticeable.