The following five-part series gives a basic overview of building a shower floor for tile. If you would like a complete step-by-step of the entire process with all the little idiosyncrasies and details I now have manuals describing the complete process for you from bare wall studs all the way up to a completely waterproof shower substrate for your tile.
If you are tiling your walls and floor you can find that one here: Waterproof shower floor and wall manual.
If you have a tub or pre-formed shower base and are only tiling the walls you can find that one here: Waterproof shower walls manual.
Curb and Pre-slope
There are a couple of options to create a shower floor for tile using deck mud. The first is a single-layer shower floor which can then be coated with RedGard or a similar product or covered with kerdi to waterproof it. The other is a normal shower floor with a liner which will have two layers – a preslope, the liner, then the top slope which is then tiled. This series of posts will describe the latter.
Before we start I should note that unless you are using the kerdi waterproofing method or utilizing a liquid membrane as your floor liner you should not have the backerboard installed in the bottom part of the shower. Your waterproof membrane for a shower floor will be installed behind your backerboard. The curb and pre-slope need to be completed before installing the lower wall substrate.
Creating the curb for a wooden floor
The first thing you must do is create the outside curb of your shower. You need to create the “box” which will become the inside of your shower floor. Depending upon whether your shower will be created on a wood or concrete floor will dictate what material you use for your curb.
If you have a wooden floor you want to use regular dimensional lumber. The 2 x 4’s they carry at Home Depot – those. That is the easiest and most readily available material. Ideally you want to use kiln-dried lumber. That is lumber that is, well, dried in a kiln. By removing moisture in this manner the moisture content of KD lumber is normally between six and eight percent compared to regular dimensional lumber at close to 15%. Why does that matter? Well moisture and wood don’t mix. As it dries wood has a tendency to warp and twist. The less moisture initially in the wood the better. KD lumber is best and regular air-dried dimensional lumber is also acceptable. NEVER use pressure treated lumber – ever.
I usually use three or more stacked 2 x 4’s to create my curb depending on the size of the shower. Simply screw the first one to the floor (with correct non-corrosive screws), stack the next one on top and screw it down, and so on until the desired height is reached. That easy.
Creating the curb for a concrete floor
For a concrete floor you want to use bricks. Yeah, bricks. Just stack ’em. I use gray concrete bricks (no holes) and stack them two or three high for my curbs. You can use just regular thinset to adhere them to the floor and to each other. Just stack them in the shape you want.
You do not want to use wood for your curb on concrete. Wood will actually absorb moisture from your concrete and start to swell.
Creating the pre-slope
This is one of the steps most often skipped by a lot of people – amateurs as well as professionals. It is imperative! You need it – it’s that simple. Without a pre-slope your waterproof liner will lay flat on the floor. This does not give water anywhere to go. It will sit there, stagnate, mold, . . . you get the idea. With a proper pre-slope any water will drain to the weep holes in the drain and go where it needs to – away.
You need to first make sure your shower floor will stay where you put it. On wood you can use regular metal lathe.
You need to place what is called a ‘cleavage’ membrane beneath your lathe. This is just a sheet of plastic or tar paper stapled to your wood floor first with the lathe placed over it. The membrane does not make anything waterproof! If someone tells you that hit ’em in the head with a bat. It is necessary to prevent the wooden floor from sucking the moisture out of the pre-slope prematurely causing it to cure too fast (or not fully) and significantly weakening it.
When your membrane is down staple the lathe over the top of that. Just cut it to the shape of your shower floor and lay it flat on the floor and staple or nail it down. This gives your mud bed something to grab onto. In the above photo I have used plastic as my membrane and only have a partial piece of lathe in – make sure you cover the entire area below your pre-slope.
For a concrete floor you need to mix up some regular thinset except you need to mix it “loose”. That just means you need to add a bit more water than the instructions call for to make it thinner. Cover your shower floor area with this before you start installing your deck mud. The deck mud itself does not “stick” to anything, you need to supply something that will adhere it to your substrate.
Oh crap – Math???
To make the installation easier you’ll want to mark your height lines on your wall studs. To figure out how high it needs to be off the floor you need to figure out your slope. This involves a bit of math – don’t panic! It’s easy. Figure out which corner is farthest from the center of your drain. Your slope needs to go up in height 1/4″ for every foot. If your furthest corner is three feet from your drain center your slope needs to rise 3/4″. Easy enough so far, right?
Your finished floor (after your liner and top mud bed are installed) needs to be 1″ to 1 1/4″ thick at the drain. So, if we make the pre-slope 3/4″ thick at the drain it needs to be a total of 1 1/2 inch thick at all your walls. So mark a line 1 1/2″ from the floor all the way around the wall studs. This will be the height of your pre-slope at the walls. I try to make my pre-slope the correct thickness at the drain so it will be 1 1/2″ at the walls. This way you do not need to draw lines, just level your perimeter with the top of the 2 x 4 studs along the bottom of the wall. Depending on the size of the shower it doesn’t always work, but it saves time if you can work it out that way.
If your shower is not a square, and they rarely are, you still need to have the same thickness at the walls all the way around the perimeter. This means that you will have a steeper slope on the walls closer to the drain. This is normal. If you don’t do it this way you will have uneven tile cuts at the bottom of your wall. By doing it this way you will ensure a level line and, in turn, a level floor around your perimeter.
The height of your pre-slope at the drain can vary. It needs to be level with the top of the bottom flange of your drain. Regular drains have two flanges which bolt to each other. The pre-slope needs to be at least level or a touch higher than the bottom flange. Your liner then goes between the top and bottom flange to utilize the weep holes in the drain. This allows any water atop the liner to drain. The pre-slope supports the liner so it needs to be level or above every point of the lower flange. Does that make sense?
This is why planning is so important. Your drain needs to be high (or low) enough and your curb needs to be higher than your shower floor – naturally. So figure all this out before you build anything.
Playing with mud
Now we need to mix up a batch of deck mud. Check out that link, I’ll wait . . .
Okay, once your mud is mixed up you want to start packing it in there. If you are going over concrete and have your thinset slurry down, cover the entire bottom of the shower floor first to ensure the entire base will stick. If you have a large shower only spread as much thinset as you can reach over at a time. Start at the walls and pack your mud down really well – beat the hell out of it. Seriously, beat it like the last DMV employee you spoke with. You want to eliminate any voids and create as dense a bed as possible. Don’t worry, it won’t hit back.
Pack it down around the perimeter to just above your line. When you get that done get yourself a 2 x 4 about 18 – 24 inches long. Lay that on top of your mud bed against your wall and tap the 2 x 4 down with your hammer until it is even with your line. This ensures a level, even line all the way around your perimeter. Perfect! Now don’t touch the edges.
Continue to pack mud into your shower base all the way from the perimeter down to the drain. You should have a straight line from the perimeter to the drain without any dips or humps. This will allow water to drain correctly without pooling anywhere. While this particular layer of your shower floor does not have to be exact, you do need to make certain it is fairly flat in regards to the line from the perimeter to the drain.
That’s it. When you get it all packed in there it should have a shape similar to a very, very shallow bowl. Now leave it alone. Really, leave it alone. The next day it will be ready to install your liner and all that fun stuff. Don’t play with it until then.
In my next post I will show you how to install your waterproof liner. Until then leave your pre-slope alone. It’s fine. Quit trying to perfect it. We’ll do that tomorrow. Get away from it. Really. Stop staring at it . . .
Read this next if I haven’t already bored you to death: How to create a shower floor Part 2