Michael 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t understand your use of the word diagonal. But I have a computer dictionary and should be able to discern what you mean.
Yo i was wondern what size trowel if im stickn 24″×24″ on a ceiling…..
I am going to attempt to put tile over a cultured marble shower enclosure. It was installed around 1994. I’m hoping to do floor and ceiling as well as the 3 walls..someone suggested I lightly sand and then primer before setting tiles. Any advice is greatly appreciated
Just another question about the silicone around the ceiling edge /wall joint – is it easier or better to do the silicone first and then grout the job, or the grout first and then silicone? Are there benefits to either way?
putting up 4″ x 4″ mosaic tiles on a small shower ceiling. Substrate is 1/2″ durock with taped and mudded seams (with thinset) and redguard. The 4 x 4’s are going to be a pain in the ass as they are a design. Any tips for a concussion free install? And any tips for keeping the spacers in place?
Pays to keep scouring for answers, this is super helpful, thank you.
Got me thinking the laser level might be ideal for getting my grout lines straight on the ceiling. We are installing a surround shower so there will be about 7” above the walls to tile plus the ceiling. Hoping this goes according to plan.
Been using your advice for years… thank you again as I’m about to tile the ceiling of our new steam shower. I was going to use kerdi board on the ceiling, but it is not available (supply chain). Instead, I will be using sentinel board and sealing the seams/screws.
Have you had experience with sentinel board? Do you think it will be strong enough to hold the weight of the tile? I will be adding 16” cross members to the 16” (OC) joists.
Not sure of the tile size yet, but I do know it will be 3/8” ceramic.
I have never heard of sentinel board. From what I can gather online it’s similar to wedi board. You can check with the manufacturer for that particular question. I have no issues with using wedi on a ceiling, but I use the 5/8″ rather than the 1/2″.
I am tiling our tub. Three walls and the ceiling. I am using 12″×24″ porcelain tile. I will be using MegaLite mortar. The walls and ceiling are HardiBacker 500.
I have been told to cover with 3 coats of RedGuard for waterproofing. Is this going to cause the ceiling to give way as the bond will be to the waterproofing?
Thanks for all the info you provide. Great help to us DIYers!!
For the first coat you want to dilute the redgard 1/2 and 1/2 with water, then apply it to the hardi. This will fill the pores of the hardi and act as a priming coat. Apply that and let it cure, then go over it with the additional coats. If you use a primer coat first you won’t have any issues.
I wanted to say thank you for the great explanations. I used it with 12×24 on my shower ceiling ( i have to say that I prior cut wood 2×4 to length just is case :-) ) In fact with the 2×4, if was worst. If the 2×4 was not installed really straight but just with a slight angle, it would tend to make the tile slide sideways :-( So ended up trusting the methodology and removed them.
I’m a bit concerned tough with the previous comment on the membrane. I used Mapei ‘AquaDefense’ on Tile Backerboard. Hopefully the tiles will remain in place. so far they did on the walls.
It will hold just fine. The AD fills the pores of the backer and, once cured, has a fairly tenacious grip on it.
I used Mapelastic from mapei to waterproof my ceiling before putting my 1’x2′ tiles over 1/2 ” drywall.
Now that I’m about to lay my tiles I’m wondering if the thinset is only going to stick to the “membrane” and then with the weight split from my drywall.
Am I a crazy fellow being too cautious and scared of concussions or are those product going to be fine and stick together fine?
Mepelastic is not approved for use over drywall. The thinset will stick to the membrane, and only the membrane. As far as the bond to the drywall itself, I have no idea, there is absolutely no data on it anywhere. I would NOT trust it on a ceiling. I wouldn’t trust it over drywall anywhere, but the gravity stresses on a ceiling are completely different. The drywall will likely not hold those sufficiently.
I recently had a similar situation as I was remodeling our master bath. I screwed cement board over the drywall on the ceiling, making sure the screws were long enough to have plenty of holding power and more numerous. I did add waterproofing and had no issues installing 2’x4′ tiles, other that they are fairly heavy to work with overhead. Everything is solid and looks great! I don’t think I would trust the drywall.
What makes the bullseye create suction?
Could it be straight rows of mortar allow air to go back in and circles create a trapped area where air cannot go back in?
Basically, yes. It creates an airtight ring around the perimeter of the tile which doesn’t allow air behind it.
Decided to do my bathtub enclosure floor to ceiling and include the ceiling.
I was concerned about the ceiling tiles and the wall/ceiling join.
Thankfully you’ve laid things out pretty clear and I feel confident i won’t have any trouble.
Just let me know if you have any questions.
Im using 1’x2′ wall tile can i use it on my shower ceiling over red guard and can i just skim the tile without putting thinset on the ceiling and doing a bulls eye on the back the ceiling is 3′ x5′
Yes, you can do it on the ceiling. With tiles that small you do not need to do the bullseye, although you do need to put thinset on the ceiling in order to get them up there.
Great posts and info – but just to be sure, the reason you use silicone around the edge of the tiled ceiling is for any movement of the joists/trusses, from either temperature swings, strong winds, etc, right? I’m assuming that if one did grout the perimeter of the ceiling, then that would be the first place it’d crack, thus causing water damage? I just wanted to be sure because my house was built cheaply (not by me…) and the strong winds we get here move the entire house.
That is correct. With silicone any movement in the ceiling will not be transferred to the tile on the walls below.
First of all, great post! I am a DIY, but since I remodeled one house down to the studs and back, I am pretty brave about trying new things. I plan on buying a home in the near future and am considering installing a small steam room. The ceiling will have to be something other than flat, so I was thinking perhaps an arch-shape which will mean mosaic tiles will be easier to install on the ceiling. With mosaics coming in more of a sheet, I was unsure how the bulls-eye method will work. Would I do it with the entire sheet? Individual mosaics? or is there some other method for mosaics on the ceiling? Will I need to do anything additional on the ceiling-either in terms of materials, underlayment, or preparation- due to the high heat and humidity? I also plan on using epoxy grout (I know this is harder to work because it cures so hard and so fast), just to add an extra layer of moisture protection. Thanks in advance!
Bullseye will not work with mosaics. With mosaics you just want to ensure full coverage. The easiest I’ve found is to spread your thinset on the substrate, then take a scrap piece of board and spread thinset on it, lay the mosaic in the thinset on the board, then peel it off (your mosaics are now individually backbuttered), then install it onto your substrate using a grout float to ensure every piece is in place. One or two not properly embedded can pull down the entire sheet before it’s cured. Prep on the ceiling is the same as everywhere else.
I used 1/2” Hardi backer board for the walls of my walk in shower, I have decided to tile the ceiling as well, can I use 1/4”Hardin backer board, or should I use the 1/4”? My thought is the 1/4” is half the weight and so the pull on the ceiling is less and that the 1/4” Hardin backer for a shower ceiling is sufficient
You want to use 1/2″ up there. The 1/4″ is lighter, but it also has half of the strength between the studs as does 1/2″. DO NOT try to use 1/4″ on the ceiling.
Hi I have recently pick up a small tile job, i first went there to quote on wallpapering job and was ask to do a mozaic tile on a 3′ x 5′ ceiling as well.
The ceiling looks like a painted cement board, and the walls are already tiled with a 1′ x 2′ marble tile. I have done a small amount of tile work, but not sure installing mozaic tiles. would a prepare adhesive work for this type of tile?
If you’re talking about mastic then yes, it will work as long as the tile is not glass, natural stone or over 8″ square (single tile) and it is NOT inside a shower. If any of those are the case, use regular thinset.
Hey, about to try this method. Fingers crossed. Lol. Does the burning of the substrate have to be wet/fresh, or can it be dry?
It is best when wet, but either will work fine for the finished product.
THANK YOU! We tiled the shower ceiling using your method and it worked great. We were using 8X24 tiles so we made two bullseyes on them and they stuck great. Thank you!
Great tip/post you made life/ work easier toast to you. Last time i install ceiling tile it took me 2 days of building jigs to hold the tile🤦🏾♂️and a bunch of bad nerves…
Fantastic! I’ve been hemming and hawing about how to tile the ceiling and you’ve given me just the method. Cheers
Great article. Two things, I sound like the suggestion is to screw in the existing drywall substrate to reinforce everything and keep the weight from pulling the nails out. Suggestions on nail spacing?
Two, burning. When burning do you apply, let dry then tile or get the tile up prior to the thinset drying?
Every 6-9″ on the screws with 1/2″ drywall, every 9-12″ with 5/8″. You can do either, it is MUCH more beneficial to install while still wet.
Thanks, makes sense to me.
Great Post! I will try the bulls eye this weekend. I was doing something similar totally by accident: I was “combing the ceiling one way and the back of the tile the other, but I like your bulls eye better in case I make a mistake. Keep the great posts coming!
I want the tile my shower ceiling, I am using subway tiles, I can line up the grout lines with the back wall but not the side walls since these tiles r not square. Is this acceptable?
That is absolutely acceptable.
Roger, thanks for this answer. I came to your site with the very question that Ralph asked.
This may be a silly question, but for tiling a shower ceiling, can one use the premixed tile adhesive rather than thinset?
You can, but it may lead to huge issues with re-emulsification of the mastic, which will cause tile to fall off the ceiling and onto your head.
As someone who has tiled for 15 years, I have yet to have a call back or complaint via any use of any quality mastic on ANY wall surface, whether it be in a shower/tub or not.
Guys like you are why I wasted time and money over the first few years using only mortar when mastic was more than sufficient for the job. For anyone reading this choosing to use a quality or premium mastic on a wall or ceiling verses mortar is purely the choice of the installer.
Ive seen tests done, Ive done tests myself, to say mastic is not sufficient for wall and ceiling jobs is simply not true.