This post should be called ‘The One Where I Learnt to Tile and Slowly Lost the Will to Live’, but I deemed that too negative. I should set out by saying I certainly don’t want this blog to discourage anyone from having a go at tiling (it saves you a lot of money to do it yourself). I just picked a tricky project for my first attempt.

A few weeks ago, once the loft structure was complete and the new walls in the bathroom plastered, I decided to start tiling the bathroom. I opted for the simple (and ubiquitous) metro/subway tile because they seem to work well with traditional and contemporary styles meaning easy updates later on. They’re also rather affordable at £10/m².

I approached the task with the naivety of someone who has never tiled before — enthused by how it could potentially look, and reassured by the offer of some guidance from my dad. However, there are a few reasons why the odds were stacked against me and this was never going to be a fun DIY project:

  1. I couldn’t get the old tiles off the wall. So I had to tile over them which meant extra build-up, worry about the power of tile adhesive, and having to come up with a way to disguise the double tile thickness on the corner of the wall.
  2. The old tiles had a border that sticks out about half an inch more than the tiles above and below. I couldn’t get it off, or tile over it, so I have had to resort to a thin strip of tile paint (more on this later).
  3. Our ceiling slopes and there are awkward edges, which gave me plenty of fiddly tile cutting sessions.
  4. Metro tiles are meant to be arranged in a brick bond pattern which makes calculating your spacing just that little bit more difficult. Anything narrower than 2cm is hard to cut with a tile cutter so when planning the layout, I had to be sure that I wasn’t going to be left with very narrow spaces to fill.

Hurdles a plenty, but I got stuck in. The first job was to thoroughly clean the old tiles to give the adhesive the best chance possible. My worry about the adhesive working on existing tiles was misplaced — it had no trouble sticking and the lumps left all over my bath are evidence of its staying power.

Next, I put a basecoat of paint on the border. You can get special tilepaint, but nobody had a small tin of the colour I wanted. Instead I went for a multipurpose tile/plastic/metal paint. Reviews weren’t amazing for the tilepaints I could find, or the product I went for, but with little choice I thought I would give it a try. The first coat went on well, but the abrasive grout and adhesive have worked some of it off since. It is due a couple more coats anyway.

Grey painted tile border
Shiny tile painted border. It looks more grey than lavender purple in real life

I left the painted border to dry and started tiling the next day (a Sunday). My dad came and showed me how to do the first row, checked I had got it level (as that sets the level for the rest of your tiles), then he left me to it. I got about half way up a 3x2m wall before I had to have some dinner and call it a night. It went well and I was fairly proud of what I had done so far — in fact, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it.

However, my love for tiling turned out to be incredibly short lived. The problem is that in the evening when you get home from work, the last thing you want to do is tile, and if you force yourself to, fatigue can quickly have a negative effect on the quality of your work. I therefore had to do the job in sessions over the next week or so, slowly working my way past various checkpoints: the ‘big’ wall; the awkward sloped wall under the stairs; the tricky tiles round the pipes for the shower…

Tiling the bathroom
If you can, avoid tiling over tiles as it causes issues

And, nobody warns you about how dry your hands will get. A combination of sanding tile edges and slathering yourself in adhesive quickly saps every last bit of moisture out of your mitts. One evening, my hands were so cracked and sore that I had to call it a night after seeing my own blood on the wall.

The real low point though, was when I booked the day off work for my birthday, then spent the whole day standing in the bath tiling. I started at 8:30, had a small break for lunch, then got interrupted when the electricians turned up to finish some bits and bobs. After they left I cracked on and didn’t finish till 6pm when I had to stop because we were going out for dinner. Dinner was lovely, but eating tapas with hands which are dry and caked in tile adhesive that won’t come off put a bit of a downer on it. Happy birthday to me.

I was on the home straight though. All I had left was the hardest bits — the awkward edges and the last row up to the sloping ceiling. I completed this on a sad, sad Friday night while my peers were probably quaffing cider in a beer garden.

With the tiles stuck onto the wall, my next job was grouting. Being the stylish individual I am, I had chosen a grey grout to go between my white metro tiles (anyone who says the look is on its way out can tell that to my permanently chapped hands). Grouting looked fairly straightforward (I thought), so I was left to my own devices on this one. I mixed up the grout according to the instructions which suggested aiming to do the whole lot with one batch to avoid colour variance. I do as I’m told, so mixed it up and got to work quickly as the instructions said I had 15–20 minutes before it would start to set.

It turned out I had about five minutes before it started to set… I’m not entirely sure why, as other people who have used the product were bemused when I told them that within ten minutes my wooden spoon (for mixing) had firmly set in the bucket of grout. Then shortly after that steam started coming off it. The bucket got pretty hot so I took it outside and – once it had cooled down – the bucket, wooden spoon, and about 4kg of solid grout ended up in the bin.

Tiled and grouted shower walls
Tiled, grouted and shower installed

Fortunately I had a spare bag of grout, so I decided to ignore the instructions this time and mix up tiny batches as I went along. This was far more successful and there is no variation in colour.

By the end of last Sunday I had finally finished. I’m happy with how it looks considering it is my first attempt at tiling. It might also be my last — I think my soul is now residing somewhere behind those metro tiles.

finished bathroom with glass bathscreen
  • Cate James

    You couldn’t get the old tiles off the wall and despite that fact your job is perfect!

  • Lindsey profile picture
    Lindsey Davis

    How kind. Thanks Cate.

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