Bathtub and shower walls take a beating — going from cool and dry to hot and steamy in minutes — and the wear can sneak up on you. Whether you enjoy long, leisurely baths or prefer to quickly hose off after a hard day’s work, the condition of your bathtub and shower surround is important. Installing a new tub and shower surround will not only improve the appearance of your bathroom, it will also help prevent the potential damage caused by water penetrating into the walls.
Understanding your tub and shower surround kit options
The term surround refers to the covering on the walls above a bathtub or shower floor. Only waterproof materials should be used in these locations; the two most common choices are tile and manufactured surrounds.
Tile is popular because it is durable and comes in a wide variety of styles and materials, but it does have drawbacks. The installation process is labor-intensive, and because many types of tile and grout are porous, a tile surround often requires significant maintenance to stay clean.
Instead of tile, I chose to install a manufactured surround. Often sold as kits designed to fit in a variety of bathtub or shower spaces, manufactured surrounds are easy to install, and because they are nonporous, they are also easy to maintain.
In the past, tub surrounds have been criticized for their plain appearance, flimsy construction and poor performance. Considering that our previous surround didn’t perform well, you might think that I wouldn’t want another one. But newer models include many durable options in a variety of styles, materials and colors.
Choosing the right tub and shower surround kit
When selecting a manufactured surround, consider your installation situation, color and style preferences, how much storage you will require and any accessories you might want (such as soap dishes or grab bars).
Two basic types of surround kits are available: those that are nailed in place, often called nail-ups, and those that are attached with adhesive, often called glue-ups.
Nail-up surrounds feature a nailing flange that fastens directly to the studs, making them the most common choice in new construction. They can also be installed as part of a remodeling project, but the existing wall surface and bathtub will most likely need to be removed.
If you’re not sure about the condition of your walls, it is usually best to remove the existing wallcoverings and bathtub and start from scratch to avoid future problems. But keep in mind that replacing a bathtub can lead to more work, including patching or replacing the adjacent walls and flooring to accommodate the new tub size.
If your walls and tub are in good condition, you can consider a glue-up surround. These kits can be installed over any sound and securely attached existing wall surface — even tile provided that you scuff the surface first and use the appropriate adhesive.
Both nail-up and glue-up surrounds are available in a variety of styles, colors and materials ranging in quality and price from less than $100 to more than $1,000. Inexpensive kits are typically made of thin thermal-formed plastic that is lightweight and easy to handle but not very durable. This material tends to expand and contract with temperature changes, which can cause the adhesive to fail. It also often cracks around molded features such as soap dishes and becomes discolored when exposed to ultraviolet light.
The best surrounds feature rigid walls made of thicker material. Those that are made of a single solid material tend not to show chips and scratches as easily as painted surrounds.
Installation and maintenance
The biggest factor that affects how easy installation will be is the condition of your walls. Ideally they should be square, plumb, clean and smooth, but they don’t have to be perfect.
Start by removing the old surround or any loose tiles and wallpaper. Then thoroughly clean the walls. If you’re installing a new surround that is taller than the existing tiled area, you’ll need to add scrap tiles to extend the tile field to the new surround height. (Some surround manufacturers make a filler board especially for this purpose.)
Next, replace any missing pieces of wallboard. (Be sure to use water-resistant wallboard such as DensShield Tile Backer by Georgia Pacific.) Although walls should be as flat as possible, variations of less than 1/8 in. are not critical. Check both the surround and adhesive installation and application instructions for additional requirements. For example, some adhesives require that you prime the wall for optimal adhesion.
If your walls are not perfectly square, you may need to trim the panels to fit.
Once installation is complete, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions. Some surrounds should be cleaned with only nonabrasive cleansers, whereas many solid-surface surrounds can be sanded and buffed to remove just about any damage. Whichever type you select, wiping it down once a week with a damp rag will help to keep it looking new.
HOW-TO INSTALL A SOLID-SURFACE TUB AND SHOWER SURROUND
I chose to install a Swanstone Tub Surround Kit ($800-$1,300). I could have created a natural-stone tile surround for about the same price, but the benefits of easier installation, less maintenance, long-term durability (this kit features a limited lifetime warranty) and the solid-surface appearance justified the cost. The project took about 10 hours over the course of 3 days, including the plumber’s time to replace the faucet. With the new surround in place, however, we noticed that the existing cast-iron tub showed its age (a phenomenon I call “the remodeling domino effect”), so I decided to hire a professional crew to refinish the tub.
[Note: I actually installed this surround six years ago, so I'm adding a quick update about how well it has held up for my family of four. I am very happy with the product performance. It still looks great. It's easy to clean and has been very durable. -- Dan Cary]
Step 1: Remove the existing faucet trim. This is a trialand-error process that depends on the faucet and trim you are removing. Once the trim was removed, I cut away the old caulk and pulled out the old surround.
Step 2: I didn’t have adequate access to the faucet valve from the back of the wall, so I removed the wall around the faucet and hired a plumber to replace the old two-handle faucet with a single-handle thermostatic faucet valve.
Step 3: It is critical that you make accurate cutouts in the surround panels for the faucet and tub spout. Make a template out of cardboard, using masking tape to precisely outline the openings.
Step 4: Use a circular saw or jigsaw to cut the panels to fit each wall. Then mark and cut the openings for the faucet, tub spout and any recessed shelves. Use a fine-tooth blade or apply masking tape over the cut line to minimize chipping.
Step 5: Repair, clean and finish preparing the walls. Next, test-fit all of the panels. Clean the back of each panel and apply the adhesive before setting it in place, starting with the back panel and then attaching the side panels.
Step 6: Press each panel firmly in place. If the panel is warped or the wall is not flat, you may need to brace the panel until the adhesive sets.
Step 7: Install all accessories and trim. The wall opening for this recessed shelf was cut before the back panel was attached. Apply adhesive to the back edges of the shelves and trim. Temporarily secure parts with tape.
Step 8: Use a compass to scribe trim pieces such as this piece that extends down in front of the bathtub. Hold the piece against the tub and set the compass to match the distance that the full trim piece extends beyond the tub.
Step 9: A professional crew resurfaced the tub. After the resurfaced tub had cured, I caulked all of the seams between the tub and the surround, between the panel pieces and around thetrim and shelf pieces.