For my master bathroom update I knew from the start I wanted to put white marble somewhere. After seeing all my bathroom inspiration I wanted it even more. I have these two large niches over each side of the drop-in bathtub that were left empty by the builder. I thought they would be perfect for marble tile. It’s week 5 of the One Room Challenge and this week I’m sharing all about the self-install process of my marble tile niches.
I’ve never installed tile of any kind before. Of all the projects in my design plan I am not sure why I chose to DIY the tile installation. I guess my husband and I just thought it would be something new to try. Maybe we’d also save some money if we did it ourselves, and I thought it would be hard to find someone willing to do such a small job. Also a reason why we thought we’d give it a try. It was a relatively small job, only two 2.5’ x 5’ niches that would never get wet and didn’t require any waterproofing. Seems manageable right?
Picking the tile
Picking the tile was the easiest part of this whole process.
- Material – I knew I wanted white marble with light gray veins. Naturally, I was quick to choose Carrara White.
- Shape – I considered a classic subway tile but decided I wanted more pattern to make it more interesting. The niches are actually quite big (5 feet tall by 2.5 feet wide), so I thought a hexagon shape would give it a softer pattern with fewer straight lines than subway tile. Penny tiles crossed my mind for a fleeting moment, but I knew it was going to be too busy and a little too retro. Hexagon marble tile seemed like a good classic but modern choice.
- Size – I originally thought the 1” tile was a good bet. I got samples of the 1” and the 2” size which I’m glad I did, because the 1” just looked too small against the large niche. Again, I wanted pattern but still wanted to see the marble come through. I didn’t want to have too many grout lines, because it would have been too busy for me and it would take away from the beauty of the marble.
Purchasing the tile
I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to buy this tile. It’s offered in a lot of places including online. I first went to a local seller of all things kitchen and bath to take a look in person and get an estimate. Then I shopped around online. Even places like Wayfair offer the 2” marble tile* and 1” marble tile*. I also did a general search on Google and several vendors came up. I ended up purchasing mine from Marble Online because they seemed to be the best price per sheet and specialize in marble tile. The tile came in 1’ x 1’ sheets, and the individual tiles were attached to a mesh backing.
Normally, I wouldn’t suggest buying natural stone materials from an online vendor I’ve never used before, because it is hard to say what the quality will be like. However, I was comfortable with it in this case, because I was getting small 2” tiles so I wasn’t so concerned with minor differences in veining or color variation. If you are concerned with those, especially with larger tiles where it could be more apparent then you may want to purchase from a place that offers some degree of confidence and will work with you if pieces need to be replaced or returned. I’d definitely suggest getting samples at a minimum.
Prepping mainly included buying all the materials and supplies we would need for installing the tile ourselves and protecting the work area. Since it was our first time tiling we had almost nothing.
- Tile Saw – We definitely did some research online as to how to cut tile, specifically natural stone like marble. The type of equipment and blades could be different for ceramic vs. glass vs. stone tiles. We were debating between a non-powered score and cut system, tile nippers, or going all out and getting the wet tile saw which pumps water while you’re cutting (like what the pros use). We decided on the wet tile saw, because it sounded like our best bet for cutting marble from what we read. We purchased this one from Lowe’s which is the smallest tabletop version. Places like Home Depot also rent wet tile saws so that could be an option if you don’t want to purchase.
- Mortar – We bought the pre-mixed stuff. It may not be the best from a professional’s viewpoint, but we didn’t want to deal with the mess of mixing powder mortar. We also didn’t want to buy additional tools for the mixing. It’s definitely more expensive than the dry mortar, but we ended up only needing one bucket because we didn’t have a lot to tile. It may not be economical for large surfaces, but it was convenient and easy. We got this one. We did read from different sources that people had problems with pre-mixed adhesive not drying but we gave it a try anyway.
- Grout – We also bought the pre-mixed grout in white. We were worried about not being able to get the powder grout consistency right and having the grout crack or fall out on us. We’ve had this problem before with a professional’s work. I probably would not recommend the pre-mixed unless you truly do not want to mix dry grout, which was us. The reason is because it only comes in a few colors. Even though we just used white it was still not as white as I hoped after drying. It was pretty convenient though! Ready to use straight out of the bucket.
- Tools – We got the minimum which was a small and a large tile trowel (we didn’t really use the small one much), a grout float (all this new vocabulary for me!), and a sponge, all at Home Depot. You’ll also need a level, a bucket for water, and measuring tape which we had.
- Protection – We had plastic sheets and paper left from prior projects so we used this to cover up the area. Blue tape is helpful too.
Installing the Marble Tile
Finally, it was time to install the tile. Here are all our steps.
- We measured the area of the niche that we would be tiling which was the back wall. In an ideal world you would probably measure and cut as you go, and in hindsight we should have. But our tile saw was set up in the garage which was a far ways and flight of stairs from the bathroom. So we decided to measure and cut all the pieces we needed all at once, though we did complete one niche first then went back and cut for the other niche. Using the tile saw was tricky at first, and little chunks of marble would get nicked off. But in time, my husband got the hang of it and the cuts were smoother. It was messy though, as you can see. Definitely set it up outside if possible and cover the surfaces. It was raining that day so we ended up in the garage. Also, cutting small 2” tiles is definitely no easy task. You can’t really get a good grasp of the tile without getting your fingers dangerously close to the blade. So our cuts weren’t the most even but it was ok because the cut edge would be around the perimeter of the niche and we were going to caulk over it anyway. Larger tile pieces would probably be easier. Also, having the tile on sheets of mesh was not that helpful either. The tiles move around and everything gets wet making the adhesive tacky. We had to leave each sheet to dry after cutting so the dampness wouldn’t affect the mortar.
This measuring and cutting part was rather tedious and not very fun.
- Since this niche is over the bathtub and we would never be splashing water on it we were not worried about waterproofing the area. So we just tiled right over the drywall. We first sanded down the paint because it had just been painted with a satin sheen and we didn’t want it to affect the adhesive.
- Now we get to the fun part when you actually see the tile go up! We started spreading the mortar over the surface in sections. We just simply followed the directions on the product. In our prep phase we also did a little research online for how-tos. It was straightforward and we didn’t worry much about the mortar lines being perfect.
- Placing the tile on the wall was a bit trickier because of how small the tiles were and that they were on flexible mesh sheets. It was hard to keep all the tiles evenly spaced and even harder to keep even spacing between sheets of tile. We tried using spacers but those didn’t help much because they kept falling off the wall. We were going for 1/16 inch space. We needed both of us together to place the tiles on the wall, hold the pieces in place while adjusting all the tiles as much as we could before the tiles were completely stuck in place to the mortar. I think larger single tiles would have been much easier.
- After we got both niches tiled we left them overnight for the mortar to dry. I was worried about the mortar not drying overnight based on what I read because we needed to finish this project in this weekend, but we didn’t end up having that issue. Maybe if you live in a humid place or if the tiles were really damp from cutting it might affect the mortar.
- Next, we grouted the tiles. Grouting was actually fun and pretty easy. It’s exciting to see the completed look take shape when you get the grout in.
This was a pretty quick process. One thing I’d do differently is to tape off the wall around the tile area. We kept getting grout on the freshly painted walls of the niche and after it dried it was hard to remove. We ended up having to sand it down and repaint it but now the wall texture is not quite the same. Blue tape would have solved all that.
- Cleaning was the least fun. After grouting we had to wipe down the whole surface with a sponge and clean water to remove the grout on the surface of the tile. However, it wasn’t that easy because we kept removing some of the grout within the grout lines. We’d have to fill them back up. I wanted to clean as much as possible because I read about the horrors of removing dried grout film from your beautiful polished marble tile. We cleaned the niches down about 3 times and hoped for the best. We let the grout dry overnight.
- The next day there was definitely a haze of grout residue which made the marble tile look dull and dark. When I started scrubbing with just a damp sponge it seemed to come off so with some elbow grease we were able to remove the haze. Thank goodness!
- One of the big challenges of this project was getting the tile cuts as straight as possible. We placed all the tile cuts on the perimeter of the niche so there were only full tiles in the center. We did this so that we could use caulk to cover up the rough edges. We also had a bit of a mishap with measuring the second niche. Somehow we ended up with a pretty big (about ¼ inch) gap on the right side between the tile and wall. I think it was a combination of minor mistakes in measuring, cutting and tiling that added up to a big gap. To cover up our measuring and tiling mishaps we had to caulk pretty thickly on that side. Good thing is that it is on the edge you can’t see unless you lean over the tub to look at it. Hope noone but me will do that!
This was a full weekend project for us. We prepped the room on Friday night and started cutting and tiling on Saturday morning. We grouted on Sunday. Finally, we cleaned up the haze and caulked on a subsequent weeknight. And it was only two niches! For the more experienced, they probably could have completed it much faster. It was a really good experience though! And I’m thrilled with how it turned out!
Have you tiled before? What have been your biggest challenges? Any tips and tricks you go by? Share below!
Update! Read about the project’s progress:
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