Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Designing a bathroom is fun and exciting… and really overwhelming. There’s just about a million choices to make. And, with a bathroom, every design element must be chosen for its functionality as well. Take the shower, for example. Oftentimes the focal point of a bathroom, shower design is important, but it also has to work efficiently. What’s the best shower surface for décor and function?
Does a shower wall need to be tiled? The shortest answer is no, a shower doesn’t technically need to be tiled, for functionality or design purposes. Tile is just one of many options when it comes to designing and building a shower.
However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t opt for a tiled shower. Whether you’re giving your current shower a facelift or starting from scratch in a brand new bathroom build, there are a few hoops to jump through when choosing what you want the shower to look like, and how to keep it working efficiently. Keep reading for more information to help you choose what’s right for you… to tile, or not to tile.
Does a Shower Wall Have to be Tiled?
Again, no, it one does not. A shower wall does not have to be tiled. In fact, there are un-tiled showers that are already made, sitting at a home improvement store, waiting to be taken home and installed right now. This very minute. And they’re not tiled, but rather a combo of plastic and fiberglass.
Tile is not the end all be all when it comes to a shower that’s waterproof, and aesthetically pleasing. There are many options out there, like the one we just talked about.
Then Why are so Many Showers Tiled?
Tiled surfaces are ideal for bathrooms for a couple of different reasons. It’s one of the most common, if not the most common choice for showers.
Probably the most important factor in walling in the shower is picking out a waterproof material. Since showers are used for, well, showering, the walls should be made of something that can be used frequently and prevent water from leaving the area.
Tile comes in just about every single color and shape imaginable. No matter what color scheme you have in mind, there’s no doubt a tile that will fit right in and help give you the shower of your dreams.
Although this is more important for the flooring of a shower, it’s worth noting when discussing shower walls, too. Showers can be dangerous places for some of us that are more on the clumsy side, so a non-slip wall is crucial in making sure a little slide doesn’t become a full-on fall.
Bathrooms, along with other areas where there’s heavy humidity and moisture, are the perfect hiding place for all kinds of nasty bacteria. Tile is a surface that’s easy to clean and doesn’t allow for bacteria to get down in the nooks and crannies and start little bacteria families. Many tiles, such as ceramic, are also free of the following harsh chemicals and components that can be potentially dangerous to your health:
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Different Kinds of Tiles for Shower Walls
As we mentioned, the possibilities for tiles are just about endless. Seeing all of the different options in tiles can be really inspiring, or it can make your head spin with all of the choices available. These are the most common options that are used in tiling shower walls.
Marble and Stone Tile
Marble and stone tiles give the overall luxury that some want in a shower. However, this does come with a hefty price tag. Marble and stone tiles are also fairly fragile and need professional installation.
Not only is it important that these tiles are installed properly, but they also require more maintenance than other tile options. Marble and stone tiles need to be sealed and then resealed. This prevents staining and discoloration.
Marble and stone tiles are also limited in options because they’re naturally sourced. They’re not man-made materials.
There’s also no such thing as good, affordable marble. In order for marble tiles to be efficient shower materials, they need to be of a higher grade. But, if budget isn’t a factor and you’re looking for a wow factor, then marble and stone tiles are an option.
Glass is fairly new on the shower tile scene if you consider how long some of the others have been around. Ceramic and porcelain tiles, for example, have been used for literally centuries.
Glass tiles are a popular choice because they can make a shower look and feel bigger, thanks to the ability for light to pass through the individual tiles. All that light and reflection is great to have in a shower, that can already feel small.
Another bonus of glass tile is the cleanup factor. With just a little glass cleaner, your tile will look just as shiny as it did when it was new. Showers are easily infiltrated by soap scum, but glass cleaner can take care of that too. Vinegar is another way to keep the glass looking new and fresh.
Many choose glass tiles to fit a more modern design in a shower, but because it is so versatile, it can be adapted to fit just about any style. Glass tiles are also budget-friendly since there are just so many out there to choose from.
Although they’re actually ancient materials, porcelain and ceramic tiles are tried and true. This is the most popular option because they’ve been around for so long, and they’ve proven they’re worthy of efficiently tiling a shower.
Porcelain/ceramic tiles are incredibly low maintenance. Part of their fabrication includes a process that leaves them covered in a protective glaze, which also means they’re easy to clean. Bonus!
Again, you’ve got options in this tile department. Because ceramic tiles are man-made, they can be created to fit any style or design. There are actually companies that will make a custom tile, so these tiles are really anything you can imagine.
Reasons to Not Tile
Tile is the most common shower choice. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to think about on the other side… the non-tile side. While there are plenty of tile advocates out there that are firm believers, there are a few reasons to not tile. Here’s a few of those to ponder, before committing to tiling a shower wall.
Joints & Seams
Tile requires grout. This can be an interesting design element, and it serves the purpose of keeping the tile in its respective place. It’s also part of the overall tiling system that gives tile shower walls their strength and waterproof behavior.
But joints and seams are also weak spots if they’re not taken care of properly. Grout can crack, leading to broken tiles or holes that are not so waterproof. Although this isn’t inevitable, it does take a certain level of care and caution for tile walls to not crack and crumble where there’s grout.
Can be Tricky to Clean and Maintain
Many tiles can be wiped down in order to stay clean. But the grout takes a little bit more time and energy. There are lots of special cleaning products that can be used to keep grout clean, but the bottom line is that they’re not easy to use, and cleaning grout isn’t fun.
If the grout isn’t sealed and tended to, then it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and other yucky things. So even though nobody wants to clean the grout, the alternative is much worse.
The Floor is Another Challenge
If you do choose to tile the shower wall, then there’s still the floor to deal with. You can spend more money to have it tiled, or you can go with a premade floor or pan. The tiled floor will look nice, but just tags on more money to the budget. So, many opt for the floor pan.
This also is hard to keep clean, especially since a lot of the time, they’re white or beige in color. The part of the shower where the tile or floor plan meets the wall can also be left open to potential leaks. With shifting and settling in flooring, the bottom of the shower can separate from the tiled wall, leaving it open to all kinds of issues.
If you want the tile done right, it’s probably going to take a professional to do it. There are way too many things that can go wrong. So, unless you’re really confident in your tiling skills, not to mention your measuring abilities, attention span, and patience, then it’s best to leave it to a professional.
Also, finding someone that’s a quality professional can be a little more challenging than it might initially appear. The possibility of things that can go wrong without an experienced professional is long… really long. And trust me, you don’t want to learn that the hard way. It’s best to ask for references and even a portfolio when looking for someone to do your tile work.
Requires Lots of Tools
Let’s say you’re ready to take on the tile task yourself. And you’re pretty sure you won’t end up with crooked shower walls. Tiling still requires a lot of tools. Not just regular tools that are most likely in your garage, or even your neighbor’s.
The amount that you’ll probably spend on tools, in addition to the tile and grout, might be equal to the amount you’d spend on a professional. Then, you’re left with a bunch of tools you probably won’t need again, especially if the project was a little less fun than you’d originally hoped.
Tile Can be Pricey
In addition to finding someone to install the tile, if you want something that looks really great, you’ll have to be ready to shell out some major cash. Tiling a large space like a shower wall can get expensive, and that’s just for the tile alone, not even including the professional.
While the materials that are actually used to make the tiles might be strong and easy to clean, the grout in between, as we discussed, is a different story. Dropping a giant bottle of shampoo in just the right spot on the grout can cause a chip or a crack.
If a tiny crack or chip isn’t taken care of right away, water can get under the tiles and wreak all kinds of havoc. Tiles can end up broken, but even worse, you could have serious leaks and water damage to deal with.
So, What’s Out There in the Non-Tile Department?
Yes, most choose tile for bathrooms, for any of the reasons we mentioned. But, if you’re just not sure about whether or not tile is right for you, or you’re like me, and you don’t want to commit to any decision until you know there’s nothing better, then consider these tile alternatives.
Stone resin gives tile a run for its money in the longevity department. Although the upfront cost is more than most tile options, its durability makes it last longer than any other option. And it looks great. This means you have to be really confident in your design choice if you’re going to commit to installing stone resin shower walls.
If home to you is somewhere that can get cold, then this might be a great option. Stone resin does stay warm underneath your toes. But this makes the choice of texture extra important, because a surface that’s too smooth will definitely be more slippery when wet.
This choice also earns points for being resistant to nearly anything bad, including:
A marble slab can be customized to fit any shower, but it’s almost always even more expensive than marble tiles. Marble is an entirely custom based option, with no two marble showers being identical.
But, not only is marble very costly upfront due to the fact that it’s created for a specific space, but it also requires a lot of maintenance and care to ensure that it’s always looking its best. However, if the marble is properly cared for, then it can last basically forever. And, like stone resin, it’s resistant to chipping and scratching, as well as mold.
Because these are actual panels made of solid materials, there are no seams. This makes them even more efficient in waterproofing. In addition to the seamlessness, there’s an extra level of coverage because the acrylic is laced with glass fibers, making it a completely non-porous surface.
Again, points here for this material is easy to clean. It’s smooth with no hidden spaces for mold or bacteria to hide out. Acrylic panels are also a great choice because they’re durable and don’t crack or dent easily.
With the growing popularity of modern and industrial design, stainless steel has been making its way into the home in recent years. But even more recently, stainless steel has found a home in shower design. This material is possibly the ultimate in sleek, contemporary design.
While it’s growing in popularity, stainless steel sheets do require more maintenance and upkeep in order to ensure they stay looking their best and working their best. Stainless steel showers have to be properly installed by a professional. They require caulking in between panels, and behind panels, with silicone.
Stainless steel also takes a commitment to cleaning. It takes a lot of elbow grease to clean a stainless steel shower, but it also must be done often. With proper care, a stainless steel shower can be very long-lasting.
We did briefly mention PVC showers earlier, but here’s a little more in-depth glance, in case you’re considering this tile alternative. Showers that are constructed out of PVC panels are often the most affordable option, and they’re easy to install.
PVC panels in a shower are great because they’re seamless, like acrylic panels. There is no possibility of mold or bacteria growing on the panels themselves. And, without seams, water can’t get behind the shower and cause issues either.
PVC panels are also durable, which makes them a good fit for children’s bathrooms, or other places that need to be cleaned frequently, and can handle being bumped into with tub toys here and there.
A shower made from PVC panels is affordable and looks nice. If it’s kept clean, it can last quite a while. Not to mention, if something does happen and it requires repair, it can be done easily without costing a small fortune.
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