Choosing the right tile for your bathtub area is an important decision that can dramatically affect the look and feel of your bathroom. With so many tile options on the market, it can be overwhelming to decide which material is best suited for your bathtub surround. This comprehensive guide will walk you through all the factors to consider when selecting tile for a bathtub installation.

Determine the Tile Layout

The first step is deciding on the layout for your bathtub tile. Carefully measure the dimensions of the wall area to be tiled. Then, map out the pattern you want to achieve. Here are some popular tile layout options for bathtubs:

Subway Tile

This classic style consists of rectangular tiles installed in a brickwork pattern. Subway tiles come in glossy or matte finishes. They create a clean, linear look. Make sure to use smaller grout lines (1/8 inch or less) to get the true subway tile visual.

Stacked Tile

Stacking rectangular or square tiles vertically produces a trendy, modern aesthetic. Offset the vertical joints in a running bond pattern for more interest. This layout works best on relatively small tub surrounds.


The herringbone pattern has tiles set in an interlocking zigzag design. It brings great visual appeal, but requires more cutting and effort to install. If going for a herringbone look, use small mosaic tiles or elongated subway tiles.

Large Format Tile

Oversized tiles exceeding 12 inches on the longest side can make a dramatic statement. Focus the large tiles on one wall to create a focal point. Use care during installation to keep the grout lines straight and uniform.

Mosaic Tile

Tiny mosaic tiles installed in decorative patterns add lovely ornamental details. Use mosaic tiles alone or combine them with larger tiles. Pay close attention to proper grout coverage so the mosaic design does not get lost.

Take measurements and sketch your planned tile layout on graph paper before purchasing materials. This will help calculate the quantities of tile and trim pieces needed.

Choose the Right Tile Material

Tile comes in a vast array of materials, each with their own characteristics. Assess the advantages and disadvantages of each type to select the best option for your bathtub area.

Ceramic Tile

Ceramic is one of the most common choices for tub surrounds. It comes glazed or unglazed, matte or shiny. Pros of ceramic tile include:

  • Budget-friendly pricing
  • Easy to clean and maintain
  • Wide range of styles, colors, shapes
  • Resists moisture and humidity
  • Durable and long-lasting

Be aware that the hard material can be prone to cracking or chipping. Select tiles rated for high durability and wet locations.

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tile has an extremely low water absorption rate, making it ideal for wet areas like bathtubs. Other perks include:

  • Highly stain and scratch resistant
  • Easy to clean
  • Color and pattern consistency
  • Withstands heavy use
  • Does not need sealing

Porcelain tiles are more expensive than ceramic. The very dense composition also makes them heavier and harder to cut.

Natural Stone Tile

For a luxurious, spa-like look, natural stone tiles bring unrivaled beauty and flair. Types like marble, travertine, limestone, and granite provide unique veining, swirls, and colors. Downsides are the high cost and required ongoing sealing.

Glass Tile

Glazed and frosted glass tiles lend a shiny, sleek contemporary vibe. They easily wipe clean but are prone to shattering. Use glass tiles sparingly in low-impact areas like above the faucet.

Mosaic Tile

Mosaics made of tiny ceramic, porcelain, or glass tiles allow for tremendous design flexibility. Drawbacks are the labor-intensive installation and grout maintenance required. Make sure mosaic sheets have uniform thickness for a flat finish.

Metal Tile

Metal tiles in materials like stainless steel, copper, and bronze make a seriously stylish statement. Aside from the premium price tag, metal can dent and the surface may oxidize over time.

Think about the overall look you want to achieve, as well as your budget, when deciding on a tile material. Ceramic and porcelain tiles offer versatility and durability at reasonable cost for most bathtub installations.

Choose the Right Size

Picking the proper tile size depends on the proportions of your tub surround, the selected layout pattern, and your personal preference. Here are some general size guidelines:

  • Small tile with grout lines of 1/8 inch or less works best for busy mosaic patterns.
  • Medium 4×4 inch, 4×8 inch, or 6×6 inch tiles provide flexibility and easy installation.
  • Long rectangular subway tiles, 4×12 inch or 4×16 inch, deliver a classic linear look.
  • Oversized 12×24 inch tiles or larger make a bold statement but require precise installation.
  • Mixing tile sizes and laying them in varying orientations adds visual appeal.
  • Keeping tiles under 16 inches long or wide simplifies cutting and fitting.

Measure to find sizes that minimize small sliver tiles. Don’t mix tiny mosaic tiles with large-format tiles, as the difference can look disjointed.

Choose Coordinating Colors

Selecting tile colors to match or complement your bathroom’s overall color palette is key for a cohesive look. Here are smart strategies:

  • Neutral white or light tiles visually expand smaller bathrooms.
  • Go bold with a vibrant tile color or pattern as an accent wall against subdued main tiles.
  • Match tile to existing fixtures like the sink or vanity for a pulled-together design.
  • Contrasting grout color can make tile patterns pop.
  • Limiting tile colors and patterns avoids a busy, chaotic appearance.

Look at color samples and layout mockups to envision the finished scheme before purchasing. Keep future changing trends in mind for more long-lasting appeal.

Consider Texture and Finish

The texture and surface finish of tub surround tiles also affect the aesthetic. Considerations include:


  • Reflective, mirror-like shine
  • Enhances colors and patterns
  • Easier to clean
  • Can show flaws and water spots


  • Subdued, soft, natural appearance
  • Hides grout haze and imperfections
  • More slip-resistant


  • Adds dimension and visual interest
  • Grout collects in crevices requiring vigilance to keep clean


  • Intricate designs like moroccan fish scale or arabesque
  • Conceals dirt and masks grout lines
  • Challenging to install perfectly

The tile finish you select should coordinate with the overall design and function of the space.

Get the Right Backerboard

Bathtub areas require an appropriate backerboard or underlayment to provide a durable, water-resistant foundation for tile installation. Good options include:

Cement Board

The cementitious material is inherently waterproof. Look for products approved for wet areas like WonderBoard Lite.

Fiber-Cement Board

With similar performance to cement board, brands like HardieBacker are lightweight and score and snap easily.

Coated Glass Mat Board

Fiberglass mats coated with waterproof acrylic resin like DensShield tile backer resist moisture damage.


Sheet-style products like Schluter Kerdi create a waterproofing layer over drywall or other substrates.

Any joints, corners, and gaps must be properly treated with fiberglass mesh tape and thinset mortar. Follow all manufacturer instructions for proper installation. A waterproof backerboard is essential to avoid deterioration and warping.

Pick Durable, Water-Resistant Grout

Grout fills the joints between tiles. For bathtub surrounds, epoxy or polymer-modified grout is best. Features to look for include:

  • Water-repellent formula with antimicrobial product protection
  • Stainproof and chemical resistant
  • Minimizes porosity and resists cracking
  • Higher flexural strength
  • Available in multiple colors

Stay away from traditional cement-based grout. It readily absorbs water and stains. Match the grout color to the tile or choose a contrasting tone. Apply a grout sealer after installation for added protection.

Account for Plumbing Fixtures

When determining tile placement, carefully plot out the location of any bathtub plumbing fixtures. Prepare to cut tiles to fit neatly around:

  • Faucet and handles
  • Showerhead
  • Spout
  • Soap dish
  • Grab bars
  • Shelves
  • Drain overflow plate

Floating shelves, soap dishes, and grab bars installed over tile require drilling into the backing material, so position tiles to allow space for mounting hardware. Careful tile cutting and placement ensures all fixtures integrate harmoniously.

Factor in Bathtub Design

Selecting tile for a bathtub surround requires taking the tub design into consideration:

  • Alcove tub: Tile the three vertical walls and sidewalls. Use bullnose caps or Schluter trim at outside edges.
  • Drop-in tub: Tile the apron vertical front face only. Tile up to the tub lip edge.
  • Freestanding tub: Only tile the wall area behind and around the tub perimeter.
  • Clawfoot tub: Typically no tiling; install tile wainscoting or other wall treatment instead.

Measure the exact clearances to the tub body. Allow a small gap for caulk between the tub lip and bottom tiles. Coordinate the tile style and dimensions with the specific tub installation type.

Create Accent Details

Adding special tile accents creates distinctive designer touches:


Highlight horizontal bands or vertical stripes with decorative mosaic tiles, metal tiles, or glass tiles.


Frame the perimeter with a border tile in a contrasting color, material, or mosaic pattern.


Cut a recessed opening to hold bath products. Line it with glass, marble, or decorative tiles.


Extend tiling from the tub surround up to the ceiling or a few inches higher for drama.


Run a border of mosaic tiles, baseboards, or wood trim around the bottom perimeter of wainscoting.

Integrate accents that enhance the theme. Use unique materials conservatively to control costs and prevent overwhelming the space.

Make a Proper Tile Selection for Your Budget

Bathroom tile comes in a very wide range of prices. Setting an appropriate budget and tile allowance per square foot is essential.

Good quality tile material options in order of affordability include:

  • Ceramic
  • Porcelain
  • Stone Composite
  • Glass
  • Natural Stone

Ways to reduce overall tile expenses:

  • Use small-format tile sizes with lower material costs per tile
  • Limit higher cost accents like stone, glass, or metal to smaller areas
  • Install tile on a single feature wall instead of multiple walls and shower enclosure
  • Choose simple tile patterns like brick or stacked
  • Use trim pieces judiciously
  • Opt for lower labor-intensive installation with medium-format tiles

Prioritize spending on functional shower and floor tiles. Splurge on a few special statement tiles instead of using premium-priced materials everywhere. Plan tile choices that align with your budget framework.

Order Extra Tiles for Replacements

It is wise to order 5-10% more tile than your measurements calculate. Having spare tiles allows replacing damaged or stained tiles in the future. Extra tile comes in handy for repairs from:

  • Heavy objects nicking or cracking tiles
  • Grout or caulk deteriorating over time
  • Tiles getting broken during renovations or plumbing repairs

Store extra tiles from the same production lot together to avoid any slight color variation with new tile. Keep extra grout as well. Label tiles clearly as bathtub surround spares.

Planning ahead for possible tile replacements saves significant hassle and cost down the road. It also provides peace of mind.

Hire a Professional Tile Installer

Tiling a bathtub surround is an advanced DIY project requiring specialized tools, materials, and techniques. The challenging wet environment calls for a meticulous installation. Investing in a professional tile setter is highly recommended for best results.

Seek an experienced tile installer that has demonstrated expertise tiling tub enclosures. Verify they are properly licensed and insured. Some key advantages of hiring a pro include:

  • Knowledge of building codes and recommended methods for wet areas
  • Proper use of specialized cutting tools and materials
  • Meticulous attention to detailed prep work and planning
  • Controlled thinset mortar application and grout installation
  • Efficient problem-solving if unexpected issues arise
  • Access to tile repair materials in case future fixes are ever needed

Avoid headaches and risks by hiring a seasoned bath tile installation specialist. They have the skills to complete the job correctly and transform your bathtub area beautifully.

Bathtub Tile FAQs

Still have questions about selecting the perfect tile to surround your bathtub? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What kind of tile is best for a bathtub surround?

Porcelain and ceramic tiles stand up best to moist bathtub conditions. Choose tiles with at least an ANSI A137.1 P1 water absorption rating. Mosaic sheets and small formats simplify installation.

How do I waterproof walls before tiling a bathtub?

Install cement backerboard rated for wet areas. Treat seams and joints with thinset and fiberglass mesh tape. Apply a waterproofing membrane over cement board for added leakage protection.

Should tile go over the lip of the bathtub?

It is not recommended. Cut tiles to butt neatly against the tub lip. Allow a slight gap for caulk. Going over the curved lip risks cracking and a poor bond.

What thinset mortar is best for bathtub tile?

Use a polymer-modified thinset mortar meeting ANSI 118.4 requirements. It has enhanced adhesion and resists moisture damage. White thinset shows through light glass or stone tiles.

Can I install 12×24 inch tiles on a bathtub surround?

Yes, but large format tiles require a very flat substrate and precise installation to keep grout line alignment straight. Make sure underlying framing meets deflection standards.

Should bathtub tile go all the way to the ceiling?

Tiling to the ceiling makes a bold design statement. But it requires cutting multiple full sheets widthwise above the tub. An alternate partial height treatment like wainscoting may be preferable.

How long does bathtub tile installation take?

The total timeline varies based on the tile format, wall area, and accessories. Allow at least 2-3 full days for proper prep work, setting tile, and grouting. Curing and sealing will require additional days before using the shower.


Installing tile on your bathtub walls not only protects against moisture damage, but also allows making a stylish decorative statement. Carefully planning all the tile options from layout, materials, sizes, colors, accessories, and budget considerations ensures your new tub surround achieves the perfect aesthetic and performance objectives. Partnering with a professional tile setter skilled in bath environments is highly recommended. With some thoughtful planning using the guidelines above, you’ll be sure to have a stunning tile finish surrounding your bathtub for years to come.