Let me tell you about the time I rebuilt our bathroom.
I probably should apologise up front as there isn’t going to be much messing about with wood in this post. There is a bit, and I’ll try and dwell on that to keep vaguely on track, but mostly this week is Messing About With Ceramics.
When I first moved in, the house was clearly well looked after, but was tired from being built in the 60s, extended in the 70s, and not really having had much done to it since. It needed bringing up to date. Some of the work needed was structural – the lighting circuit was 2-wire with no earth and its replacement was a condition of the mortgage. Some was fundamental – the window frames were single-glazed and wooden. Fortunately, most of the possible work was cosmetic – such as the Banister, which could’ve stayed as it was, but not if I was going to live with the thing for the next few decades. The same was true of the bathroom.
The décor of our street was very much of its time when it was built. Nowhere was this more obvious than in our bathrooms. Pastel was clearly de rigueur, and each house had a different delicate shade to its facilities. Over the road they had yellow, next door had a muted lime green, and the neighbours on the other side had burgundy. Mine was pastel blue. This was further offset by lilac tiles around the sink and blue pattern tiles over the bath that enveloped you as you walked in the room. By the new millennium, this was not easy on the eye.
The ceiling was covered in polystyrene tiles that, to be honest, frightened me a little. Oh, and the bath and the sinks throughout the house were fitted out with Supataps! I lost count of the times people said “Oh they’re really clever! You can change the washer without having to turn off the water supply.” Can you now? I wasn’t sure that was a good enough reason to hang on to them (although I do appreciate, they go for a small fortune on ebay these days…)
In short, the room had to change!
I decided to renew everything. New bath, new sink, new toilet, new shower and new radiator. The wall and ceiling tiles would be replaced, as would the carpet. The question was, do I bring in a plumber and builder to work for me? Or do I have a go at the refit myself? That wasn’t really a question. Of course, I was going to do it myself.
I needed a plan. Fundamental to that plan was the realisation that it was going to take a long while to complete. Unlike, say, a spare bedroom, it’s difficult to go without a functioning bathroom for any great period of time. Yes, there’s a toilet downstairs, and I could probably manage with other sinks for handwashing and shaving and so on. The house only has one bath/shower though, so that needed to be kept working throughout.
The first thing I did was take the toilet out and clear away some box-work that had been assembled over the pipes. This let me see how the room was supplied with water and how waste was taken away. Pipes went through the wall, from and to a cupboard in the adjacent bedroom that housed the hot water cylinder and the soil pipe. I chose to keep this arrangement. I would fit adapters to the pipes to convert from metric to imperial where necessary, and build new box-work to keep the pipes covered.
I decided to give the box-work a substantial top to form a strong and permanent shelf. I could then construct the rest of the box to hang from this shelf and be removable. This would make life easier if there were plumbing problems to be dealt with down the road. I bought a nice thick pine plank, and a set of sturdy brackets to mount this across the back of the room. A high section behind the toilet would be good for toiletries, and a lower section behind the sink would give somewhere for the obligatory array of cleaners and toilet brushes and so forth to stand.
I am still very proud of this box-work. Each piece of white-painted hardboard is held in place using concealed spring clips, and they fit together like puzzle pieces. I’m especially pleased with the shaped piece that sits under the toilet, with a curve cut to match the porcelain foot. This too unclips to give access, and when in place it nicely hides the toilet waste pipe.
There were a few places where the box-work needed close attention to get things to fit. I temporarily installed the new sink so that I could check how the shelf would fit behind it. I had to finesse the design a little, firstly cutting the shelf into two to allow for the pipes, and secondly shaving a centimetre off the edge to let the pedestal stand correctly and the wastepipe to connect up.
Next I needed a choice of tiles. Mostly the room would be tiled white, with a few smaller feature tiles to give some colour and interest. I would tile half way up the walls around the toilet and sink, and would tile to the ceiling around the bath, to allow for a shower.
The main thing I knew about tiling was the importance of establishing a good horizontal line. I figured out the best way to do this was to measure up the wall to a height less than the length of the chosen tiles then to nail a batten to the wall at this height. I would then begin the tiling by laying what would be the second row of tiles onto this batten and working upwards from there. Once the section was fixed and dried, I could remove the batten and tile in the first row. The bottom row tiles would have to be trimmed to fit, but this was fine since the tiles were quite large, and a small variation in their resultant height would not show. Any unevenness in the floor would be accommodated here and not in a more noticeable wonky line half-way up the wall.
So how far up the wall should I go for this second row? Again, planning was the key here. The bathroom has a windowsill in it, and also, obviously, a bath. I needed to think how the tiles would look against the bath and window as well as against the floor. So, my initial measurement was made against the height of the bath. I would arrange it so that the line of tiles at the edge of the bath would need an ever-so slight trim to fit in. Transferring this measurement around the room showed I would have a half-tile’s height just below the windowsill – letting me hide any unevenness in the windowsill itself, and my lowest row would be about a half-tile high too. Perfect.
The other key thing I worked out with tiling was to plan how the vertical lines would go. For example, you shouldn’t just begin tiling at a corner, as that might lead to having a tiny thin strip of tile running up the opposite corner, which would be fiddly to fit and would look bad if the wall was in any way uneven (and given these walls were hand-plastered, they were certainly not 100% flat and vertical!) I also had to think about how the tiles would blend in with other walls. For example, in front of the toilet I have a small section of wall with an outside corner on the left and inside corner on the right. This wall was slightly wider than two tiles width, so I decided to have a whole tile in the middle with half-tiles on either side. I would then place a full tile on the left wall to overlap, making a nice clean outside edge, and the half-tile on other side would fit quite nicely with a half-tile on the right wall, with the corner making them look like a single tile folded in half.
I had to plan particularly carefully around the windowsill. As bad luck would have it, the windowsill was fractionally wider than six tiles, which would give me at least one awkward corner. I decided here that I should have half-tiles at both ends of the windowsill rather than a thin strip at one end. This created another problem of how to line up the tiles between the wall and the sill. I would need a pair of L-shaped tiles…
The traditional way of cutting a tile is to use a sharp blade to score a line into the ceramic face, then carefully snapping the tile along this line. One of these tools should do it, if you can wield it correctly.
Snapping tiles is fiddly at the best of times, and cutting an L-shape is impossible. To solve this, I bought a circular saw tile cutter, which turned out the best investment of the whole project. The circular saw can rip through a tile in seconds, creating a nice straight edge every time. It can also be used to cut a groove into a tile if you stop before you reach the end. Cut two grooves at 90 degrees, and you form an L-shape almost effortlessly. Highly recommended!
I can also recommend getting diamond-tipped hacksaws and files. These can cut through ceramic and let you form shapes other than straight lines. Basically, I found that anything that lets you avoid trying to snap tiles is a good thing.
Next, I needed to think about swapping out the bath. This post has gone on a while already though, so I’ll stop the story here, and carry on next time.