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An Expert’s Guide on How to Tile a Shower Niche Without a Bullnose

An Expert’s Guide on How to Tile a Shower Niche Without a Bullnose
March 18, 2022

A shower niche is a recess in one of your bathroom’s walls, typically the one facing your shower or bathtub. Shower niches form a natural storage shelf resembling a cubby-hole, ideal for your shampoo, soap, conditioner, and other bathroom essentials. Tiling your shower niche is a great way to give your bathroom some extra personality, adding to its aesthetic appeal. Usually, bullnosing edgesthe ideal transition from wall to niche because they form a frame with no rough  sharp or unfinished  edges. However, not all tiling comes with bullnosededges , but there are still solutions available to complete the shower tiling design you want. Here are a few ways to tile your shower niche and finish it without a bullnose.

Preparing for the Job

First, you will need to gather the appropriate equipment:

  • Angle grinder with appropriate cutting blades
  • Carpet knife
  • Grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Laser level
  • Mixing bucket and drill
  • A suitable tile trowel
  • Thinset suitable for bathrooms and wet areas
  • Tiles and tile cutting tools of your choice

Avoid using mastic or any other type of organic adhesive. Organic adhesives in wet areas risk emulsifying when exposed to water. The moisture penetrates the grout and behind your tiles, forming the perfect conditions to cause water damage to your bathroom, potentially resulting in mold growth and structural damage.

Step 1: Selecting Your Trowel

Choosing the correct trowel is critical for applying the right amount and concentration of thinset to the back of your shower niche. However, the notch type and size you’ll need depend mainly on your tile dimensions. Typically, square-notched trowels are ideal for 4" tiles and larger, whereas smaller tiles will need thinset applied with a V-notched trowel. Here’s a reference guide on how to pick the best trowel for the job:

trowel tools in a bucket

  • Mosaic tiles, ceramic tiles up to 4": V-notched trowel, 3/16" to ¼"
  • Ceramic tiles between 4" and 8": Square-notched trowel, ¼" by ¼"
  • Ceramic tiles between 8" and 16": Square-notched trowel, ¼" by ⅜"
  • Ceramic tiles 16" and larger: Square-notched trowel, ½" by ½"

If you don’t have a square-notched trowel, you can replace it with a U-notched model instead; the thinset concentration is about the same.

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Step 2: Choose the Sill Tile

A sill tile (also called a sill plate or bottom tile) is a horizontal piece of tiling designed to serve as the bottom shower shelf of your niche. Think of it as a window sill. Usually, the sill is made of the same type of tiling as your bathroom’s primary wall tile because it provides a seamless aesthetic transition to the back tiles. However, if you prefer a more dramatic look, you can use alternative materials, such as marble or glass.

Step 3: Apply the Thinset

Mix your thinset according to the instructions printed on the bag or the bucket, making sure you use the proper water-to-thinset ratio. Start by combing the back wall. Use your trowel to apply your thinset to the back wall and observe it closely. If the thinset is runny or the ridges become saggy, it means your thinset mix may have too much water. If it doesn’t stick to the back wall, your mixture may be too dry. Once you have applied the thinset to your back wall, carefully pull out the sill tile, apply extra thinset to the sill, and back-butter the sill tile before replacing it.

tile your shower niche without bullnose

Step 4: Place the Sill Tile

Before starting the tiling process, it’s critical to install the sill tile at a very slight angle. Ideally, it should form a downward slope of approximately 1/12" to 1/16", with the down angle toward the outside. Make sure the factory edge is also facing the outside. Why not install it flat? While it would be more straightforward, it’s not a good idea for multiple reasons. A perfectly level sill plate means water and moisture may pool in the corner after tiling, creating conditions for mold and mildew to grow. A very slight downward slope is the trick to letting the water seep out without making it impossible for your shampoo bottles and other bathroom essentials to stand on their own. If you intend to install multiple shower niches, use a laser level to ensure the sill tile in each niche is level with the others.

Step 5: Apply the Back Wall Tiling

Start embedding the back wall tiles by hand onto the thinset, one by one. Use your grout float to fully push and embed the tiles into the thinset, ensuring they stick in place. If you need to cut or resize some of your tiles, use your preferred tile cutting tool, such as a wet saw or manual tile cutter. For mosaic tiles, you may need to use tile nippers instead.

As you embed your tiles into the thinset, some of the thinset may squeeze out of the joints. If it happens, use your carpet knife to remove the larger chunks and wipe the rest off with a damp grout sponge. Use the appropriate spacers to ensure your tiles are even and level with each other. The spacer types you’ll need depend on the tiles you selected. For mosaic tiles, the best choice is 1⁄16" horseshoe spacers. Otherwise, you can use typical X-shaped and T-shaped spacers as needed.

horseshoe spacers

Step 6: Apply the Ceiling Tiles

Embed the top tile before the side tiles. Correctly embedding your top tiles and ensuring they are level with the bottom tiles makes installing the side tiles much easier. Install your ceiling tiles with the factory edge facing the outside, and use your laser level to align and level the top tile with the bottom tile. If you have multiple niches, ensure all your top tiles are level with each other.

Step 7: Prepare and Install the Side Tiles

Once the top and bottom tiles are in place, break out the measuring tape and measure the distance between the front end of the top and bottom tiles. Remember that the bottom tile is at a slight angle; you will need to make a scribe cut on the side tiles accordingly to make them fit.

The best tool for this job is a handheld angle grinder. Grind the tile until it fits comfortably, without forcing it in. Repeat for all side tiles. When your side tiles have the correct dimensions, apply your thinset to the sides and embed the tiles into the side walls. Use your laser level to ensure they are correctly aligned.

The Best Tile Trowels for Your Project

Review Your Work and Choose Your Finishing Method

At this point, your shower niches are almost ready to go. All that’s left is deciding how to finish your edges. The decision depends on the type of tiles you used for your sill, ceiling, and sides.

Method 1: Caulk the edges.

If your tiling is made of glass or specific types of stone or ceramic, such as tumbled stone or porcelain, there is no need for a bullnose piece. These tiles feature edges that eliminate the need for a separate edge piece or element, allowing you to install them level with the edges. With these tiles, all you need is to waterproof your niche edges and give them a clean look. Use the following materials:

caulk edges materials needed

  • Caulk gun
  • Bathroom-safe caulk (silicon or latex-based)
  • Masking tape

Place masking tape around your shower niche at a distance approximately equal to one grout joint away from the edge of the last time, forming a gap. Use your caulk gun and carefully apply a small quantity of caulk into that edge.

Method 2: Use decorative moldings.

There are many molding types available for finishing off your show tile decoratively. Pencil trim pieces, rail moldings, cornice moldings, chair rails, and round edges are all beautiful options for completing the look. Common trim materials include porcelain, marble, granite, glass, and travertine.

Choose a set of trim pieces that matches the aesthetic you need. Typically, decorative moldings should be the same color as your primary wall tile. Alternatively, you can use moldings with a complementary color, either matching an existing accent or creating a new one. After selecting your trim pieces, gather the following equipment:

  • Grout sponge
  • Measuring tape
  • Hacksaw
  • Saw and miter box
  • Thinset
  • Trowel

Use your measuring tape to assess the dimensions of your shower niche on the outer edges of your sill, side, and ceiling tiles. Order sufficiently long trim pieces, and then cut them to size using your hacksaw. With your miter saw, cut the sides of each trim piece with outward-facing 45° angles so that when you place all four elements together, these angles meet and form a seamless frame.

Be careful not to cut your pieces too short; instead, make progressive cuts and measure after each cut until your trim piece reaches the length you need.

Once you have cut and sized all four of your trim pieces, use your trowel to apply a small quantity of thinset over the edges of your niche’s tiles where your trim pieces will go. Level the thinset with a trowel and clean up the excess as necessary with a grout sponge. If your trim pieces have an open channel in the back, back-butter them with thinset before pressing them into place. Otherwise, apply directly. Repeat until all four pieces are in place.


Method 3: Use metal transition strips.

If your bathroom has a contemporary look or uses metal elements elsewhere, you can enhance your bathroom’s aesthetics with a set of metal transition strips. As with decorative moldings, metal strips are available in different finish options: brushed aluminum, coated chrome, plastic, stainless steel, textured, and more. Make sure to select a shape that best fits your desired aesthetic, such as L-shaped, square, or rounded.

Metal transition strips have thin, flat blades intended to be inserted between your substrate and your bathroom’s main walls. Ensure the main tiling has been installed around your shower niche before continuing. Once you’ve selected the metal strips you need, gather the following equipment:

  • Saw and miter box with metal cutting blade
  • Measuring tape
  • Trowel
  • Thinset
  • Tin snips
  • Metal file
  • Grout sponge

As with standard decorative moldings, measure the outer edges of your shower niche and order sufficiently long metal strips, as you will later need to cut them to size. Before cutting your strips, double-check that your miter saw is equipped with an appropriate metal cutting blade. Cut the strips to size with outward-facing 45° angles on each side, measuring between each cut. Use your measuring tape to measure the outside length (at the longest points) until the pieces have the desired length. Repeat until all four strips have been cut and sized.

After cutting your trim pieces, use a pair of tin snips to remove excess material from the insertion blades. You want to make sure that no part of the blades sticks past your trim edge because they would prevent you from installing it. Use a metal file to file down the freshly cut sides of your trim pieces, smoothing them out and making them easier to install down the line.

Once your metal trim pieces have been cut and prepared, use your trowel to apply thinset around the edges of your niche, just as you would with molding pieces, cleaning excesses as needed with a grout sponge. Then, install your trim pieces one by one, sliding the blade between your main wall tiles and your substrate around the edges of the niche. Start with the bottom piece, install the side pieces, and finish with the top part. Adjust as necessary.

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Tiling a shower niche is not a complex process, even without bullnose tiles available. All you need is a bit of pre-planning and the proper selection of tools and materials. Once your shower niche tiling is complete, you can proceed with tiling the rest of the bathroom.

At Contractors Direct, we have over 25 years of experience supplying contractors, DIYers, retailers, and other construction professionals according to our three principles: Quality, Price, Service. For more information on tiling or any other projects, call us today at 1-800-709-0002.

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