Design & DIY

The secret to tiling an unheated cottage bathroom

Bathroom Tiles Shutterstock/Fusionstudio

It can be daunting leaving an unheated cottage over the winter. The excitement of coming up in the spring is always edged with the nagging concern that something may have gone wrong. The bathroom is a prime spot for these concerns, especially if you have a tiled floor. Using the wrong tile can lead to cracks, moisture, and mildew, often requiring you to tear out the tiles—not an ideal start to opening your cottage for the season.

If your cottage is left unheated over the winter, it’s best to be prepared for this by using an outdoor tile in your bathroom. “High-quality porcelain would do the job,” says Uwe Luehr, owner of Creative Tiling Solutions near Bancroft, Ont. “I did some steps outside my house here and they’ve been there for almost 10 years and there’s not a problem with it. And that’s outside.”

Porcelain tiles work well both indoors and out, preventing moisture from penetrating—which is what causes cracks and mildew. “I would generally not use a ceramic,” Luehr says. “It has to be a porcelain. They’re more dense.”

But before laying the tiles, you want to start by checking your subfloor. “You have to make sure that the subfloor is sound,” Luehr says. “If it’s spongy then you’d have to reinforce it.” You can do this by applying another layer of plywood or concrete. Once the subfloor is sound, you want to lay an uncoupling membrane. This is a device that gets cemented onto the subfloor and ensures that if there is movement in the plywood from expanding and contracting, the tiles remain stable and won’t crack, split, or lose grout. Luehr likes to use Schluter uncoupling membranes on his projects.

Next, you want to spread thin set mortar over the uncoupling membrane in order to cement the tiles in place. But how you lay the tiles depends on their size and the design of your bathroom. “It’s a judgement call,” Luehr says. “You don’t want little sliver cuts somewhere. So, you have to kind of balance for the best look.” You should plan out in advance how to lay the tiles, that way you end with the desired results.

Finally, after the tiles have been laid in place, you apply the grout. Luehr suggests power grout from TEC. “There’ll be no mould. It doesn’t discolour. It’s very tough,” he says. Once the grout has been applied you should give it approximately an hour to dry, removing all excess grout residue with a damp cloth. And then the floor should be given about a day to set before it sees too much bathroom traffic, especially anything involving water like showers.

Although these steps can be time consuming, tiling your own bathroom gives you the freedom to get the look you want. For Luehr, it’s one of his favourite jobs, particularly for retirees who have moved up to the cottage full time. It forces him to get creative with details most people don’t consider. “When you do a shower, you want the curb of the shower to be low as possible or no curb if you can, and make the doorway wide enough so you can roll in there with a wheelchair,” he says. Thinking ahead like this will ensure your bathroom tiles look great for a long time.

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