Glass Mosaic Tile Installation For a Steamer Shower

I’ve always enjoyed installing residential tile. There’s something about thinking creatively and making an artistic statement that appeals to me with the challenge. To express a customer’s design vision calls for good communication skills and at least some intuition. Making a customer happy and feeling comfortable in their home environment makes me happy, too. Nothing can compare to the satisfaction of knowing a job has been well done, in seeing a beautiful and properly installed tile job. And, indeed, a glass mosaic tile installation can look fantastic. This glass mosaic installation sure was a challenge in it’s complexity.

A short while ago Debbie and Rich asked me to finish a bathroom that would include tiling a steamer/shower surround with glass mosaic tile, for shower pan, walls, and ceiling. They chose a transparent glass mosaic called Tesserra red #777, non-iridescent, by Oceanside Glasstile of Long Beach, Calif. I believe they wanted to see as well as feel the red hot heat of a steam bath. The glass mosaic tiles were of the same red hue, but randomly varied in saturation: some glass tiles were darker or lighter than others.

Each one inch square handmade mosaic glass tile was a quarter inch thick with a finished face surface that was seemingly chipped, crazed, or irregular, not smooth. The tiles came in sheets twelve inches square, face glued to brown backing paper with a water soluble adhesive similar to that used for wallpaper.
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The tiles reminded me of chipped ice cubes, with sides tapered away from the face and a flat back slightly textured from molds. Most tiles were fairly square, some were slightly trapezoidal in shape, as the molten glass poured into the molds overflowed a sixteenth inch to form a sheet that was broken apart after cooling.

The bathroom had been framed in and sheetrocked walls and ceiling before my involvement, with green board placed in the steamer/shower surround area. I wanted to jump right in, assuming I could apply a builder’s felt paper moisture barrier over the greenboard, then install cementitious backerboard and parge it with a waterproofing membrane to contain steam. But, being a relative beginner to any mosaic tile installations, it was a good thing that I had some uncertainty, so I decided to talk first to Oceanside’s technical support experts.

Technical support insisted that I remove the greenboard from the steamer/shower surround. Originally developed as a substrate for directly applying tile, greenboard has now become unacceptable for any bathroom use according to building code. Also, there was a chance, however slight, that steam moisture could permeate the waterproofing membrane and eventually dampen any sheetrock or greenboard, causing deterioration and mold buildup where it could never dry out. More recently developed cementitious backerboard, code approved, performs far better for tile, especially in a wet environment.

Then, a key point to this entire installation, technical support strongly advised me not to apply a waterproofing membrane directly behind any transparent tile. Water would certainly settle behind the tile, especially where steam would force it, causing a splotchy look where some tile would areas appear darker than other areas. Untreated backerboard would allow water to diffuse away.

Finally, expansion joints are essential for glass tile installations, as well as most other tiles, especially in a steamer environment where temperature swings are most pronounced. Otherwise, glass tiles, being brittle, could crack or pop off under shear pressure. I was advised to install expansion joints at the inside corners of walls and ceiling, as this steamer/shower surround measured 4’6″ wide, 7’6″ high, and 3’6″ deep. Of course, the steamer/shower surround area 2×4 walls and ceiling were insulated with R-13 fiberglass batts.
With any steamer/shower, it is advisable to slope the tiled ceiling for water runoff to reduce the chance of steam condensation causing dripping. I reframed the flat ceiling to provide a slope of one inch per foot, this being a judgment call on my part, while the Tile Council of North America recommends a slope of two inches per foot (SR614-05).