Anatomy of a 90 Year Old Shower Stall
by Dan Koen
Over the last 30 years, I've seen just about every kind of shower
that can be built. The one that stands out in my mind most was a
shower that had a leaking shower pan on Swiss Ave. in Dallas, TX.
The shower was huge even by today's standards. Along the long
wall of the shower was a bench seat covered by plain white 4 inch
tile. When we started to tear out the seat, every blow I struck with
the with sledge hammer rang like a bell. The concrete behind the
tile didn't cave in and submit to my hammer.
After getting really frustrated, I decided to rent a small jack hammer
and demolish it that way. Even with a jack hammer, it was tough
going but I finally removed the seat to discover the core of the seat
was made of brick and mortar. What a smart idea! Very wet
conditions over 90 years of use and it was in perfect condition
except that the shower pan was worn out.
That was the late 70's and I studied this shower as I tore it out so I
would know what it took to make a shower that lasts. The threshold
(curb) was also constructed out of brick and mortar. You couldn't
see the brick, it made up the core. The white tile was set over a
layer of concrete on top of the brick. The shower pan was leaking in
two areas. It was corroded around the cast iron drain and curb.
The shower pans were made of heavy lead sheets back then. They
did the best they could with what they had.
From this one job, I learned how to construct a seat and curb to last
decades and what I should do to make the new PVC type shower
pan work better than lead and how it should be laid over the curb to
assure a long lasting leak-free shower pan.
This shower also had a very redeeming feature. It was constructed
with lath and mortar backing that was at least 1.5 inches thick
against bare studs. There was no sheetrock behind this mortar,
nothing! That's the way showers were constructed up until the 70's
in Dallas. Tilesetters were real craftsmen. After the lead pan was
installed they nailed metal lath on all of the walls in a continuous
wrap around the shower corners overlapping as they continued to
the top of the wall. Next, a scratch coat of mortar was applied to
every wall to about 1/2"-3/4" thickness. Once that dried overnight,
they applied a thicker finishing layer of mortar onto the scratch coat
until all walls were perfectly plumb.
They made the tile stick better than anything we have on the
market today. They soaked all of the tiles in a tub of water for about
3 hours, then set them out in the open to become what's called
"saturated surface dry"! The tile is saturated with water on the
inside but the surface on the outside is dry. Then a paste was
made out of plain portland cement and water and applied one by
one to the back each tile then set on the cured mortar walls. Since
the tile isn't totally dry, it doesn't suck any moisture out of the
portland paste(pure coat). Everything cures slowly together
achieving an extremely strong bond.
I wanted to explain all of this because this method is dead
everywhere in Dallas and I bet even all of Texas and quite possibly
the entire USA. Nothing even comes close to achieving the lasting
results of this method. I can't find tilesetters that know how to do
this and even if I could, few customers would pay to have it done
because all of the other tile contractors in town are using
Hardibacker, greenboard or some other cement board, which is
much less labor intensive and much less costly.
No one is interested in making a shower last 9 decades anymore!
Sure they want their shower pan to last, but eventually they will get
tired of the tile color or tile size or grout and want it remodeled
anyway in 15, 20 or 30 years. So, my job has been to find the best
method of constructing a shower so it doesn't leak and will easily
last until you get tired of it. Cut no corners, do it right , but don't
over engineer it either.
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Nortex Tile Service