Mike Renovates his Bathroom: What Lies Beneath
These Shower Walls

Things I wish I hadn’t wanted to know.

At this point in my life, I really ought to be able to just show up and say, “Hey, there are some bratwursts! Yum!” But, no, I keep insisting on going all Upton Sinclair on how the sausage gets made — and then thinking I could make better stuff myself. It never ends well.

What's inside the shower wallsMy wife and I agreed that the first and by far the most crucial part of our bathroom renovation — the shower, which was threatening to crumble around me as I stood naked in the tub — would be handled by someone other than us. Rather than going the traditional contractor route, we opted for Bath Fitter. For one thing, the new shower walls from Bath Fitter would create an almost seamless enclosure, meaning no more worries about caulk or grout failing and letting water into the walls. Even more importantly, these guys promised to redo the whole shower in less than a day — a crucial factor for us, since our house has only one shower.

Still, I was wary about this whole thing, and it didn’t help that my expectations for the project were perhaps a bit high. After hearing the sales pitch a few times about the high-tech plastic material that would be form-fitted to our shower walls, I envisioned a company representative returning with a custom Bath Fitter laser device that would calculate our shower’s size down to the millimeter and upload its dimensions directly to computer-aided design software. As for the installation team, I imagined it would take a crew of about three expert employees working at least eight hours to finish this job.

Yeah. Our shower’s size was calculated using a tape measure. And our installation crew consisted of one guy named Mike, who wore a ripped T-shirt. He wrapped up the job in about five and a half hours, including smoke breaks.

Mike was actually very good, and very patient with my occasional interruptions to survey his work when I couldn’t stand sitting and gnawing off my fingernails downstairs. It took every ounce of energy to remind myself that his experience in this area (showers personally installed: hundreds) was far superior to my own (showers personally installed: zero).

In Mike’s judgment, our shower walls weren’t in nearly as water-damaged as I had expected. Yes, the plaster under the old tiles was crumbling, but he didn’t see any rotting wood. (Maybe you’re just not looking hard enough? I wanted to suggest.) So, after patching them a bit with some plywood, he started building up the walls with … tape. Rather than the solid boards I had expected him to use, Mike stuck on a half-dozen strips of a thick, adhesive foam tape, with additional gel-like adhesive squirted into the wide spaces between, as the only structural support for the new shower walls.

“This will hold up a lot better,” he insisted. “The only Bath Fitter showers I’ve ever had to repair are the ones where the guy used the boards instead of the tape.” I nodded, leaned hard against the new plastic wall and felt it flex under my fingertips, and bit my tongue.

The worst part of watching the shower come together was the That’s IT?! feeling that came from seeing Mike’s simple techniques. Tear down the wall, throw up some plywood and tape, stick on the plastic liner, and it’s done. It infected me with the same do-it-myself hubris I usually get after from home improvement TV shows, when I suddenly start believing I’m capable of cutting doors through load-bearing walls or putting on a new roof.

We’re paying this guy thousands of dollars to do something I could have done MYSELF?! the hubris-infected part of my brain screamed.

Maybe you could have done it, responded a calmer part of my brain, which sounded remarkably like my wife. But we decided we’d rather have a completed shower in eight hours, rather than eight months. Also, you enjoy being married, no?

Ultimately, this phase of the project has turned out just as well as we had hoped. Mike is turning out to be correct about the walls’ sturdiness, and they’re also a breeze to clean. Also, we love, love, love the new massaging shower head Mike installed.

And fortunately enough for me, there are plenty of other parts of this project I can still screw up, all on my own.

Bonus video from Monday night, on subjects unrelated to the shower:

Article © 2011 by Michael Duck