We renovated our whole bathroom including doing the plumbing. Here’s what we did and how we did it, so you too can DIY renovate your bathroom!
At our first house, we discovered a significant issue with the bathroom. The people who had the house before we did were experts at DIY bodge jobs. We found this out when we replaced the shower after it caught fire while I was getting ready for work one morning.
I kid you not, the shower LITERALLY caught fire. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that situation but there’s this terrifying moment of “Whaaa?? There’s water pouring out of something that’s on fire?!” It was like a bad dream. It was also the first day of my new job, barely four weeks after my mother died (and not long after I started this blog) in the dark ages of 2015.
When it stopped burning, I didn’t know if we needed to call a plumber or an electrician. We went with an electrician. He cut the wire to the shower from the fuse box to make it safe. We were left in the difficult situation of having no money to fix this. Add to that, we found out the bathtub was actually child size and my husband looked like a beached whale in it. He is not overweight. With no functioning bathroom, I did what any sensible person would, and attempted to get three quotes from plumbers.
I got a quote from a plumber and he reckoned £2500 to do it.
I tried to get another quote from a second plumber but he never even turned up so that was a waste of time. A third plumber came and looked at the bathroom then didn’t bother emailing us the quote. So that was our three quotes.
Stumped (and with no shower) we knew we had to do something, so we took on the huge job of doing a DIY bathroom renovation.
The entire shower enclosure was in a bad state, the white plastic parts were stained orange from years of iron-rich water being poured on it. The shower tray was chipped, revealing dark patches, and also stained. There was disgusting black mold underneath the shower enclosure door and the whole unit was very dated and falling apart with cracked plastic. The wood around the shower tray had gone rotten in places and the floor-to-ceiling plain white square tiles looked like they belonged in a prison.
We had known about some of these issues when we bought the house, but we had put every penny into our deposit and couldn’t even afford a sofa for over a year after we moved in. So it wasn’t until the shower caught fire that we were able to give ourselves permission to do something about this (also, we were finally both working by this point, where we’d just had 18 months of one then the other of us getting short contracts, never at the same time as each other). Ahh… buying a house in your twenties. It’s an adventure.
We also weren’t happy with the lack of an airing cupboard (hot press in Ireland, linen closet in America) in our house. So I spent hours and hours looking online for inspiration, and jotting down ideas. After about a week of this, I started to get a coherent plan for how to completely renovate our bathroom space.
It took about two years for us to complete this project while we were working full-time. My husband did all the plumbing work (he is not a plumber). Here, finally, is a write-up of what we did.
We started out by measuring everything and drawing a plan of the existing bathroom. From this, we could see the space we had to work with and also what complications there might be.
We discovered several issues that were going to limit our bathroom renovation.
First, the wall to the right of the bath is not an original brick wall finished in wet plaster, it’s a plasterboard (drywall) one. These are more susceptible to damp permeating the outer layers in a bathroom.
Second, the sewage stack (the black square between the sink and toilet) was unmovable without paying a plumber. We had already had problems getting a plumber, so this had to stay where it was. That meant the bath couldn’t be placed anywhere else.
In my original idea for the bathroom, I’d hoped to get a larger bath (this one didn’t fit adults in it) or a double-width shower enclosure and put it in the space where there was currently a shower and a toilet. Due to the sewage stack we had to put the new bath where the old one was.
The third complication was the unusable space over the stairs, especially with the radiator hanging in front of it, because it rendered the space in front of it completely unusable, too, as that was where the door arc was. Bathrooms are steamy and have to have a door.
There was a floor to ceiling wall between that unusable space and the shower, and two very dated plywood cupboard doors on the front, creating what should have been an airing cupboard, but it was so high off the ground, and the radiator prevented you from standing in front of it, so no one could put anything at the back of the cavernous, flat first shelf, never mind getting anything on the second shelf! This was also where the shower wiring and off switch were situated. It was so much dead space!
The fourth complication was the wiring for the bathroom light. It ran from the switch beside the door to the light, which was partly above the bathtub. Building regs state the minimum distance between an electric light and a shower (this same building regulation also meant the way the old shower was installed was dangerous and caused the fire), and this meant we couldn’t put a shower over the bath due to fire safety.
The fifth complication, not clear in my diagram, was that this 1930s house had a sloping ceiling on all external walls. The wall where the original shower was, and the wall with the window by the toilet, were both external walls, so we had two feet of sloping ceiling around those walls, which reduced the height of the walls, limiting things like where to hang a shower curtain rail or the height of any shower enclosure or glass panel.
We thought these were all of the complicating factors when we planned our bathroom renovation. In reality, that was just the start of our problems. As work began, we realized the true extent of the issues we were dealing with.
Removal of the shower enclosure
The first task we needed to accomplish was to get rid of the entire old shower enclosure. Aside from being very old and damaged, it was really tiny, at 75cm square, and our original plan was to replace it with a more modern 90cm squared shower, with room for elbows.
The glass enclosure had plastic around the sides and this was attached to the wall then filled in with lots and lots of sealant. The internet said there would be nails to remove with the back of a claw hammer. This was not the case. We actually couldn’t figure out how this was attached because it was nothing like anything I could find a tutorial for on the Internet.
Taking it apart bit-by-bit, first, we removed the aluminium frame from around the top of the glass. With a crowbar we lifted the glass shower enclosure away from the wall and off the shower base. The sealant was really solid, so we used a kitchen knife to cut it away (a Stanley knife wasn’t long enough to reach) while applying pressure with the crowbar.
The glass was put in the back of my car and taken to the recycling centre. I hope it became ketchup bottles or something.
The plastic strip that held the glass to the wall was attached with screws, we finally learned once the glass was out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t remove this tall plastic strip from the wall because the previous owners had tiled over the sides of the plastic strip so it was impossible to remove until the tiles were off the wall.
Before tackling the shower base, the next job was to remove the tiles because they had also attached the tiles to the shower base using shower grout. Crazy, crazy people.
Removing two layers of tiles
This should have been a relatively simple job for a careful person with a chisel, hammer and some goggles. If the tiles had been put on properly. How does someone put tiles on wrong? Oh, boy, I’m glad you asked.
See, when they tiled the shower enclosure, there were already tiles there. Instead of removing these, as any sensible person would do, they tiled over them. There were two layers of tiles (which didn’t have edges in the same places) for us to remove.
Wait, I hear you say, tiles have a really smooth surface, they wouldn’t give a good surface to stick another tile to.
Yup. The previous owners of the house figured that out, too. But instead of thinking, “let’s just remove the old tiles” like sensible people, they used an almost-solid layer of tile grout to attach the second layer of tiles to the first.
Because of what they had done, we had to chip the top layer of tiles off the wall in tiny pieces that shattered and flew everywhere. This took us weeks because doing this at ceiling height is exhausting.
Once we had the top layer off, we started on the layer underneath. These were relatively easy, and had definitely been put in properly, with little blobs of tile grout behind them. However, removing them left us with a wall full of holes in the plaster where the plaster came off along with the grout. This is fairly normal for removing tiles.
Looking at the extreme damage, I thought we were going to have to admit defeat at this point and call in a plasterer to remove and replaster the entire wall.
It got even worse. The tiles on the left hand wall turned out to be on a fake plasterboard wall. When we removed the electric shower unit, we found a huge 8-inch hole behind it, where someone had ham-fistedly made the hole for the plumbing and electric wire. When we removed the tiles from this wall, we found out they hadn’t put in a waterproof membrane behind them. A waterproof membrane is essential to protect the plasterboard from water damage. The wooden joints holding up the single layer of drywall were black and completely rotten and the drywall was soaked so the paper on the outside had disintegrated.
Between the hole, the water damage and the rotten wooden frame, the wall was so bad, it had to come out. At this point, we were deeply worried about whether water had gotten down to the floor level, in case the floorboards needed replacing beneath the shower tray.
We ultimately removed the entire wall on that side, floor-to-ceiling, even the part that was an enclosure for the top of the stairs.
Removing the plastic strip from enclosure
Now the tiles were gone, we could finally remove this plastic strip which had been quite a nuisance while trying to get the tiles out because it got in the way of the chisel.
It just unscrewed, which was a bit anticlimactic after all the work I’d done to excavate it from under the two layers of tiles, but I was happy to take the win.
Removing the damaged wall
When we finished removing the tiles from the left hand wall, we discovered that the tiles were attached straight to the plasterboard (no waterproof membrane down here, either) which meant the bottom half of the plaster wall came away with the tiles. The top half came away with careful application of a crowbar and once the plasterboard was gone, we could take out the wooden joints carefully. Finally, we had completely removed the wall. It hadn’t been on our original plan, but sometimes DIY is like that.
We were amazed when we discovered what was behind the wall.
Change of plans
See, we had thought that the reason this boxy enclosure next to the shower was taking up so much space in our bathroom was because it had thick joists behind it, holding up the house structurally. We were surprised to find out it was basically an empty space and that none of it was needed to protect the diagonal staircase ceiling.
When we found this, it inspired us to change our plans a bit, because we realized we had all this unused space.
We sat down and talked about what we might do with this space. First, I wondered about removing the boxy area completely, only, that would mean our radiator would need to be moved, and there was nowhere to move it to because the wall opposite it was a plasterboard DIY job, and given the quality of the work these clowns had done around the shower, I didn’t want to move the radiator and discover that wall was actually a portal to another dimension or something.
I had an idea to put a floor-to-ceiling cupboard in on the side of the space that went almost to floor level, but we decided not to because the access to the cupboard would be blocked by the shower enclosure, rendering it totally unusable.
All the same, I really wanted to use this awesome empty space we had found. It seemed insane to just put drywall back over it.
Removing the shower base
Next we had to remove the shower base, which was hard because it obviously had a drain attached at the bottom and we didn’t want to pour icky drainwater through the ceiling below. I didn’t know that shower bases are made of concrete covered in fibreglass (it makes sense, so it doesn’t move around when you stand in it, but I didn’t know).
This one was also surrounded by wooden skirting (which was partly rotten). We removed the wooden skirting with a crowbar and my husband eased out the shower tray, disconnecting its plumbing as he went.
When we removed the shower tray, we found this amazing newspaper article that dated the shower tray installation to September 14 1984!
Putting a cupboard above the stairs
I had this crazy idea that maybe we could cut a hole in the diagonal ceiling of the staircase and install a storage area that was fixed inside this big empty space, accessible from the stairs. I looked up houses with hidden storage but nothing was even vaguely close to what I wanted to do.
My husband understood what I was imagining, and he promptly measured and cut a perfect rectangle. He drilled a hole in one side then used a jigsaw to cut the rectangle.
This led to a hilarious but slightly embarrassing few days when we had a 2 foot square hole between the bathroom and the staircase while my husband sourced the wood and made the custom cupboard insert to put in the hole. Thankfully, none of our visitors at that time needed to use our loo!
The view from the staircase :O
After the cupboard insert was made, however, the problem we had was the space was obstructed by the third diagonal piece of wood (in the centre of the last pic) and the cupboard couldn’t go in. We had planned to wiggle it in past the beam and use that beam as the centre of two cupboard doors, but alas it wasn’t to be.
The diagonal beams hadn’t looked very thick from the bathroom side, especially when compared with the horizontal and vertical beams, but when we looked more closely, we were concerned that the diagonal beams might be holding up the ceiling above our front door and supporting the wall above the hole we had cut. We didn’t want these to fall down but we really wanted our cupboard, so we did some careful structural work to make this happen.
My husband ensured the middle beam was still supportive by attaching the top and bottom of it to the two other wooden beams either side of the hole using horizontal pieces of wood. Once it was supported like this, he cut out the middle so we could get the cupboard in.
We put the cupboard in and anchored it to the thick beams. I sadly never took a photo of this because we shifted our focus to the rest of the bathroom almost immediately. I always thought we were going to finish it with some doors (or hide it behind a painting) but we decided to leave it open and then moved to China in 2017.
Repairing the ruined wall
To repair the ruined wall, I used spackle (Polyfilla, although I didn’t use that brand). I actually had a lot of fun filling the holes in. You have to do the deeper holes in thin layers of under 5mm of spackle at a time and leave them for about 12 hours, sand them flat, then add the next layer. Some of the holes took three or four layers to repair (I know they don’t look that deep in the photos, I was learning how to use my first-ever DSLR and I really struggled to show depth in these pictures). It took about two weeks to fill all the holes (bearing in mind I was doing other things, too, like going to work).
Once all the holes were filled, the next job was to sand them flat with the rest of the wall. This is important so the paint or wallpaper has a smooth surface to adhere to, otherwise you will end up with lumps and bumps.
Then, we covered the wall with liner paper and painted it all. We didn’t want to paint dozens of coats (remember, this whole time we had no shower and an inadequate bath with no shower attachment) as this was where we were going to install the new shower. The previous owners had painted this room an obnoxious fluorescent yellow which was showing through the liner paper (as were the white patches of spackle, which are making the wall look lumpy in the picture below when it was actually smooth). We painted over everything with a cute lemon yellow.
Installing a new shower
We decided for our new shower that one of the fully-enclosed units from Better Bathrooms would be best. It has glass panels on all the sides (except the doors) so there’s no need for tiling or other wall-work like plumbing. There were several reasons we chose one like this.
First, it was cheaper than buying all the components like tiles, shower enclosure etc. Second, it was going to save us a lot of time because I hadn’t tiled before and so it was going to take me a while to learn. My husband hadn’t tiled, either, but he was adamantly against doing it. Third, the self-contained shower unit would minimize the chance of water leaking into the house beams ever again, something I was now concerned about with a regular shower. Fourth, we wouldn’t need to work out how to hide the pipework going up to the shower control unit.
The fifth reason? The shower unit we had fallen in love with had an overhead drench head as well as a regular shower head and six body jets, as well as a thermostatic control. And it required no electricity, something I really liked to save money on our electric bill which had mysteriously been through the roof since we moved into this house until the moment the shower caught fire. We were paying double in electricity what we had paid at any of our old houses and this house was only half the size of our last place – a badly-insulated Victorian townhouse spread over three huge floors.
So we were very excited to get one of these. It cost £300, which was a lot less than the cost for the enclosure, shower tray, pipework, boxes of tiles, tile grout and electric shower unit if we had bought it all separately, even without using a professional tiler.
Our excitement sputtered a bit when it arrived in six ginormous and very heavy boxes. We hefted them up the stairs and read the instructions. Putting this shower together was possibly the hardest DIY job I have ever done.
After we put it together, the first time we used it, it leaked through the ceiling downstairs. It turned out that a normal amount of sealant was nowhere near enough to stop the water escaping and we had to put so many layers on, it started to look like the bottom joints of the shower enclosure had survived a collision with a Vaseline factory. It was still leaking. Arrgh.
At one point, we were catching the water in old margarine tubs and emptying them down the toilet after showering. We tried sealing it one more time and we were out of clear sealant, so we used white stuff this time. Guess what? White sealant is (for some bizarre reason) better than clear sealant. It stopped the water getting out and finally our shower was trouble free.
Replacing a tiny bath with a bigger one
The next job for our bathroom renovation was to remove the tiny old bath (in a stylish 80s cream colour) and replace it with a normal-sized bath. We had gone to five local bathroom showrooms and at every single one, I climbed into the baths I liked, to see whether they were big enough. We settled on a great model with the taps and drainage in the centre. It was 1700 long where our old one was 1200 long, so we had to take care that it would fit.
Removing the old bath while leaving the cream tiles in situ was less of a mission than we thought. My father-in-law came up one weekend and he and my husband took out the old bath tub and fixed the new one in place. We had used modern plastic pipes to plumb the shower unit in, so we decided to use these to do the bath, too. My father-in-law didn’t like this idea but my husband had researched all the options extensively beforehand so we went with it anyway and guess what? It was cheaper than copper, easier to work with, quieter when the pressure changed, and it caused no problems at all.
Re-defining the bathroom
The end of the new bath lined up precisely with the end of the big boxy area that covered the ceiling of the stairs. I wanted an airing cupboard (linen closet, hot press) and storage that wasn’t going to get damp when the bathroom was in use. It needed to not be in the bathroom. No one wants moldy bedding.
We decided to build a thin plywood wall at the end of the bath and cover it in vinyl to make it splashproof. We built another wall stretching to the ceiling where we had removed the damp, rotten wall. Between the two, we put a wooden lintel and above this, some frosted perspex to allow light to get to the new airing cupboard storage space which was also an atrium between the bathroom and the landing.
Beneath the perspex, we hung a thin folding door, which we found on sale for £20 at a local DIY store because one of the landlords of one of York’s many student rentals had ordered it then decided he didn’t want it. It was a custom size of 60cm which was exactly the width between the two new walls. We could have left it open without building a wall and effectively making our bathroom smaller but it was worth it for that extra storage space.
By doing this, we were able to remove the original bathroom door, maximising the storage space in this new area of the house.
My husband built shelves up the wall that was closest to the original bathroom doorway. There was 6 inches between the door frame and the wall, and beneath it, we put the laundry basket (for dirty clothes) and this wooden storage thingy his dad had made for us.
On the other side, above the big boxy area, we added a shelf at a height of 160cm. It didn’t come all the way to the front of the space, to make it hard for anything to get lost in there. It was made of wooden planks for air circulation.
Making an upcycled X-shaped towel store
Beneath that, using some MDF we had salvaged from an old shelving unit we had found under the stairs when we bought the house, we made an X-shaped towel store in which towels could be rolled up and stored. We took the sides off the storage unit to use as the main X-shaped part of the towel storage rack. There were four quadrants, and we used two for bath towels, one for hand towels and one for tea towels, so we could always find the right type of towel.
Before, we’d had the towels all folded flat and stacked on top of each other which meant playing a guessing game of unfolding towels and folding them up again to find the right size towel for any given thing.
Our new X-shaped towel store was efficient and it also meant we didn’t need to ever reach the back of that big cavernous space, because we could slide the towels in horizontally and pull them out from the front. I got the idea from some kind of supermarket magazine and between us, we reverse-engineered how to build our own, but I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
Here’s a drawing of how I designed it (imagine the grey things are towels sitting in an X-shaped rack). Wood sizes were length 50cm, width 80cm, depth 15mm (the depth of your wood is the exact same size the cut needs to be):
In front of the X-shaped towel store, we attached storage containers to the walls for cosmetics and we had a nice shelf made of more wooden slats. This was a great spot for mixing hair dyes which was really important to me at the time as this blog covered a lot of hair tutorials back in 2015 and I was Youtubing new hair videos every week as well.
We used wood-effect vinyl flooring in the bathroom because it was waterproof and easy to clean, which is ideal in a bathroom. We cut it to size and nailed it down to the floor.
So that was how we finished it all off and this was the incredible result:
What I learned
Bathroom renovations are hard work but they are the perfect opportunity to learn new skills and a great way to save a lot of money. You don’t need to rely on professionals if you do your research.
Total cost: Under £500.
DISCLAIMER: Don’t DIY electrics, we got a professional to disconnect the dangerous old electric shower. Mama Adventure is not liable for any injuries or losses arising from your inability to fully research or learn skills prior to taking on a big project like this. Turn your water off before doing any plumbing task and check it is definitely off!