Taking the Crook Out of a Crooked Bathroom

The bathroom had problems. It was small, dark and uninviting; and it was crooked. Somehow the original framers had not only made one end of the room almost 2" wider than the other end, but had slanted one wall so that the top of the room was 1-1/4" wider than the bottom. But only at the wide end of the room. The wall at the narrow end was plumb. We had seen some bad walls in the past, but this one was a dilly. Typically small problems like this in a room are not noticeable. But this one was very visible. The room simply looked crooked.

We brainstormed several possible remedies, but the workable ones boiled down to two. First, we could remove and rebuild the crooked wall. Unfortunately this wall was not only a load-bearing wall, but it was also the party wall that adjoined the next-door town home. It was built as a 1-hour rated firewall. However, since it had been built, the building code had changed: a 2-hour rated firewall was now required. If we tore it down, we would have to rebuild a thicker 2-hour wall, losing space in an already small bathroom. (Stupid really since the rest of the wall would still be only 1-hour rated, but that's the way code enforcement works.) Its cost and difficulty nixed this idea.

The remaining feasible option was to disguise the crooked wall using techniques to trick the eye. We were not at all certain our bag of tricks was anywhere near deep enough. But the gentleman who owned the town home was a good client. We had already built a downstairs powder room for him under the stairs that featured a white beaded panel wainscot under a pale green painted wall. He liked that look and wondered if we could do something to lighten this small guest bath, and provide much more storage, as well as "do something" about that crooked wall.

We agreed to do our best — but no promises.

The Planning

The very first difficulty we had was convincing our CAD program that we actually wanted to draw a crooked wall. It kept warning us that the wall as crooked, then straightening it out. Finally we cheated by drawing a series of short straight walls to simulate a crooked wall. The CAD program complained about this, but let us get away with it. We then played with various combinations of vertical and horizontal lines to find the pattern that best disguised the defect. We finally decided that a grid of one-foot tiles on the wall and floor would give the best result.

The hard part of the planning out of the way, we looked at several options for placing the fixtures and cabinets in the room. Its size, however, pretty much required that the fixtures stay where they were. We decided to change the swing of the entry door so it would not intrude into the room. Otherwise, we left the floor plan pretty much as it was, and fixed much of the space problem by reducing the size of the vanity. (For other space-getting tricks, see Getting More Bathroom Space.)

Materials and Cabinets

Our customers chose a pale gray marble-look porcelain tile for the floor and walls, and a matching 4" real marble tile for the vanity top. This choice, we thought, would serve to make the room look larger. To complement the tile, they selected hickory cabinets stained a slightly reddish tint that was truly striking against the gray tile background.

The single shower head was to be replaced with an add-on multi-head spa shower. (Learn more about these and other shower options at Bath Fixtures.) The shower curtain was to go, and a frameless glass shower enclosure was to take its place. A large mirror over the vanity and the reflective surface of the shower door were both intended to visually enlarge the room. This is a common technique for making small baths seem larger.

The Floor

Nominal 12" tile, as you probably already know, is not actually 12" square. It is usually 11-7/8" to allow room for a 1/4" grout line between the tiles. We were going to start with the thinnest grout line possible — a mere 1/16" then slowly expand the grout line toward the wide end of the bathroom. This would disguise about 1" of the 2" we needed to hide. This works because the eye cannot see such gradual changes. It only sees abrupt changes. The other 1" would come out of taking advantage of slight differences in tile size.

Porcelain tiles are created by firing clay and glaze at a very high heat. During the firing process, the tiles shrink. (Learn more about ceramic and porcelain tiles at Porcelain or Ceramic: What is the difference?.) Shrinkage is very well controlled these days so that a difference of more than 1/8" from tile to tile is rare. But there still is some difference. We needed to put the largest tiles on the wide side of the room, the smallest tiles on the narrow side, and the median tiles the center of the room. Since these tiles ranged from 11-3/4" to 12" in actual size, we could make up a lot of that other inch this way. For the rest, we just floated the offending wall with a thick layer of wet plaster.

We sorted all the tiles into five stacks, from largest to smallest, and started to work. We screwed and glued concrete tile backer board to the floor and every inch of wall. Then we had to lay out the tile.

Anyone familiar with laying tile will tell you that the key to a good-looking job is careful layout. Typically a guideline is snapped about every third row of tiles to make sure the layout does not wander. Here we snapped a guideline for every single tile so we know exactly where it would go and how big it needed to be. It took two days to tile this little room. But the results were well worth it. The crooked wall had disappeared. It was still there, of course, but you could not detect it without actually measuring the walls.

Cabinets and Storage

So far, so good, but now we had to add storage. The vanity cabinet selected for the room needed to be shallower than normal vanity (18" rather than the standard 21") to open up more floor space. Modular vanities are not made 18" deep and it was cheaper to buy a standard vanity and modify it on site to an 18" depth than it was to buy a custom vanity. A 9" deep wall cabinet over the toilet was split into pigeon-hole-storage for towels below general storage in a Melamine®-lined double-doored cabinet. A special two-sided cabinet was selected to go above the right side of the vanity. More typically used as a wall end cabinet, this case is ideal for over-vanity storage since its two doors open to fully expose its contents. No digging around in the back of this cabinet, because it has no back to speak of.

We found out very quickly that the placement of the vanity, which had to be butted to the crooked wall, was going to be a problem. If we pushed it back against the wall, it did not line up with the tile lines on the new floor. If we pulled it out to line up with the tile lines, there was a very noticeable 1" gap between the wall and the right side of the vanity.

We cut a skewed top for the vanity and covered it with backer board. Then we did the same trick with tile we had used on the floor: setting tiles by size and adjusting the grout lines between the rows of tile as we went along to make it appear that the back and front of the vanity top were parallel. They're not, but they look like they are. To seal the marble tile and grout, the vanity top got four liberal coats of a silicon-base sealant.

The rest of the cabinets went up normally. Using a diamond tip bit (the only thing that will cut porcelain tile) we drilled small holes behind the cabinets into studs we had already located and attached the upper cabinets to the walls with special, heavy-duty, cabinet screws.

Fixtures and Lights

A mirror cut to size by a local glass shop was installed inside a tile frame we and designed on the wall above the vanity and grouted in. The same glass shop installed the frameless shower wall. The six-head spa shower went in without any trouble. It is a very clever design that fits right over a standard shower fitting.

Ambient lighting was provided by a shadowless fluorescent fixture recessed into the ceiling. Pendant task lighting was installed over the vanity mirror. We used compact fluorescent bulbs in these for shadowless illumination and efficiency. (Learn about lighting in bathrooms and kitchens at Designing Efficient and Effective Kitchen Lighting). The shower got its own recessed lights wired into the general lighting circuit. The existing builder-grade (read "cheap") vent fan was replaced by a super-quite unit installed in the attic and controlled by a timer next to the light switch.

Custom Storage Features

We did some special things in the vanity. The right vanity door hides a power cabinet. We installed two GFI outlets inside the cabinet, and two deep pull-out trays to hold the hair dryer, hot rollers, a curling iron, and so on. The appliances are kept plugged in (with a GFI circuit, there is no danger in doing so). When they're needed the appropriate tray is pulled out, the device used and replaced. The tray is closed, and the closed cabinet door hides all the mess. No electrical cords need ever snake across the countertop to knock things over — it's all in the power cabinet.

The other modification we made to the vanity was to add a wrap-around middle drawer. The owners had bought a base cabinet rather than a sink cabinet for the vanity (it was on sale, the sink cabinet wasn't). A base cabinet differs from a sink cabinet in that it has a middle drawer. A sink cabinet does not have a drawer — that's where the sink goes. Since we had a drawer we wanted to try something we had seen at a home-builders show: modifying the drawer so it would wrap around the sink. This would provide nice storage for small items like combs, brushes, tweezers, scrunchies, Q-tips and the like.

Mrs. Owner had found exactly the ceramic and chrome door pulls and matching towel bars she wanted at, of all places, Wal-Mart. So we installed those surprisingly heavy-duty fittings. They did look very nice. As a final step, we grouted the floor tile. We always leave that for last so the grout does not get messed up during construction.

In The End

The bathroom is a success. So much so that Mrs. Owner has adopted it as her private dressing room. We expect a call any day now to build them an actual guest bathroom. Let's see, where could we put it...?

We would like to build a terrific bathroom for you too. When you're ready, contact us and we'll get started.

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