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Using Natural Stone for Bath Surrounds

by Daniel Morrell

Posted on October 01, 2017 12:00:00 PM


Designs are now emerging that were once held only in homeowner’s dreams. Arches of ornate decorative tile invite you to enter an oversized steam shower built for two. A deep whirlpool tub sits encased in stone while an enormous hand-carved fireplace casts a warm glow throughout the room. Today’s master suite bathroom is no longer the oversized standard bath of the past, it is now an architecturally stunning hideaway that is looked upon with near reverence.

The tub

Truly one of the ultimate escapes into relaxation is the long soaking bubble bath. What can add to that experience except to open your eyes and discover yourself surrounded by nature’s beauty? Once paired with the shower, the bathtub is no longer part of the space-saving duo of the past. Earning a rightful place of its own, it now finds itself in various locations throughout the master bath. Standing alone in the middle of the room, set in a corner, resting on the center of a wall, sunken, elevated, or recessed into its nook, regardless, the tub is always a tempting site at the end of a long stressful day.

Depending on its final destination, there are many options available for dressing up this bathroom feature. When it stands alone in the center of the room, the tub normally functions as the primary focal point. If it is housed in a wooden frame, you can choose to create a neo-classical look by cladding it in stone and adorning each of the four corners with Corinthian columns. If an austere appearance is more your style, merely encase the centrally located tub in monochrome slabs of silky smooth limestone or onyx.

When the bathtub rests against a wall or is situated in a corner, a backsplash is required and offers the perfect space to play with creative tile layouts. For instance, when your stone arrives on the job site, take time to cull through the crates to find very unique pieces. Often you will discover a group of tiles cut from the block together that when placed side by side, showcase a continuous veining structure (most commonly found in cross-cut travertine). Set these aside and ask the installer to run this veining pattern along the expanse of the splash for an incredible effect. In place of large-scale stone tiles, you may want to consider a splash composition of smaller tumbled stones or a field of mosaics. In the center of the field tile, why not add a handsome hand-painted mural bordered by a massive stone molding or introduce a row of unique etched tiles. Whatever design you choose to incorporate, be sure not to skimp on the height of the splash. Many building contractors suggest a standard four or six-inch splash, but the beauty lies in the grand scale, go eighteen inches or more to add significant drama.

The piece de resistance when it comes to bathtub design is undoubtedly the large whirlpool tub recessed into its private nook. Here you can allow for a generous deck with more than enough space to house candles, scented oils, baskets of soft terry towels or even a glass of chilled Chablis. Glimmering mosaics can be breathtaking as they climb the walls and flow over the arch of the ceiling. Enhance their sparkle and the overall space with the addition of a gilded chandelier. Do not avoid the addition of these “over the top” ideas, as they are what will set your bath above the rest.

Ideas for the tub

When installing a whirlpool tub, attempt to situate it where the access panel can be placed on an exterior wall or in an abutting closet or vanity. This will allow for an uninterrupted tile design on the face of the tub. In the case that the panel must be located on the tub apron, there are several unique products currently on the market that allow for easy access without disturbing your tile design. Also, a seasoned installer will have a trick or two up his sleeve.

If steps are necessary to access your tub, be sure to choose a slip-resistant stone finish for added traction and safety. Treat these features as a focal point and give them a unique shape or curve. Dress the front edge with a decorative bullnose or ogee trim.

When design and budget allows, place a large roof window over your tub to enjoy the moon and stars at night.

Consider the addition of a floating fireplace at the far end of the tub. Carry the stone used for the splash up and around the firebox. Be careful, submerging yourself in the warmth of the water and gazing at the flames may put you in a hypnotic state.

The stone shower

Just as the warm bath serves as closure after a hard day at work, the shower signifies a new beginning. Considered an absolute must in our hurried society the shower now rivals the tub as the perfect tool for escapism.

Taking the ritualistic daily shower should be invigorating not only to the body but the mind and spirit as well. Imagine wandering into a shower clad entirely in the masculinity of rugged slate. Likened to bathing in the outdoors or a tropical rainforest, you will surely linger in the gentle sprays of water a little longer than usual. When the look of soft femininity is the goal, a creamy limestone tile in a caramel or ivy tone is ideal. Because shower walls offer a vast expanse in which to be creative, do not overlook the opportunity to feature a dramatic design. Choose to dress each wall, or the most prominent wall, with a long rectangular frame. Inside the decorative borders of the frame, introduce a field of contrasting mosaic. Within this field of mosaic, insert a vertical row of three unique tiles. If budget is a concern, clad the expanse of your walls in a large dark travertine tile and splurge on six decorative accents featuring an aged relief design to intersperse around the walls at eye level. Either look is just stunning.

When designing your shower, there are more than just appearances to keep in mind, you must also consider a few necessary amenities. These include the small seat or bench and the recessed niche or exposed shelf.

The shower seat, as opposed to a bench, is most appropriate for the small walk-in shower. Even the most minuscule of spaces can accept a triangular shaped seat where two walls meet. Creating this diminutive seat takes a little ingenuity on the part of the tile setter. Typically, they will laminate two pieces of stone together, bullnose the front edge for comfort, and insert the finished piece into the area where the two walls converge. When installed correctly, this seat can hold significant weight, appearances may be deceptive, although it may not look it, it is strong.

In an oversized shower, the bench seat is appropriate and quite wonderful. Dress up this feature by bowing out the center or enveloping its surface in micro-mosaics. Consider designing a recessed arch within the space for the bench to rest in. Add a roof window or a low-voltage halogen light to illuminate to the area. For those installing a steam shower, the addition of an incline to the full-length bench will encourage an extended relaxing stay.

When in the shower, you are faced with the inevitable question of where to place all of the required soaps, gels and shampoos, therefore, a recessed niche or exposed shelf will commonly provide the answer. Placing a significant niche in the center of the most predominate wall is quite an eye-catcher, especially when bordered with a contrasting tile or ornate trim.

The shelf is configured and installed similar to the seat but on a smaller scale. Your installer may insert a laminated piece of stone where the walls converge and round the edge for a soft effect. Other options include a pre-cast stone shelf with a dressy edge, a jagged piece of stone slab for the rustic effect, or a thick piece of carved stone molding on which to place an item or two.

Ideas for the shower

  • Use a clear or lightly frosted glass as the shower door to show off any designs featured within.
  • Consider designing a shower space that requires no door at all.
  • Specify a small tile or mosaic on the floor for added traction.
  • Place borders above or below eye level for a updated look.
  • Consider laminating pieces of stone together for a dramatic crown molding, chair rail and baseboard effect.
  • Add a large stone bench just outside the shower area for drying.
  • Choose the same tile size and pattern on the ceiling as on the shower floor. This will marry the two nicely.
  • When installing a steam shower, slant the pitch of the ceiling so that condensation runs down the side walls, in place of annoyingly dripping on your head.
  • Avoid polished marble in the shower area if possible. The acidity of most shampoos, as well as the onslaught of steam, will eventually take their toll on its pristine shine.
  • When choosing a polished granite for the shower walls, just keep in mind that water spots are magnified on a polished surface. This problem can be resolved by using a squeegee as needed.
  • When choosing unfilled travertine for the shower walls, be sure to spray a penetrating sealer with a mold and mildew repellent into all of the open pores.

The vanity

Together with the tub and shower, the vanity makes up yet another essential component of the master bath. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, the vanity can help define the overall style of the room. Clean, reflective metal stands with cool slabs of pale colored marble are reminiscent of the classic bath. Ornate amaretto or cherry colored cabinets topped with dark marble or granite appear elegant. A sleek blonde cabinet capped with a thick slice of slate will beget a Contemporary or Asian feel. A retro-fitted antique dresser crowned with a curvaceous slab of limestone will impart a feeling of romance.

When considering which stone to use for the vanity remember the qualities each type possesses. The toll of daily contact with toothpaste, soaps and other acidic substances will cause the surface of a polished marble to etch and dull over time. Granite is the ideal choice if a reflective surface is desired, as chemicals are no threat to its shine. Travertine and limestone are suitable choices, but be aware of possible surface etching. Mosaics and tumbled stone are perfect for the vanity countertop as they will acquire a lovely patina over time.

Sink options for the vanity range from vessels of stone, glass and metal to porcelain and stainless under-mounts to the standard drop in. Be practical, some decorative sinks are best left to the powder bath where they don’t meet the daily rituals of grooming.

After selecting a vanity base and countertop, you will need to consider the backsplash area. If a decorative trim or mosaic has been chosen for the shower walls and around the tub, it may be introduced here as well. The splash area can be as small as four inches or may span the entire area from the countertop to the ceiling, depending on the desired effect. If you are adhering to a limited budget, consider running the countertop material as your standard 4-inch height splash and then border your mirror in something special, such as an accent trim. The least expensive way to achieve drama with your splash and mirror area is to cut down pieces of field tile (your floor or countertop tile) and border the mirror with it. To liven things up, add a decorative accent in each corner and outline the space between the mirror and field tile with a strip of colorful mosaic.

On the floor

The most critical factor to consider when using natural stone for the bathroom floor is surface texture. An antiquated finish, a honed marble or granite, or a natural-faced slate are all great choices for flooring in the bathroom, offering a secure foothold. On the other hand, a highly polished stone of any kind is not always wise due to the “slippery when wet” dilemma.

When your heart is set on a sleek polished stone for the bath, consider the addition of an inlaid rug design outside each wet area in the selected stone’s honed, tumbled or mosaic counterpart. This not only keeps you from slipping but will add a distinctive touch to your space as well. If this solution does not appeal to you, placing a tasteful throw rug outside each wet area will suffice.

The powder bath

Comprised of only a sink and commode, the powder bath is a small bathroom capable of making a big statement. Used primarily by visiting friends and family, this modest-sized bath offers the ideal setting for expressing your individuality. Somewhat isolated, it lends itself well to bold and daring statements. Its generally private location eliminates conventional concerns regarding tile selections that may clash with surrounding elements. Combine all this with its guest-oriented mission and it becomes possible to create unsurpassed elegance without worry. So be creative, artistic and begin to envision unique ways to impress your guests.

Take a good look at the space you have allotted to function as your powder bath. Ideally, it is located in an area that offers a degree of privacy for your visitors and is large enough to move about in comfortably. Because this petite space is generally reserved for guests, it does not suffer from the blatant mistreatment generally associated with the standard bathroom, like wet floors and harsh chemical substances. Because of this, materials typically avoided may be considered, like those wonderfully delectable polished marbles and mosaics.

Let your imagination take flight. What appeals to you as far as design is concerned? Do you prefer the understated simplicity of Contemporary or the classic look of Traditional? Either way color and lighting will play a significant role in the mood and ambiance conveyed within the room. Tucked away in some obscure corner, there is little chance that you will be basking in the warmth of natural light, so choose mood-enhancing fixtures to complement and balance the room. Forget the adage that small rooms should be light in color; select a palette that appeals to your sense of style. A rich warm shade may be just the backdrop to convey that feeling of sophistication you’ve been striving for. There are no hard-set rules for this bath, so here are just a few ideas you may want to consider.


Mosaics add instant glamour to any room. Their color and texture variations are truly mesmerizing. When confronted with a wall clad in these tiny works of art, one cannot help but glide their fingertips across it. When laid upon the floor, your guests will have to resist the urge to kick off their shoes.

By enveloping an entire room in a single- toned mosaic you can recreate the serene simplicity of a windswept beach. The sparkle of highly polished stone mosaics strewn across a backsplash and spilling over a countertop will result in the appearance of a gem-encrusted jewel box. Because of the expense involved in using large quantities of mosaic, your budget restrictions may override your desires. Before dismissing your dreams entirely, explore clever ways to incorporate a smaller adaptation of your original design. Remember, a little goes a long way in a room of this size and because the volume is scaled down. .so are costs.

Before settling on your final plans, don’t forget about the floor. A handful of dark shiny mosaics scattered across a floor of creamy travertine can be impressive. Consider a border of inexpensive field tile filled with a mosaic herringbone or basket weave pattern. Ordinarily preset on netted sheets, mosaics are reasonably easy to install. Try getting fancy by cutting the sheets into strips to be used as borders or smaller squares to be used as inserts. Small custom medallions can also add an elegant touch for a modest investment.

Stone bowl sinks

Due to the lack of components present in this cozy little space, the sink and mirror suddenly find themselves center stage, and while we generally think of mirrors as a decorative accessory dazzling visitors in a relatively new undertaking is the traditionally non-descript sink. Presently struggling to carve out its role as a focal point, this once uninspiring fixture is being thought of in an entirely new perspective. Gone is the lackluster sink of the past and in its place has emerged an incredible work of art.

When shopping for a sink, material choices and styles abound at every turn. Your search will unearth bowls carved from blocks of granite, travertine, limestone and marble; reflecting earth tones of ocher, Sienna, and bone. From round and oval to rectangle and square, shapes will vary from the traditional to the exotic and from the primitive to the ornate. Rising to take its place as one of the most beautiful design elements within the bathroom is the vessel sink. These functional pieces of sculpture are captivating when setting on pedestals or floated above jagged slabs of stone. Reminiscent of your grandmother’s washbasin, they are capable of successfully achieving numerous and diverse images. Placed atop a reflective sheet of glass, they appear to hover in space; the juxtaposition of new and old blending to create a unique dimension. Resting upon a ledge of weathered stone, they capture the primordial feeling of ancient Rome. An isolated sink of hand-carved granite positioned upon a floating vanity of slate will envelop your guests with a Zen-like serenity.

Cladding the wall

Because you may be able to afford a few little extras in this bath, you may want to consider treating all of the surfaces with stone tile. Walls can receive a chest-high wainscoting topped with an intricately carved rope trim or be encased entirely from baseboard to crown molding. When cladding the entire wall surface in stone, visual interest can be added by breaking up the pattern through the use of dimensional trims or strips of contrasting stone. If you are setting the lower portion of your wall tile on a 90-degree angle, switch to a brick pattern or 45-degree angle above the breakpoint for added diversity

Final thoughts

Due to its small nature, the powder bath gives you the opportunity to stretch your imagination without stretching your budget. This may be your only opportunity to incorporate those high-end specialty tiles you’ve been drooling over without breaking the bank. If there was something that you were forced to eliminate from the master bath due to budget constraints, reexamine using it on a smaller scale in the powder room. Remember, through the simple addition of upgraded or wall mounted faucets, decorative inserts, mosaics or clever pattern arrangements a rich and lavish feeling can be instilled within the room.