Chris’ black and white bathroom remodel — amazing attention to detail — and all DIY!

Can you believe Chris did this all himself?
He shares his complete Resource List!
Vintage Bath Remodel before and after

Chris in action.

Reader Chris caught Pam’s attention right away when he posted a few photos of his recent bathroom remodel on the Retro Renovation Facebook page. When Pam asked me to write up Chris’ bathroom story, I too was blown away (holy tile work!), especially when I found out Chris did all of the work himself —  from demo to tiling to building his own custom vanity. What’s also awesome about Chris’ bathroom is that much of the material he used for the renovation was salvaged — he has some great hunting and gathering skills.

Chris’ awesome bathroom remodel is inspiring —  but he was also inspired by Pam’s bathroom series on Retro Renovation.

Chris says:

Your blog has been a great source for inspiration and materials.  Your bathroom videos were so helpful, and you’ll notice some elements that are familiar from Pam’s own renovation.


Chris’ remodel was a huge project — with lots to ask about. Chris was a super-helpful with the Q&A:

Kate: Can you provide us with some back story about your house?

Chris: The house was built starting in 1948, but the occupancy permit wasn’t issued until 1950. The city directory lists the house as owner-built, and also lists the owner variously as a carpenter, bricklayer and handyman depending on the year.  Having had the pleasure of re-working much of his work, I’m not sure he was overly skilled at any of those.

The major components of the house are built from recycled materials (the walls are solid brick from the 1880s or so, the joists are 3×10” nominal beams with marks from square nails and lath, and the floor boards are 5/4 tongue and groove pine with square iron nails still sticking out of the bottom from when they had previously been installed elsewhere.  My guess is that the material is from an old factory that was demolished. There are also decorative granite rocks that look very much like they were taken from the river at the end of the street, and the mortar is made using what appears to be sand from the “beach” along the river as well.

The house is basically a 1940s Cape Cod that’s infused with elements of 50s ranch and 30s deco. The upper floor appears to have been one large attic initially, then divided into rooms — as wallpapers and shag carpeting run under the walls. In the 80s the house became a student rental, then just a rental until the city came and condemned it prior to my purchasing it.

To say it was in rough shape would be an understatement.

Kate: What made you decide to renovate it?

bathroom-before remodelChris: The second floor bath is the principle bath as the bedrooms are upstairs. The original bath was adjacent to the larger bedroom and was 54” wide and 12 feet long and positioned entirely under the sloping roof of the Cape Cod.  The bathtub was positioned on the outside wall because the space was too narrow for it to be the other way.  This meant that the wall side of the tub was 48” floor to ceiling.  The “shower head” was positioned at a point where the ceiling height was 56”.  I’m 6’-3”.

The one structural change to the space that I’m very pleased with is — after working with the building inspector — we decided to raise the ceiling height to match the rest of the upstairs, since for some inexplicable reason it was originally framed at six-and-a-half-feet. You also had to physically climb over the pedestal sink in order to get to the toilet, as the space between the sink and the wall that constituted the traffic path was 18” wide.  Finally, the walls had been covered with pressed MDF patterned to look like tile that had then been texturized with stucco and then had been painted sunflower yellow.  The floor was peel-and-stick vinyl tile applied directly to the subfloor. I gutted this space and it’s now the Master closet.  The third “bedroom” upstairs had been converted to a kitchen during the rental days in the 80s.  It wasn’t overly large, but it became the space for the bath.

Kate: Why did you choose a retro style?

Chris: The house has a great location, and the factory-sized bones means it was structurally strong. The goal was to give the house a cohesive architecture that was period appropriate to the era of the exterior. Only one room remained original and able to be restored.  The rest had either been remuddled badly or had originally been simply drywalled boxes (such as the dining room), so the entire project is a gut and re-create. The focus is thus WWII-era, though admittedly, the quality of the materials are from a higher price point than originally used because the neighborhood has evolved in the past 60 years.

Vintage black and white subway tile bathroom

Kate: How did you choose the color scheme for your bathroom?

Chris: The color scheme is more practical than anything. I expect to be transferred sooner or later and may need to sell the house. I like 50s bright baths as well as the 40s mint greens, but a black/blue or mint/black combination doesn’t appeal to everyone. If I knew I was staying put for an extended period, I’d go with one of those color schemes anyway, however, the reality of my situation makes going neutral a better choice, and there are still plenty of examples of classic black/white originals from the era. The slate grey wall color was a mis-tint at Home Depot and was only $5 for the gallon, hence the wall color choice.

Kate: Did you do the work yourself?

Chris: Yes, though keep in mind I’m an engineer with a background in architecture which might help slightly with the permitting process, electrical and plumbing.

Being a precise and detailed person — he’s an engineer, which sure is handy for a home renovation! — Chris put together a detailed explanation and list of his materials:

laying tile


Resource List: Tile

Chris says:

The white subway tile and the black subway tile laid in soldier course are both generic tile from my local store. They are made in Asia with no specific manufacturer noted. The black subway tile is used in place of proper base tile because, it was 10x the cost to use proper base, and also because the floor is not level so each tile could be cut to match the slant of the floor at the bottom and keep the rest of the tile perfectly level and therefore fool the eye into thinking the floor is also level.  In reality the base is almost an inch higher on one end than it is on the other but you don’t notice it. The black chair rail tile is from the same generic series.

black-and-white-retro-bathroom tile vintage retroThe black pencil tile (aka liner tile) ran above the base as well as on either side of the accent tile came mounted to one-foot square sheets for use as kitchen back splashes from the local big box. The tiles easily peeled off the mesh sheets and for the cost of $10 per sheet, you got 32 accent tiles rather than paying $1.98 each to buy the standard ½”x6” pencil tile. [Pam interjects: BRILLIANT IDEA!!!!]

The accent tile is (in between the two pencil/liner tiles, as shown above)  a 2″x8” glass tile from Home Depot.  It has a ribbed or “reeded” pattern that matches the privacy glass in the window.  It is actually called white, but the glass makes it read blue-green against the white porcelain.  Again it was super inexpensive being I think about $5 each.

vintage-tile-with-modern-shower glass doors

The Floor tile is brand name and is Keystone mosaic from daltile. I choose it because it came in an off-white unglazed tile that is both safer when wet and more closely resembles vintage tile than the glossy white version sold most places.  It was also important that the manufacturer sold 1×1 in the same colors further making daltile one of the few choices.  The plain white fills as well as the black borders are made from tiles cut from 12×24” sheets of 1×1 tiles in both white and black.  I ran a continuous 1×1 black tile against the base all the way around the room to further the give the feel of the proper 50s coved base tiles. Doing this also allowed me to break up the white of the floor from the white of the tub, which didn’t look that great together when they touched. The grout is ‘dark charcoal’ which has worked out well and tones down the field of white since the floor white differs from the wall’s glossy white finish. I used epoxy grout in the shower which doesn’t require sealing and you really don’t notice the difference between it and the standard non-sanded grout used in the rest of the bath. Epoxy grout uses a different installation method than standard grout, but once you understand it, I didn’t find it any more difficult to work with (keep it iced – it’s an exothermic reaction).

electric floor warmer under tile

I splurged and installed electric tile heat under the tile, and admit it’s fantastic to have a warm floor to walk on in the mornings. I haven’t noticed any impact on my electrical bill from it either. The electric warming mat is made by Warmly Yours.

Resource List: Plumbing

Chris shares:

Toilet, sink: Kohler Memoirs Stately Collection, with the original Kohler flush lever swapped out for an American Standard Town square one to match the taps (rework was needed to do that).

Faucets: I used your suggestion for 8” centers on the taps (American Standard Town Square Collection) so that it’d be easier to clean. Diverter valve in shower Kohler Memoirs (American Standard didn’t make one in the Town Square series). Handheld is by Delta as I wanted one that was square, and for some unknown reason the American Standard Town Square one has a very rounded handheld that in my opinion doesn’t look anything like the rest of the series. The drop elbow is from Pfister, as again I wanted the square one and both Kohler’s and AS were round. Body sprays are from Grohe. I also included a cubby area (with the sill set at a 5 degree slope to drain water) in the shower like you suggested.

The towel warmer is the Infinity model from Warmly Yours. (Keeps towels from smelling musty allowing them to be used multiple times, and as a bonus makes them nice and warm as you wrap them around yourself coming out of the shower).

vintage-tile-bathroom mirrored doorResource List: Doors

Chris’ list:

I’ve noticed on a number of homes of the 30s/40s era that they have built-in mirrors on the back of the bathroom doors.  Masonite actually makes a mirrored back door, but it doesn’t come in the two panel door pattern used in my house, and the mirror itself isn’t beveled like the traditional ones. Therefore, I made my own by buying a stock door, cutting the back panel out, stuffing the door with plywood and then ordering a custom mirror with 2” bevel from a glass shop. The doors have applied moldings added to match the originals. Glass shower doors are the same local company.

custom-bath-vanitybuilding-cabinets for bath vanityResource List: Vanity

From Chris:

I custom built the vanity myself from maple furniture plywood since none of the ones available from home centers had the correct dimension to match my installation as I have the full-length window only 16” from the corner  (The shallowest side drawer units I could get were 18” and I needed 15″).  The vanity doors and drawer fronts are from Conestoga. I realize the vanity should be painted white to reflect the time period, however I was feeling that too much white would overwhelm and also I tend to like stained wood. I figure a future owner can paint it white in an afternoon if they want to. The mirror over the vanity started its life at a Sears Outlet store as a bedroom dresser mirror, and then I ran the wood frame through the table saw to match the slope of the ceiling. Buying a bedroom dresser mirror from a furniture outlet proved to be way less costly than a similarly sized bathroom mirror elsewhere.

bath-vanity-custom-madevintage lightResource List: Lighting

Chris da bomb say:

Salvaged-wall-sconce-vintage 1940s

All the lighting is from a 1938 mansion that was being demoed (which I rewired). I used a three-way switch at the door for the vanity lights so that you can turn them off and on from both at the door and at the vanity and not have to walk back and forth if you forget.  The lights themselves are rewired 40s antiques from Re-store (Habitat for Humanity)  The ceiling exhaust fan is also on a timer as you had suggested.

Chris — all I have to say is WOW. You have gone above and beyond to remodel your bathroom in a way that hugely upgrades its functionality, makes use of salvaged materials, historically fits the era of your home and is just downright wonderful to look at. Kudos to you for completing — and doing it well — what must have been a long and exhausting project. With my own bathroom project looming, you’ve given me a whole bunch of ideas — that heated floor must be awesome — and I’m wondering if I might be able to build my own vanity too. (I’m no engineer, but I went to art school and know my way around the power tools.)

Thanks for inspiring us Chris, and for giving us such and in depth look at your fantastic bathroom remodel!

  1. Amanda Callahan says:

    I have a 1930’s home. Do you have a source for the black ceramic baseboard tile that curves at the top like a bull nose? I’ve scource the site and gone to a lot of links, to no avail.


  2. Cara says:

    Chris, I’m in love with this floor! Did you buy the corner pieces preset, or did you set that yourself?

    1. pam kueber says:

      I’m not sure that we had the “subscribe to this thread” feature when we originally published this story, so Chris may not see your comment, Cara. I will guess: He did the corners himself.

      1. pam kueber says:

        Oh I found this in Chris’ story (read the story closely for Chris’ explanation of how he did the floor):

        The plain white fills as well as the black borders are made from tiles cut from 12×24” sheets of 1×1 tiles in both white and black.

  3. steve rose says:

    We are in the middle of redoing our entire bathroom in a 1928 English cottage and our daughter brought your floor design to our attention. We have obtained the pinwheel 12″x12″ tiles from Lowes. They have the unglazed white 2″x1″ tiles with a glazed 1″x1″ tile. We are trying to find sheets of the 1″x1″ unglazed white tiles and sheets of the 1″x1″ glazed black tiles and are having no luck. Daltile sent us a sample of black tiles and they actually look chocolate brown. No one seems to carry the glazed black 1″x1″ tiles. Could the tiles in your bathroom contain unglazed black tiles in the centers of the pinwheels? Also, You mentioned 2’x8″ glass tiles from home depot for the tub surround and they look more like 12″x4″. Was that a typo?
    Kudos, Chris. Beautiful work. Love the fact you stained the vanity. Let someone else paint it if they like but there’s nothing like the and character and beauty of natural wood.

      1. steve rose says:

        Thanks for the quick response, Pam. I have just been turned on to your retrorenovation website and I am loving it.
        In my previous post I was wondering about the tiles between the pencil thin black tiles. They were referred to as 2foot by 8inch tiles but, if I’m seeing it right, there are about 5 of them laid horizontally end to end which would mean the tub is at least ten feet long. Are they in fact approximately 12 inch by 4 inch tiles instead, or am I looking at the wrong picture or tiles?
        As for the 1 inch by 1 inch tiles, we’re going to go to Daltile today and present this article to them to see if they can find us matching sheets of 1 inch by 1 inch black glazed tiles.
        Thanks again

        1. pam kueber says:

          Hi Steve, it was a typo and I fixed it – thank you for calling it to my attention. Looks like those are 2″ x 8″ glass subway tiles.

  4. Linda says:

    I just wanted to thank Chris for sharing his bathroom ideas with everyone! For someone as design challenged as myself, it was a huge relief to find something both my husband and I liked and would fit the style of our little 1940 house. Many of the tile ideas we looked at on line were either too plain or too fancy. We mostly followed Chris’s pattern for the wall tiles and even the wall color. We were not able to find the pencil tiles in sheets as was suggested but we did find rectangular glass tiles in sheets, so we did save money with that great tip! We really appreciate how our new bathroom looks classic and elegant; neither “old fashioned” nor “trendy”.
    Thanks again!

  5. Mary says:

    I have the exact same floor tile as Chris has. My problem is that because the tile is unglazed, it gets grubby very quickly and sponge-mopping is not successful. I have to get in there and scrub with a scotchbrite and something with bleach. This is not a high-traffic area either. I’m wondering if I need to put some kind of sealer on the tile.

      1. Cara says:

        Thanks, Pam. I don’t necessarily WANT to use epoxy grout but the horror stories about staining on unglazed porcelain on the tile forum scared me. I think I’d prefer regular grout but my tiler’s preferences would have to be considered as well.

        Does anyone here have any experience with the unglazed tile & how do you like it? Is it easy to clean?

    1. Chris says:

      Cara, I only used epoxy grout on the wall tile in the shower. The tiles are glazed so it wasn’t an issue. The floor tile is unglazed non-slip but I used regular everyday sanded grout there. Since it’s black I wasn’t worried about it staining.

      The tiles are square edged.

      1. Cara says:

        Hi Chris,

        Thanks for responding. I wonder if there’s a misunderstanding. When you wrote that you didn’t worry about it staining, because it’s black, I’m guessing you mean the grout. In the article whose link I posted, the problem was that the colored grout stained the unglazed tile. Did you do anything special to prevent that?

        1. pam kueber says:

          Cara, have you contacted the epoxy grout or regular grout manufacturer to get their advice on this? That is the proper route to take, I believe.

          1. Cara says:

            Thanks. On the thread I posted, people received conflicting recommendations from tile & grout manufacturers and problems ensued. Before make any decisions, I thought it prudent to get advice from others with actual experience. If you feel that my questions are inappropriate, I will stop asking.

            1. pam kueber says:

              I really think you should be talking directly to your grout and tile makers. They are the ones warrantying their products…

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