There are many materials used around the home to decorate walls but showers needs a specialist covering. Traditionally tiles have been the only game in town. But now when we get asked what is the best material for shower walls we can recommend many different solutions.
What has caused this increase in variety and what has driven it?
Manufacturing processes have moved on in the post war years and innovation has taken hold. Industry is always looking for new markets to move into. Initially laminate panels were seen as an ideal alternative. These were difficult to work with in large flexible sheets so they were attached to marine plywood to make rigid shower panels. These have grown in popularity as they have been made by many different companies and marketed as an alternative to tiles.
It is the issues surrounding tiles that created the demand for this type of product in the first place. The tiles themselves work well but grout has a nasty habit of deteriorating over time. Often this down to bad application or poor specification – many tile grouts are not waterproof at all.
So of these newer products which material is best for lining your shower wall? We will look at all of the options in a little more detail.
Bathroom Tiles – The Traditional Choice
The majority of tiles sold in the UK are made from ceramic but other materials are also used. Porcelain and natural stone are also available but are more expensive and therefore sell in smaller quantities.
A freshly tiled wall does look very attractive and is the standard “look” that people expect to see in a bathroom. But, as has been mentioned, the grout is a possible problem area. People do not want to install a high-maintenance product. And grout regularly turns out to be just that.
Tiles require a flat surface so preparation is extensive. Skimming, plastering and sealing are time consuming, messy and expensive. Uneven surfaces will result in grout lines running out. This is a particular problem with dark tiles as the contrast between the tile and the grout makes the unevenness all the more noticeable.
That said, tile are cheap, attractive, readily available and are the only product many installers work with. But with the advent of tile effect panels many people are turning their backs on tiles and looking for something with less maintenance.
Laminate Panels – Hard Wearing And Durable
Large sheets of laminate on their own can be used as a wall covering. They are very thin, brittle but flexible and because of this they are liable to damage easily. They are also difficult to cut and work with. So the most common way of employing them in a bathroom is as part of a laminate panel system.
A sheet of laminate is bonded to a marine plywood or MDF backing board. The board provides a rigid backing making installation easier. They are also available with a tongue and groove edge so that the panels can slot together to cover larger areas. Not all of these are suitable for use on shower walls bizarrely.
These panels have some downsides as well.
- the panels are quite expensive
- they can warp if moisture gets into the wood
- the joints can creep apart over time
- colour choice not as wide as tiles
There have been some attempts to make laminate panels with a foam core rather than wood. Despite them being lighter and more dimensionally stable under temperature changes they have not been popular.
PVC Shower Panels – Rot-Proof And Recyclable
The availability of wide PVC shower panels is one of the reasons foam core panels failed to make an impact. Previously, PVC panels were only available in narrow strips. But panels are now made in widths up to 1m wide. They are tongue and grooved so are perfect for larger walls and are totally waterproof. They have many advantages over their wooden counterparts:
- there is no wood so will not warp
- they will not rot
- expansion and contraction is almost irrelevant
- they are 100% recyclable (and can even be re-used – more)
- PVC shower panels are cheaper than laminate equivalents
Again, tiles have a greater choice of colours but the number of designs available in this material is growing all the time.
Bathroom Cladding – Low Cost But Highly Effective
Another PVC based panelling system, bathroom cladding consists of smaller interlocking planks.
The PVC shower panels mentioned above are basically a scaled up version of bathroom cladding. The smaller panels have the advantage o being easier to fit and are cheaper to buy. There are more joints than would be the case with metre wide panels but this is not really an issue.
See our article on joining panels for more information.
There are also acrylic panels available that can be used in showers. Some have a routed grout line in the design that is very attractive and gives a realistic look. These recesses can collect dirt and soap residue. But they are much easier to clean than actual tile grout so are still low maintenance.
Solid PVC sheet is used regularly in the catering industry. They are fitted where hygienic surfaces are required around food preparation areas. But they can be used in showers with no issues as they are inherently waterproof. Similar to laminate they are very flexible which can make installation tricky.
So Which Is The Best Material?
Acrylic panels are OK but are only suitable for small cubicles. Large PVC sheets are slightly larger but have no pattern and look somewhat clinical. Neither of these panels are tongue and grooved so an obtrusive joining strip needs to be used if running them around the whole room.
Laminate panels are durable and perfect for use in commercial applications. We have seen these panels display signs of water ingress in the past where joints have moved apart. This could be down to poor installation but when there is a cheaper, 100% waterproof alternative available in PVC we see no reason to opt for laminate.
And finally tiles. When everything is specified and installed correctly they can look amazing for years. But we see problems far too often. Most of our customers switch to PVC panels because they have had problems with their tiles and are sick and tired of trying to keep their grout looking clean.
In our opinion shower wall panels are the best if you are just fitting inside a cubicle. If you are continuing around the whole bathroom then bathroom cladding will do exactly the same job but a lot cheaper.