Sometimes, for me, completing a project has been a matter of trial and error. I have been trying to get my shower to quit leaking for what seems like years—but was actually only a few weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun. I tracked enough water around as it was from my hot tub and shower. Water worming its way out through un-noticed cracks and holes, though, quickly became a problem. I tried one thing after another.
The shower was a multi-piece fiberglass kit, and had been assembled and set in place by the house’s previous owners. However, the sides were not sealed at the edges, or fastened to the wall. They moved when you touched them, like loose sails on a boat. The un-fastened top edges worried me. A steamy bathroom meant condensation on the walls, and drips trickling downward, sliding effortlessly behind the floppy sidewalls of the shower stall.
The very first thing I did was run a bead of construction glue behind the top edge of the shower sides, using a caulk gun. With masking tape, I secured the glued sides as closely to the walls as possible. After the glue had dried, and the shower sides didn’t gape open any more, I added a line of white silicone caulk made for baths and kitchens. Eventually, I planned to add some kind of attractive, waterproof trim to the top edges, for a more finished look. My first priority, though, was avoiding water damage.
I put caulk around the bottom edges early on. I must have done something wrong, though, because the water leaked out at the bottom of the shower in rivers and cascades. One corner of the bathroom wall began to look soft and discolored, because I didn’t realize immediately what was happening.
I have always been just completely awful with caulk. I put too much on, and could never seem to smooth it enough to be inconspicuous, let alone attractive. I hated working with caulk. Silicone caulk was the worst, because on top of everything else, it was really, really hard to get off my hands. Since I had failed with a latex-based caulk, though, I decided that silicone was my next step. I forgot to buy mineral spirits to remove the caulk from my hands, but I wasn’t too worried because I didn’t actually plan on getting any on them.
I ran the shower with the door closed, just to make sure, and found water escaping along the bottom of the door and the two glass panels. I suspected that the loose bottom edges of the two fiberglass walls were contributing, though.
I dried the shower’s bottom edges with a towel, and then with a paper towel. I even wiped them down with rubbing alcohol, and left them for hours. In the morning, I cut a small opening in the tip of the tube of caulk, and began. I did not realize that there was water lurking behind the scenes, waiting to destroy my efforts. As I applied the caulk, water oozed out, and I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, the caulk began to fail immediately. When the label says surfaces must be dry, they mean really, really dry.
With water leaking everywhere, I peeled all of the failed caulk off the edges, scrubbed the surfaces clean with a plastic scrubber, and dried the shower as thoroughly as could. I squeezed the shower sides against the walls to force out the hidden water. I dried the surfaces with towels, and with paper towels, again. I tucked paper towels in place, checking them frequently to see if they were still soaking up water. This time, I waited two days, not running any water in the shower, to allow whatever water I missed to evaporate. That meant sponge baths for me, and washing my hair in the sink, but I was determined to have the surfaces dry.
When I said I was terrible with caulk, I meant it. I had tried cutting the tip of the caulk tube to a very narrow diameter, and when that failed, cutting the tip shorter for a wider line. I tried using masking tape to keep the caulk in bounds, and various tools for smoothing caulk, from those actually intended for the purpose (there’s a thought!) to popcycle sticks, rubber spatulas, and finally my fingers.
Sometimes, I remembered to wear latex gloves. Mostly, I didn’t. I kept paper towels or tissues handy, and used them to catch caulk I wiped away with my fingers. Often, I wiped away more than I left. I grew to hate caulking. Part of the problem was that I found it difficult to put pressure on the caulk gun while moving it along at the same time. My hands were weak, and they shook. Squeezing the handle to expel the caulk was painful, and moving the tip smoothly just wasn’t possible.
This time I was determined. I bought some waterproof rope caulk. That allowed me to pull off a narrow string of caulk that was perfect for my uses. If my surface was not dry, the caulk would not stick, but if it was, rope caulk provided a good starting point. I put it around the bottom of the glass sides and door, and then covered it with silicone caulk. That is not a typical use, but it has seemed to work. It also gave me the chance to really press the unfastened shower sides against the walls at the bottom, which regular caulk would not do.
Because I was so awful with caulk, I used masking tape to limit how wide the caulk could spread. I ran my bead of caulk around the entire base of the shower sides. Then I smoothed the caulk, removing about half of it because that’s how bad I am with caulk. When I had done my best, I pulled off the tape. The still-soft caulk could be smoothed a bit more than if I had waited.
Cleaning my hands was difficult. Silicone caulk left them unbearably sticky. I tried soap, butter (works with pitch!), cleaning powders, shower spray, and rubbing alcohol. Finally, I tried lamp oil. It worked, though I had to wash my hands sixteen times to get rid of the oil. Next time, I really need to remember to buy mineral spirits.
Silicone caulk was supposed to dry for twelve hours, but I left it for 24. That meant two days while the water in the seams evaporated, and another day while the caulk dried. I wondered if people in town were beginning to avoid my unshowered person. I did wash, but I couldn’t actually shower. I desperately wanted this project to be over.
Each effort I made brought improvement, and this effort seemed to stop the leaks on the two glass walls. The door, though was still a floodgate. I had resorted to keeping an absorbent throw rug on the floor below the door, but that was not a permanent solution.
In desperation, I finally examined the bottom of the door. There was a funny little plastic piece that was (I assumed) supposed to keep water from escaping and it just wasn’t doing the job. It was also pretty scummy. I found that the flap was loose for several inches, creating a gap that had allowed water to escape. I pulled the whole flap off, praying that I wasn’t making the biggest mistake of my caulking life. Sometimes, I have had to take things apart to figure out how to fix them, but it always terrified me. This was no exception. What if I couldn’t get it back together?
Fortunately, what I found was that the flap had been connected to the door using double-sided foam tape. I actually had some of that, so I pulled off as much of the old tape as I could, even using a knife to scrape off the residue. I scrubbed the surface with steel wool until the metal was bare and shiny Lying on the floor scrubbing that was uncomfortable, but I managed (barely) to get up again.
Then I took the flap to my workbench and repeated the process, which had the added benefit of cleaning all the yucky scum off the plastic flap. That was much easier than lying on the floor in front of the shower.
When the the door and flap were both clean and dry, I laid the tape on the back of the flap, and then carefully set it in place on the bottom of the door. The flap covered the gap between the door and the frame, which I hoped would keep the water on the inside. I ran a narrow bead of caulk along the top edge of the flap, to prevent leaks.
I had to wait another twelve hours for the caulk to be dry and safe for water exposure. Then I ran the shower with the door closed. I watched. I waited. No rivers appeared. No puddles formed. I had succeeded. Even more important, I could shower!
As I said, sometimes a project is a series of attempts, with each one building on the attempt that came before, until finally the problem is solved. This one was tedious, and took several tries, but when it finally worked, the sense of relief and accomplishment was huge. I could finally shower without the stress of worrying about leaks, rotting floors, and mildewing walls. Sometimes, you just have to keep on trying.