Do I really have to tear it all
out?

Patching and heavy duty repair is the purgatory between regular
maintenance and full-blown replacement of bathtub / shower areas.  
The amount of patching, and what the final repair looks like in the end,
depends on how much damage there is to be fixed.

Tub and shower basin refinishing

Tubs and shower basins, themselves, can be refinished.  When done
by competent technicians, the results can be dramatic.  In a nut shell,
these folks chemically strip the existing surface and then reapply a
finish which can be impossible to distinguish from a new tub.

While the resulting surface looks like new and will provide years of
bathing enjoyment, the surface is, after all, a topical layer that can
delaminate.  If, for instance, a sliding shower door is removed from a
previously treated tub, the finish may pull up with the door frame.  
Also, any work performed in the tub area after a surface refinishing
process must be done carefully because the fresh surface is easily
scratched.

Tub refinishers may offer the option of heat treatment to speed the
curing of the new finish.  It is a good idea to accept this option, even
as an added expense.  However, the heat treatment will not
necessarily preclude the scratching and delaminating mentioned
above.

Sub-wall repair

Wall repair requires some degree of demolition regardless of whether
the surface is ceramic tile or plastic.  Water damaged backer board
must be replaced before the finished surface can be stored.  It is best
to use one of the many available cement boards for this purpose,
rather than gypsum board.  The cement based products, while not
waterproof, are not degraded by water if future leaks ever occur.

The most problematic part of replacing backerboard is getting the new
material to lay flush with the surrounding material that it is supposed to
mate with.  In patching, if the new sub-surface is not even with the old
subsurface, there will be a prominent “bump” where the two materials
meet.  Getting the finished surface to run smoothly over this bump can
be a big problem.

Plastic surround systems

If the plan is to repair a worn plastic or fiberglass wall covering, the
new surround can be applied after the water damage on the sub-wall
is replaced with cement board.  Reusing the old plastic surround is
normally not a good idea.  New units are inexpensive enough, old units
are too difficult to remove intact, and old units are too messed up with
old adhesive to be worth the bother.

Tile repair

If tiles are falling off the wall it is probably because of water damage
behind the scenes.  The only way to check it out and fix it is to take it
apart.

Tiles can often be taken down in sections, peeling away rows and
columns until solid backing is found.  The existing tiles can be
salvaged and reinstalled, providing that none are broken or missing.  It
is virtually impossible to precisely match the color of tile, so salvaging
saves you from having to choose between a quilted patch and a
complete tile job.

The salvaging process is more labor intensive, since each individual
tile must be cleaned of adhesive and grout before it can be
reinstalled.  Many tile guys would rather not deal with that kind of
chore, so finding someone who is willing to do the work may be difficult.

If salvaging the existing tiles is not in the cards, a partial demolition
and replacement is still possible by concocting a tile color and pattern
layout that will somehow complement the remaining original tiles.  With
proper selection and execution, a section of a wall, rather than a whole
wall, can be covered with new tiles in an appealing way.

No, you don’t have to tear it all out!

Repairing and refinishing your bath area is a perfectly workable
solution.  Compared to a total demolition, it is:

•        Less time consuming.
•        Less expensive.
•        Less planning.

On the negative side:

•        You end up with the same as you had to begin with.
•        If not well executed, a patch will always look like a patch.
•        Sometimes, after you get into it, you find that it’s better just to
gut the whole thing and start from scratch. . .

. . . in which case, you may want to read the next section . . .
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