Towel racks, soap dishes, toothbrush holders, paper cup dispensers, pull-out magnifying mirrors and grab bars--wall-mounted accessories like these can make the difference between a bathroom that's adequate and one that's truly tailored to your needs. Fortunately, if your bathroom lacks these finishing touches, you can quickly add them on your own. Mounting systems vary from the ridiculously simple to moderately easy.
Adhesive: Many small, light-duty accessories such as towel hooks and cup dispensers can be fastened in place with nothing more than heavy adhesive or double-faced tape. Accessories of this type normally come with the adhesive included in the package. Just clean the area where the accessory will be mounted, then follow package directions.
Surface mounting: This is the most common technique for adding accessories to a finished wall. It relies on one or more metal clips, held in place with screws. If the accessory must accept heavy loads--a grab bar is a good example--you should plan on driving these screws directly into the wall studs. But for most other accessories, you can sink the screws into ordinary plastic screw anchors.
In any case, you'll have to start the job with a carbide-tipped masonry bit. It's the only way you can drill through ceramic tile. If you will be using plastic screw anchors, get a bit that is sized to match the anchor. If you plan to screw directly into your studs, get a bit slightly larger than the diameter of your screw. Use this bit just to penetrate the tile. Then switch over to a smaller size to predrill the stud for the screw.
Most accessories come with paper templates to help you locate screw holes accurately. Plan your fixture placement carefully. Try to arrange things so your mounting holes are near the center of a tile. This looks better than an off-center mounting, and lessens the chance that the tile will crack when you drill into it.
If the accessory doesn't come with a screw-hole template, I like to make my own. I just tack a piece of heavy paper to the wall with rubber cement, then hold the mounting clip against it and mark the holes with a pencil. This works better than trying to mark directly on the tile, and the paper helps keep the drill from skidding.
Start drilling with light pressure and low speed. This will give you good control and help prevent cracking. Once you are through the hard surface glazing, you can increase drill speed and pressure somewhat, but don't get impatient.
After the holes are drilled, screw the mounting clip in place. Snug the screws down tight, but don't over-tighten or you risk cracking the tile. To finish the job, fasten your accessory to its clip. Ceramic accessories generally just slide onto the clip. Metal accessories snap in place and are often secured with a small set screw, hidden from view on the bottom edge. Tighten this screw with a small screwdriver and the job is finished.
Flush setting: accessories of this type fasten to the wall with mastic or plaster. They are sized to take the place of a standard tile, and normally go up at the time the wall is tiled. But you can also add them to existing walls, if you are willing to clip out one or more of the existing tiles to make room.
Sometimes you can also use a flush-mount accessory to repair a cracked tile. If the tile is located where an accessory will make sense, and if you can't find a matching replacement tile, this trick can bail you out of a sticky situation.
Most tile setters like to install flush-mount fixtures with plaster of Paris instead of adhesive or mastic. Mix up a small batch of plaster to a creamy consistency, just stiff enough to form and hold a peak in your bowl. Trowel a quarter-inch coat of it onto the back of your accessory and press it firmly into position. Wipe off any plaster that oozes out. Then, for security, fasten the accessory in place with a couple of strips of tape, as shown in the sketch. Let dry overnight, then grout around the rim of the accessory, or seal the joint with a color-matched silicone bathroom caulk.
If you are adding a flush mount accessory to an already tiled wall, or to replace a cracked tile, start by carefully removing the old tile or tiles where the accessory will go. Tap it to break it up, then pry it loose with a stiff putty knife. Clean up the wall behind it, scraping off any remaining adhesive or grout. Then fasten the accessory in place. I like to use silicone caulk for this. Just squeeze a liberal amount on the back of the accessory and press it in place. Wipe off any squeeze-out (silicone is difficult to remove once it sets) and secure it overnight with tape as above.
The next day, seal around the rim of the accessory with silicone caulk to finish the job.
Just one warning: If you are installing a flush-mount towel bar, don't forget to place the bar in its brackets before you fasten them in place. Once the brackets are up, there's no way to get the bar in place.