For the home that was built in decades past, the standard shower height for a tub/shower is 72”. If the users of the shower are not tall, this height may be perfect. But for the taller users, a 72” shower head is not ideal, because the user must crouch to get clean as the shower head itself ends up even lower than that. Raising the shower head and installing new tub/shower fixtures is not the most basic of DIY projects; however, it is our hope that this tutorial will help you do it right, including solving some of the dilemmas you might run into when working with copper pipe and an older home.
This is a view of the plumbing wall in the tub/shower. Basically, cold and hot water enter into the system via their separate pipes. They join up at the mixing valve, which is where the tub/shower handle will be located. The water can then be directed via said handle down to the tub faucet or up to the shower head.
This is a closer look at the old mixing valve. It has four pipe connections: the cold and hot water on either side, the tub faucet below, and the shower head above.
If you will be raising your shower head, determine how much higher you want your shower head to be. This example will raise the shower head a full foot. Mark that spot on the vertical studs. Then cut a 2×4 to fit snugly between the two framing studs and screw or hammer it into place, with the center of the new 2×4 piece hitting at your mark.
Screw on all four female couplers to the four mixing valve threads. Determine whether or not you will be raising your mixing valve. Technically, this can be positioned as high up on the wall as you want it. For a shower alone, you would obviously want the mixing valve to be much higher than for a tub/shower combination because it doesn’t need to be accessed for bathtub use. Hold the mixing valve into place where you want it and mark the nearest stud at the vertical center of the valve. Measure the vertical distance from the old mixing valve to the new position; you will need to cut two pipes this length to raise the cold and hot water pipes to this height. Also, measure the new distance from the bottom female coupler on your mixing valve to the horizontal pipe connecting the tub faucet.
Measure the horizontal distance between the closest side of the cold water pipe and the corresponding mixing valve coupler. Do the same for the hot water. This tutorial includes a 4” difference between the cold water pipe and the new mixing valve and a 1” difference for the hot water. (This 1” difference all but disappears, as 1/2″ of the pipe goes into the threaded coupler and the other 1/2” goes into the elbow. But more on that later.)
At this point, you will have four measurements for pipes you need to cut: (1) the additional height needed for both the cold and hot water pipes, (2) the new vertical distance between the new mixing valve and the tub faucet, (3) the distance from the cold water pipe to the new mixing valve, and (4) the distance from the hot water pipe to the new mixing valve. At this point, you can also measure the distance from your new mixing valve placement to your new raised shower head position, or you can wait and do this later. Measure out one of these lengths on your copper pipe.
Using a copper pipe cutter, screw the cutting blade tightly onto your marked pipe length.
Twist the cutter around and around the pipe, pausing every rotation or so to tighten the blade further. Continue this until the pipe is cut.
Even if the cut looks clean, there will be a burr on the inside rim of your new cut. This just means that some of the copper has been pushed inside while it was being cut. You’ll want to remove this with a file or similar sharp edge to improve water flow through your pipes.
When the inside of the cut is clear, it’s time to clean up the outside. Use 120-grit emery cloth, or 120-grit sandpaper will do in a pinch. (Note: If you purchase a soldering kit, it will likely have the emery cloth included.)
Use the emery cloth to shine up the outside of the pipe on the newly cut end.
It should be shiny; that’s how you know it’s clean and ready for soldering. Before we continue, here is a critical note: This tutorial shows soldering of all copper pipe joints BEFORE their placement into the shower/tub’s plumbing wall. This is done because we wanted to minimize indoor soldering, and the placement of the joints in relation to the wall studs inside makes it possible to mount them onto the plumbing wall as one unit. PLEASE keep in mind that whatever you solder now, with the exception of the shower head pipe, must be pre-attached to the mixing valve before installing in the wall, so you must be CERTAIN that all joints and pipes will fit through any studs or obstacles in their soldered, attached position. If you are unsure, you may want to forgo the soldering of the entire elbow joint now and instead do that inside after mounting the mixing valve.
With the inside and outside of your pipe smoothed and cleaned up, you just need to do the same to the inside of your fitting. Grab a 1/2″ wire pipe brush (sold in the soldering area of any hardware store) and twist and clean up the inside of your soon-to-be-soldered fitting.
Take your lead-free flux. Flux is critical to getting a secure joint, as it prevents the oxidation of the surrounding materials (e.g., the copper pipe, fittings). Solder won’t adhere to oxidized copper. Think of flux as like the primer to a paint project – it’s the necessary go-between for a successful adhesion.
Use the flux brush (a simple paintbrush will do) and spread a thin, even layer of flux around both the outside of the copper pipe and the inside of the fitting to be soldered. Push the pipe into the fitting securely. You’re ready to solder them together now.
Grab your lead-free solder and pull out 6”-8”. This is enough distance that you still have good control while soldering but are far enough away from the torch’s flame and heat to avoid getting burned. PLEASE USE CAUTION during this entire procedure, particularly while operating the propane torch.
Light your propane torch and begin heating the joint. You don’t need to heat the pipe itself; rather aim the heat at the fitting. It will conduct sufficient heat throughout to make the soldering happen. Avoid sticking the soldering wire directly into the torch’s flame; instead, hold it against the surface opposite the flame. Be patient. All of a sudden, it will liquefy, and you’ll want to turn the pipe (while keeping the heat aimed on it) to allow the solder to run all the way around the joint.
When the solder is completely joined, turn off your torch and set it aside. Your newly soldered joint will be hot. DO NOT TOUCH THE AREA until it cools, many minutes later. (We strongly recommend wearing gloves while holding the copper pipe to be soldered, as heat transfers quickly down the length of the pipe. Depending on its length, you could get burned without protection.)
You can see here that the solder worked its way completely through the joint, because it’s visible from the inside as well. This is a good thing.
You may notice oxidation (discoloration) of the copper pipe and fittings where there was no flux. This doesn’t harm the integrity of the metal, but it does serve as evidence why flux is critical to a successful solder. Repeat this process for your other joints and connections.
As was mentioned previously, one of the pipe connection distances was a mere 1” – basically just enough pipe to connect two fittings together. Because it would be impossible to hold such a short distance of pipe, we recommend hooking the shorter distance of pipe to a longer “handle” of pipe.
If you have multiple joints to be soldered, you can actually do them all at once. Or you can simply dry fit the longer pipe “handle” during the shorter pipe solder, then remove the “handle” length when the soldered joint has cooled.
Repeat the cleaning, fluxing, and soldering steps for all joints. In the case where you are soldering two or more areas on the same piece of pipe, we recommend prepping all the joints, connecting them, and soldering them one after the other in the same go. Just move from one joint to the next. This is efficient, as you don’t have to wait for the areas to cool between soldering.
You will need two brass fittings (drop ear elbows) to secure your pipe to wood blocks at the shower head and tub faucet locations. Brass can be soldered to copper, but it takes more time to heat the fitting.
Prep everything in the same way (treat the brass fitting just like you did the copper fittings), and heat the fitting.
Add the solder when the fitting seems ready or at least almost hot enough. Create a secure joint.
At this point, you should have the four pieces soldered and ready to attach to the mixing valve: (1) long length to reach the shower head (threaded female coupling at one end, drop ear elbow at the other), (2&3) hot and cold L-shaped pieces with the threaded female coupling at one end (the other ends will require a straight coupling, soldered at your bathtub), and (4) the tub faucet connecting pipes, with a drop ear elbow at the “L” joint (the horizontal tub faucet pipe is cut extra long right here and will be cut to length later during install). Nicely done.
Take your mixing valve, and determine how it should be placed – which side is up, which is down, which is left, which is right. There should be clear indications printed on the valve itself. Also, the mixing valve should be mounted so that the face indicated by the arrow is even with the finished tub/shower wall. In other words, the outer surface of the installed tiles (on thinset, on backerboard) must be even with the outer plastic mounting guard face.
Use the wire brush on the inside of the adapters.
Wrap Teflon tape around the threads on the mixing valve. Screw on the pipes as per your original measurements and setup, making sure that the mixing valve will install in the correct position.
You only need to screw on the two water pipe joints (hot/cold) and the tub faucet joint at this point. Set it aside for a minute.
It’s almost time to remove the old mixing valve and pipes, but before you do that, they will make handy measurement guides for your new pieces. Measuring from your old tub faucet (assuming your new tub faucet will be positioned in the same spot), mark the place where your new mixing valve will be. Drill a hole in the nearest wall stud for the new pipe, in this case the cold water pipe coming out the right-hand side.
Now let’s remove the old mixing valve and pipes. Unscrew the drop ear elbows for the shower and tub faucet.
Using your new water pipes as a measuring guide, mark the place on the old hot and cold water pipes where you’ll need to cut the pipe for a perfect fit onto the new pipes. Turn off your house’s water. DON’T CUT ANYTHING UNTIL YOU’VE TURNED OFF YOUR HOUSE’S WATER. After you’ve turned off the water, leave another faucet “on” to drain out the house’s water pipes significantly before cutting into your tub/shower pipes.
When you’re satisfied that little water remains in the pipes, grab your pipe cutter and carefully cut the pipe at the place you’ve marked.
If the pipe is connected to a joint, you’ll need to cut it at a different spot to be able to remove it.
Cut the other water pipe in the same way, and remove the entire old mixing valve, tub faucet, hot and cold water pipe joints, and shower head pipe and fittings.
Carefully remove the burr on the inside of your old water pipes. Clean and sand the outside of the old pipe just as you prepared your newer pipes for soldering.
Position your mixing valve by threading your pipe(s) through any stud holes that you’ve drilled as needed.
Measure the distance between the two studs flanking the new mixing valve; cut two 2x4s to this length. Place the first 2×4 directly under the mixing valve, taking care to keep the face of the plastic mounting guard lined up with the vertical plane of the finished shower/tub wall.
Hammer the 2×4 into place on one side.
Use a level to keep the 2×4 lined up and straight before you begin attaching the second side of the 2×4 to the other wall stud.
Hammer or screw in the second side of the 2×4 to the wall stud. It doesn’t really matter how it’s secured, it just matters that, as the mixing valve’s primary support, it is secured.
With the mixing valve supported by one 2×4, screw into the top mixing valve’s thread the shower head pipe.
Grab the second 2×4 and, with a hammer if necessary, position it to align with the top support frame of the mixing valve.
Nail (or screw) the second 2×4 into place.
Mount the mixing valve onto the two 2x4s. This should be entirely, sleep-well-at-nightedly secure and stable now.
Use a wire brush to clean/scruff up the insides of two copper couplings. These will be used to connect the old water pipes to the new pipes, which are in turn already connected to the mixing valve.
With the mixing valve mounted securely, now is the time to connect your house pipes to the new shower/tub pipes. Apply your flux to the pipes and couplings, ready your solder, and light up the torch. Please use extreme caution in soldering inside your home. Keep the flame only on the appropriate pipes and away from any wood or insulation. Always turn off the torch before setting it down. Have a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case.
And breathe a big sigh of relief when the indoor soldering is done, and your house is still standing and no one was hurt. Good job.
Now, you may run into some less-than-ideal setups in an old house. We did. We weren’t able to install a support 2×4 for the tub faucet’s drop ear elbow to mount to, due to a large pipe’s positioning in the framework. This posed a problem, as the faucet certainly needs to be stabilized.
Our solution was to use brackets to mount a smaller 2×4 bit, cut to size to fit between the stud and the pipe. This 2×4 piece works as a mounting device for the tub faucet drop ear elbow. It’s not as ideal as the 2x4s that can span the entire space between studs, but it’s completely secure and the best that we could manage in this situation (without having to reroute the entire black piping system).
Measure the center horizontal point for your shower head, and attach that to the new raised 2×4. Turn on your house’s main water line and check for leaks. Hopefully you’re good.
At this point, it’s time to prepare your tub surround for tiling, and then actually tile the tub surroundand grout, seal, and caulk it all before you install your new shower/tub fixtures.
Once the surround is ready for showering, you’re ready to install your fixtures. We’ll start with the shower head. Wrap Teflon tape around the wall mount threads clockwise. Tip: You might want to wear gloves during this installation, to keep your fixtures clean from the oils on your fingers. Not necessary, of course, but it’ll save you time in cleanup afterward.
Cover the thread section completely, from end to end, but don’t tape past the threads. That’s unnecessary.
Screw the shower arm into the drop ear elbow in the wall. Hand tighten it tightly, without using tools. That will damage the finish on your fixture.
Slide the plate onto the shower arm. You can add clear silicone around this if it makes you more comfortable; keep a small 1/2″ gap in the silicone at the bottom of the plate if you do.