As if shopping for a bathtub isn't confusing enough, there are several categories of bathtubs that are related to how they're installed. Within those categories, there are multiple types that vary in style and materials that are available for purchase. For more detailed information on specific types of bathtubs, see our separate discussions of soaking bathtubs, whirlpool bathtubs and walk-in bathtubs.
Alcove bathtubs are found in the vast majority of American dwellings. Also known as recessed tubs or skirted tubs, they are placed in an alcove made by three supporting walls. Because of this, only one side of the tub is finished, or "skirted." Corner tubs are also considered alcove tubs, but are usually finished on two sides, although a few other options are available. Alcove bathtubs are most commonly about 5- to 6-feet long and 30 to 36 inches deep, although they come in a variety of sizes to fit different-sized bathrooms. They are the best choice for bath/shower combination units, assuming that the supporting walls are tiled or otherwise made waterproof. The open side can then be enclosed with a shower curtain or other type of enclosure.
Recessed tubs have fewer style and material options than other types of tubs, most are made from enameled cast iron enameled steel, acrylic or fiberglass. Except for corner tubs, the standard shape is rectangular. In their most basic form alcove tubs are very affordable; however, you can get some upgrades in alcove tubs, such as arm rests, sloping sides, and neck or head rests for increased comfort. Whirlpool jets are also widely available in alcove tubs, but will add to the price. Extra-deep alcove tubs are considered soaking tubs, but tend to be a bit shallower than true soaker tubs.
Drop in tubs, also known as platform tubs, literally "drop in" to some type of a supportive frame with a rim, or deck that is at the same level as the top of the tub. The frame can be a custom-made platform or deck, or a depression built in to the floor. Drop in tubs sometimes will hug just one wall, or can be built to stand alone in some part of the bathroom. These tubs usually include a rim for a finished look and to keep the water from getting between the support unit and the tub. Undermount bathtubs are similar to drop in tubs, except that its rim is covered by the supporting structure and it's supported by the floor. Drop in tubs have infinite options for materials and customizations, as well as depth, size and spa options.
Freestanding tubs are single-piece, self-supporting, fully-finished units that sit upon feet, a pedestal, or just on the floor with the plumbing hidden under a built-in recess. Clawfoot tubs are popular types of freestanding tubs.
The style options for freestanding tubs are practically endless, in materials, shapes and sizes. From small soaking tubs for very small bathrooms, to vintage clawfoot tubs, a freestanding tub can make a dramatic statement standing alone in a bathroom. Some freestanding tubs have more of a slope to the back (called a slipper tub), which can be more comfortable for a prolonged soak. There are also dual clawfoot tubs that are rounded at both ends, with fixtures along one side and a center drain, so two people can bathe at the same time with reasonable comfort. Many freestanding tubs are deep enough to be considered soaking tubs. You sometimes can acquire an older freestanding tub via a salvage or antique dealer and have it reconditioned. More modern freestanding tubs are available with whirlpool jets or other spa options.
The most important factor in choosing a bathtub, by far, is being sure that it can be installed in your available space. Never buy a bathtub on a whim. If you're remodeling using a professional, work closely with your contractor to be sure not only that the tub itself will fit, but that the plumbing rough-ins or fixtures are in the proper location to fit with the chosen bathtub. Even a slight variation can end up giving you a renovation nightmare -- not to mention higher costs in time and money.