Installing new tile over an existing Formica backsplash can refresh the look of your kitchen without requiring a full remodel. However, proper preparation is crucial to ensure the tile adheres correctly and lasts. Here is what you need to know about tiling over Formica backsplashes.
What is Formica?
Formica is a brand name that has become synonymous with plastic laminate. It was one of the first durable, affordable surfacing materials available when it was invented in the early 1900s. Today, many companies manufacture plastic laminate, but Formica remains one of the most widely recognized brands.
Formica is made by laminating layers of paper impregnated with melamine resin into sheets and applying high heat and pressure. The resulting material is an extremely durable plastic coating usually adhered to a substrate like plywood or particle board. It resists scratches, stains, heat, and impact.
Formica became popular in the 1950s and 60s for use as kitchen countertops and backsplashes. Its durability, affordability, and range of colors made it a fixture of mid-century modern style. Many Formica backsplashes installed decades ago are still in use today.
Considerations Before Tiling Over Formica
While it is possible to install tile over an existing Formica backsplash, there are some important factors to consider first:
Condition of the Formica
The Formica needs to be in good condition with no cracks, peeling edges, or other signs of damage for the tile to adhere properly. If the Formica is very old, the adhesive may have started to fail, causing the Formica to delaminate or lift. This can prevent the tile from bonding well. Any damaged areas need to be repaired or replaced.
Many Formica backsplashes have a high-gloss finish. This shiny surface prevents adhesives and mortar from binding well. The glossy finish has to be dulled for proper adhesion. Lightly sanding with fine grit sandpaper is typically recommended.
Flatness of Surface
Tile requires a flat surface to avoid hollow spots behind the tile. Formica is often installed right on top of uneven wall materials like plaster or drywall. This can create ledges or gaps under the Formica that get transferred to the tile. Filling and smoothing the Formica surface may be needed.
Tile adds extra weight compared to lightweight Formica. Make sure the wall and any adhesives or fasteners behind the Formica can support the tile weight without sagging or pulling away from the wall.
Moldings and Edges
The original Formica installation may include built-in trim pieces, bullnose edges, or molding. These can complicate installing new tile flush to the surface. The existing edges may need to be removed and replaced.
How to Prepare Formica for Tile
With proper preparation, Formica can provide a suitable substrate for tiling. Here are the general steps:
Clean and Rough Up Surface
First, clean the entire backsplash thoroughly to remove any grease, dirt, or residue. Use a degreasing cleaner and rinse well. Next, use fine (120-150 grit) sandpaper to scuff up and dull the glossy Formica surface. This helps the mortar grip.
Repair Any Damage
Inspect the Formica and repair any lifted edges, cracks, peeling areas, or imperfections. Use a filler designed for laminates to patch holes or gaps. Firmly re-adhere any loose spots with laminate adhesive. Sand down high spots or ledges to create a flat surface.
Prime the Surface
Priming provides an extra bonding layer between the Formica and mortar. Use a dedicated primer designed for laminates and plastics. Let the primer dry fully before moving on.
Apply Thin-set Mortar
Use a polymer-modified thin-set mortar suitable for non-porous surfaces. Apply it with a notched trowel, firmly pressing to work into the roughened Formica texture. Only spread mortar over sections you can immediately tile over.
Set and Grout the Tile
Let the mortar firm up slightly before setting the tiles into the mortar, pressing firmly to adhere. Let the installed tiles cure fully (at least 24 hours) before grouting. Use a flexible, polymer-based grout.
Tiling Successfully Over Formica
While tiling over Formica requires careful prep work, the end result can be a dramatic kitchen update without removing the existing backsplash. Keys for success include:
- Inspecting the Formica and making any necessary repairs
- Thoroughly cleaning and scuffing up the glossy surface
- Applying a bonding primer made for laminates
- Using a quality thin-set mortar suitable for non-porous surfaces
- Letting substrates fully dry between steps
- Grouting with a flexible grout
Patience and allowing proper curing times for adhesives and mortar helps create a high-quality install. With the right products and techniques, tile can adhere strongly to Formica for a long-lasting backsplash renewal.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tiling Over Formica
Can I use regular drywall joint compound to smooth over my Formica before adding tile?
No, regular drywall joint compound is not recommended for smoothing and filling damaged or uneven areas on Formica. It will not adhere properly. Use a patching compound made specifically for laminates instead.
What grit sandpaper should be used to scuff up the Formica?
Use a fine grit sandpaper in the range of 120 to 220-grit. This is enough to dull and roughen up the glossy surface so adhesives and mortar can grip, without completely removing the Formica coating.
Should I use a cement-based or epoxy-based mortar to set the tile?
For setting tile over Formica, epoxy-based mortars provide the strongest bond. However, high quality cement-based mortars with polymer additives also work well. Avoid plain cement mortar without latex or polymer modifiers.
How soon can I grout the tiles after installing them over Formica?
It is best to allow the tile mortar to cure fully (typically 24 – 48 hours) before applying grout. This keeps the tiles firmly secured. Applying grout too soon can allow tiles to shift out of position.
What’s the maximum tile size I can install over Formica?
Larger tiles like 12 x 24 inch are harder to keep fully secured and flatten over an existing surface like Formica. For best results, use smaller or medium sized tiles no larger than 8 x 8 inches. Large format tiles may sag or pop off over time.
Can I install natural stone or marble tile over Formica?
The smooth, slick surface of natural stone makes it prone to bonding issues over Formica. Porcelain, ceramic, or glass tile are better suited for installing over Formica. If using stone, take extra care to roughen and prime the surface.
My Formica has a textured or wood grain finish. Do I need to sand it?
You still need to scuff the surface slightly even if it is textured. Aim to reduce the gloss level while keeping the overall texture intact. Use a sanding sponge for more control on textured surfaces.
Some of my Formica is damaged. Can I tile over it or does it need to be replaced?
It depends on the severity of the damage. Small chips, gouges, or cracks can often be repaired and leveled out with patching compounds. But Formica that is peeling off or lifting significantly should be removed and replaced for best results.
Is it okay to install a new bullnose edge or trim over existing Formica edges?
Yes, you can install new coordinating tile edging over the existing Formica. This hides the old edges and gives the new tiled surface a finished look. Use a trim piece slightly larger than the Formica thickness.
Installing tile over an existing Formica backsplash is a thrifty way to update the look of your kitchen. With proper surface prep to rough up the glossy finish, prime, and apply the right mortar and grout, tile can adhere well to Formica for a long-lasting new backsplash. While some damage repair may be necessary, the end result is a stylish updated look without removing and replacing the entire Formica backsplash. With careful planning and patience during each installation step, Formica can provide the perfect foundation for your new tiled backsplash design.