How Hard is it to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can seem daunting to DIYers, but with the right planning and preparation, it’s an achievable weekend project. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how hard it is and how to do it right.

What is Subway Tile?

Subway tile refers to the classic 3 x 6 inch rectangular ceramic tiles first used to line New York City subway stations in the early 1900s. Today, subway tiles remain a popular backsplash choice for their timeless, streamlined look. Often bright white, they create a clean, neutral backdrop for countertops and cabinets.

Subway tiles are inexpensive, easy to install, and durable. Their rectangular shape allows for straightforward installation in straight or staggered patterns. Bevelled, glossy, or textured subway tiles add visual interest. While traditionally white, subway tiles now come in endless colors, materials like glass or marble, and shapes like hexagons.

Difficulty Level

Installing subway tile backsplash is a moderately difficult DIY project, ranking about 6 out of 10 on the difficulty scale. With proper planning, patience, and attention to detail, it’s manageable for an intermediate DIYer. The repetitive nature of cutting and placing hundreds of identical tiles is time consuming. But the systematic process doesn’t require specialized skills.

For first-timers, allow a full weekend to install a backsplash in a small kitchen. Larger or more intricate designs will take longer. Having an extra set of hands helps speed up the process. The project involves careful measurements, precise cutting, level installation, and grouting. Renting tile cutting tools saves money compared to buying.

Steps for Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these key steps to install your subway tile backsplash successfully:

Gather Materials and Tools

  • Subway tiles, plus a few extras in case of breakage
  • Mortar adhesive and grout
  • Trowel for spreading adhesive
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile cutter or wet saw
  • Grout float and grout sealer
  • Tape measure and pencil
  • Level
  • Sponges
  • Buckets

Prepare the Surface

  • Clean the backsplash area thoroughly and remove existing wallpaper or backsplash
  • Repair and smooth any damaged drywall
  • Paint with primer to create a uniform surface for the tile to adhere to

Plan the Layout

  • Measure the backsplash area and sketch a layout for the tile pattern
  • Account for uneven walls and corners
  • Dry lay tiles on the countertop to test the pattern
  • Cut border and edge tiles as needed

Install the Tile

  • Mix mortar adhesive and apply to the wall area, about 1 ft2 at a time
  • Use spacers between tiles for even grout lines
  • Cut tiles as needed with the wet saw
  • Apply pressure to adhere each tile firmly into the mortar

Grout and Seal

  • Let mortar cure fully, about 24 hours
  • Mix grout and apply it between tile joints
  • Wipe away excess grout with a sponge
  • Apply grout sealer once dry for water protection

FAQs about Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

How do I get clean straight lines on my subway tile backsplash?

Use tile edge trim along the borders and a level to keep the bottom line neat. Laser levels help keep tile lines perfectly straight. Fill any uneven edges with mortar for a flat surface.

What kind of mortar should I use?

Use white mortar adhesive suitable for the wall material. Latex or polymer modified thinset mortar works best for most surfaces. Avoid mastic adhesive, which is weaker.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Mark and score the tiles with a tile cutter, then snap them on the scored line. For intricate cuts like L-shapes, use a wet saw. Apply painter’s tape to the glazed side before cutting to prevent chipping.

Should I use sanded or unsanded grout?

For subway tile joints 1/8 inch or smaller, use unsanded grout. It flows smoothly into narrow grout lines. Use sanded grout for wider grout lines.

How long does the tile installation take to cure before grouting?

Allow the mortar adhesive to cure fully for 24 hours before applying grout between tiles. This ensures the tiles are firmly attached and prevents dislodging.


Installing a subway tile backsplash requires careful planning, patience, and dedicated time. But the repetitive install process is straightforward with the right tools and materials. Focus on proper prep, precise tile cutting, level installation, and smooth grouting for best results. The classic, clean look of subway tile makes the work worthwhile, bringing style to the kitchen for years to come. With care and attention to detail, even DIYers can achieve professional-looking finished results.