How to Apply Subway Tile Backsplash


Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. The classic rectangular tiles arranged in a brick pattern provide a clean, streamlined aesthetic. While subway tiles are simple in shape, installing them properly requires careful planning and precision. Successfully tiling a backsplash yourself is definitely achievable with the right materials, tools, and techniques.

This comprehensive guide will walk you through the entire process of how to apply subway tile backsplash in your space step-by-step. We’ll cover how to prepare the surface, lay out the tiles, mix thinset mortar, adhere the tiles, grout the installation, and finally seal and protect your finished backsplash. With these tips and techniques, you’ll gain the skills and confidence needed to tile a flawless subway-patterned backsplash that you’ll enjoy for years to come.

Gather the Right Materials

The first step in how to apply subway tile backsplash is gathering all the necessary materials. Having the right tools and supplies on hand will ensure an efficient and successful installation. Here’s an overview of what you’ll need:


  • Subway tiles – 3×6 inch classic rectangular glazed ceramic or porcelain tiles
  • 10-15% extra tiles to account for breakage and pattern matching


  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Sharp utility knife
  • Tile cutter (wet saw)
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout float
  • Sponge
  • Tile spacers


  • Thinset mortar that is polymer-modified
  • Grout (sanded grout for joints wider than 1/8”)
  • Sealer
  • Backerboard (cement, fiber cement, or DUROCK)
  • Membrane (for use behind backerboard)
  • Screws
  • Tile edging pieces like bullnose or schluter strips (as needed)

Prepare the Surface

Installing subway tile backsplash starts with proper surface preparation. The tiles need a flawless base to adhere to.

Remove Obstacles

Take down anything adhered to or obstructing the surface like countertop backsplashes, old tiles, or disk soap holders. Scrape off any adhesive residue and sand any bumps or uneven spots.

Clean Thoroughly

Degrease the surface by washing with an ammonia-based cleaner or TSP substitute. Rinse any soap residue. Let the surface dry completely.

Install Backerboard

Cut cement, fiber cement, or DUROCK backerboard to fit your backsplash area. Hold it up to the wall and mark where you’ll attach it.

Pre-drill holes for screws, space them 8 inches apart across the backerboard pieces. Apply thinset mortar to the wall area and firmly press the backerboard into place. Drive screws into each pre-drilled hole.

Seal seams between backerboard sheets with fiberglass mesh tape and thinset. Let drying completely.

Waterproofing Membrane

Roll waterproofing membrane onto the backerboard, overlapping edges by at least 2 inches. This provides a water-tight barrier between the tile and wall.

Allow membrane to dry per manufacturer instructions before tiling. The surface is now ready for subway tiles!

Lay Out Your Tile Pattern

Now it’s time for the fun part – laying out your subway tile backsplash design! Planning a layout ensures you don’t end up with uneven or narrow cut tiles around the perimeter.

Measure Your Space

Measure the height and length of your backsplash area. For easiest installation, start tiling in the corner if your backsplash is L-shaped.

Find the Center

Mark the vertical and horizontal center point of the backsplash with a pencil. Use a level to double check your lines are straight.

Dry Lay Tiles

Starting at the center point, dry lay tiles vertically and horizontally. Use tile spacers between each one. Work outward towards the edges and corners.

Adjust Pattern

If your layout results in uneven edge tiles, shift your starting point over a few inches in either direction and dry lay tiles again. Repeat until you find a layout you’re happy with.

Mark Outside Tiles

Once your pattern is set, mark the perimeter tiles that need cutting to fit around corners or edges. Remove them and set aside. You now have a template for installing the rest of the field tiles.

Mix the Thinset Mortar

With your tiles laid out, next up is mixing the thinset mortar to adhere them to the wall. Take care that your mortar is the right consistency before applying.

Start with Dry Mix

Pour some thinset mortar powder into a bucket or basin, follow amounts listed on the packaging.

Add Liquid

Per package instructions, carefully add in water or latex additive a bit at a time. Using too much can weaken bond strength.

Mix Thoroughly

Stir vigorously with a margin trowel to blend liquid and dry ingredients. Scrape bucket sides to incorporate all powder.

Test Consistency

The mortar is ready when it has a creamy, toothpaste-like consistency. It should easily spread but still hold its form when troweled on. Add a small amount of water or powder if needed.

Slake if Required

For some polymer-modified thinsets, let mixture slake (sit) 5-10 minutes then remix before applying. Check manufacturer directions.

The thinset mortar is now ready to spread on the wall and set your subway tiles!

Apply the Thinset and Set Tile

Now for the real construction part – properly spreading thinset and adhering the subway tiles themselves. Work methodically and safely up the wall, ensuring tiles are aligned.

Spread Thinset

Use the notched edge of your trowel held at a 45° angle to spread a thin layer of thinset mortar onto a small section of the backsplash.

Back Butter Tiles

Also apply a thin layer of thinset to the backside of tiles using the trowel’s flat edge. This “back buttering” improves adhesion.

Place Tiles into Wet Thinset

Firmly press the thinset-covered back of each tile into the thinset spread on the wall. Use a slight twisting motion to ensure maximum contact.

Align and Level

As you place tiles, use a level and spacers to keep them aligned, evenly spaced, and flat along the backsplash area. Check levels often.

Clean Up Excess Thinset

Before it dries, use a damp sponge to wipe away any thinset that squeezes up between tile joints. Rinse sponge frequently.

Allow Thinset to Cure

Let thinset mortar cure for 24-48 hours. Avoid disturbing or removing tiles during this time. Now you’re ready for grouting!

Grouting Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Grouting fills the joints between tiles with waterproof material. Take care in applying and cleaning grout for an even finished look.

Prep the Area

Remove tile spacers. Cover surrounding surfaces with painter’s tape and rosin paper to protect from grout smears or spillover.

Mix the Grout

In a bucket, combine sanded grout powder with latex additive or water per package directions. Mix to a thick, peanut butter-like consistency.

Apply Grout

Holding the grout float at a 45° angle, firmly pack grout deep into the joints between tiles. Spread diagonally across the tile.

Let it Set Up

Allow grout to firm up on tiles for 10-15 minutes. This makes removal easier and minimizes pulling it out of joints.

Clean Excess Grout

Use a damp sponge in a circular motion to gently remove excess grout from the tile surface. Rinse sponge frequently.

Final Cleaning

Once the grout has fully cured per the manufacturer, do a final cleaning with a soft cloth. Avoid a harsh scrubbing motion.

Your grouted subway tile backsplash is now complete! But adding sealer is an important final step.

Sealing the Tile

Sealing the grouted tiles will protect them from moisture and staining. It adds shine and makes cleaning easier.

Allow Full Curing

Wait 7-10 days after grouting for it to fully cure before applying any sealers or cleaners to tiles. This prevents chemical reactions.

Apply in Thin Coats

Use a paintbrush or sealant sponge to apply a thin, even coat of grout sealer to the entire tile surface. Let it soak in fully.

Add Second Coat

For maximum protection, apply a second thin coat of sealer across the tiles and grouted joints. Avoid any puddling.

Cure Time

Allow sealer to cure on the tiles for 12-24 hours. Avoid water or cleaning during this time.


Your completed, sealed subway tile backsplash can now be enjoyed! Bask in the satisfaction of successfully tiling your space.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have questions on how to get the perfect finish for how to apply subway tile backsplash? This FAQ has you covered on common concerns.

What type of thinset mortar should I use?

For walls, use a polymer-modified thinset mortar. Latex additive improves adhesion and flexibility. Non-modified thinset can be used on floors.

What color grout should I choose?

For traditional white subway tiles, use a bright white grout. For colored or patterned tile, match the grout to the lightest color in your tiles.

How soon can I use my newly tiled backsplash?

Avoid direct water contact for 7 days after grouting to allow full cure. Minimize kitchen or bathroom use during this time to prevent damage.

What’s the best way to cut subway tiles?

Mark tiles needing cuts and use a wet tile saw for straight cuts. Nippers and a steel ruler can be used for small notches.

Should subway tiles be laid brick pattern or stacked?

The classic brick pattern – off-setting tiles so the middle of one aligns with the edge of another – provides the most seamless look.


Installing a timeless subway tile backsplash is a worthwhile DIY project for beginners to intermediates. With diligent planning, careful preparation, and attention to detail throughout, you can achieve professional-looking results. The key is working slowly, methodically, and safely up the wall while continually checking your tile alignment.

Following this step-by-step guide will equip you with the knowledge and process for creating a stunning backsplash with your subway tiles. Mixing quality materials, applying them correctly, and proper grouting and sealing techniques will result in a finished product to be proud of. So gather your supplies, lay out your tiles, and feel confident to tile like a pro!