How to DIY Subway Tile Backsplash

Adding a subway tile backsplash to your kitchen or bathroom can instantly transform the space. Subway tiles are classic, timeless, and easy to install as a DIY project. With some planning, the right materials, and basic tiling skills, you can create a stunning backsplash that makes a statement in your home. This comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you need to know to successfully DIY subway tile backsplash.

Introduction to Subway Tile Backsplashes

Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic or glass tiles typically 3 x 6 inches, though they can range from 3 x 12 inches down to smaller mosaics. They are modeled after the tiles used in New York City subway stations in the early 1900s. The long, narrow shape combined with the beveled edges makes them perfect for backsplashes.

Subway tiles create a clean, classic look that works in just about any style of home from modern farmhouse to industrial. The whites and grays are timeless, but you can also find subway tiles in every color and finish imaginable from glossy to matte. Accent strips, patterns, and mosaic designs add visual interest.

Backsplashes serve both form and function. They protect the walls from moisture, stains, and splatters while adding eye-catching style. The kitchen backsplash has become a key decorative focal point. Subway tile is one of the most popular choices because it is affordable, easy to install, and suits any decor.

Installing a backsplash yourself allows you to customize with bold patterns and colors. The repetitive nature of the subway tile layout makes this an approachable DIY tiling project. With proper planning and preparation, you can design an elegant backsplash that makes a statement in your home.

Benefits of a DIY Subway Tile Backsplash

There are many benefits to installing a subway tile backsplash yourself:

  • Cost savings – DIY is much less expensive than hiring a professional. You can also buy inexpensive subway tile and save on materials.
  • Customization – Choose your own tile, colors, layout, and designs. Make it match your decor and style.
  • Simple project – The small uniform size and grid pattern is beginner-friendly. Easy for DIY.
  • Quick installation – Subway tile goes up faster than large format tiles. Small tiles are easy to manuever.
  • Easy maintenance – Subway tile is water-resistant and easy to clean. Grout can be resealed as needed.
  • Boost home value – Backsplashes are now expected in kitchens and baths. Subway tile adds style and appeal.

While it takes some work, the process is very manageable even for someone who has never tiled before. With care and patience, you can save money and end up with a backsplash you will love showing off.

How to Plan Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Careful planning ensures your project goes smoothly from start to finish. Keep these tips in mind as you plan:

Pick the right location – Backsplashes are commonly used in kitchens above counters and ranges. Also popular in bathrooms behind sinks and on accent walls.

Measure precisely – Exact measurements ensure you purchase enough materials. Include inside corners and niches in your plan.

Make a layout – Map out tile placement to avoid small cuts. Check that cuts are not near corners or too close together.

Select tile size and color – 3×6 inch standard subway tile is the most common. Choose classic white/gray or experiment with patterns and colors.

Consider finishes and textures – Matte, gloss, glass, and metal available. Smooth, cracked, or embossed surfaces add interest.

Decide on layout patterns – Stacking, herringbone, chevron, basketweave. Accent strips and banding add more design.

Choose grout color – Match or contrast grout. Darker grout shows less dirt. Epoxy grout is waterproof and stain resistant.

Gather tools and materials – Make a list of everything you will need and get it before starting work.

Budget – Factor cost of tile, mortar, grout, sealant, tools, and accessories. Don’t forget delivery fees.

Timeline – Schedule based on tile drying time and your availability. Tiling goes quickly but allow for adjustments.

With thoughtful planning and preparation, your subway tile backsplash installation will proceed smoothly from start to stunning finish.

How to Select Subway Tile

Choosing the right subway tile is key to creating your dream backsplash. Consider the following when selecting tile:

Tile Material

Subway tiles are available in:

  • Ceramic – Most common. Durable, affordable, easy to clean.
  • Porcelain – Low water absorption. Resists staining and moisture. Durable.
  • Glass – Glossy, translucent. Susceptible to chipping if hit. Colors don’t fade over time. Adds shine.
  • Metal – Stainless steel, tin, aluminum. Industrial look. Durable but may show scratches.
  • Cement – Rustic, mottled textures. Durable and moisture resistant.

Porcelain and ceramic are most popular for backsplashes as they are water-resistant, easy to clean, durable, and economical. Glass makes a beautiful statement but requires careful installation.

Tile Size

The standard subway tile is 3 x 6 inches but many sizes are available:

  • 3 x 12 inches
  • 3 x 8 inches
  • 3 x 6 inches (standard)
  • 3 x 4 inches
  • 2 x 4 inches
  • 1 x 4 inches (skinny subway)
  • Mosaic sheets

The longer the tile, the faster the installation since fewer pieces need to be set. Standard 3 x 6 is recommended for first-time installers.

Tile Finish

Subway tiles come in a variety of gloss levels:

  • Matte – No shine. Shows less wear than glossy.
  • Satin – Understated shine. Durable. Easy to clean.
  • Gloss – Reflective, mirror-like shine. Shows imperfections.
  • Crackle – Aged, worn look with crazed pattern.
  • Textured – Embossed patterns and depth. Adds dimension.

Matte and satin finishes hide flaws and are easiest to maintain. Glossy reflects light beautifully. Crackle and textured finishes bring visual appeal.

Tile Color

White and light grey are the most versatile subway tile colors. They keep spaces feeling open and airy. Bold colors make exciting accents. Consider how the tile color will work with your cabinets, countertops, floors, and paint colors.

Some popular options:

  • White – Brightens. Classic and clean.
  • Light grey – Soft, neutral. Works with warm and cool tones.
  • Dark grey – Dramatic contrast. Modern industrial feel.
  • Black – Striking and bold. Use with light grout.
  • Beige – Warm, earthy. Coordinate with natural stone.
  • Blue – Cool and calming. From soft sky blue to navy.
  • Green – Natural hue. Sage is soothing, emerald energizing.
  • Patterned – Moroccan fish scale, horizontal stripes, mosaics.

Choose colors and patterns that complement your overall kitchen or bathroom decor. Samples help visualize how tile will look installed.

Grout Color

Grout color impacts the overall look and feel of the tile. Contrasting grout makes individual tiles stand out. Matching grout minimizes the grid look. Consider:

  • Match grout to tile for a seamless look.
  • Choose bright white grout with colored tiles to accent them.
  • Contrast light tiles with charcoal grey or black grout.
  • Use a matching epoxy grout if concerned about staining or moisture.

White sanded grout is common with white subway tiles. Grey is popular for a soft contrast. Stay away from light grout with dark tiles which will show dirt.

Carefully considering your tile material, size, texture, color, and grout will ensure you select the perfect mix of subway tiles for your backsplash project. Exciting patterns and designs become possible.

How to Prepare for Installation

Success begins with proper preparation. Ensuring you have the right tools, materials, and workspace will make installation go smoothly.

Gather Materials

You will need:

  • Tile and trim pieces like bullnose edge and corner tiles
  • Mortar adhesive
  • Notched trowel for spreading mortar
  • Grout
  • Grout float for applying grout
  • Spacers for consistent tile spacing
  • Tile cutter and nippers
  • Mixing buckets
  • Grout sealer
  • Silicone caulk and caulk gun
  • Rags, sponges, and buckets for cleaning
  • Tile leveling system (optional)

Check that you have enough of each material with a little extra to allow for mistakes and adjustments. Delivery fees can add up so plan accordingly.

Prepare the Workspace

Protect surfaces and clear the area. Remove existing backsplash tile if present. Clean the wall surface and make any repairs. Remove outlets and switch covers. Have sufficient lighting for good visibility.

Cover floors and counters with rosin paper or plastic sheeting to protect from mess. Have a clean water source available to mix mortar and clean tile. Setup a worktable for cutting tile if needed.

Safety Gear

Wear safety goggles, gloves, knee pads, and a dust mask or respirator when cutting tile and mixing mortar. Use care when handling sharp tools and materials.

Tile Layout

A dry layout before installing ensures your tile plan fits the space and results in a professional looking finish.

Measure and mark the center point of the backsplash area. Use spacers to lay out rows of tile from the center while keeping the grout lines aligned. Avoid small sliver cuts at corners and edges. Adjust outline tiles to size if needed.

Snap photos of the layout before disassembling so you can easily replicate it when installing. Keeping tiles organized by row also helps. Carefully planning the layout saves much frustration down the road.

With all your materials on hand and workspace prepped, you are ready to start your subway tile backsplash installation.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these step-by-step instructions for properly installing your subway tile backsplash:

Step 1: Prepare the Surface

The surface must be clean, dry, and flat for the tile to adhere properly.

  • Remove existing backsplash tile if present using a pry bar or hammer. Scraping and sanding may be needed to remove leftover mortar and adhesive.
  • Clean the surface thoroughly. Grease-cutting dish soap or degreaser counteract kitchen grime.
  • Check for any cracks, damage, or uneven areas. Fill holes and smooth imperfections with surface patching compound. Sand bumps smooth.
  • Paint with primer if surface is freshly patched or repaired. This helps bonding.

Take time to start with a clean, level surface for best long-term results.

Step 2: Apply Mortar

Mortar adhesive adheres the tile to the wall. Using a notched trowel, apply a coat the thickness of the trowel notch across a small section of the wall. Spread only enough that tiles can be set before mortar dries.

  • Choose the trowel notch size recommended for the tile (usually 1/4″ to 1/2″). The mortar thickness should match the tile so the back is fully coated.
  • Apply mortar in a small area at a time since it dries quickly. Constantly remix mortar that is sitting to prevent hardening.
  • Back-butter each tile with additional mortar for maximum adhesion, especially with uneven tile or textured surfaces.

The mortar should be tacky to the touch but not dried out when setting tile. Consistent mortar coverage creates a strong bond.

Step 3: Set the Tiles

Once mortar is spread, it’s time to set tiles row by row:

  • Use spacer clips at the bottom and sides to maintain even 1/8” grout lines. Place corner spacers where tiles meet.
  • Firmly press tiles into the mortar with a slight twisting motion. Use a rubber grout float or hammer with rubber mallet to flatten further.
  • Check tiles are level and aligned as you place them. Make minor adjustments by removing and resetting tiles. Nip away excess mortar squeezing up in joints.
  • Work in small sections. Periodically remove a tile and check the back to ensure proper mortar transfer and coverage.
  • Cut edge and accent tiles to fit using a tile cutter and nippers. File the cut edge smooth.
  • Let mortar dry completely (24-48 hours) before grouting unless using rapid-set mortar.

Consistent spacing, alignment, and proper mortar bonding prevents installation issues down the road. Take your time setting tiles.

Step 4: Apply Grout

Grout fills the joints between tiles and finishes the look. Follow package directions closely.

  • Apply grout by working it into joints with a rubber grout float in a diagonal, scraping motion. Remove excess grout with the edge of the float.
  • Clean any grout haze or film off tile surface with a damp sponge once grout becomes firm. Use minimal pressure to avoid pulling grout from joints.
  • Polish and shape joints with a soft cloth once grout dries fully for smooth uniform joints.

Let grout dry completely before contact with water. Check for any remaining haze and touch up as needed for pristine results.

Step 5: Finish and Seal

Complete your backsplash with these finishing touches:

  • Apply silicone caulk in the change of plane joints between tile and countertops, cabinets, or walls. Smooth with a damp finger for a clean finish.
  • Use matching color caulk where tile meets another material. Clear or white caulk works between same color materials.
  • Avoid getting excess caulk on the tile face. Immediately wipe away any stray caulk with a damp sponge and denatured alcohol.
  • Install outlet covers, switch plates, fixtures, and appliances.
  • Seal grout with a penetrating sealer to protect from stains and moisture. 2-3 thin applications are best to ensure full absorption.

With careful final detailing, you can highlight the beauty of your new subway tile backsplash.

Tips for Achieving a Flawless Finish

Attention to detail ensures your finished backsplash has a refined, professional look. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Maintain exact 1/8” grout line spacing for clean uniform joints that are hallmarks of quality tiling work.
  • Keep tiles aligned along their edge and corner joints. Even slight mismatches become visible.
  • Ensure tiles lie completely flush. Any unevenness becomes accentuated by the grid layout.
  • Clean grout haze thoroughly. Grout left on the tile surface highlights imperfections.
  • Polish grout lines gently to avoid pulling out grout. Shape for a smooth symmetrical finish.
  • Caulk carefully in change of plane joints for a seamless transition. Immediately clean any messes.
  • Use leveler spacers during installation to keep tile flat and prevent lippage between tiles.
  • Cut edge and accent tiles with precision. File the cut edge so it installs flush.
  • Work cleanly and methodically. Rinse sponges frequently to avoid spreading haze.
  • Let materials fully dry between steps. This prevents issues like unwanted bonding or cracking.

Patience and persistence pay off for flawless results showcasing your skills.

Grout Care and Maintenance

Grout plays an important role in your backsplash’s durability and appearance. Keep grout in good condition with proper care and maintenance:

  • Seal grout periodically, usually once a year. This prevents staining and damage from moisture.
  • Clean grout with a soft brush and mild cleaner like diluted dish soap or an alkaline grout cleaner. Avoid harsh chemicals.
  • Re-apply grout in any areas that crack or crumble over time. First rake out the old grout with a special grout removal tool.
  • Bleach and commercial cleaning products can discolor grout. Use them sparingly and rinse thoroughly.
  • Repair any missing or failing grout promptly to prevent water issues. Catch problems early.
  • Resealing epoxy grout is not needed but a gentle occasional cleaning keeps it looking fresh.

Well-cared for grout has a like-new appearance for years. Take steps to protect it and you will enjoy your backsplash for decades to come.


What are the benefits of subway tile?

Subway tile is affordable, easy to install, endlessly customizable, and suits any decor. It’s a timeless classic. The rectangular shape allows for endless pattern variations. A subway tile backsplash can instantly update a space.

What tools do I need to install subway tile?

You will need tile cutters, tile nippers, mixing buckets, notched trowels, grout float, spacers, caulking gun, sponges, buckets, rags, safety gear, and tile leveling system (optional). Gather all needed tools before starting.

How long does a subway tile backsplash take?

The installation itself can be done in a weekend with proper planning. Allow a day to layout, 2 days to set tile, and a day to grout and finish. Factor in additional drying time for mortar and grout between steps. Rushing can lead to problems.

What thinset mortar should I use?

Use white polymer-modified mortar suitable for walls and flooring. It provides a strong bond on surfaces like cement board. Premixed thinset in a tub works well for small DIY projects.

Can I use regular drywall for subway tile?

Cement backer board is best since it resists moisture and cracking better than drywall alone. If tiling a small area on drywall, seal it first then use fiberglass mesh drywall tape embedded in thinset mortar over all seams and corners.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Mark the