How to Do a Backsplash with Subway Tile


Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of a kitchen or bathroom. The classic rectangular tiles lend a timeless, elegant touch. With the right materials and some DIY skills, you can create a beautiful and affordable backsplash yourself. This comprehensive guide will walk you through every step of the process.

Benefits of a Subway Tile Backsplash

There are several great reasons to consider subway tile for your backsplash project:

  • Affordable: Subway tiles are an economical choice. Their simple shape makes them relatively inexpensive compared to more ornate tile varieties.
  • Timeless look: The rectangular design has been popular for over a century. Subway tiles have a clean, classic appearance that suits both traditional and contemporary styles.
  • Easy to install: The small rectangular tiles are simple for DIYers to cut and set. Their uniform size makes setting the tiles in straight lines straightforward.
  • Durable: Properly installed, subway tiles hold up well to moisture and everyday wear-and-tear. Their ceramic or porcelain composition resists cracking and chipping.
  • Design options: While white subway tiles are the best known, they come in a vast array of colors and finishes. You can create different visual effects by laying them in patterns or alternating colors.

If you are looking for a backsplash makeover that is simple, elegant, budget-friendly and easy to DIY, subway tile is an excellent choice.

Planning Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Careful planning and preparation will ensure your backsplash installation goes smoothly. Follow these steps before you begin:

Choose the Tile

Subway tiles come in different sizes, materials, colors and finishes. Consider the overall look you want to achieve. Choices include:

  • Tile size: Standard subway tiles are 3 x 6 inch rectangles. You can also find shorter 2 x 4 inch tiles or longer 4 x 8 inch planks.
  • Material: Ceramic and porcelain are most common. Porcelain is denser, more water-resistant and durable. Ceramic provides a more traditional look.
  • Color: White and light grey are the most popular subway tile colors. Bold hues like navy or emerald green create a more dramatic effect.
  • Finish: Glossy, matte or textured finishes impact the overall look. Matte is modern while glossy is classic. Textured tiles add subtle visual interest.

Visit home improvement stores to view tile options in person. Order samples if needed.

Choose Your Layout

Subway tile backsplash designs include:

  • Basic grid: Tiles lined up in straight vertical and horizontal rows. Choose this for a clean, classic look.
  • Stacked layout: Tiles installed in a brickwork pattern, offset vertically every other row. Provides visual interest.
  • Herringbone: Tiles set on the diagonal in a V pattern resembling fishbones. Creates a bold geometric effect.
  • Penny tile round: Small, round tiles give an eclectic, vintage vibe. Grout lines create a web-like look.

Sketch your backsplash area and play around with tile patterns before finalizing the layout.

Calculate How Much Tile You Need

Measure the backsplash area’s length and height. For a basic grid pattern, multiply the length times height to get the total tile coverage needed in square feet. Add an extra 10% for waste and cuts.

For more complex patterns like herringbone, factor in extra tiles for the offset design. Use an online calculator to determine total tile requirements.

Gather Your Materials

You will need:

  • Subway tiles
  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Grout
  • Grout float, sponge and sealer
  • Trowel
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile cutter
  • Utility knife
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Mixing bucket
  • Masking tape
  • Drop cloth

Preparing the Work Area

Take steps to protect surrounding surfaces before tiling:

  • Remove existing backsplash. Scrape off old adhesive.
  • Clean the backsplash area thoroughly and repair any holes or imperfections in the wall.
  • Sand glossy wall paint to help the thinset adhere.
  • Mask off countertops, cabinets and adjacent walls with painter’s tape and drop cloths.
  • Have all your tools and tiles ready in the work area.
  • Turn off power outlets near the backsplash. Cover switches and fixtures.

Proper prep prevents problems down the road.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these key steps to achieve a professional-looking DIY subway tile backsplash installation:

Step 1: Prepare and Apply Thinset Mortar

Thinset provides the adhesive base to bond the tile to the wall.

  1. Mix the thinset mortar with water per package directions in a bucket. Let it slake for 10 minutes.
  2. Use a notched trowel to apply a thin layer of thinset to a small section of the backsplash area.
  3. Hold the trowel at a 45° angle and use the notched edge to comb horizontal lines into the thinset.
  4. Only apply as much as you can tile over in 30 minutes. Thinset dries quickly.

Step 2: Set the Subway Tile

Work methodically to set tiles in straight, even rows.

  1. Place a tile spacer at the bottom corner of the backsplash. Set the first tile next to it.
  2. Continue setting tiles end-to-end across the bottom row using spacers to maintain even grout lines.
  3. Use a level to ensure the bottom tiles are perfectly horizontal. Adjust as needed.
  4. Apply more thinset and tile the subsequent rows one at a time, working upwards.
  5. Use spacers to keep vertical lines straight and grout lines consistent.
  6. Cut partial tiles as needed using the tile cutter. Smooth the edges with a carbide sanding stone.
  7. Let thinset dry 24 hours before grouting.

Step 3: Mix and Apply the Grout

Adding grout completes your backsplash and makes the tiles look like one uniform surface.

  1. Prepare grout per package instructions. Use a grout float to spread it over the tile surface, forcing it into the joints.
  2. Let the grout sit for 10 minutes until semi-dry. Then use a damp sponge to wipe diagonal paths across the tiles and remove excess grout.
  3. Rinse the sponge frequently and wipe over the tiles several times until the joints are smooth and even.
  4. Allow the grout to fully cure overnight before applying sealer.
  5. Apply grout sealer with a paintbrush or sponge. Let it penetrate for 15 minutes, then wipe off residue with a clean cloth.

With proper grouting technique, you will achieve clean finished joints.

Tips for Achieving a Professional Look

Follow these pro tips as you install your subway tile backsplash:

  • Carefully map out tile placement and make precise cuts to achieve the desired layout.
  • Use leveling clips beneath tiles to keep the rows perfectly straight.
  • Be consistent with tile spacing. Uneven grout lines look sloppy.
  • Wipe up any thinset or grout that gets on the tile surface before it dries.
  • Change the water frequently when sponging to prevent haze on tiles.
  • Allow thinset and grout to fully cure before sealing or using the backsplash.

Take your time and don’t rush the steps. Careful attention to detail will pay off with stunning results!

Common Subway Tile Backsplash Mistakes to Avoid

It’s easy to make a few mistakes as a first-time backsplash installer. Be mindful of these common pitfalls:

  • Not adequately preparing the wall surface – Crumbling drywall or lingering soap scum prevents proper thinset adhesion.
  • Improper thinset application – Failure to fully coat the back of each tile leads to loose tiles over time.
  • Grouting too soon – Grout can pull away from tiles if you apply it before thinset has dried.
  • Applying grout carelessly – Sloppy technique with uneven joints looks unprofessional.
  • Neglecting the grout sealing step – Grout left unsealed risks staining and discoloration.
  • Not allowing proper cure times – Rushing through the steps can compromise tile bond strength.

With awareness of what can go wrong, you can take measures to do each step correctly.

FAQ – Subway Tile Backsplash Installation

What thinset mortar should I use for a subway tile backsplash?

Use a polymer-modified thinset specifically formulated for walls and floor tiles. Avoid multi-purpose products. White thinset works with both light and dark grout colors.

How long does thinset take to dry before grouting?

Allow thinset adhesive to cure for 24 hours before grouting tile joints. This ensures tiles are firmly bonded.

What color grout should I choose?

White subway tiles look best with either white or gray grout. Dark grout can provide too high contrast with white tiles. Match the grout color to your tile.

How soon can I get the backsplash wet or use it after grouting?

Avoid moisture or use for at least 72 hours after grouting to allow proper grout cure time. Then seal it prior to regular use.

What’s the best way to cut subway tiles?

Use a manual tile cutter for straight cuts and snip corners with tile nippers. For detailed cuts, a wet saw with a diamond blade works well.

How do I remove old or damaged subway tiles?

Carefully pry tiles off the wall with a putty knife or chisel. Scrape off remaining thinset. Use a grinder to smooth uneven areas.

Can I install subway tiles directly over existing backsplash tiles?

It’s not recommended. Remove old backsplash completely to ensure proper thinset bond and prevent future problems.

What height should my subway tile backsplash be?

Standard backsplash height is 4 inches above the countertop. You can also opt for a full height backsplash measuring up to the underside of wall cabinets.


Installing subway tile as a DIY backsplash project is an achievable task for any homeowner with basic tiling skills. Following a systematic process for planning, careful tile setting, and proper grouting technique will lead to a high-quality finished product that looks professionally done. The effort pays off, with these classic white tiles lending your kitchen or bathroom a timeless elegance at an affordable price.