How to Do Backsplash Subway Tile

Installing a subway tile backsplash can be a fun DIY project that adds style and personality to your kitchen. Subway tiles are classic rectangular tiles that are typically 3 by 6 inches, though you can find many variations. Their elongated shape gives them a clean, streamlined look. Paired with the right grout color, subway tiles create a timeless backsplash that works with any kitchen decor.

Benefits of a Subway Tile Backsplash

There are many great reasons to install subway tile for your kitchen backsplash:

  • Affordable: Subway tiles are an economical option compared to other types of tile. Their simple shape makes them faster and easier for tilesetters to install, keeping labor costs low.
  • Easy to clean: The smooth surface of subway tiles doesn’t trap grease and grime like textured tile. Just wipe them clean with a damp cloth.
  • Classic look: Subway tiles have been popular for a century, giving kitchens a timeless look. Their simplicity pairs well with any kitchen style from modern to farmhouse.
  • Design flexibility: Lay subway tiles vertically, horizontally, or in patterns. Use different grout colors to create designs. Mix and match subway tiles with other types of tiles.
  • Durable: Properly installed subway tiles hold up well to heavy use in kitchens. Their hard glaze resists staining, scratches and heat.

With proper planning and preparation, you can install subway tile backsplash on your own and save on installation costs. Follow this step-by-step guide for how to do backsplash subway tile correctly.

Planning Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Before you head to the store, take some time to plan your backsplash design. Measure the space and make layout drawings to determine how much tile you need. Planning ahead will make your installation go smoothly.

Step 1: Measure Your Backsplash Area

Use a measuring tape to measure the height and width of the backsplash area behind your countertop. Don’t forget to account for any outlets, windows or other openings. Measure these and sketch their placement on your layout.

If your backsplash will end at wall cabinets, measure up to the bottom of the cabinets. For a full-height backsplash, measure from counter to ceiling.

Measure every section of the backsplash space. Backsplashes frequently have angles and inconsistencies, so precision is important.

Step 2: Determine Tile Layout

Decide on the tile layout pattern you want before buying tile. Some common subway tile patterns include:

  • Stack bond: Tiles laid vertically in offset rows
  • Brick pattern: Tiles laid horizontally in offset rows
  • Herringbone: Tiles installed in angled rows for a V-shape
  • Pinwheel: Tiles installed in a square pattern around a center tile

Make drawings of the backsplash space showing tile layout. This will help determine how much tile you need to purchase. Include grout line spacing in your drawings.

Step 3: Select Your Tile

With your measurements and layout in hand, browse tile selections at your local home improvement store.

  • Choose classic bright white 3×6 inch tile, or go bold with color, oversized shape or mosaic design.
  • Pick coordinating grout color. Contrasting grout highlights the tile, while matching grout minimizes the grid look.
  • Purchase bullnose edge tiles if not using wall trim. Bullnose tiles have a rounded finished edge.
  • Get a few extra tiles to account for cuts, waste and future repairs.

Step 4: Gather Your Supplies

In addition to your tile, pick up these recommended supplies:

  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Tile spacers
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Mixing bucket
  • Tile cutter and nippers
  • Safety glasses and gloves

Refer to the tools and materials list below for other helpful items to have on hand.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Once you’ve completed the planning and shopping, you’re ready to install the subway tile. Follow these steps to properly apply tile.

Step 1: Prepare the Surface

The backsplash area must be clean and dry. Remove any old backsplash tile, then wash the wall and let dry completely.

Fill any holes or uneven spots with drywall joint compound. Sand smooth. Prime with drywall primer sealer once dry.

Make sure the surface is ready for tile. Test questionable drywall by taping a 2 x 2 foot piece of plastic sheet over an area for 24 hours. Drywall is ready if no moisture accumulates behind the plastic.

Step 2: Mark Your Layout

Use a level and pencil to mark horizontal and vertical layout lines on the backsplash surface. This creates a guide for placing the first row of tile.

Make sure the lines are perfectly level and plumb. Laser levels or a 4-foot level work great for this. The tile job will only be as straight as these layout lines.

Step 3: Apply Tile Adhesive

Use a notched trowel held at a 45 degree angle to spread a thin layer of tile adhesive on the backsplash area. Apply only as much as can be tiled in about 20 minutes before the adhesive dries.

Follow adhesive product instructions, as drying times vary. Apply additional thin coats if the adhesive starts to skin over.

Step 4: Install the Tile

Reference your layout markings and start setting tiles one row at a time. Use tile spacers between tiles to set consistent grout line width.

Press tiles firmly into the adhesive and slide them into position. Align grout line spacing by pressing spacer-lined tiles against already-set tiles.

Go slow and check your work. Make sure tiles align with layout lines and each other as you go. Adjust as needed while adhesive is still malleable. Use tile nippers to trim any perimeter tiles.

Let the tile set undisturbed for at least 24 hours. Don’t walk on or grout tiles during this time.

Step 5: Apply Grout

After allowing tile to fully set, mix grout per packaging instructions and apply with a grout float. Spread it diagonally across the tiles, pressing into grout lines.

Drag the edge of the float diagonally across tiles to remove excess grout. Take care to keep grout lines uniform in width and filled evenly.

Wipe any haze or film off tile with a damp sponge once grout becomes firm. Rinse the sponge frequently. Let grout dry 24 hours before sealing.

Step 6: Seal the Grout

Once grout is fully dry, seal it with grout sealer applied via sponge or brush. This prevents stains from penetrating the grout over time.

Let sealer dry completely. Apply a second coat for maximum protection.

With proper prep and care, your subway tile backsplash can look great for years to come. Refer to tile care instructions for ongoing maintenance recommendations.

Helpful Tips for Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these tips and tricks for getting subway tile backsplash right:

  • Start in the center: Begin tiling in the middle of the backsplash space instead of at one end. This ensures any uneven edges will be at the sides or top.
  • Dry lay tiles first: Set tiles without adhesive to confirm fit and pattern before permanently sticking tiles.
  • Cut tiles neatly: Use a wet tile saw for clean, precise cuts. A sharp utility knife works for small cuts.
  • Pre-seal porous tiles: Seal porous natural stone, cement and saltillo tiles before installation to prevent staining.
  • Check flatness: Use a straightedge to confirm tiles sit flush, without high or low spots. Even slight unevenness will show once grouted.
  • Leave room for movement: Don’t apply tiles flush to countertop, cabinets, ceilings or corners. Leave a small gap for tile expansion.
  • Clean as you go: Wipe away any adhesive, grout or dried residue from tile faces right away using a damp sponge.
  • Caulk edges: Apply flexible caulk where tile meets the countertop or other surfaces. This allows for tile movement.
  • Grout properly: Push grout fully into joints so no gaps exist. Grout to the tile edge but not overlapping.

Following these tips will help you avoid common subway tile installation problems. Take your time and tile carefully for best results.

Subway Tile Backsplash Maintenance

Subway tile backsplashes are designed to be easy to care for. Here are some tips for keeping them looking like new:

  • Regularly wipe down: Use a damp microfiber cloth to wipe away food, grease and dirt after each use of the kitchen. Dry with a towel.
  • Clean weekly: Give the backsplash a thorough cleaning weekly using an all-purpose cleaner or tile/stone cleaner. Rinse well and dry.
  • Re-seal grout: Apply fresh grout sealer every 1-2 years. This prevents stains from penetrating the grout.
  • Address stains promptly: Spills and stains are inevitable. Blot liquid spills immediately. For dried on stains, scrape off any built-up residue before cleaning.
  • Avoid abrasives: Don’t use scrub brushes, scouring pads, or harsh cleaners which can scratch the tile surface. Use soft cloths instead.
  • Prevent moisture issues: Keep an eye out for any moisture developing behind the tile or around penetrations. Address any leaks right away before damage or mold growth occurs.

With regular light cleaning and careful treatment, subway tile backsplashes will maintain their classic beauty for many years of kitchen use. Be sure to select durable, stain-resistant grout and high-fired ceramic or porcelain tiles.

Tools and Materials Needed

Installing a tile backsplash is an achievable DIY project with the right tools, materials, and preparation. Here are the basic items needed:

Tile and Supplies

  • Subway tile
  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout
  • Grout sealer
  • Tile spacers
  • Mixing bucket

Safety Gear

  • Safety glasses
  • Dust mask
  • Knee pads

Tools for Cutting and Installing Tile

  • Tile cutter (snap cutter)
  • Nippers
  • Wet saw
  • Tile spacers
  • Grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Rubber gloves
  • Utility knife
  • Straight edge

Surface Preparation Tools

  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Painter’s tape
  • Sandpaper
  • Drywall joint compound
  • Drywall primer

Additional Supplies

  • Drop cloths
  • Rags
  • Bucket
  • Sponges
  • Cleaning solutions
  • Caulk
  • Shop vacuum

With the right tools and quality tile, you can achieve a kitchen backsplash to be proud of. Ensure everything is ready and in good working order prior to starting your subway tile project.

Step-by-Step Subway Tile Backsplash Installation

Installing a subway tile backsplash brings a clean, classic look to any kitchen. With proper planning and care, you can successfully complete this tiling project as a DIY homeowner.

Follow these step-by-step instructions for foolproof installation:

1. Gather Supplies

Make sure you have all necessary tools, tile, adhesive, grout, and accessories on hand before beginning.

2. Prepare the Surface

Thoroughly clean and dry the backsplash area. Fill any holes or imperfections, then sand smooth. Apply primer if needed.

3. Mark the Layout

On the backsplash, use a level and pencil to mark layout lines guiding tile placement.

4. Spread Tile Adhesive

Use a notched trowel to evenly apply a thin layer of tile adhesive on the backsplash surface area.

5. Install Subway Tiles

Following layout lines, place tiles in adhesive one row at a time. Use spacers between tiles.

6. Allow Tile to Set

Let freshly applied tiles sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours before grouting or walking on them.

7. Apply Grout

Mix grout and spread over the tiles using a grout float. Push into tile joints completely.

8. Clean Excess Grout

Wipe any grout haze or film off the tiles using a damp sponge once grout firms up.

9. Seal the Grout

After grout dries fully, apply a grout sealer to protect grout lines from stains.

10. Finish Edges

Caulk any gaps between tiles and countertops, cabinets, or walls. Apply trim pieces if desired.

Following these simple subway tile backsplash installation steps, you can achieve stunning results. With the right preparation and materials, even first-time DIYers can successfully tile their own beautiful and functional backsplash. Let your tile design creativity run wild!

Frequently Asked Questions About Subway Tile Backsplash

What type of tile is best for backsplash?

The best backsplash tiles are made from glazed ceramic, porcelain, or natural stone. These durable materials resist heat, stains, and moisture. Glass or metal tile can also make attractive backsplash choices.

What size subway tile is most common?

The most popular size for subway tile is 3 by 6 inches, a classic rectangular shape. However, you can find many variations, like longer planks or square formats. 4 x 12 inch subway tile is another common size.

How are subway tiles installed?

Subway tiles are most often installed in a stacked or brick pattern. Tile adhesive is applied to the wall surface first, then tiles pressed into place row by row using spacers. Grout is added last.

What color grout goes well with white subway tile?

White subway tile paired with bright white grout gives a clean, minimalist look. Off-white or light grey grout adds subtle contrast. Dark grout choices like black, charcoal or navy make the white tile pop.

How difficult is it to install a subway tile backsplash?

Installing a subway tile backsplash is considered an intermediate DIY project, but can be done by anyone willing to take their time and follow proper techniques. Proper surface prep is key.

Do you need to seal subway tile?

Sealing is not necessary for glazed ceramic or porcelain subway tile, but it is highly recommended for natural stone tiles. Always apply grout sealer to finished grout lines to prevent staining.

How do you cut subway tiles?

Tile nippers neatly clip small cuts on outer tiles edges. A manual snap tile cutter is useful for straight cuts. Curves and detailed cuts can be made with a wet saw.

Installing your own subway tile backsplash can be an immensely gratifying DIY weekend project. With the right planning and materials, you can create a kitchen focal point you’ll enjoy for years to come.


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