How to Do Kitchen Backsplash Subway Tile

Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen is an easy and affordable way to add style and functionality. With some planning, the right materials, and basic DIY skills, you can create a beautiful backsplash that transforms the look of your kitchen. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know for a successful subway tile backsplash project from start to finish.

Choose Your Tile

The first step is selecting the right tile. Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic or glass tiles typically 3 by 6 inches, though you can find similar tiles in varying lengths and widths. When choosing your tile, consider:

Tile Material

Ceramic – Classic and affordable option available in glossy or matte finish. Durable and easy to clean.

Glass – More modern look, typically have a glossy finish. Prone to cracking so take care when cutting.

Porcelain – Very durable and water-resistant. Can mimic look of natural stone or concrete.

Mosaic – Small tiles mounted together in sheets make for fast installation. Great for creating patterns.

Tile Color

White or light grey are the most popular choices as they keep the space feeling open and airy. But don’t be afraid to go bold with emerald green, navy blue, or other colors that complement your kitchen decor.

Tile Finish

Glossy – Reflective surface adds shine and depth. Shows less wear than matte.

Matte – Understated, natural look. Hides imperfections well.

Tile Size

Standard subway tiles are 3 by 6 inches. But consider elongated sizes like 4 by 8 inches or smaller mosaics. Mixing sizes can add interest.

Tile Layout

Basic brick pattern is classic. But consider herringbone or other patterns. Accent tiles can be worked in too.

Grout Color

Contrasting grout dramatically outlines each tile. Complementary colored grout blends in for a seamless look.

Calculate How Much Tile You Need

Once you’ve selected your tile, it’s time to calculate how much you’ll need to purchase. Measure the area of each backsplash surface, then:

  • For square or rectangular spaces, multiply length by width.
  • For irregular spaces, divide into smaller rectangles and calculate each.
  • Add all surface areas together.
  • Divide the total area by the size of your tile (in square inches) to get the number of tiles needed.

Don’t forget to account for tile cuts, waste and breakage. Add 10% more for subway tile projects.

Also purchase extra grout. About 1lb of grout will cover 35 sq ft of tile.

Gather Your Tools and Materials

Installing a subway tile backsplash is considered an intermediate DIY project that requires some specialized tools. Be sure to have on hand:

Essential Tools

  • Tile cutter – For straight cuts
  • Nippers – To trim small pieces after scoring with cutter
  • Tile spacers – For consistent grout lines
  • Rubber grout float – For smoothing grout between tiles
  • Grout sealer – To protect grout lines
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Pencil
  • Utility knife
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel


  • Subway tile
  • Tile mastic adhesive
  • Grout
  • Backerboard – Cement, fiber cement, or water-resistant drywall
  • Backerboard screws
  • Caulk/silicone sealant

Prepare Your Backsplash Surface

With your materials purchased, it’s time for the installation. Proper surface prep is crucial for a long-lasting backsplash.

For any surface exposed to moisture (behind sinks or ranges), remove drywall and replace with water-resistant backerboard like cement, fiber cement, or Durock. Secure with backerboard screws every 8 inches.

If your backsplash will be protected from moisture, you may be able to install directly over drywall. Be sure the surface is smooth and primed for the best adhesion.

Next, make any repairs to the wall surface with joint compound, sanding smooth. The surface should be clean and dry before tiling. Remove outlet plates if needed to install tile behind.

Finally, apply painter’s tape along the edges of the backsplash area to protect the surrounding walls.

Lay Out Your Tile

With the surface prepped, it’s time for the fun part – laying out your tile! Plan the tile layout considering these tips:

  • Draw reference lines horizontally and vertically to guide installation.
  • Mix tile boxes to ensure color consistency.
  • Cut border tiles to appropriate size if needed.
  • Start center tiles first, working outward.
  • Use spacers to set consistent grout line width (1/8 inch is common).

A dry layout before installing lets you measure and make adjustments as needed.

Spread the Adhesive and Set Your Tiles

Now you’re ready to start tiling! Follow these steps for proper installation:

  1. Apply a thin layer of tile mastic adhesive using a notched trowel. Spread only 1-4 tiles worth of adhesive at a time to prevent drying.
  2. Set tiles in place, using a twisting motion for solid contact with adhesive. Align with reference lines.
  3. Push tiles firmly into place, use spacers between. Check occasionally that tiles are level.
  4. Clean away any excess adhesive and make adjustments while adhesive is still wet. Allow to dry per manufacturer instructions.
  5. For cuts, score tile face with cutter then snap piece off using nippers. File edges smooth.
  6. Continue setting tiles row by row until the backsplash surface is fully covered. Let adhesive cure completely before grouting.

Apply Your Grout

Once tiles are firmly set, it’s time to grout. Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Apply painter’s tape around the outer edges to protect surfaces.
  2. Mix grout per package directions. Apply using a rubber grout float, pressing into crevices.
  3. Drag float diagonally across tiles to fill grout lines. Remove excess, cleaning tile faces.
  4. When grout becomes firm, scrub tiles clean with a damp sponge per package directions. Rinse sponge frequently.
  5. Allow grout to fully cure, typically 24-48 hours. Then apply grout sealer if desired for extra protection.
  6. Remove painter’s tape after grout is dry. Wipe away any haze with damp sponge.
  7. Caulk corner joints if needed. Wipe away excess caulk immediately.

Let your grout fully cure before using your new backsplash!

Grout Color Considerations

When selecting grout color, keep these tips in mind:

  • Matching grout blends seamlessly with tiles. Contrasting grout highlights each tile.
  • Dark grout can make a small space feel closed in. Lighter grout keeps things airy.
  • Stick with gray, white, or off-white grout colors, as other dyes can discolor over time.
  • If using glass tile, go for matching translucent grout to mimic a continuous surface.

Maintaining Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these tips to keep your backsplash looking like new:

  • Seal grout periodically with a penetrating sealer to prevent staining and damage.
  • Use mild soap and water to keep tiles clean. Avoid harsh cleaners and abrasives.
  • Re-apply grout in any areas that become cracked or hollowed. Match color carefully.
  • If tiles become damaged or need removal, score the grout line with a utility knife before prying up.
  • Wipe spills quickly to avoid stains setting on grout lines.

With proper care, your fresh subway tile backsplash will maintain its beauty for many years of daily use.

Mistakes to Avoid with Subway Tile

While subway tile backsplashes are one of the simpler DIY projects, it’s still easy to make mistakes. Be sure to avoid these common pitfalls:

  • Not leveling tiles – Small inconsistencies add up quickly. Use spacers and check levels often.
  • Applying adhesive too far ahead – Adhesive can dry out before tiles are placed, affecting bonding.
  • Allowing adhesive to create ridges – This prevents solid contact between tile and wall.
  • Poor planning for outlet placement – Measure first to center tiles around outlets nicely.
  • Applying grout before adhesive cures – Can lead to cracked grout. Follow adhesive manufacturer directions.
  • Not sealing grout – Allows staining and erosion from moisture. Seal after grout cures.
  • Using wrong cleaners – Avoid bleach, acids, abrasives that can damage grout and tile.

Tips for Cutting Subway Tiles

Cutting subway tile neatly is key for a professional looking finish. Follow these tips:

  • Use a wet saw with diamond blade for precise cuts and minimal chipping on edges.
  • For straight cuts on just a few tiles, score with tile cutter then snap tile using nippers.
  • Cut tiles face side up to prevent chipping. If cutting upside down, cover with cardboard.
  • If tile cracks or chips when scoring, discard it and start fresh with new tile to avoid jagged edges.
  • For U-shaped cuts around outlets, drill a hole then use nippers to shape as needed. Finish edges with file.
  • Stagger cuts across multiple tiles rather than cutting everything at one central joint for cleaner lines.
  • Keep a bucket of water nearby while cutting to wet saw blade and minimize dust.

How to Finish Edges of Subway Tiles

Depending on placement, subway tile backsplashes may require finishing or edging the exposed sides. Here are some options:

Bullnose Edge Tiles

These tiles have one rounded finished edge. Use as first and last tiles for a smooth transition.

Schluter Strips

Metal, plastic, or tile trim strips attach to wall edges before tiling for clean finish. Help protect tile edges.

Edge-Finishing Grinder

Use special attachment on angle grinder to smooth and shape cut edge of tile for polished look.


For simple thin backsplashes, finish exposed edges with color-matched caulk for subtle finish.

Enhance Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Looking to elevate your basic white subway tile backsplash? Consider these easy enhancements:

  • Introduce an accent row of mosaic, decorative tile, or glass tile.
  • Create a geometric, Moroccan-inspired pattern by framing rectangles or stacking offset squares.
  • Use two alternating colors of subway tile for visual interest.
  • Include an inlayed design like a marble mosaic or ceramic medallion.
  • Use subway tiles with beveled edges for added dimension.
  • Line up tiles vertically instead of horizontally.
  • Frame with trim pieces on the sides and along the bottom.
  • Add shelving next to the backsplash to display cookbooks or plants.

Backsplash Ideas with Subway Tile

Here are some stylish ways to use subway tile for a backsplash with dimension and interest:

Herringbone Pattern – This V-shaped brickwork adds nice visual texture. Use all white tiles or throw in contrasting grout.

Penny Tile Accent – Outlining the area in small mosaic penny tiles dresses up basic subway tiles.

Subway Tile Backplash Extending to Ceiling – Take subway tiles all the way to the ceiling for a bold, dramatic statement.

Blended Subway Tile Colors – Blend two related colors, like light and medium blue gray, for subtle interest.

Etched Subway Tile – Etching the tile surface gives it a worn, vintage look. Try etching patterns for extra style.

Subway Tile with Chair Rail – Top off subway tile with a classic chair rail molding to transition to upper walls.

Subway Tile Kitchen Backsplash with Shelves – Flank the area with floating shelves for an airy, functional look.

Subway Tile with Glass Accent – Combine glossy glass and matte subway tiles for eye-catching contrast.

Stacked Subway Tile Layout – Stacking basic tiles draws the eye upward. Grout lines align in a grid pattern.

Subway Tile with Stone or Marble Accents – For variation, intersperse marble mosaic tiles or thin stone rows.

Subway Tile Backsplash Design Ideas

Incorporating subway tile into backsplash designs is a fresh, modern approach for savvy kitchen and bath renovators. Take your backsplash to the next level with these striking design ideas:

Mix and Match Colors

Go beyond basic white and play with gray tones, bold hues, and handmade artisan tiles for lots of personality. Tiles in complementary colors make for a striking color-blocked statement.

Introduce an Accent Material

Natural stone adds rustic texture. Mirror tiles open up a small space. Clear glass tiles lend ethereal style. Metal and wood tiles add modern flair. Use sparingly as accents or borders.

Create a Pattern

Herringbone patterns lend visual intrigue. Try working in mosaic tiles to form geometric shapes or medallion inlays for Moroccan style. Use trim pieces to make zig-zags or crenellated patterns.

Incorporate 3D Tiles

Subway tiles with an artful sculpted shape, beveled edges, or curved surface transform a backsplash into a contemporary work of art. Introduce relief and shadow for organic style.

Take It to the Ceiling

Make a dramatic statement by tiling from countertop to ceiling. Use extra-long tiles or standard bricks stacked vertically. Perfect for making a small space feel grand.

Illuminate with Lighting

Install LED tape lighting right in the tile joints or under upper cabinets to bathe the backsplash in a warm glow. Sconces flanking the space provide dramatic task lighting.

Contrast Gloss and Matte

Mixing gloss and matte tiles adds appealing visual and textural contrast. Try glossy glass or metallic accents with matte porcelain tiles. Let grout lines define the pattern.

The simple subway tile is endlessly versatile. With creative pattern and color combinations and introducing complementary textures and materials, you can design a completely unique backsplash that reflects your personal style.

FAQs About Subway Tile Backsplash Projects

Some common questions about installing and designing subway tile backsplashes:

Does subway tile go out of style?

Subway tile has been popular in kitchens and bathrooms since the early 1900s. The classic rectangular shape and clean lines maintain a timeless appeal. White is especially versatile to fit any style. While trends come and go, subway tile maintains steady popularity.

Can you put subway tile directly on drywall?

It’s possible but not recommended. The moisture from grout and regular exposure to water can cause drywall paper to swell and seams to crack. It’s best to use cement backerboard or another waterproof surface for durability.

What color grout is best for white subway tile?

White or light grey grout matches the tiles subtly. Alabaster or bone colored grout also blends in nicely. For contrast, medium to dark grey adds a graphic pop. Stay away from any dyed or colored grout which can stain over time.

Should you seal subway tile?

Sealing the porous surface of natural stone or Saltillo tiles is a good idea for water resistance and stain prevention. But glazed ceramic and glass subway tiles are impervious, so sealing is not necessary. Just properly seal the grout lines.

Can you put subway tile in a shower?

Yes, subway tile is a great water-resistant material for shower walls and enclosures. Use a waterproof membrane over the wall first, then properly seal grout lines. Limit plain white grout to lower shower walls to avoid discoloration. Use dark grout on upper walls.

Is subway tile cheap?

Basic white 3×6” ceramic subway tiles are very affordable, starting around $5 per square foot. Even glass subway tiles can cost less than $10 per square foot. The rectangular shape installs quickly. Combine the fast installation with low material costs, and subway tile backsplashes are one of the most budget-friendly remodeling projects.


Installing a subway tile backsplash is an approachable project for DIYers that can make a big impact. With proper planning and materials, the classic tile style can be adapted into all kinds of unique looks. A fresh backsplash tile revitalizes worn counters and introduces color, sheen, and texture to modernize any kitchen or bath. With this comprehensive guide, you have all the information needed to create a stunning subway tile backsplash uniquely suited to your space.