How to Do Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. With their classic rectangular shape, subway tiles create a timeless and stylish backdrop. Installing them is also a relatively easy DIY project. Follow this guide to learn how to do subway tile backsplash and get the look you want.

Materials Needed

Before starting your subway tile backsplash project, you’ll need to gather the right materials. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Subway tiles – Calculate the square footage of your backsplash area to determine how many tiles you’ll need. Allow for extra.
  • Tile adhesive – Choose an adhesive compatible with your tile and wall type. Many thinset mortars work for subway tile.
  • Grout – Pick a grout color that complements your tile. Unsanded grout is best for narrow tile joints.
  • Trowel – Use a notched trowel to spread the tile adhesive. Choose a trowel size based on your tile.
  • Tile spacers – Spacers keep tile joints consistent. Plastic crossed spacers work for most tile layouts.
  • Tile cutter – A snap tile cutter easily cuts subway tile to fit around outlets and other fixtures.
  • Grout sealer – Sealing the grout prevents staining and makes grout easier to clean.
  • Other supplies – These include painter’s tape, a grout sponge, grout float, and silicone caulk.

Prep the Surface

Preparing the surface is one of the most important steps of tiling. This gives the tile adhesive something to bond to.

  • Clean the surface thoroughly to remove grease, soap buildup, and dirt. Rinse and let dry completely.
  • For existing drywall or plaster, apply a drywall sealer to prevent moisture damage.
  • If tiling around a window, fill any gaps around the window trim with caulk. This prevents moisture damage.
  • Apply painter’s tape around the edges of the installation area. This keeps adhesive off surfaces where you don’t want tile.
  • Apply a thin, even coat of tile adhesive primer. Let the primer dry completely before moving on.

Plan Your Tile Layout

Take some time to plan your layout. This will help you avoid mistakes and keep your tile lines straight.

  • Mark the center point of your installation area and divide it into quadrants. Use a level to draw vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Dry lay a few tiles along your guide lines with spacers. Check that your layout is even on all sides. Adjust lines if needed.
  • Determine the size of cuts needed at perimeter edges. Mark cuts on tiles with a pencil.
  • Mix up a small test batch of adhesive to check that your trowel size and technique will give proper coverage. Adjust as needed.

Apply the Tile Adhesive

With your prep work done, it’s time to start tiling. Move systematically and work in small sections.

  • Apply a thin layer of adhesive to one quadrant, using the notched side of the trowel at a 45 degree angle.
  • Only cover an area that you can tile before the adhesive skins over. Refer to adhesive directions.
  • Press tiles into the adhesive firmly, using a slight twisting motion. Align against your guide lines.
  • Use spacers between tiles to maintain even grout joint width. Remove spacer once adhesive is set.
  • Check tiles periodically to ensure they are flush and fully embedded. Adjust as needed.
  • Continue applying adhesive and setting tile, 1-2 rows at a time. Work methodically to completion.

Cut Tiles to Fit

As you near edges, outlet covers, and fixtures, you’ll need to cut subway tiles to fit.

  • Measure and mark tiles to the correct size and shape. Add 1/8 inch to the measurement.
  • Position the tile on the tile cutter’s bed. Score the tile by running the cutter’s wheel firmly along the mark.
  • Snap the tile downward to make a clean break along the scored line. Smooth any rough edges with the cutter.
  • Set cut tiles just like full tiles. Use small tiles and filler pieces near edges to maintain pattern.
  • Where tiles meet another surface, leave a 1/8 inch gap. Later fill with caulk, not grout.

Grouting the Tile

Once your tile adhesive has cured per the directions, you’re ready to grout. Joints should be uniform in width around 1/8 inch.

  • Apply grout sealer to the tiles first. This makes grout residue easier to clean later.
  • Mix up a small batch of grout just until it reaches a smooth, toothpaste-like consistency.
  • Holding the grout float at a 45° angle, push it firmly into the tile joints to completely fill them.
  • Wipe diagonally across the tiles with the grout sponge. Rinse often and change rinse water frequently.
  • Allow grout to cure per product directions before doing a final clean up. Polish the tile surface with a soft cloth.
  • Once fully cured, seal grout according to manufacturer recommendations. This protects from stains.

With the right materials and careful technique, installing subway tile backsplash is totally DIY friendly. Take your time and refer back to these tips for success. The finished product provides a clean, classic backdrop.

FAQs About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

How do I get my subway tiles perfectly straight?

Use a level and painters tape to mark straight vertical and horizontal guide lines on your surface before laying any tile. Check that your tile aligns with these lines periodically as you work.

What spacing should I leave between subway tiles?

Most installers recommend a 1/16 to 1/8 inch joint between tiles. Plastic tile spacers in this size are available. Remove spacers before grouting.

How long does tile adhesive take to set before grouting?

Tile adhesive cure times vary by product, from as little as 4-6 hours to 48 hours or more. Refer to manufacturer instructions for recommended set times.

What’s the easiest way to cut subway tile?

A snap tile cutter is perfect for cutting subway tile straight. Score the tile and snap it for a clean break. Smooth rough edges with the cutter’s wheel.

Should I seal my tile before grouting?

Yes, applying a grout sealer or film to tiles first will make cleanup much easier. It prevents grout from clinging to and staining the tile surface.

How soon can I use my newly tiled backsplash?

It’s best to avoid direct contact with the tile surface for at least 24 hours. Let grout cure fully over 48-72 hours before heavy use of the area.


Installing a subway tile backsplash requires careful prep, precise tile-setting, and meticulous grouting. With the right guidance, tools, and materials, it can be an approachable DIY project. The classic look of white or colored subway tile adds timeless beauty to kitchens and bathrooms. Follow these tips to gain confidence in tiling small or large spaces and get the backsplash style you desire.