How to End Subway Tile Backsplash

A subway tile backsplash can be a classic, timeless addition to any kitchen. The rectangular tiles in a brickwork pattern provide a clean, simple backdrop in the kitchen. However, when it comes time to end the subway tile backsplash at countertops, edges, or around outlets and switches, extra care and precision must be taken to achieve a seamless, professional look. With proper planning and technique, you can install subway tile backsplash that looks like it was done by the pros.

Plan the Layout

Before starting your project, take measurements and map out your design. Consider the following:

Measure Carefully

Precision is key when cutting and installing subway tiles. Measure the length and height of the backsplash area to determine how many full tiles will fit and where cuts will need to be made. Account for any outlets, switches, or gaps that will disrupt the pattern.

Map Out Patterns and Cuts

Draw the backsplash layout on grid paper, mapping out the tile pattern and numbering each tile. Note any tiles that will need to be cut to fit around edges and openings. This will be your reference when installing.

Choose Where to Start and End

Look at your layout and determine the optimal starting point and ending points for full tiles. You usually want to avoid ending with small slivers of tiles in prominent places. Plan to adjust the pattern if needed so cuts and edges fall in less noticeable areas.

Prep the Surface

To ensure proper adhesion, start with a smooth, clean surface:

Clean Thoroughly

Remove any old backsplash material, caulk, or adhesives. Clean the surface using a degreasing cleaner to eliminate dirt, oil, and soap scum. Rinse thoroughly.

Sand Lightly

Use 100-150 grit sandpaper to scuff and lightly sand the surface. This helps the thinset mortar adhere to the wall.

Apply Primer or Sealer

For surfaces like new drywall, apply a coat of primer and let dry completely. For existing painted walls, use a bonding sealer.

Gather Supplies

Before starting, make sure you have all necessary materials on hand:

  • Subway tiles
  • Thinset mortar
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout
  • Spacers
  • Wet saw with diamond blade
  • Tile nippers
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Caulk
  • Cleaning sponge and bucket

Cut Border Tiles

Most pros recommend starting your installation in the center and working outward. This requires cutting border tiles to size first.

Measure Carefully

Refer to your layout and measure each border tile space. Transfer measurements to the tiles and mark cut lines. Remember tiles can be cut lengthwise or widthwise depending on need.

Use Wet Saw

For straight cuts, use a wet saw fitted with a diamond blade. Work slowly and steadily for clean cuts.

Use Tile Nippers

For small notches around pipes or outlets, use tile nippers to gently nibble away bits of the tile. Take care to work gradually for clean breaks.

Install Backsplash Tiles

With your prep work complete, it’s time to attach the tiles to the wall. Use these pro tips for proper installation:

Mix Thinset Mortar

In a bucket, mix thinset mortar according to package directions. Let sit 5-10 minutes then remix just before using. Only mix enough that can be used in 30 minutes.

Apply Thinset and Tiles

Use the notched trowel to spread a layer of thinset onto the wall area, using the trowel notches to create ridges. Press tiles into place, using spacers to maintain even grout lines. Push to embed in mortar.

Check Alignment Frequently

As you install tiles, place your level against them and check plumb frequently. Adjust as needed before mortar sets. Work methodically according to your layout.

Cut Field Tiles as Needed

When you reach openings and edges, measure and cut field tiles to fit using your wet saw. Test fit each tile and make any minor adjustments with tile nippers.

Let Thinset Cure

Allow thinset mortar to cure for at least 24 hours before grouting. This ensures tiles are firmly attached and prevents grout cracking.

Grout and Seal the Tiles

Once tiles are firmly secured, finish your backsplash with proper grouting technique:

Apply Grout

Prepare grout mix according to package directions. Holding the grout float at a 45° angle, spread it over the tiles to fill all joints. Take care to fully pack joints.

Clean Excess Grout

Wipe diagonally across tiles with a damp sponge to remove excess grout. Rinse sponge frequently. Use minimal pressure to avoid pulling grout from joints. Allow grout to dry.

Seal Grout

Once dry, apply grout sealer according to product directions. This provides waterproofing and protection for the grout lines. Allow sealer to dry completely.

Caulk Edges

Apply a thin bead of silicone caulk along all joints between tile and countertops, edges, and around penetrations. Smooth with wet finger for clean finish.


Still have questions on ending a subway tile backsplash? Here are some frequently asked questions:

Should I Use Bullnose Tiles on Edges?

Bullnose tiles with squared finished edges can provide a clean look on side edges and the top edge. However, they involve extra cuts and cost. Ending with standard tiles and caulking is simpler.

How Do I Finish Inside Corners?

When tiling into an inside corner, you can finish off the edge by cutting precise 45 degree miters on border tiles. Alternately, you can simply butt tiles into the corner and fill the slight gap with caulk for a cleaner look.

What’s the Best Way to End at Uneven Countertops?

For countertops that are not perfectly level, use a straightedge and mark a level line on the wall where tiles will end. Adjust your starting point to compensate for any slope in the countertop.

Should Outlets Be Exactly in the Grout Lines?

It’s ideal to adjust outlet locations so they align with grout lines. If an outlet falls partially over a tile, you can carefully notch out space needed in the tile using an oscillating tool.

How Do I Add New Tiles Around an Existing Backsplash?

To match new tiles with an existing backsplash, use painters tape along the grout line between the two sections. This ensures you maintain the same grout width for a seamless transition.

What’s the Best Way to Cut and Finish Partial Tiles?

The goal is keeping cut edges in less visible spots. Make precision cuts with wet saw for full tiles, and use tile nippers for small corner notches. Finish cut edges with caulk or decorative trim.


Ending a subway tile backsplash takes precision and attention to detail. With proper planning and layout, careful tile-cutting, proper thinset installation, grouting, and caulking, you can achieve clean finished edges for a flawless look. Use the techniques described here and you’ll get professional-looking results.

The most important factors are taking careful measurements, mapping out all tiles and cuts in advance, using a wet saw and tile nippers skillfully, checking alignment often, grouting thoroughly, and finishing with crisp caulk lines. With some patience and care, you can install an attractive subway tile backsplash that looks like it was done by specialized tile installers.