How to Install a Small Tile Backsplash

A small tile backsplash can add visual interest and protect your walls from splashes and stains in the kitchen. Installing a tile backsplash is a manageable weekend project for a DIYer with basic tiling experience. With some planning and the right materials, you can transform your kitchen with a stylish new backsplash.

Choosing Your Tile

When selecting a tile, consider the size of your space and your style.

Tile Types

Ceramic or Porcelain: Classic options perfect for backsplashes. Porcelain is more durable and water-resistant. Both come in a huge range of styles and prices.

Glass: Available in endless colors and adds a shiny, sleek look. Can be prone to chipping. Often used for accents.

Metal: Gives an ultra-modern or industrial vibe. Typically made from stainless steel, copper, or tin. Great choice for contemporary spaces.

Stone: Natural stone like marble, travertine, or slate can create a high-end, luxurious look. Requires extra care to seal and maintain.

Mosaic: Tiny tiles mounted on a mesh backing to create patterns. Fantastic for adding artistic flair.

Tile Sizes

Small backsplashes look best with smaller tile sizes like:

  • Mosaic sheets: 1-inch tiles mounted on 10-12 inch square sheets
  • Subway: 2 by 6 inches
  • Hexagons: 1-inch wide hexagons
  • Pennies: 1-inch square tiles
  • Brick: Thin rectangular bricks installed in offset rows

Larger tiles like 4-inch squares can work but may be trickier for small spaces.

A general rule is to use tiles no larger than 1/3 the size of your backsplash area. Mixing in mosaic sheets or borders helps add more scale variation.

How Much Tile Do You Need?

To determine how much tile is required, measure the length and height of the backsplash area. Multiply the two measurements to find the total square footage.

Most often small backsplashes are 15-30 square feet.

Then account for extra tiles needed for pattern arrangement and cutting:

  • Subway Tile Layout: Add 15%
  • Brick Pattern: Add 20%
  • Diagonal Pattern: Add 25%
  • Mosaic Sheets: Add full sheets needed

Finally, get 10-15% extra for breakages, uneven walls, and future repairs.

Once you know the tile square footage with extras, you can calculate the quantities needed based on the box size for your tile.

Buying all materials upfront ensures perfect color matching and avoids potential discontinued tile issues.

Gather Your Materials

Essential supplies:

  • Tile
  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Grout
  • Grout sealer
  • Trowel for spreading thinset
  • Float for applying thinset
  • Grout float
  • Mixing bucket
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile cutter and/or wet saw
  • Grout sponge

Helpful tools:

  • Level
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Bucket for mixing thinset
  • Masking tape
  • Sandpaper or rubbing stone
  • Carpenter’s pencil or chalk
  • Shop vacuum

Safety equipment:

  • Safety glasses and gloves
  • Knee pads
  • Dust mask
  • Ear protection if using power tools

Other supplies:

  • Backerboard if needed
  • Screws for backerboard
  • Caulk and caulk gun
  • Rags
  • Drop cloths
  • Painter’s tape

Preparing Your Backsplash Area

Proper prep work ensures your backsplash tiles stick and lasts.

  1. Clean the surface thoroughly – Remove any existing backsplash. Fill any holes or imperfections with spackle. Wash the wall with an all-purpose cleaner. Rinse thoroughly.
  2. Mark your layout – Measure and mark your focal point. Typically this is centered on your cooking range or sink. Use a level to draw plumb vertical and horizontal layout lines.
  3. Install backerboard if needed – Cementboard or a water-resistant substrate may be required for moisture-prone areas. Screw into studs every 6-8 inches.
  4. Apply painter’s tape – Tape off sections like the countertop edge. This helps keep areas clean and provides a straight line to align your first row of tiles.

Once your surface is prepped, you’re ready to start tiling!

How to Install the Tile

Follow these steps for flawless tile installation:

1. Mix the thinset mortar.

Mix powdered thinset with latex additive and water per manufacturer instructions in a bucket. The consistency should be thick and pasty like peanut butter, not runny. Only mix what you can use in 30 minutes.

2. Spread the thinset onto the wall.

Use a notched trowel to scrape thinset onto the wall in small sections. Spread in straight rows at a 45 degree angle. Apply only 1/4 to 3/8 inch thickness.

3. Place the first tile.

Press the first tile firmly into the corner along your guideline. Push at an angle to collapse the grooves and maximize adhesive contact.

4. Align the tiles.

Place spacer strips along the edges of each installed tile to keep consistent alignments and grout lines.

5. Continue setting tiles.

Work in sections apply thinset, set tiles, and add spacers. Check periodically for level and plumb.

6. Cut any custom tiles needed.

Measure and mark tiles to fit around outlets, corners, or edges. Cut with tile cutters or a wet saw. Smooth the edges. Set custom tiles as you go.

7. Let the thinset cure.

Allow the thinset to fully dry for 24-48 hours. Remove any spacer strips or guides. Carefully scrape off any excess dried thinset with a putty knife.

8. Mix and apply the grout.

Prepare grout mix per package instructions. Apply over the tiles with a rubber grout float. Push into joints forming a 45 degree angle.

9. Clean excess grout.

Wipe the tiles diagonally across the joints with a damp sponge to remove excess grout. Rinse the sponge frequently. Allow grout to partially cure for 30-60 minutes first.

10. Seal the grout.

Apply grout sealant evenly over all grouted areas. Avoid applying directly to tiles. Wipe any excess.

Once your grout has fully cured, your new backsplash is complete! Enjoy your stylish new focal point.

Tips for Small Tile Backsplash Success

  • Stick with a classic white or gray grout color for small tiles. Dark grout can be overpowering.
  • Pick a coordinating caulk color to match your grout and tile.
  • Arrange accent tiles randomly vs symmetrically for a modern look.
  • Include an accent strip of small mosaic tiles.
  • Store a few extra tiles in case a repair is ever needed.
  • Use a level often to check your tile lines stay straight.
  • Thinset mortar may need periodic stirring to stay creamy; don’t add water.
  • For outlets, shut off power; remove cover plates; cut tiles to fit; reinstall plates over tiles.
  • Wipe down new tiles daily with damp microfiber cloth to remove residual grout haze.

Common Problems and Solutions

Tiles aren’t sticking to thinset:

  • Ensure thinset consistency is not too wet or dry.
  • Check that thinset is fresh and has not skinned over.
  • Scrape off old thinset and reapply new if not sticky.

Grout cracking between tiles:

  • Mix grout following package directions.
  • Ensure joints between tiles are consistent depths.
  • Apply grout sealer to finished grout to protect from moisture.

Tiles crack during cutting:

  • Mark and score tiles with a tile cutter before snapping.
  • For smaller cuts, use nipper pliers instead of scoring.
  • Ensure tile is held firmly when scoring and snapping.

Thinset drying too fast:

  • Do not mix more than can be used in 30 minutes.
  • Do not add too much water when mixing as this shortens working time.
  • Cover bucket between mixing batches to slow drying.


How long does a tile backsplash take to install?

For an average sized backsplash of 20-30 square feet, the installation will take 2-3 days:

  • Day 1: Prep work
  • Day 2: Tiling
  • Day 3: Grouting and sealing

What’s the best height for a backsplash?

The standard backsplash height is 4 inches from the countertop. Backsplashes can also be full height up to the bottom of upper cabinets.

Should backsplash tiles match floor tiles?

Matching backsplash and floor tiles can look overly coordinated. It’s best to pick complementary tiles that tie together well without an exact match.

Can you use large format tiles on a small backsplash?

Large format tiles like 12″x24″ can overpower a petite backsplash area. Stick with smaller tiles like subway, hexagon, or mosaic sheets.

Do backsplash tiles need to go all the way to the ceiling?

Backsplashes should at minimum reach any bottom edges of upper cabinets. Extending all the way to the ceiling offers maximum protection.


Installing a small tile backsplash can take your kitchen from basic to beautiful. With a well-planned design, proper materials, and meticulous installation, you can create a stunning focal point full of personality. Give your cooking space an artistic and eye-catching makeover with a tile backsplash accent wall.