How to Install Backsplash Subway Tile

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that are typically 3 by 6 inches. They create a classic, streamlined appearance on the wall. Installing a subway tile backsplash is a straightforward weekend project for an intermediate DIYer. With proper planning and preparation, you can create a stunning backsplash that will enhance your space.

Materials Needed

Before starting your project, make sure you have all the necessary materials. Here is what you’ll need:

  • Subway tiles – Calculate the square footage of your backsplash area to determine how many tiles you need. Purchase 10-15% extra to account for broken tiles and cuts.
  • Tile adhesive – Choose an adhesive suitable for your tile material. Latex or polymer modified thinset is a good all-purpose choice.
  • Grout – Pick a grout color that complements your tile. Unsanded grout is best for narrow tile joints.
  • Trowel – Choose a notched trowel suitable for your tile size. A 1/4″ x 1/4″ square-notch trowel usually works for most subway tile installations.
  • Spacers – Plastic tile spacers keep consistent grout lines between tiles.
  • Grout sealer – Sealing the grout prevents stains and damage.
  • Tile cutter – A snap tile cutter easily cuts subway tiles to fit edges and around outlets.
  • Grout float – A grout float helps spread and work the grout into joints.
  • Grout sponge – Use a grout sponge to smooth and clean excess grout.
  • Safety gear – Wear safety goggles and gloves when cutting tile and working with adhesive and grout.

Preparing the Surface

Proper prep work ensures your subway tiles adhere properly. Follow these steps:

  • Clean the surface thoroughly to remove any dirt, grease, or soap residue. Rinse any cleaner residue.
  • Remove any old caulk or grout so your tiles lie flush. Use a caulk removing tool or grout saw.
  • Fill any cracks or holes with patching compound and let dry completely. Sand smooth.
  • Prime painted surfaces with a paint bonding agent so the thinset adheres better.
  • Apply painter’s tape around the edges to prevent thinset drips on cabinets or countertops.
  • Mark the center point and lay out guideline strips if needed to keep tiles straight.

Installing the Tile

Here’s how to attach the tiles to the wall:

  • Mix the thinset according to package directions. Let it slake for 10 minutes.
  • Use the notched trowel to spread a thin layer of thinset on a small section of the wall, about 2-4 square feet.
  • Place the first tile in the corner on the guideline and press firmly. Use spacers around the edges.
  • Lay the next tile adjacent to the first, evenly spaced with the spacer. Don’t slide tiles through thinset – press each one into place.
  • Use the handle of the trowel to gently knock the tiles into the thinset for optimal adhesion.
  • Check the tiles are level and aligned. Use a tile level or straight piece of lumber.
  • Continue laying the rest of the tiles, working in small sections. Cut border and accent tiles as needed with the tile cutter.
  • Once the thinset has hardened (24-48 hours), mix the grout according to package instructions. Apply grout using a rubber grout float.
  • Let the grout dry slightly and then scrub off residue with a damp grout sponge. Rinse the sponge frequently.
  • Allow the grout to cure fully (48-72 hours) before sealing it with grout sealer as directed.

Tips for a Flawless Finish

Follow these tips to get beautiful results:

  • Plan cuts to balance the look of the tiles. Often tiles may need to be adjusted.
  • Wipe away any thinset or grout residue immediately with a damp sponge.
  • Use tile leveling clips under larger tiles to keep them flat against the wall.
  • Use a grout release agent on tiles prior to grouting for easier cleanup.
  • Grout in sections over a few days to prevent the grout from drying too quickly.
  • Caulk where the tiles meet countertops, sinks, or other materials with a flexible silicone caulk.

With careful planning and patience, you can install an eye-catching backsplash that complements your decor. Take your time and don’t be afraid to adjust tiles until they look perfect. Your new subway tile backsplash will be a gorgeous focal point you’ll enjoy for years.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I choose the right tile?

Consider the size of your space, the style you want, and how much variation you prefer. Classic white 3×6 subway tiles are versatile. Bold colors or mosaic tiles create a statement. Natural stone adds texture. Choose tiles rated for walls and wet areas.

What thinset should I use?

Use white latex or polymer modified thinset for most tile installations. It provides a strong bond on multiple surfaces. Unsanded thinset works best for joints 1/8″ or less between subway tiles.

Can I install over existing tile or drywall?

Yes, but the surface must be prepared properly first. Scarify glossy existing tile and use an appropriate primer and thinset. For drywall, waterproof it with a membrane or cement backerboard before tiling.

How soon can I grout after applying tiles?

Wait at least 24 hours for the thinset to cure before grouting. This prevents the tiles from shifting. Be sure to grout within 48 hours or the thinset may dry too much.

What’s the best way to get clean grout lines?

Wipe off excess grout with a damp sponge and minimal pressure. Grout too early or late makes removal difficult. Re-grout any hazy joints the next day.


Installing subway tile backsplash brings a clean, classic look to your space. With the right materials, careful prep, and patience during application, you can achieve professional-looking results. Focus on proper thinset coverage, level tile alignment, and proper grout application. Feel free to adjust tiles until they look perfect before the thinset dries. Your beautiful new backsplash will upgrade your kitchen or bath with timeless style.