How to Install Ceramic Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a ceramic subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. The classic rectangular shape and alluring glossy finish of subway tiles create a timeless and sophisticated backdrop. While subway tile backsplashes require some effort to install, the results are well worth it. With careful planning, patience, and the right tools and materials, you can achieve a stunning DIY backsplash that looks professionally done. This comprehensive guide will walk you through each step of the installation process.

Gather Materials and Tools Needed for Installing Subway Tile

Before starting your project, collect all the necessary materials and tools. Having everything you need on hand will make the installation process smoother.


  • Ceramic 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 pattern matching.
  • Tile spacers – These small plastic crosses maintain even grout lines between tiles.
  • Grout – Portland cement-based grout is best for kitchen backsplashes. Choose a color that complements the tile.
  • Sealer – Use a penetrating sealer to protect the grout lines from stains.

Adhesives and Membranes

  • Thinset mortar – Used to adhere tile to the wall surface. Purchase a polymer-modified mortar for maximum strength.
  • Waterproofing membrane – Applies between drywall and tile in wet areas like behind sinks. RedGard and Kerdi brands offer leak prevention.
  • Backerboard – Cement or fiber cement boards provide a stable, moisture-resistant surface for tile.
  • Polymer-modified thinset – Specialty thinset that bonds tile to membranes and backerboard.


  • Tile cutter – Cuts ceramic tile to custom sizes
  • Grout float – For spreading and smoothing grout between tiles
  • Grout sponge – Smooth and shape grout lines
  • Trowels – Notched-edge tool used to spread mortar and achieve proper thickness
  • Tile spacers – Maintain even grout line spacing between tiles as they set
  • Level – Check that tile lines up evenly
  • Hammer and nail set – Attach backerboard to studs
  • Screwdriver – Secure backerboard screws
  • Utility knife – Precise tile cutting and backerboard sizing
  • Masking tape
  • safety goggles and gloves

Prepare the Surface

Take time to properly prepare the installation surface. Rushing this important step can lead to tiles popping off later on.

Clean and Sand the Area

Thoroughly clean the installation area with soap and water first. Remove any old caulk or debris with a utility knife. Once dry, sand the surface with 80-120 grit sandpaper until smooth. Vacuum up all dust.

Install Backerboard

Cement, fiber cement, or fiberglass backerboard provides a sturdy base for the tile. Cut boards to size using a utility knife. Attach them horizontally along the wall studs with screws, spacing every 8 inches. Stagger vertical seams between rows.

Waterproof Near Sinks or Avoid Moisture Damage

Prevent leaks and moisture damage behind sinks and near water sources with a waterproofing membrane like RedGard or Kerdi. Apply with a paintbrush between the backerboard and tile.

Check for Level and Plumb

Use a level to confirm the wall surface is plumb (exactly vertical) before laying any tile. Adjust as needed by shimming the backerboard until level.

Lay Out Your Tile Pattern

A well-designed tile layout is crucial for achieving a cohesive backsplash look. Take time to map it out.

Select Your Starting Point

Choose the most visible corner or focal wall as your starting point. Many designs begin in the corner above the sink or stove. This spot will anchor the pattern.

Determine Tile Layout Style

Common subway tile layout patterns include:

  • Stack bond: Simple grid pattern with tiles stacked vertically and horizontally. Provides clean lines.
  • Staggered brick: Tiles offset by half a tile width each row. More dynamic looking.
  • Herringbone: Rectangular tiles set in zigzag pattern. Has visual movement and interest.
  • Penny tile round: Small round tiles create a classic mosaic look.

Dry Lay Rows with Tile Spacers

Do a dry layout by placing tiles without any adhesive to preview placement and confirm you have enough. Insert tile spacers between each tile to set the size of grout lines. Adjust spacing and placement as needed.

Use Full Tiles Near Focal Points

Plan the layout so cut tiles are less visible or in inconspicuous areas. Use full tile segments around focal points like next to the sink.

Accurately Mark and Cut Tiles

Carefully cutting the subway tiles to fit ensures the pattern aligns correctly. Take time to measure twice and cut once.

Mark Tile Undersides for Cuts

Use a pencil to mark cutting guidelines directly on the back of the tile. This hides any marking lines later on.

Score and Snap with Tile Cutters

For straight cuts, use a tile cutter to score the tile and snap it cleanly. The tile cutter wheel should face the patterned side.

Cut Curves with Nippers

Use nippers or small pliers to nibble off small curved sections for rounded cuts. File the edges smooth.

Cut Outlets with Oscillating Tool

Use an oscillating multi-tool to accurately cut notches around outlets, switches, or other obstructions.

Immerse Tile in Water Before Cuts

Dipping porcelain or natural stone tiles in water for 1-2 minutes before cutting prevents chips and cracks.

Apply Thinset and Stick Tiles to the Wall

To properly adhere the subway tiles, use a notched trowel to spread a thin layer of polymer-modified thinset mortar across the surface. Follow the product instructions.

Apply Thinset to Membranes First

If using a waterproofing membrane, apply a specialized thinset designed for membrane surfaces to stick to it.

Use Notched Side of Trowel to Comb Thinset

Holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle, use the notched side to evenly rake the thinset onto the wall.

Apply Thinset in Small Sections

Work in 3-4 square foot sections to prevent the thinset from drying out before applying tile.

Stick Tiles into Thinset Firmly

With the troweled ridges still visible, firmly press tiles into the thinset. Push in a direction perpendicular to the trowel lines.

Use Spacers Between Each Tile

Insert tile spacers between tiles as you set them to establish consistent spacing and prevent sliding.

Check Levels and Alignment

Make adjustments immediately if tiles start to drift out of alignment. Thinset dries quickly.

Apply Grout Between Tile Joints

Grouting fills the spaces between tiles with waterproof material and adds a finished look. Take care to apply it evenly.

Let Thinset Cure Before Grouting

Allow thinset to cure fully beneath the tiles, generally 24 hours. Check that corners are stuck fast.

Dampen Grout Sponge

Wet the grout sponge and wring it out well before starting. Keep a bucket of clean water nearby for rinsing.

Spread Grout Diagonally Over Tiles

Use a rubber grout float held at a 45-degree angle to pack joints full, wiping diagonally across tiles to avoid dislodging them.

Let Grout Harden Slightly

Allow grout to firm up for 10-15 minutes after application. Test a small area to determine readiness for second pass.

Clean Excess Grout

Wipe the tiles diagonally again with a lightly dampened sponge to smooth joints and remove excess grout from tile faces.

Rinse Sponge Frequently

Rinse and wring out the sponge often to keep it clean and prevent hazing on the tile surface.

Let Grout Dry Completely

Allow grout to cure fully for 24-48 hours before exposing it to water or applying any sealants.

Seal Grout Lines

Penetrating sealant is crucial for protecting grout from stains and discoloration, especially in kitchen backsplashes.

Check Grout Manufacturer Recommendations

Consult grout package recommendations for cure time needed before sealing, generally 24-72 hours.

Apply Penetrating Sealer

Use a small foam brush to apply penetrating sealer specially formulated for grout. Cover all joint areas.

Wipe Off Excess Sealer

Thoroughly wipe off any sealer pooling or dripping onto the tile surface with a clean cloth.

Additional Coats and Reapplication

For maximum protection, apply 2-3 coats of sealer allowing it to dry between each. Reapply yearly.

Cleanup and Final Touches

Once grouting is complete, finish up your subway tile backsplash with some final details and cleanup.

Remove Spacers and Adhesive

Carefully pop off any remaining tile spacers with a utility knife. Scrape away dried thinset adhesive with a putty knife.

Polish and Shine Tile Surface

Use a soft cloth to gently polish and bring out the natural shine and beauty of the ceramic or stone tiles.

Apply Sealant Around Edges

Caulk along the perimeter and vertical corners with a matching silicone sealant for a polished finish.

Admire Your Work

Step back and enjoy your successful DIY subway tile backsplash installation!

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing Subway Tile Backsplashes

Many questions come up when taking on the project of installing subway tile backsplash. Here are helpful answers to some often asked questions.

How long does it take to install a subway tile backsplash?

For an experienced DIYer, plan on a full weekend to install a standard backsplash. Allow approximately 8 hours total working time plus drying time between steps.

What tools do I need to install subway tile?

Basic essential tools include a tile cutter, trowels, tile spacers, grout float, sponges, gloves, and buckets. Purchase tile-specific specialty tools for best results.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Use a manual tile cutter for straight cuts. Score tiles and snap downward. Nippers are good for small curved cuts. Use an oscillating multi-tool with a tile blade for outlet notches or unique shapes.

What thinset mortar is best for backsplash?

Choose a polymer-modified thinset for maximum adhesion on wall surfaces. It is stronger and more flexible than standard thinset mortar. White thinset works well with light grout colors.

How long do I have to install tiles after applying thinset mortar?

You typically have 20-30 minutes of working time after spreading thinset before it begins to dry and lose adhesion strength. Work in small sections.

Can I apply grout right after installing tile?

No, wait for a full 24 hours minimum to allow thinset to cure completely before grouting. If tiles shift at all, the grout joints will crack.

How soon can I seal grout after applying it?

Wait 24-72 hours for grout to cure fully before sealing it for maximum stain protection. Consult manufacturer guidance based on humidity and drying conditions.


The beauty of subway tile endures because the rectangular shape fits in anywhere, whether traditional or modern. By taking the proper steps to prepare, lay out, cut, adhere, grout, and seal the tiles, even beginners can achieve professional-looking results. Patience and allowing materials proper curing time are vital keys to success. If you arm yourself with the right knowledge and specialty tile tools, you can tackle a subway tile backsplash installation confidently. Once completed, it will provide a classic and elegant focal point in your kitchen or bath for years to come.