How to Install Kitchen Backsplash Subway Tile

Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen can add a timeless and classic look to your space. Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that are typically 3 by 6 inches in size. Their elongated shape gives them their name – reminiscent of tiles used in New York City subway stations. With the right preparation and materials, installing subway tile is an easy DIY weekend project.

supplies needed to install kitchen backsplash subway tile

Before beginning your project, you’ll need to gather the necessary supplies. Having all your materials in order ahead of time will make the installation process go smoothly. Here is an overview of what you’ll need:


  • Subway tiles – Calculate the square footage of your backsplash area to determine how many tiles you’ll need. Add 10% extra to allow for broken or damaged tiles and to have leftovers in case repairs are needed in the future.
  • Tile spacers – These small plastic crosses maintain even grout lines between tiles.
  • Tile adhesive – Choose an adhesive suitable for your tile material and wall type. Many quality thinset mortars work for ceramic subway tile installation.
  • Grout – Grout fills in the gaps between tiles. Choose an appropriate grout color to complement your tile. Unsanded grout is best for narrow grout lines.


  • Tile cutter – A snap tile cutter easily makes straight cuts through subway tiles.
  • Tile spacers – These small plastic crosses maintain even grout lines between tiles.
  • Grout float – For spreading and smoothing grout between tile joints.
  • Grout sponge – A sponge with an abrasive side for cleaning excess grout off tile surfaces.
  • Trowel – For spreading tile adhesive on the wall. Use a notched trowel to achieve the proper adhesive thickness.
  • Level – Ensures your tile lines are perfectly straight.
  • Safety gear – Glasses, gloves, knee pads, etc.
  • Mixing bucket – For blending tile adhesive.
  • an old toothbrush – For cleaning grout residue from corners.
  • Sponges
  • Rags
  • Painter’s tape

preparing the backsplash area

Good preparation is key to a long-lasting backsplash installation. Follow these steps to get your workspace ready:

Clean the Surface

Use a multi-purpose cleaner to thoroughly clean the wall area above your countertop where the tiles will be installed. This gets rid of any dirt, oils or residues on the wall that could interfere with proper tile adhesion.

Make sure the wall is smooth. Fill any holes or imperfections with spackle and sand smooth.

Remove Outlets and Light Switches

Use a screwdriver to temporarily remove any outlets, switches or fixtures from the backsplash area. You’ll re-install them after tiling.

Apply painter’s tape

Run strips of painter’s tape wherever your tile ends to establish clean edges. For example, at the boundaries where the tile meets countertops, cabinets, ceilings or other walls.

Mark Your Starting Point

Determine the lowest point of your backsplash area. You want your tile installation to start here to avoid needing to make precise cuts around outlets higher up. Mark a level line at your starting height using a level and pencil.

Plan Your Tile Layout

A dry layout before installation lets you map out the tile arrangement, identify potential issues, and find solutions. Place your tiles on the countertop in the pattern you plan to install them.

Prime and Paint

Consider priming and painting the backsplash area before tiling for an improved adhesive bond and moisture protection. Allow paint to fully dry before proceeding.

How to cut subway tile

Cutting ceramic subway tiles is a necessary part of most installations. With a few easy techniques, you can make precise cuts:

Use a Snap Tile Cutter

A snap tile cutter is a basic tool that makes straight cuts across subway tiles quick and easy. Just line up the tile in the cutting guide, position the scoring wheel, and “snap” the tile along the scored line. Snap tile cutters are perfect for the straight cuts needed in most subway tile projects.

Use Tile Nippers

For notches, curves, or irregular shapes, use tile nippers. Nippers have sharp carbide jaws that chip away bits of tile. Make a series of small bites rather than one forceful cut to avoid cracking the tile.

Use a Grinder

A rotary grinder with a diamond tile blade also works for curved cuts. Cut slowly and steadily with the leading edge of the blade to avoid chipping. Be sure to wear eye and breathing protection.

Use a Hole Saw

For holes, such as for light switch plates or electrical outlets, use an appropriate sized ceramic tile hole saw bit. Lubricate the hole saw and tile surface with water or drilling lubricant.

how to set subway tile

With your prep work complete, you’re ready to start setting tile. Follow these guidelines closely for a quality installation:

Spread Adhesive

Use a notched trowel held at a 45-degree angle to spread tile adhesive evenly across a small section of the wall, just enough for 4 or 5 tiles. Spread in straight rows.

Apply Tiles

Starting at your guideline, press tiles firmly into the adhesive. Turn the tiles at right angles to the trowel lines. Use spacers between tiles.

Check Level and Alignment

Periodically place a level atop a tile to ensure they are perfectly vertical. Also sight down tile edges to check row alignment. Adjust as needed before the adhesive dries.

Repeat the Pattern

Work in small sections across your backsplash area. Continue spreading adhesive and setting tiles one area at a time until complete. Allow the adhesive to cure per manufacturer directions before grouting.

How to grout subway tile

Grout fills the joints between tiles with a watertight seal. Follow these steps to neatly grout your new backsplash:

Mix the Grout

Prepare grout per package instructions, making sure it has a smooth, peanut butter-like consistency. Unsanded grout is best for the narrow joints between subway tiles.

Apply Grout

Holding the grout float at a 45° angle, force grout diagonally into the joints with firm downward pressure.

Clean Excess Grout

Wait 10-15 minutes until the grout firms up slightly. Then hold a damp grout sponge at a 90° angle and wipe diagonally across the tiles to remove excess grout. Rinse the sponge frequently.

Polish the Surface

Once all excess grout is removed, rub the grout lines gently with a soft cloth to smooth and polish. Avoid smearing watered-down grout.

Allow to Dry

Let the grout cure fully over 24-72 hours. Avoid getting the grout wet during this time. Then install your fixtures and accessories.

subway tile backsplash design ideas

There are endless design possibilities with subway tile. Here are some interesting layout patterns and creative ideas to inspire your project:


The most classic approach is stacking the tiles in a straight brick pattern. This gives clean lines and a neat appearance. Use white grout with glossy white tiles for a fresh look.


Arranging the tiles in a herringbone pattern adds nice visual interest. Rows interlock for a playful zigzag design. Contrasting grout lines make the pattern pop.


Alternating the tile direction row by row creates a lovely basketweave look. Line up the tile joints for a clean finished effect.


Take your design up a notch by cutting angled pieces to form interlocking hexagons. This unique geometric pattern makes a bold style statement.

Subway Tile Backsplash with Accent Strips

Accent your subway tiles with decorative inserts. Try a strip of glass, marble, or metal tiles. You can also alternate colors for a striking contrast.

Subway Tile Backsplash with Shelves

Make your backsplash functional by incorporating floating shelves between portions of tile. Open shelves are great for cookbook storage or displaying pretty dishes and accents.

Mixed Sizes

For added interest, mix standard 3×6-inch tiles with longer planks. Combine finishes too – glossy next to matte. Just be sure to maintain even grout line spacing.

Creative Shape Combinations

Get creative by using specialty shapes. Frame rectangular fields of tile with pillars, borders, or mosaics. Contrasting shapes and colors add excitement.

subway tile backsplash FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about installing a subway tile backsplash:

Does subway tile need to go all the way to the ceiling?

No, subway tile does not necessarily need to extend all the way to the ceiling. Many backsplashes end about 4 inches from the ceiling. This creates a nice clean line at the top. Only go to the ceiling if you want a full wall application.

Should subway tile go around a window?

It depends. If the window is centered above the countertop, then often subway tile will flank both sides. But if the window is off to one side, the subway tile can end cleanly before the window opening. Do whichever layout looks best to your eye.

What color grout is best for white subway tile?

White and very light gray grouts look best with classic white subway tile. Stay away from dark grout colors as they will stand out too prominently. Match the grout color to the tile color for a seamless look.

How do you cut holes in subway tile for outlets?

Use a diamond grit hole saw bit in an oscillating tool or rotary drill. The right sized hole saw will cut clean circular openings for outlets and switches in ceramic subway tile. Take care to not shatter the surrounding tile.

Should you seal subway tile before or after grouting?

Sealing is not necessary for glazed ceramic subway tiles. But for porous tiles like natural stone, seal before and after grouting. The grout can leave a stain or film on porous tile that is hard to remove without a protective seal.


Installing a subway tile backsplash is one of the most popular and cost-effective ways to give your kitchen an instant facelift. With the right planning and materials, creating your own classic or creative tile layout is totally achievable as a DIY weekend project. Just take your time and follow proper installation techniques. Soon you’ll have a stunning new backsplash to enjoy for years to come.