Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen can add visual interest and protect your walls from splashes and spills. With some planning and the right materials, installing subway tile is a DIY-friendly project that can transform the look of your kitchen. Here is a detailed guide on how to install kitchen subway tile backsplash.
Choose Your Tile
The first step is to select the subway tile you’ll use for your backsplash. Here are some tips for choosing tile:
- Tile material – Subway tiles come in ceramic, porcelain, glass, and natural stone. Ceramic and porcelain are most common. Porcelain is harder, more stain and water resistant. Glass tiles have a shiny, sleek look. Natural stone adds texture but needs sealing.
- Tile size – Standard subway tiles are 3 x 6 inches. But sizes range from 1 x 4 inches to 4 x 12 inches or larger. Larger tiles mean fewer grout lines.
- Tile color – White and light grey are the most popular subway tile colors as they keep things light and bright. But any color subway tile can work.
- Gloss level – Matte tiles have an understated look. Glossy tiles have more shine and reflect more light. Glass subway tiles are usually glossy.
- Accent tiles – Consider ordering coordinating subway tile trim pieces, mosaics, or differently shaped tiles to add visual interest.
- Order extra tiles – Order 10-15% extra to account for tile cuts and breakage.
Choose Your Grout
Along with your tile, you’ll need to select grout. Grout fills the joints between tiles. Ideal grout:
- Matches the tile color but is slightly darker for contrast.
- Has sealing properties to resist stains. Epoxy grout is extremely stain-proof.
- Is the right texture – smoother for narrow grout lines, more coarse for wider joints.
Gather Your Materials
Installing subway tile backsplash requires some specialized materials. Here’s what you’ll need:
Tile adhesive and grout
- Thinset – Pre-mixed thinset mortar modified for walls/floors. Makes a strong bond.
- Grout – Get unsanded grout for grout joints 1/8 inch and smaller, sanded grout for wider grout lines. Match grout color to your tile.
- Silicone caulk – Clear sealant for corner joints and edges. Get 100% silicone.
- Mixing bucket – For thinset mortar and grout. Get two 5-gallon buckets.
- Margin trowel – Spread thinset. Use a 1/4″ V-notch trowel for subway tile.
- Grout float – Apply grout into tile joints. Use a soft rubber one.
- Grout sponge – Smooth and shape grout lines after grouting.
- Wet tile saw – Cuts subway tiles to size. A snap tile cutter works for straight cuts.
- Tile spacers – Keep consistent grout line spacing between tiles. Get 1/16″ or 1/8″.
- Grout sealer – Seal grout lines after installation to protect from stains.
- Safety gear – Gloves, goggles, knee pads, dust mask.
- Backerboard – Cement board or a membrane goes behind the tile.
- Rag – Wipe down tiles during installation to keep them clean.
- Bucket – For clean water to sponge tiles and clean tools.
- Sponges – Help smooth out thinset and wipe tiles.
- Painters tape – Tape off edges of backsplash area during install.
- Tile leveling system – Keeps tiles even across the wall. Optional but useful.
Prep Your Backsplash Area
To start, you need to prepare the backsplash area for tiling:
- Clear the area – Remove anything on the walls in the backsplash zone. Take down existing backsplash if present.
- Clean thoroughly – Use TSP cleaner to degrease the walls so thinset mortar adheres. Rinse well.
- Fill any holes – Fill screw/nail holes with spackle and sand smooth. Let dry completely.
- Prime – Apply primer to bare drywall to improve thinset bond. Let primer dry fully.
- Install backerboard – Cut cement board or backer membrane to size and affix to the wall with thinset and screws.
- Tape seams – Seal all cement board seams with fiberglass mesh drywall tape and thinset. Let dry.
The backsplash area is now prepped and ready for the tile!
Plan Your Tile Layout
Take measurements of your backsplash area and sketch out a tile layout before starting install. Things to plan for:
- Where the tile will start and end. Leave a 1/8″ gap along edges.
- If the tiles will be centered on the backsplash or aligned to one side.
- The tile arrangement pattern – offset brick or parallel stacks.
- Where tile cuts will need to be made – edges, outlets, corners.
- Where accent tiles or trim will go.
Make sure to dry lay tiles on the floor first to map out your pattern. Adjust layout if needed before installing.
Install the Subway Tile
Now comes the fun part – installing the tile! Follow these steps:
- Mix thinset mortar – Mix thinset in a bucket per package directions. Let sit 5-10 minutes then remix before using.
- Apply thinset – Use the notched trowel to spread a thin layer of thinset mortar onto the wall where the first tiles will go.
- Place your first tile – Press the tile firmly into the thinset with a slight twisting motion. Use spacers around edges.
- Continue setting tiles – Spread thinset and set additional field tiles row by row using spacers to keep tile spacing consistent.
- Cut edge tiles – Measure and cut tiles to fit around edges and openings using the wet saw.
- Check level and alignment – As you go, use a level and spacers to keep tiles even. The tile leveling system also helps.
- Fill in accent tiles – When the field tiles are placed, fill in planned mosaic, trim strips, or other accent tiles.
- Let thinset cure – Allow thinset to dry 24 hours before grouting so tiles are firmly secured.
Apply the Grout
Grout fills the joints between tiles. Follow best practices for grouting:
- Mix the grout – Mix grout per package instructions in a bucket. Let sit then remix before grouting.
- Apply grout – Use the grout float to spread grout over the tile surface, pressing into joints. Hold float at a 45° angle.
- Wipe off excess grout – Use a damp grout sponge in a circular motion to wipe grout haze off the tiles evenly. Rinse sponge often.
- Shape and smooth joints – Shape and refine grout lines with a damp finger or narrow tool once grout gets firm.
- Clean thoroughly – Use a damp sponge to clean tiles and remove all grout haze once grout has dried.
- Seal grout – Once grout has cured fully, apply grout sealer as directed to protect from stains.
Let the grout cure fully before using the backsplash – usually 72 hours.
To complete your new backsplash installation:
- Caulk edges – Apply silicone caulk along countertop-backsplash seam and tile-wall joints. Smooth with fingertip.
- Wipe down – Use a clean cloth to wipe off any haze and dust from tiles and grout lines.
- Seal tiles – Use specialty tile sealer on porous natural stone tiles for added protection.
- Reinstall appliances – Carefully reinstall dishwasher, range hoods, and other appliances removed during the installation.
- Enjoy your new backsplash! Your kitchen now has a gorgeous focal point and functional splash zone.
Tips for a Successful Installation
Follow these tips to ensure your subway tile backsplash installation goes smoothly:
- Properly prep the surface – clean walls, fill holes, install backerboard. This provides a sound base.
- Use quality thinset mortar and grout. Don’t skimp on these essential products.
- Carefully follow thinset and grout application directions for best results.
- Use the recommended tile trowel size to apply the right amount of thinset thickness.
- Work in small sections for easier tile control and to prevent thinset from drying out.
- Use tile spacers consistently to keep grout line spacing even.
- Ensure tiles are firmly embedded in the thinset – use some pressure when setting tiles.
- Keep the tiles, buckets of thinset and grout, and tools clean as you work. Dried materials are hard to remove.
- Always mix enough thinset/grout to finish the section you’re working on to keep color consistent.
- Let thinset and grout fully cure before grouting and using the backsplash. Rushing this risks tiles loosening or cracking.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
It’s easy for beginners to make tile installation mistakes. Be aware of these common pitfalls:
- Not adequately cleaning and prepping the wall surface before tiling
- Allowing thinset or grout to dry on the tiles. This can etch the tiles.
- Using the wrong trowel size and apply too much or too little thinset.
- Setting tiles without leaving an even 1/8″ grout joint space around each.
- Not fully embedding tiles into the thinset so they loosen later.
- Not using tile spacers consistently to maintain even grout line spacing.
- Mixing too much thinset or grout at once before it starts drying out.
- Forgetting to seal porous natural stone tiles and grout lines when installation is complete.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about installing subway tile backsplashes:
Do I need to hire a professional to install a subway tile backsplash?
No, installing a subway tile backsplash is definitely a DIY-friendly project for the handier homeowner. The repetitive tiling process and basic tools required make tiling something an amateur can tackle with proper prep and patience.
What kind of thinset should I use for a kitchen backsplash?
Use white polymer-modified thinset mortar that works for both floor and wall applications. This all-purpose thinset contains polymers that make it stronger and more flexible.
How long does thinset take to dry before grouting?
Allow thinset adhesive to fully cure for 24 hours before applying grout between tiles. This ensures tiles stay firmly bonded to the wall.
What color grout should I use for white subway tile?
A light gray or very pale gray colored grout complements white subway tile best. Stay away from bright white grout, which can look dirty over time.
Should subway tile backsplash go all the way to ceiling?
It’s common to install subway tiles from counter to ceiling for a bold, dramatic look. But a shorter backsplash tile that stops 3-4 inches from ceiling is fine too. Personal preference!
How do I cut subway tiles?
The best tool for cutting subway tile neatly is a wet tile saw. Score the tile face with cutters then snap pieces apart. A manual snap tile cutter works for straight cuts. Use a carbide scoring tool for odd cuts.
How long does grout take to dry before sealing?
Grout takes 72-96 hours to fully cure and dry before applying a protective grout sealer. This ensures grout lines are ready for regular use and contact with water.
Installing a kitchen subway tile backsplash brings style, function, and value to your home. With proper planning, materials, and careful application, even DIYers can achieve stunning results. Focus on prepping the surface, using quality thinset/grout, allowing drying time between steps, and avoiding common mistakes. The end reward is an eye-catching, easy-care backsplash you’ll enjoy for years to come.