A subway tile backsplash can be a beautiful and timeless addition to any kitchen. Installing a subway tile backsplash is a DIY-friendly project that can upgrade the look of your space without breaking the bank. With some planning, patience, and the right materials, you can achieve a stunning backsplash in your kitchen.
A subway tile backsplash refers to rectangular ceramic tiles laid in a bricklike pattern. The tiles are typically 3 by 6 inches, just like classic subway tiles found in old New York City train stations. This clean, classic look works great in both modern and vintage kitchen settings.
Installing a subway tile backsplash yourself can save thousands of dollars compared to hiring a professional. With the right preparation and materials, even beginners can achieve professional-looking results. We will walk you through the entire process step-by-step, from choosing your tile and grout to cutting and laying the tile and finishing with grouting and caulking.
Benefits of a Subway Tile Backsplash
Here are some of the benefits of installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen:
- Timeless and classic look that works with any kitchen style
- Reflective surface brightens up the kitchen
- Easy to clean and keep sanitary
- DIY friendly and budget friendly compared to other backsplash materials
- Can be installed over existing wall material like drywall or tile
- Endless options for creativity with patterns, textures, and colors
Things to Consider Before Starting
Here are some things to think about before beginning your subway tile backsplash project:
- Desired finish – glossy or matte tiles?
- Grout color – should it match or contrast with tiles?
- Accent tiles – will you incorporate patterned, glass, or mosaic tiles?
- Preferred tile size – standard 3×6 or oversized 6×12?
- Tile layout pattern – offset, herringbone, stacked, or basketweave?
- Tools needed – tile cutter, spacers, trowel, grout float, etc.
- Backsplash height – standard is 4 inches from counter to bottom row
Thorough planning and prep work will ensure your install goes smoothly. Let’s start by going over the supplies you’ll need.
Gathering the right tools and materials ahead of time will make the installation process go faster and smoother. Here is what you will need:
- Subway tile sheets – Calculate the total number needed based on your backsplash size. Include 10% extra.
- Accent tiles or mosaic sheets (optional)
- Adhesive tile mat sheets (optional) – can be used on uneven walls
- Sanded grout for joints 1/8 inch or larger
- Unsanded grout for smaller joints
- Grout sealing product
- Tile cutter – manual cutter or wet saw
- Tile spacers – small crosses keep even grout line spacing
- Trowel for spreading adhesive
- Grout float – smooths and presses grout into joints
- Sponges – smooth and shape joints
- Buckets – for mixing adhesive and grout
- Tile adhesive – choose appropriate adhesive for wall type
- Grout sealer
- Painter’s tape
- Tile sealant or caulk
- Safety gear – gloves, goggles, mask
Tips for Purchasing Materials
- Buy all tiles and grout at the same time to ensure perfect color matching
- Leave a 10% buffer in your tile count to account for cuts and defects
- Arrange all materials neatly by day needed to stay organized
- Don’t mix sanded and unsanded grout on the same project
Now that you’ve gathered your supplies, it’s time to prepare the work area.
Preparing the Work Area
Proper prep work is crucial for a smooth installation. Here are some tips:
- Clear countertops and remove anything on walls within installation area
- Clean walls thoroughly – grease and soap can prevent adhesion
- Fill any holes or damages in drywall with spackle and sand smooth
- Apply painter’s tape to edges above and below installation area
- Cover countertops with rosin paper or plastic sheeting to protect from mess
Make sure the wall surface is as smooth and clean as possible before beginning. Any debris or unevenness will show through the finished tile work.
Next, mark your focal point and do some tile layout planning.
Tile Layout Planning
Careful planning ensures you don’t end up with slivers of tiles or uneven spacing. Follow these tips:
- Mark the focal point – this is center of your installation area
- Dry lay tiles on floor to determine optimal layout and size of cuts
- Adjust layout to avoid small sliver tiles at edges and corners
- Use tile spacers to find perfect spacing between tiles for grout lines
- Snap chalk lines on wall to guide horizontal and vertical alignment
Consider accent tiles or a decorative pattern. Things like a herringbone layout or alternating colors can add visual interest. Just be sure cuts and grout lines align properly within the pattern.
Now we’re ready to begin installing the tiles!
Installing the Tile
Here are the step-by-step instructions for properly installing your subway tile sheets:
Step 1: Apply Adhesive to Wall
- Use properly notched trowel to spread thinset adhesive evenly on wall area
- Spread only small sections at a time so adhesive does not dry out
- Use flat side of trowel to flatten ridges and achieve consistent depth
- Make sure entire area has an even coat of adhesive thick enough to adhere tiles
Step 2: Press and Adhere Tile Sheets
- Starting at your focal point, press tiles evenly into adhesive using light, even pressure
- Be sure tiles are properly aligned with your chalk lines
- Use spacers between tiles to maintain even grout line spacing
- Check tiles as you go to ensure they are flat and fully adhered without gaps
- Remove any adhesive that gets on tile face right away to prevent drying
Step 3: Cut and Fill Edge and Accent Tiles
- Measure and mark tiles that need cutting to fit edges and openings
- Use a wet saw or tile cutter to trim tiles neatly and accurately
- Cut accent tiles to correct shape and size as needed
- Fill in edges and accent areas by pressing trimmed tiles into adhesive
Step 4: Remove Spacers and Let Dry
- Carefully remove all spacers from grout lines
- Allow tile adhesive to fully cure for 24-48 hours
- Avoid walking on tiles and do not grout until adhesive has dried
Check your tile layout and make sure all tiles are flat and aligned correctly. Look for any gaps in adhesive beneath tiles and press again to adhere.
Now we’re ready for the fun part – grouting!
Grouting the Tile
Grout fills the spaces between the tiles, finishing your installation and creating a clean, streamlined look. Follow these steps:
Step 1: Mix and Apply Grout
- Mix grout per package instructions, using cool clean water
- Hold float at 45° angle and push grout firmly into grout lines
- Move float diagonally across tiles to fill all spaces evenly
- Go over entire area multiple times, adding more grout as needed
Step 2: Clean Excess Grout
- Allow grout to begin drying and firming up, usually 10-15 minutes
- Use damp sponge to gently wipe diagonally across tiles
- Rinse sponge frequently and change water often
- Carefully clean excess grout without pulling from joints
- Use minimum pressure possible to avoid dislodging grout
Step 3: Shape and Refine Grout Lines
- Once all excess grout is cleaned off tile faces, use a damp sponge to shape and define grout lines
- Look for any low spots and press or drag grout float to fill
- Check for haze on tiles and buff off with clean, dry cloth
- Allow grout to fully dry for 24-48 hours
Step 4: Seal Grout
- Once grout has fully cured, apply grout sealer according to product instructions
- This adds protection and waterproofing to grout joints
- Re-apply grout sealer on a regular basis for protection
Thoroughly cleaning excess grout from tile faces as you work prevents the need for heavy scrubbing later. Take your time shaping the grout lines nicely.
We’re in the home stretch – just some finishing touches left!
The final details complete your project and give your backsplash a polished, professional look:
Step 1: Remove Painter’s Tape
- Carefully remove any painter’s tape from the edges
- Pull tape off slowly at a 90° angle to prevent tile damage
- Inspect edges and use a razor blade to score any adhesive strips
Step 2: Caulk Perimeter with Sealant
- Run a thin bead of silicone caulk around all edges
- Use finger or smoothing tool to shape caulk nicely
- Removing painter’s tape before caulking gives a cleaner caulk line
Step 3: Seal and Protect Tile Surface
- Use a tile sealing product to add protection from stains and moisture
- Apply sealer according to product instructions with brush, roller or sponge
- Be careful not to get sealer on grout joints
Step 4: Clean Entire Area
- Use a pH neutral cleaner and clean, dry cloths to wipe down the entire area
- Remove any haze, dirt, or sticky residue from tile and grout
- Rinse thoroughly and buff dry for a spotless finished look
Take your time during each finishing step for best results. Stand back and admire your stunning, professional-quality subway tile backsplash!
Tips for Achieving a Flawless Finish
Follow these pro tips to help your finished backsplash look spectacular:
- Maintain even tile spacing by using spacers consistently
- Keep all grout lines the same width for a cohesive look
- Cut tiles slowly and carefully for clean, smooth edges
- Ensure tiles align with chosen focal point or pattern
- Wipe up adhesive on tile faces before it dries
- Work cleanly and minimize mess during grouting
- Seal grout and tiles to protect from stains and moisture
- Take your time with caulking and make lines perfectly straight
Patience and attention to detail will pay off with a stunning, quality backsplash you’ll love showing off.
Mistakes to Avoid
It’s normal to make some mistakes on your first tile installation. Here are some common errors to watch out for:
- Allowing adhesive to dry on tile faces – causes permanent marks
- Applying tiles unevenly – leads to lippage or uneven surfaces
- Not fully cleaning grout from tiles during application
- Using sanded grout for thin grout lines under 1/8 inch
- Forgetting to use spacers – uneven grout lines look sloppy
- Applying grout before adhesive fully cures – can dislodge tiles
- Using wrong grout color – can clash with tile color
- Not sealing grout – leaves grout vulnerable to stains
- Failing to caulk perimeter before finishing – allows moisture issues
Careful prep, patience, and diligently following each step will help you avoid setbacks or do-overs. Don’t be afraid to take your time.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about installing a subway tile backsplash:
Should I hire a pro or DIY my backsplash?
While hiring a professional tile installer is an option, a subway tile backsplash is totally DIY friendly for anyone comfortable with minor home projects. With proper planning and attention to detail, you can save substantial cost and get great results.
What tools do I need for a backsplash install?
You don’t need any fancy tools – just basics like a tile cutter, trowels, sponges, buckets, and grout float. Safety gear like gloves and goggles is also recommended. A wet saw makes cutting easier but isn’t essential.
How do I cut subway tiles?
Mark tiles where cuts are needed and score the face with a utility knife. Position the tile face up in the tile cutter and align the score mark under the cutter wheel. Press the handles down firmly and evenly to snap the tile cleanly.
Should my first row of tiles be centered or start from the corner?
Most pros recommend starting your first horizontal row of tiles at the bottom in either the left or right corner. Work outward from the corners to ensure straight lines.
How long does the tile adhesive need to dry before grouting?
Check the adhesive instructions but in general 24-48 hours of drying time is recommended before applying grout between tiles.
Can I use sanded grout for thin grout lines?
No – sanded grout should only be used for grout lines 1/8 inch or larger. For thinner grout lines, use unsanded grout.
How soon can I use my kitchen after finishing the backsplash?
It’s best to avoid heavy cleaning or splattering the walls for about 3-5 days after grouting to allow everything to fully cure and seal properly.
Installing a subway tile backsplash requires careful planning, patience, and attention to detail. But with the right guidance, tools, and materials, even novice DIYers can achieve professional-looking results. The classic beauty of a subway tile backsplash can take your kitchen design to the next level at a fraction of the cost of hiring a pro.
With some diligent prep work, thoughtful tile layout, and thorough installation and finishing, you can have a stunning new backsplash that makes your kitchen shine. Just take it slowly and don’t be afraid to ask for help from experts at your local tile supplier if needed.
We hope these detailed tips empower you to install your subway tile backsplash like a pro. You’ll love the feeling of accomplishment each time you admire your upgraded kitchen!