How to Install Subway Tile Herringbone Backsplash

Installing a herringbone patterned subway tile backsplash can add visual interest and dimension to your kitchen or bathroom. The chevron style arrangement of the rectangular tiles creates a chic, modern look. While it requires careful planning and precision, installing a herringbone backsplash is a DIY-friendly project for the committed DIYer. Let’s look at how to install subway tile in a timeless herringbone pattern.

Choose Appropriate Subway Tile

Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic or porcelain tiles typically 3 by 6 inches, though other elongate sizes exist. While you can install any tile in a herringbone pattern, traditional rectangular subway tiles are the most common choice.

Opt for subway tiles with squared edges rather than beveled edges. The squared shape allows the tiles to fit closely together in a pattern without the appearance of grout lines widening where beveled edges meet.

Match your grout color to your tile color. Contrasting grout can interrupt the zig-zag herringbone motif. White grout pairs well with classic white subway tiles.

Plan Your Layout

A successful herringbone installation relies on careful planning and precise execution. Before you begin, determine the layout of your herringbone pattern:

  • Measure the area to be tiled. For a balanced look, plan for tiles to stop at the midpoint of the backsplash area’s height and width.
  • Draw the layout on paper first. Mark the center point and sketch zig-zagging lines radiating out from the center.
  • Plan for a balanced number of tile courses. Herringbone patterns look best with an even number of tile courses, so the chevrons meet at distinct points.
  • Dry lay tiles on the floor first to visualize spacing. Adjust the layout as needed.

Install Tile Backer Board

Install an appropriate backer board, such as cement board or drywall, before tiling. Backer board provides a stable, moisture-resistant surface for the tile.

  1. Cut cement board or drywall to size using a utility knife.
  2. Spread thinset mortar on the backside of the backer board with a notched trowel.
  3. Press backer board onto the wall.
  4. Screw backer board into wall studs every 8 inches along the perimeter and every 12 inches in the field.
  5. Tape and mud seams between backer board sheets.

Lay Out Center Point and Guidelines

  1. Mark the center point of your installation area. Measure and mark the midpoint of the height and width.
  2. Align a chalk line through the vertical center mark from top to bottom. Snap a chalk line to create your central vertical guideline.
  3. Repeat to mark horizontal center guideline using the midpoint mark. The guidelines divide your area into four sections.
  4. Dry lay tile sheets in one quadrant section to determine optimal spacing. Adjust guidelines with laser level if needed.

Dry Lay Tiles

Laying the first several tile courses is the most important step to get right for a successful herringbone pattern.

  1. Begin dry laying tiles in one quadrant, starting with the central guideline as your anchor.
  2. Build out rows moving toward the edges. Cut border tiles as needed for straight edges.
  3. Use tile spacers to achieve even grout lines. Consistent spacing is crucial.
  4. Continue dry laying tiles, working to opposite edges to create quadrant.
  5. Ensure tiles fit together properly without gaps before installing with mortar.

Mix Thinset Mortar

For subway tile installation on backer board, use a polymer-modified thinset mortar. Latex additive improves adhesion and flexibility.

  1. Pour dry thinset powder into a bucket according to package directions.
  2. Add latex additive and mix well. Let sit 10 minutes, then remix before using.
  3. Consistency should be like peanut butter for optimal adhesion and workability.

Install Tiles in Sections

Adhere tiles with a notch trowel using thinset mortar. Work in small sections for best results.

  1. Spread thinset on one quadrant of the backsplash area with notched side of trowel.
  2. Press tiles into mortar, using dry laid pattern as guide. Use spacers to maintain even grout lines.
  3. Tap tiles with rubber mallet to set firmly in thinset. Check for flatness.
  4. Allow thinset to cure per package directions before grouting.
  5. Repeat process in each quadrant, working systematically from center guidelines.

Apply Grout and Finish

Once tile thinset has cured fully, apply grout between tile joints. Remove spacers first.

  1. Mix grout per package instructions, using latex additive for increased flexibility.
  2. Apply grout along the length of joints using a rubber grout float. Hold float at a 45° angle.
  3. Wipe away excess grout diagonally across tiles with a damp sponge. Rinse sponge frequently.
  4. Once grout has dried, buff tiles gently with a soft cloth to remove haze and polish finish.
  5. Use caulk along perimeter edges and seams for waterproof finish.

With careful planning and precise technique, you can install a striking herringbone backsplash that brings dimension and visual interest to your space. Take time to draw layouts and dry lay tiles first. Work methodically in sections for professional results.

FAQ About Installing Herringbone Tile Backsplashes

What size tile is best for a herringbone pattern?

The most common choice is the classic 3 x 6 inch subway tile. Longer rectangular tiles can also work well. Avoid very small or large format tiles.

What kind of tile works best for herringbone?

Rectangular tiles with flat, squared edges allow for tight seams. Glossy or matte finished subway tiles are ideal. Avoid tile with beveled or textured edges.

What color grout should I use with herringbone tile?
Grout that matches or closely coordinates with your tile color helps the zig-zag pattern stand out. Contrasting grout can interrupt the motif.

How do I cut border tiles for a herringbone backsplash?
Carefully measure and mark tiles to fit for straight perimeter edges. Use a wet saw for clean cuts. Cut tiles become partial chevrons or triangles along borders.

Should herringbone tile go all the way to the ceiling?
For best visual results, stop the tile pattern at the halfway point of the backsplash area’s height and width. This creates a framed look.

What thinset is best for installing subway tile?
Use a polymer-modified thinset mortar that flexes with temperature changes. Latex additive improves adhesion and prevents cracks.


Installing a herringbone backsplash makes a statement with its eye-catching chevron pattern. Careful planning and precision pays off for stunning results. Take time to draw layouts, dry lay test pieces, work methodically in sections, and maintain properly spaced tiles and grout lines. The geometric zig-zag design adds modern flair or vintage charm to kitchens, baths, and other rooms throughout the home. With the right materials and techniques, you can DIY a subway tile herringbone backsplash like a pro.