How to Install Subway Tile Kitchen Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen can completely transform the look and feel of the space. Subway tiles are a classic and timeless option that work with almost any kitchen decor. The rectangular shape and slim grout lines give a clean, streamlined look. While subway tiles are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, they have been used for over a century, since the early 1900s. With some planning, the right materials, and a bit of time and effort, you can install a beautiful and functional subway tile backsplash in your kitchen.

Selecting Your Tile

The first step is choosing the actual tile. Subway tiles are rectangular tiles typically 3 by 6 inches, although you can find some variation in sizes. They are made from different materials like ceramic, porcelain, or glass. Consider the following when selecting subway tile:

  • Color – Subway tiles come in every color imaginable. White or off-white is the most popular as it gives a clean, classic look. But don’t be afraid to get creative with shades of grey, blue, green, black, or even patterns. Keep in mind lighter colors make the space feel more open.
  • Material – Ceramic and porcelain are the most common. Ceramic is more prone to cracking and water damage. Porcelain is more durable and water-resistant. Glass tiles add great depth and pattern but are less durable.
  • Finish/texture – Glazed tiles have a shiny finish that reflects light. Matte or natural finishes are more muted. Textured tiles add visual interest.
  • Size – Keep in mind grout lines will be thicker with larger tiles. Mosaic subway tiles are smaller and grouped together.
  • Accents – Consider using beadboard tiles, or combining subway tiles with marble mosaic tiles as accents.
  • Grout color – Lighter grout makes the tiles pop. Darker grout gives a more cohesive look. Match or contrast the grout with your tile.

Once you select the perfect tile, order 15-25% extra to account for breakage, the need for cut tiles, and future repairs.

Gather Your Materials

Along with the tile itself, you will need additional materials for your installation:

  • Tile adhesive – Get polymer-modified thinset for a strong bond. Make sure it matches your tile material.
  • Grout – Either sanded or unsanded grout. Sanded is best for joints wider than 1/8 inch. Match the color to your tile.
  • Grout sealer – Seal the grout so it’s waterproof and stain resistant.
  • Trowel – Use a notched trowel to spread the tile adhesive.
  • Spacers – Small plus-shaped spacers keep consistent grout lines.
  • Tile cutter – A wet saw helps you cut tiles neatly and precisely.
  • Grout float – For smoothing and shaping the grout.
  • Grout sponge – For wiping away excess grout.
  • Caulk – For sealing gaps, like where the tile meets the countertop.
  • Damp cloth – For wiping away grout residue and cleaning tiles.

Make sure to get all your supplies before starting. This prevents having to stop mid-project.

Prepare the Surface

Proper prep work ensures your tiles adhere properly. To get started:

  • Remove existing backsplash if there is one. Scrape off any leftover adhesive.
  • Thoroughly clean the wall area. Remove any grease, dust or debris.
  • Fill any holes or uneven spots with spackle and let dry completely.
  • Paint the wall and let it dry fully. Use high quality primer and paint.
  • Apply painter’s tape around the edges and any adjacent surfaces you don’t want to get tile adhesive on.
  • Mark the center point and level lines on the wall. Use these as a guide when laying the tiles.

Take your time prepping. Rushing this step can lead to problems with adhesion down the road.

Plan the Layout

Laying out your design is key for a seamless look. Here are some tips:

  • Decide on the tile pattern. Most common is a basic straight brick pattern. Get creative with patterns like herringbone.
  • Do a dry run before spreading any adhesive. Lay tiles on the countertop to determine optimal placement, tile cuts, etc.
  • Figure out the best focal point. Center the tile design on the stove, sink or another focal feature.
  • Determine if you’ll need to cut border tiles along the edges or ceiling. Hold border tiles in place and mark where cuts are needed.
  • For outlet areas, measure and mark tiles where openings need to be cut.account for appliances and outlets when planning the layout.

Having a well-thought out design ensures professional looking results. Don’t rush the planning process.

Cut the Tiles

Most designs require some tile cutting around the edges or around outlets and appliances. Avoid hesitation marks by measuring twice and cutting once.

  • Use a wet saw for clean, precise cuts. Mark the tile where the cut should be made.
  • For curved cuts, use a tile nipper. Nip off small bits of the tile until the right shape is achieved.
  • Cut holes for outlets or other openings with a drill and special tile bit. Start from the center and work out.
  • Use a tile file to smooth any rough edges on cut tiles.
  • Make sure edge tiles are at least half the width of a full tile. Very thin edges can crack off over time.

Cutting tile takes practice and skill. Don’t get discouraged if the first few don’t come out perfectly.

Apply the Tile Adhesive

With your tiles cut and prepped, it’s time to start adhering them to the wall. Follow these steps:

  • Apply a thin layer of adhesive to a small section of the wall, about 4 square feet using a notched trowel.
  • Press tiles into the adhesive firmly, using spacers between tiles for even grout lines.
  • Work in small sections. Don’t cover too much wall with adhesive at once.
  • Push any tiles that aren’t perfectly flat into the adhesive.
  • Check tiles periodically to make sure they aren’t slipping and are flush with each other.
  • Allow the adhesive to cure fully—24-48 hours usually—before grouting.

Take your time laying the tiles. The prep work will pay off with a flawless end result.

Apply the Grout

Grout fills the seams between the tiles with a waterproof material. Be meticulous during this step:

  • Mix the grout per package directions. Let it sit 10 minutes then remix before using.
  • Apply grout over the tile with a rubber grout float. Push it deeply into the seams.
  • Wipe off excess grout with a damp sponge. Rinse the sponge and wipe again.
  • Use a grout sealer once the grout has cured for 24-48 hours. This prevents stains or water damage.
  • Avoid wiping grout across the tile surface. This can scratch the finish.
  • Don’t allow any grout to dry on the tile surface. It’s extremely difficult to remove once dry.

Perfectly grouted seams take time and finesse. Don’t rush through it.

Finish with Sealant and Caulk

The final step is sealing any gaps and adding finishing touches:

  • Run a bead of clear silicone caulk along the bottom edge, countertops, corners etc.
  • Wipe away any excess caulk with a damp cloth or finger.
  • Use painters tape to define sharp caulk lines between surfaces. Remove tape once caulk has dried.
  • Seal natural stone tiles and grout once more with a penetrating stone sealer.
  • Buff tiles and grout with a soft cloth.

Take care of any unfinished edges with caulk and sealer. This keeps moisture out and makes cleaning easier.

Maintaining Your New Backsplash

Follow these tips once your subway tile backsplash installation is complete:

  • Use a gentle cleaner designed for tile rather than harsh chemicals.
  • Re-seal grout every 1-2 years with a penetrating grout sealer.
  • Immediately clean up any food, grease or water spills to prevent stains.
  • Avoid using knives directly on the tile surface. Use a cutting board.
  • If tiles become cracked or damaged, they can be replaced individually.

Caring for your backsplash properly ensures it stays looking like new for years to come.

With the right tools and techniques, even a novice DIYer can achieve professional-looking results installing a subway tile backsplash. Focus on careful prep work, precise tile-cutting, and meticulous attention to detail as you apply the tiles, grout, and sealant. Your beautiful new backsplash will be a focal point of your kitchen for decades to come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash is a satisfying DIY project that can completely transform the look of your kitchen. From selecting the right materials to proper prep work and finishing, there are techniques and best practices to follow. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about installing a subway tile backsplash:

How difficult is it to install a subway tile backsplash?

The project requires some skill cutting tiles, spreading adhesive, and applying grout. But it is very doable for an ambitious DIYer willing to take their time and follow installation guidelines. Extensive experience with tiling is not necessary.

What tools do I need?

You will need basic tools like a tape measure, level, tile cutter, mixing buckets, notched trowel, grout float, sponges, caulk gun, and clamps. A wet saw makes cutting easier but isn’t essential. Always use tile-specific blades and bits.

What type of tile adhesive should I use?

Use a polymer-modified thinset adhesive suitable for the tile material. Thinset provides a stronger bond than mastic. Make sure it is formulated for walls, not just floors.

How soon can I grout after applying the tiles?

Wait 24-48 hours for the tile adhesive to cure before applying grout. If grouted too soon, the tiles may shift or even pop off. Don’t rush this step.

Should spacers be left in when grouting?

Yes, leave the spacers in place while grouting. This prevents tiles from shifting and maintains even grout lines. Remove spacers once grouting is complete.

How soon can I use the kitchen after finishing?

Avoid using the kitchen for at least 48 hours after installation. Keep it free from water exposure or anything that could shift the tiles. Allow enough curing time for a durable result.

What’s the best way to cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw when possible for straight cuts and rounded nipper pliers for notched or curved cuts. Take time to make precise cuts—rushed ones can crack tiles.

How do I remove old or damaged grout?

Use a specialty oscillating grout removal tool or grout saw with a carbide blade. Chemical grout strippers also work but take longer. Avoid damaging the tiles around the grout.

Proper planning, patience, and care when installing subway tiles result in a stunning, long-lasting backsplash that takes your kitchen’s style up a notch.

Tips for Achieving a Flawless Subway Tile Backsplash

Stunning subway tile backsplashes don’t happen by accident. Attention to detail is required throughout the preparation, installation, and finishing process. Keep these tips in mind for subway tile backsplash perfection:

Build up thin areas – Use tile backerboard and fill any dips or uneven spots in the wall. This prevents cracks down the road.

Keep lines straight – Use level lines and spacers when applying tile. Step back frequently to check alignment.

Cut precision gaps – Cut border and outlet tiles with care for clean results around edges and fixtures.

Use proper materials – Don’t try to save money on grout, caulk or sealant. Quality materials make a difference.

Work in small sections – Apply adhesive and lay tiles in 4 sq. ft. sections. Work in stages vs. all at once.

Leave no gaps or humps – Every tile should lie completely flush with no bumps. Use spacers consistently.

Take time when grouting – Rushed grouting leads to haze and imperfections. Carefully wipe and rinse.

Smooth all grout lines – Tool grout lines gently with a smoothing tool for consistent indentations.

Seal everything – Use grout sealer and apply silicone caulk around edges and seams.

Clean tiles thoroughly – Use mild cleanser and soft cloth. Harsh chemicals can damage tiles.

With thoughtful preparation and care taken during each step of the installation, even first-timers can achieve a picture-perfect backsplash.

Simple Subway Tile Patterns to Try

The rectangular shape and standardized sizing of subway tiles make them one of the most versatile options for backsplashes. Beyond the basic brick pattern, there are many creative laying patterns to try:


A timeless look, herringbone patterns add visual intrigue. Rows overlap in an elegant, staggered design. It takes more precision but makes a statement.


Basketweave patterns use tiles on their sides in a woven, overlapping effect. This adds depth and interest to a boxy tile shape.


Pennies patterns stick with the traditional brick style, but lay tiles in an offset pattern. Half-tiles are interspersed creating a unique look.


For a bold, modern statement, lay subway tiles in opposite directions forming a zig-zag chevron. Colorful grout highlights the shape.


Fitting subway tiles into hexagon shapes requires some careful cutting, but the honeycomb effect is eye-catching. Repeat shapes or combine colors.

Subway Mosaic

Use multiple sized subway tiles together to create a mosaic-like blend of shapes. Mix up grout colors for added contrast.


Go for an artistic, imperfect look by stacking subway tiles vertically with varying grout lines. The uneven effect has rustic charm.

With subway tiles, the variations are endless. Get creative with unique laying patterns to give your backsplash standout style.

How to Fix Grout Mistakes on a New Backsplash

Grouting a backsplash takes time and finesse to get perfect results. But mistakes and imperfections inevitably happen. Fortunately, many common grouting mishaps can be remedied:

Hazy Residue – Foggy grout haze develops from failing to properly wipe down tiles after grouting. Use a grout haze remover or mix baking soda with water and scrub.

Cracked Grout – Cracks form when grout dries too quickly or there is movement in the tiles. Carefully scrape out cracked grout and re-apply new grout.

Low Spots – To fill low spots or missing grout, scrape out imperfections and trowel in new grout, match the depth of surrounding areas.

Too Much Grout – If grout lines appear uneven with too much grout, use a razor blade to slice it flush with the tiles.

Smeared Grout – Grout smeared on tile surfaces causes permanent staining. Try scrubbing with an acidic grout cleaner or riskier solution of bleach.

Dull Finish – To restore grout’s color if it appears faded or whitish, apply new grout sealer which penetrates and protects the surface.

Mismatching Color – If new grout appears lighter or darker than original, applying grout colorant is an easy fix to even out the color.

Don’t fret over grouting mistakes. With a little time and the right solutions, imperfect grout can be remedied.

Cost Breakdown of a DIY Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash boosts a kitchen’s style considerably and doesn’t have to break the bank. Here’s a realistic cost breakdown:

Tile: $200-400
Figure $5-10 per sq. ft. for subway tile. Buying in bulk is more economical.

Thinset mortar: $30-60
Allow $25-30 for a 50 lb. bag which covers 30-40 sq. ft.

Grout + Sealer: $60-120
Sanded grout runs around $15-20 per 50 lbs. Sealer costs $20-30.

Trowel, spacers, etc: $20-40
Basic tiling tools don’t have to be expensive. Shop sales.

Rentals: $80-150
Wet saw rental for a weekend costs $70-100. Useful for large jobs.

Additional materials: $20-50
Caulk, grout cleaners, backerboard, etc. Varies.

Total: $410-820+
For a 6×6 area, materials stay under $500. Larger areas cost more.

Compared to hiring a contractor, DIY provides huge savings. The satisfaction factor also makes the hands-on approach worthwhile.

With smart shopping and budget-friendly material choices, installing your own subway tile backsplash can give you the custom look you want at a fraction of the price.

The Subway Tile Look: Beyond Basic White

While the classic white subway tile backsplash endures, design trends are embracing more daring options:

Bold Colors

Vibrant reds, greens, blues, and yellows showcase subway’s rectangular shape. Contrast with lighter grout.

Intricate Patterns

Intertwining shapes, geometric designs, creative orientations—have fun with patterns and layouts.

Natural Stone

Marble, travertine, and granite subway tiles add stunning depth, swirls of color, and textural appeal.

Eclectic Mix

Combine complementary tile sizes, shapes, types, and colors for