How to Install Subway Tiles for Kitchen Backsplash

Installing subway tiles can transform the look of your kitchen backsplash. With their classic rectangular shape and versatile sizing, subway tiles are a timeless and easy way to add pattern and visual interest to your kitchen wall. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn how to install subway tile for your kitchen backsplash.

Step 1: Prepare the Surface

The first step is preparing the surface where you will install the tile.

  • Make sure the wall is clean of any grease, grime or soap residue. Clean with a degreaser if needed.
  • Fill any holes or imperfections in the wall with spackle and let dry completely.
  • Sand down any bumps for a smooth surface. Wipe away dust.
  • Apply painter’s tape along the edges, around outlets or switches and along the counter top to protect these surfaces.
  • Paint the wall if desired with primer and let dry completely before tiling.

Proper surface prep is crucial for the tiles to adhere properly.

Step 2: Plan the Tile Layout

Now it’s time to map out your tile layout. Consider the following:

  • Measure the space to determine the square footage you need to cover. Don’t forget to account for uneven walls or corners.
  • Decide on the tile size, pattern and orientation. Subway tiles are traditionally 3×6 inch, but can be found in various sizes.
  • Draw your layout with chalklines to visualize spacing and alignment. Mark crosshairs for center starting points.
  • Account for grout lines and cut tiles on the edges and around outlets.
  • Make sure tiles align with any design elements like shelves or backsplash niches.

Taking time to plan the layout will make the installation go smoothly.

Step 3: Cut the Tiles

Cut your tiles to fit along the edges and around any outlets or obstructions.

  • Measure and mark each tile that needs cutting with a pencil.
  • Use a straight edge and score along the cut line with a utility knife.
  • Snap the tiles using tile nippers. Smooth any rough edges with a stone.
  • For detailed cuts, use a wet saw fitted with a diamond blade.
  • Set cut pieces aside and keep them organized.

Cutting the tiles accurately is key for a professional looking install.

Step 4: Apply Thinset Mortar

Now you’re ready to start applying the tile adhesive, also known as thinset mortar.

  • Use a notched trowel to spread a layer of thinset onto the wall, holding at a 45 degree angle.
  • Apply only as much as you can tile over in about 20 minutes before it skins over.
  • Use the trowel notch size recommended for the tile size you’re installing.
  • Press firmly to ensure proper adhesion and an even depth.

Take care to apply the thinset evenly for proper tile bonding.

Step 5: Install the Tiles

Once the thinset is prepped, it’s time to set the tiles.

  • Starting from your center point, apply tiles in a pyramid layout.
  • Press and slide the tiles into the thinset to ensure good contact.
  • Use tile spacers between tiles for even grout lines.
  • Work in small sections and remove spacer strips before the thinset dries.
  • Check tiles for level frequently as you install.

Installing the tiles carefully ensures they adhere and align properly on the wall.

Step 6: Grout the Tile

After the thinset has cured for 24-48 hours, you’re ready to grout the tile.

  • Apply grout along the grout lines, using a rubber grout float. Spread and pack it into joints.
  • Let it sit for a few minutes before wiping away excess grout with a damp sponge.
  • Rinse the sponge frequently and smooth joints with a light touch.
  • Remove any remaining film once grout has dried with a soft, dry cloth.

Properly grouting the tile finishes your backsplash and seals it to be water resistant.

Step 7: Seal and Finish

The final steps complete your new backsplash.

  • Let grout cure fully for 72 hours before use and exposure to moisture.
  • Apply a penetrating sealant to protect grout and create a water barrier.
  • Caulk along countertops, edges and around fixtures with silicone caulk.
  • Remove painter’s tape and other protection carefully after caulk dries.
  • Wipe down the wall fully and install any fixtures like towel bars, soaps dispensers.

Following these finishing steps gives you a durable, beautiful subway tile backsplash to enjoy.

FAQ About Installing Subway Tiles

How do I choose the right subway tile size?

The most common size for subway tiles is 3×6 inches, but they come in various sizes like 1×4 or 4×12 inches. Choose based on the scale of your kitchen. Smaller tile sizes work well in tight spaces, while larger sizes are good for expansive kitchens.

What type of thinset should I use?

Use a polymer modified thinset for the walls as it offers flexibility and greater adhesion than regular thinset. It is suitable for use indoors in dry areas. Make sure it matches the tile material you’ve chosen.

How much thinset mortar do I need?

Standard thinset coverage is about 50-60 sq ft per 50 lbs bag. Having extra is better than running short. For 20 sq ft, you’ll need about 1-2 bags depending on tile size. Multiply your wall square footage by 1.6-2 to estimate bags needed.

How long does thinset take to cure?

Thinset adhesive will skin over and dry within 15-20 minutes after applying. But allow 24-48 hours for it to fully cure and gain maximum strength before grouting or exposing it to water. Check thinset packaging as drying times can vary.

What color grout should I use?

Choose grout color based on your tile color. For white subway tiles, use a white or light gray grout which highlights the tile edges. Darker grout can provide contrast. For colored tiles, match the grout color for a seamless look.

How soon can I expose the tiles to water?

Allow grout to cure fully for 72 hours before exposure to water. This ensures it is set up and water resistant. Avoid cleaning the tiles until the cure time has passed. Apply a sealant for extra water protection and peace of mind.


Installing subway tile backsplash transforms the kitchen with classic, timeless style. Follow the steps for proper planning, surface prep, tile cutting, thinset application, careful tile installation, grouting and finishing. Pay close attention to details like using appropriate tools and materials to ensure success. Take time to properly seal and protect your new tile surface. With some patience and care, you can achieve a stunning, professional-looking subway tile backsplash.