How to Install White Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a white subway tile backsplash can transform the look and feel of your kitchen or bathroom. Subway tiles are a classic and timeless choice that work in both traditional and contemporary spaces. With some tile, grout, and basic tools, you can create a beautiful backsplash yourself and save on installation costs. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn how to properly install white subway tile for your backsplash.

Selecting Your Tile

The first step is choosing your subway tiles. Consider the following when making your selection:

Tile Material

Subway tiles are traditionally made from ceramic or porcelain. Ceramic is more prone to cracking and chipping. Porcelain is harder, more durable, and resistant to moisture. Porcelain is best for kitchen backsplashes where you’ll be working with water frequently.

Tile Size

Standard subway tiles are 3 x 6 inches, but sizes can range from 2 x 4 inches up to 4 x 12 inches. The elongated 4 x 12 size has become popular for a more modern look. Just make sure your tiles are at least 3 x 6 inches so they can be installed using the proper subway tile staggered pattern.

Tile Finish

Subway tiles come in either a glazed or unglazed finish. Glazed has a shiny, glossy look that’s easily wiped clean. Unglazed has a matte, natural stone-like finish but is harder to keep clean. White glossy tiles better suit kitchens while white matte works for bathrooms.

Tile Color

Subway tiles come in bright white, soft white, ivory, light grey and other shades. Decide if you want a crisp, clean white or something warmer. Compare tiles in different lighting as natural light often looks different than store lighting.

Tile Quality

Higher quality tiles have less visible defects and thickness variations plus straighter edges. Examine tiles closely for chips, cracks, or uneven glaze. Check thickness and edge straightness too. This ensures your installation looks uniform. Slight quality imperfections become very noticeable when tiles are on your wall.

Tile Quantity

Measure the space and calculate the tile square footage needed using tile width/height dimensions. Add at least 10% extra for subway tile projects to accommodate uneven walls and tile cuts.

Gather Supplies

Installing subway tile backsplash requires some specialized tools and materials. Be sure to have all supplies on hand before starting your project.

Tile Adhesive and Grout

Choose an adhesive suitable for your tiles and wall material. Latex or polymer modified thinset mortar works for most porcelain/ceramic subway tile installations. Match sanded grout color to your tile. Unsanded is only for narrow grout lines.

Trowels and Tile Spacers

Notched trowels spread adhesive evenly. Use a 1/4” x 3/8” trowel for subway tiles. Plastic spacers keep tile spacing even as you place them.

Tile Nippers and Wet Saw

Tile nippers snap off small pieces for cutting tiles to fit. A wet saw cleanly cuts subway tiles with water to control dust. Rent if you don’t want to buy.

Grout Float and Sponge

A grout float forces grout into tile joints evenly. Use a grout sponge dampened with water to smooth and clean excess grout.

Additional Supplies

Don’t forget painter’s tape, mixing bucket, grout sealer, rags, safety glasses and thinset additive if needed. Have a bucket of clean water too.

Prepare Your Backsplash Surface

Taking time to properly prepare your backsplash area ensures your subway tile installation lasts for years to come.

Clean Surface Thoroughly

Scrub away all built-up grease, soap residue and grime from your backsplash area. This allows the thinset mortar to adhere tightly.

Remove Old Backsplash

Take down existing backsplash materials like tile, laminate sheets or vinyl backsplashes if you’re doing a subway tile upgrade. Scrape off all leftover adhesive.

Fix Any Damage

Look for damage behind old backsplash and fix. Fill holes, repair grout and replace drywall if needed so you have an intact surface for your new tiles.

Create a Flat, Smooth Surface

Any bumps, cracks or uneven areas on your backsplash can show through new tiles. Re-drywall or use drywall joint compound to level the area. Sand bumps smooth.

Prime Painted Surfaces

If your backsplash surface is painted, apply a tile bonding primer coat so the thinset mortar bonds properly, preventing future tile cracking or popping off.

Mark a Level Line Guide

Run a level line at the proper height on your backsplash area. This keeps tiles even and lined up during installation. The line helps prevent a crooked looking backsplash.

Apply the Tile Adhesive

With your backsplash prepped, it’s time to spread the thinset adhesive that will hold the subway tiles in place.

Mix the Thinset Mortar

Pour thinset powder into a bucket according to package directions. Mix it with a drill to a smooth, lump-free consistency – not too wet or dry. Let it slake for 5-10 minutes.

Apply Thinset with Notched Trowel

Apply a heavy layer of thinset using a notched trowel held at a 45° angle. Cover just enough area you can tile in about 15 minutes before adhesive dries.

Comb Thinset in One Direction

Run the notched edge of the trowel in a straight line one direction through the thinset. This creates evenly spaced ridges for the tile to adhere to.

Apply Thinset in Sections

Work in small sections across and down from your start point. Cover just a portion of the wall with thinset at a time to prevent drying before you tile.

Check Thinset Thickness

To ensure proper adhesion, the layer of thinset under tiles needs to be about 1/4” thick after combing. Check depth using tile spacers.

Cut Subway Tiles

Most subway tile backsplashes require cutting some tiles to fit correctly. Make precise cuts so your installation looks professional.

Measure and Mark Tiles for Cutting

Hold tiles against the wall and mark where cuts are needed using a pencil or sharp tool. Mark cutting lines neatly and precisely before moving to cutting.

Score and Snap Tile With Nippers

For straight cuts, use tile nippers to score a line where you marked. Position nippers close to the edge and snap the tile downward.

Cut Tile With Wet Saw

For diagonal cuts, curved cuts and intricate cuts, use a wet saw. Mark cuts clearly first. Feed the tile slowly through the saw for clean cuts.

Smooth Cut Tile Edges

Rub cut edges against an abrasive stone or metal file to smooth sharp ridges left by nippers or wet saw. This prevents cut edge roughness or chipping later.

Test Fit All Cut Tiles

Dry fit your cut subway tiles prior to installing any with thinset. Ensure each custom cut tile fits perfectly before adhering tiles permanently.

Install Subway Tiles

Once you have your tiles cut, it’s time to put them on your prepped and troweled wall. Use care when handling and placing them.

Work From Bottom Up

Always start tile installation from the bottom and move up. This prevents slipping of bottom rows due to adhesive getting onto top edges of bottom tiles.

Apply Tiles Gently But Firmly

Press tiles into the combed thinset firmly but gently to embed them properly. Don’t slide tiles through adhesive once placed.

Install Tiles in Pyramid Pattern

Use plastic tile spacers to maintain even 1/8” grout lines. Install tiles so the corners form a staggered pyramid pattern.

Check Tile Edges Are Even

Step back periodically and examine tile edges are perfectly lined up and not drifting up or down. Adjust as needed.

Clean Away Excess Thinset

As you work, use a damp sponge to wipe away any thinset on tile surfaces before it dries. Avoid smearing adhesive in between tiles.

Allow Thinset to Cure

Once tiles are installed, don’t grout right away. Allow thinset adhesive to fully cure overnight before applying grout.

Mix and Apply Grout

Now that your tiles are firmly attached to the wall, it’s time to fill the joints with grout. Take care to fully pack joints.

Prepare Grout Mix

Choose a grout color to match or contrast your subway tile. Mix grout powder with water to a thick, peanut butter-like consistency per product directions.

Apply Grout With Grout Float

Use a rubber grout float to force grout firmly into joints, pressing at a 45° angle and packing fully with no gaps or air pockets.

Grout in Small Sections

To prevent premature drying, grout only a small area of a few square feet at a time before wiping excess away with a damp sponge.

Clean Excess Grout

Wipe diagonally across tiles with a damp grout sponge to remove surface grout. Rinse sponge frequently for best results.

Shape and Smooth Grout Lines

Once excess grout is removed, shape and smooth grout lines with corner edge of the sponge as the final step.

Allow Grout to Cure

Let freshly grouted tiles sit undisturbed overnight. Avoid contact with water or cleaning until cured to prevent discoloration or damage.

Seal and Finish Grouting

Sealing the grout prevents staining and makes cleaning much easier. Properly finishing the grout lines gives your project a polished look.

Clean Tile and Grout

Once grout has cured at least 24 hours, wash tiles with water and a pH neutral cleaner. Vinegar added cleans grout haze if needed.

Apply Grout Sealer

Seal grout lines with a penetrating sealer following label directions to protect grout from stains.

Check for Missing Grout

Inspect grout lines once everything has dried and fill any areas that need more grout. Use a grout bag for easier touch-up grouting.

Caulk Joints With Wall or Fixtures

Use a flexible silicone caulk where tile meets countertops, walls, or fixtures to allow expansion and prevent cracking.

Clean Tiles and Tools

Remove all remaining grout haze, dust, tools, buckets and tile cutting supplies. Give the floor a thorough sweeping and mopping too.

Maintaining Your Tile Backsplash

Follow proper care and cleaning methods to keep your white subway tiles looking like new for years to come.

Clean Frequently

Daily cleaning prevents grease and soap from building up. Wipe backsplash area down using mild dish soap and water or an all-purpose cleaner.

Seal Grout Annually

Reapply grout sealer every year or so according to product directions to keep grout protected from stains.

Use Non-Abrasive Cleaners

Avoid harsh cleaners, abrasive pads or scrubbing tools as they can scratch the surface. Use soft cloths or sponges only.

Rinse With Clear Water

Always rinse backsplash tiles thoroughly after cleaning to remove any soapy residue. Wipe dry to prevent water spots.

Don’t Use Vinegar or Acids

Vinegar and acidic cleaners can etch and wear down grout over time. Use occasionally for deep cleaning only.

Immediately Clean Spills

Promptly wipe up any food, oils or liquids that spill onto backsplash. Don’t let stains set before cleaning.

Frequently Asked Questions

Get answers to common questions about installing and caring for subway tile backsplashes.

Can I Install Subway Tiles Directly Over Existing Tiles?

It’s not recommended to install new subway tiles directly over existing tiles. You should remove old tile as subsurface irregularities will telegraph through.

What Color Grout Should I Choose?

Match white grout color as closely as possible to your tiles for a seamless look. Contrasting grout can look dated. Off-white or light grey grout is fine with pure white tiles.

How Long Does Thinset Take to Cure?

Thinset adhesive needs to cure for at least 18 – 24 hours before grouting. This allows time for the thinset mortar to gain maximum strength and adhesion.

Why Are My Tiles Loose or Falling Off?

If tiles become loose or fall off it usually indicates a problem with the thinset mortar not adhering correctly to the surface underneath or tiles were not pressed into the thinset firmly enough.

Can I Paint My Subway Tile Backsplash?

You can paint ceramic or porcelain tiles with proper preparation and specially formulated tile paint. This allows you to change the color of subway tiles without replacement.

How Do I Cut Curve Pieces?

Use a wet saw with a diamond blade for inner and outer curved cuts. Mark the shape on your tile and cut slowly following your lines. Smooth edges after cutting.

What’s Better – Bullnose or Pencil Liner Tiles?

Bullnose tiles have rounded finished edges, ideal for finishing outer edges of your backsplash. Pencil liners are trimmed tiles that fit between your wall and countertop.


The beauty of white subway tiles is their classic, timeless appeal that works in any home decor style. By properly preparing your backsplash surface, carefully measuring and cutting tiles, using quality thinset mortar and grout, and maintaining the installation, your tiles can look amazing for decades to come. Focus on precision – measure twice, cut once. Work slowly and carefully. With some patience and the right techniques, you can achieve a backsplash that gives your space a crisp, finished look.