How to Layout Subway Tile Backsplash

Choosing to install a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom can add a classic, timeless look. But before you start tiling, you need to put some thought into the layout to ensure it has the look you want. Proper planning and layout of your subway tile backsplash is key to achieving a professional quality result.

Choose Your Tile

The first step in planning your subway tile backsplash layout is choosing the actual tile. Subway tiles are rectangular tiles typically 3 inches by 6 inches, though you can find some variation in sizes. The tiles feature a slight bevel along the length of the tile, giving them their signature rectangular outline.

When selecting subway tiles for your backsplash, consider:

  • Color – Subway tiles come in virtually every color imaginable. Whites, grays, and beiges are popular choices with a vintage look. Bold colors like black, navy, or emerald green can create a dramatic effect.
  • Finish – Glazed subway tiles have a shiny, smooth finish that’s easy to clean. Matte or natural finish tiles have more texture but are prone to showing wear. Metallic subway tiles add a modern touch.
  • Material – Traditional subway tiles are made from glazed ceramic or porcelain. Glass subway tiles offer more color choices. Natural stone tiles bring an organic feel.
  • Size – In addition to the standard 3×6-inch size, subway tiles can be found in smaller or larger dimensions. Larger tiles mean fewer grout lines. Mosaics use tiny 1-inch tiles.
  • Variations – Some types of subway tiles feature decorative ridges, patterns, or concave shaping for added visual interest.

Once you select your desired tile, order or purchase 10-15% extra to account for breakage, trimming, and pattern matching during installation.

Choose Your Layout Pattern

The layout pattern you choose for your subway tiles will affect the overall visual impact of the backsplash. Here are some of the most popular subway tile layout patterns:

Brick Pattern

The traditional brick pattern, with offset horizontal rows, is one of the most common layouts for subway tile backsplashes. This pattern has a timeless appeal and works with any kitchen or bathroom design. The offset rows add depth and prevent the tiles from looking flat and monotonous.

To achieve the offset effect, plan to install tiles in a brick pattern, with each horizontal row staggered by half a tile. This will create a standard running bond brick pattern.

Stacked Pattern

The stacked pattern features subway tiles lined up in straight, vertical columns, without any offset rows. This creates clean lines and a slightly more modern, linear look compared to the traditional brick pattern.

The stacked pattern works best on small backsplash installations, such as behind a stove or sink. For larger backsplash areas, the lack of any offset can make the tiles appear flat and one-dimensional.

Horizontal Pattern

Running the subway tiles horizontally can give a backsplash a modern, sleek look. Laying subway tile on its side changes the proportion and emphasizes the tile length. This works best with 3×12 inch or longer rectangular subway tiles.

A horizontal pattern can make a small kitchen appear wider or draw the eye horizontally if you want to emphasize the length of the backsplash. Be aware, however, that the grout lines running vertically can also emphasize height.

Herringbone Pattern

For a more elaborate backsplash layout, consider a herringbone pattern. This arrangement positions the tiles in an interlocking zigzag design. Traditional herringbone patterns use small, thin tiles, but the look is possible with subway tiles.

Cutting the subway tiles to fit the precise angles needed for a herringbone pattern takes more tile and work. But the visual result is beautiful, ornate, and eye-catching.

Pinwheel Pattern

A pinwheel pattern places the subway tiles at a 45-degree angle, radiating out from a central point. This creates a starburst effect that makes the backsplash a focal point.

With the effort involved in the precise mitered cuts required, pinwheel patterns work best on a small scale, such as a backsplash niche or cooktop surround.

Basketweave Pattern

A basketweave pattern combines vertical and horizontal tile arrangement, intersecting the tiles to mimic woven strips. The result is an intricate geometric design.

Cutting subway tiles to fit together in a precise basketweave layout is challenging. This pattern is often best left to experienced tile installers unless you’re up for a more complex DIY tiling project.

Choose Your Starting Point

Once you know the layout pattern you want, map out the backsplash and determine the optimal starting point. This decision will ensure your pattern is aligned correctly.

  • For a brick pattern, start by centering a vertical column of tiles on the focal point of the backsplash area. This could be behind the stove, in the middle of the sink area, or wherever your eye goes first.
  • With a stacked pattern, check that full tiles are evenly distributed horizontally, with equal-sized partial tiles at edges. Adjust to center if needed.
  • For horizontal arrangements, start with a full tile at the top if the top row is cut. For the bottom row, plan cut tiles equal in size on both ends.
  • Herringbone patterns should begin with a full tile centered in the middle of the backsplash area.
  • Pinwheel and basketweave layouts also begin by centering the first tiles over the focal area.

Having an evenly distributed layout enhances the clean, balanced look. Don’t neglect this planning step or you could end up with narrow cut tiles on one side, ruining the effect.

Account for Outlets and Obstacles

The final planning step is accounting for any outlets, switches, or obstacles in the backsplash area. Mark their locations on your layout plan.

To handle outlets and switches:

  • If possible, adjust their location so tiles don’t have to be cut.
  • If they can’t be moved, plan tile cuts around them. Avoid small slivers of cut tile.
  • If necessary, have outlets moved higher or lower so they align with grout lines.

For dealing with corners, protrusions, or changes in depth:

  • Use bullnose tiles on outside corners for a clean finish.
  • Carefully notch tiles to fit around protrusions like pipes or brackets.
  • Where backsplash depth changes, transition with a mitered edge or install trim.

With careful planning to map out the backsplash installation, you can achieve the subway tile layout of your dreams. Don’t rush the planning steps, as they make the actual tile installation smooth and successful.

Preparing the Surface

Proper preparation of the installation surface is crucial for a subway tile backsplash that lasts. Taking time to correctly prep the surface ensures the tiles adhere properly and prevents cracks, damage, and warped or detached tiles.

Follow these tips for preparing the backsplash area:

Clean Thoroughly

Start by cleaning the installation area thoroughly. Remove any existing backsplash and clean off all dirt, grease, soap residue, and any other debris. Rinse and let the surface dry completely.

Remove Protrusions

Eliminate any excess grout, nails, screws or other protrusions. The surface should be as flat and smooth as possible for tile adhesion. Fill any cracks or holes with patching compound.

Prime Painted Surfaces

For surfaces that have been painted, apply a tile bonding primer before installation. This allows the mortar to adhere correctly.

Check Moisture

Use a moisture meter on the surface to check for excess moisture. Any dampness can weaken adhesion when setting the tiles.

Apply Backerboard

Most backsplash areas require installing backerboard as a base. Cement, fiber cement, or water-resistant drywall are common backerboard options. Secure boards with appropriate screws.

Pick Water-Resistant Products

Choose water-resistant backerboard and adhesive mortar designed for wet areas. This prevents moisture damage. Products like cement board and epoxy mortar provide maximum water protection.

With the backsplash surface prepped, you can begin installing tile confidently. Don’t skip surface prep – a small investment of time here makes a big difference in the lasting quality of the finished backsplash.

Gather the Right Tools and Materials

Installing subway tile backsplash yourself requires gathering the right tools and materials ahead of time. Having everything you need on hand will make tiling faster and easier.


  • Tile cutter – use a snap tile cutter for straight cuts and nippers for notching or curve cutting
  • Adhesive spreading trowel – pick a notched trowel suited to your tile size
  • Grout float – a square sponge tool used to apply and spread grout
  • Mixing bucket – for preparing adhesive mortar and grout mixtures
  • Spacers – plastic crosses maintain even space between tiles
  • Rubber grout float – smooths and shapes cured grout
  • Grout sealer – protects grout from staining
  • Safety gear – glasses, gloves, knee pads, ear protection
  • Level – essential for starting tiles straight and keeping them even


  • Subway tile
  • Backerboard and screws
  • Thinset mortar adhesive
  • Grout
  • Caulk

Having the required tools and materials makes it easier to follow proper installation techniques and achieve professional-looking results installing your subway tile backsplash.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Once you have your prep work and planning completed, installing the subway tile itself is straightforward. Follow these step-by-step instructions for a foolproof backsplash tile installation:

1. Prepare the Surface Area

Follow the surface prep tips covered earlier – clean, smooth, and prime the area to be tiled. Apply moisture protection and cement backerboard if needed.

2. Mark Your Layout

Use a level and pencil to mark horizontal and vertical layout lines on the backerboard as guides for your tile. For intricate patterns, make a grid.

3. Mix and Apply Thinset Mortar

Mix thinset mortar adhesive according to package directions. Apply to the backsplash area using a notched trowel held at a 45-degree angle.

4. Set the Tiles

Following your layout lines, start setting tiles in place, using plastic spacers to maintain 1/8-inch gaps between them.

5. Cut Any Custom Tiles

Measure and cut any special pieces of tile needed using a snap tile cutter or nippers. Smooth edges with sandpaper.

6. Finish Setting Tiles

Continue working in sections until all full tiles are laid. Check occasionally that tiles are level and aligned.

7. Apply Grout

Prepare grout mix and apply it over the tiles using a rubber grout float. Push into gaps to fill completely and wipe away excess.

8. Clean and Seal Grout

Once grout cures, use a damp sponge to wipe tiles clean. Apply grout sealer to protect from stains.

9. Finish Edges

If needed, install matching bullnose tiles or tile trim edge pieces for finished side edges of backsplash.

With these simple subway tile backsplash installation steps, you can achieve beautiful results. Just take your time, use the right tools, and don’t skip any preparation steps.

Step-By-Step DIY Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom can give it an instant facelift. While hiring a tile professional is always an option, installing subway tile yourself can save hundreds of dollars.

Follow this step-by-step DIY backsplash guide for foolproof results:

Choose an Easy Layout

Opt for a basic brick pattern or stacked layout for your first self-installed backsplash. Elaborate designs require more complex tile cutting.

Purchase Extra Tiles

Order 15% more subway tiles than you think you need to allow for breakage and cuts. Nothing is more frustrating than coming up short.

Gather Supplies

Collect all required tools and materials mentioned earlier before starting. Having everything within reach saves hassle.

Prep the Surface Thoroughly

Don’t ignore this crucial first step! Clean, fill, and dry the surface, and apply backerboard securely. Proper prep helps tiles stick.

Mark the Wall

Use a level to draw plumb vertical and horizontal layout lines on the backerboard as tile guides. Tape measures assist with spacing.

Follow Adhesive Instructions

Carefully follow adhesive mortar directions. Many thinset mortars require specific mixing technique and set times.

Use Spacers Consistently

Spacers assure properly spaced tiles and uniform grout line width. Improper spacing can ruin the effect.

Work in Sections

Tile sections of the backsplash at a time to keep adhesive from drying too quickly. Follow the layout lines.

Don’t Rush Grouting

Let tile set for a full 24 hours before grouting. Applying grout too soon can compromise adhesion.

Clean Grout Residue Promptly

Always follow grout package directions and wipe tiles clean while grout is still fresh. Dried grout is hard to remove.

Seal the Grout

Sealing is crucial to prevent staining of grout over time. Apply several coats of grout sealer to fully protect.

By taking your time and using proper technique, your DIY subway tile backsplash can look professionally installed. Follow these key steps to avoid beginner mistakes.

Common Subway Tile Backsplash Mistakes to Avoid

When installing your own subway tile backsplash, knowing common pitfalls and how to avoid them will ensure success. Steer clear of these frequent beginner mistakes:

Not leveling starting rows – All tiles should be level, with straight grout lines. Start off straight or tiles will creep off level row-by-row.

Skipping surface preparation – Don’t install tiles over damaged, dirty, or damp surfaces. Proper prep prevents adhesion issues.

Using the wrong adhesive – Be sure you select the recommended thinset mortar for the tile material and application area.

Failing to use spacers – Spacers keep grout lines even. Omitting them can create a sloppy, uneven look.

Allowing adhesive to skin over – Don’t spread adhesive too far ahead of setting tiles. Mortar that skins over won’t stick properly.

Poor planning for cuts – Avoid small slivers of cut tile by carefully arranging the layout. Plan trims at ends.

Not sealing grout – Unsealed grout absorbs stains easily. Use a penetrating sealer to protect your backsplash.

Using sanded grout for narrow joints – The sand can get stuck in and block narrow grout lines. Use unsanded grout for tiles spaced less than 1/8 inch.

Careful planning and attention to detail prevents most backsplash tile frustrations. Follow installation steps faithfully for a quality finished project.

Tips for Grouting Subway Tile

Grout fills the spaces between tiles with a waterproof, decorative material to finish a backsplash. With so many grout lines, grouting deserves special attention on subway tile installations. Follow these tips:

Let mortar cure – Install tiles 24 hours prior to grouting to allow adhesive to cure fully. Never grout on wet thinset.

Apply grout sealer first – Seal tiles beforehand to avoid staining from grout smears. Wipe tiles clean afterward.

Follow package mixing – Improperly mixed grout can crack, flake, or discolor. Measure carefully and mix to manufacturer instructions.

Work in small sections – Spread and clean manageable 3-4 square foot areas before grout dries. Have a wet sponge and bucket for cleaning handy.

Pack joints fully – Hold grout float at a 45-degree angle and force grout deeply into gaps between tiles.

Avoid excess wiping – Wipe diagonally across tiles to remove grout residue. Over-wiping can pull grout from tile joints. Let haze set slightly before final wipe.

Check for voids – Scan for unfilled spots after wiping each section. Re-apply grout if needed to fill voids.

Don’t wet seal – Never seal grout until a full 72 hours after installation. This allows it to cure completely.

Proper grouting takes practice. For wide grout lines, use a grout bag instead of a float. Change cleaning water frequently to avoid haze.

Cutting Subway Tiles

While most subway tile backsplashes use predominantly full tiles, some cutting is usually needed to fit edges and work around obstructions. Follow these tips for accurate cuts:

Use a snap tile cutter – This tool breaks tiles cleanly by scoring and snapping. A snap cutter ensures straight edges.

Mark cuts clearly – Use a pencil to indicate cutting lines. Align the tile on the cutter for accurate scoring.

Cut several at once – You can stack up to five tiles to cut together for a continuous look.

Snap downward – Position the scored line over the cutter bar and press down firmly to break the tile cleanly.

Smooth rough edges – Rub cut edges with a stone to remove sharp ridges or roughness that can cut fingers or show under grout.

Cut outlet openings – Use a drill with tile bit, or nippers and files, to shape openings for outlets neatly.

Practice first – Hone your technique on spare tiles before cutting tiles for installation. A few practice runs creates skill.

Take time to make accurate tile cuts. Don’t rush the process. With care, your trimmed subway tiles will blend seamlessly into the pattern.

Tile Around Kitchen Cabinets

Tiling a backsplash around kitchen cabinets brings color and style that finishes the room beautifully. The key is transitioning the tiles smoothly from countertops to cabinets. Here are some cabinet trim tips:

Install countertop first – Usually, the countertop rests on top of cabinet frames. Tile is then installed up to the countertop edge.

Check cabinet corners – Use caulk in the inside corners