Installing a tile backsplash in your kitchen can add visual interest, protect your walls from splashes and spills, and give your space a high-end, finished look. However, proper preparation is crucial for achieving long-lasting results. There are several important steps to take when prepping your kitchen wall for tile.
In this comprehensive guide, we will walk through everything you need to know to properly prep your kitchen wall for a beautiful, durable tile backsplash installation. We will cover cleaning, repairing, and levelling the wall surface, choosing appropriate tile backer materials, proper planning and layout, and tips for a smooth installation process. With the right prep work completed upfront, your stunning new tile backsplash will stand the test of time. Let’s get started!
Clean and Repair Kitchen Wall Surface
The first step is thoroughly cleaning and inspecting the wall area where you plan to install the tile backsplash. Check for any damage, flaws, grease buildup, or protruding nails/screws. Here are some tips for cleaning and repairing your kitchen wall:
Remove existing backsplash or wall coverings – If there is already a backsplash or other wall covering like wallpaper in place, remove it completely. This allows you to inspect and repair the wall underneath. Use a putty knife to scrape off any adhesive residue.
Clean off dirt, grease, and grime – Use a degreasing cleanser and warm water to thoroughly clean the entire wall area. This will allow tiles to properly adhere. Rinse well and let dry fully.
Sand and repair flaws – Lightly sand any bumps, scratches, or uneven areas in the wall to smooth them out. Fill any holes or gaps with spackling paste and let dry completely. Sand smooth when dry.
Check for moisture damage – Look for any swollen, cracked, or soft areas of drywall that could indicate moisture damage behind the wall. Repair any water damage before tiling.
Remove protruding nails/screws – Hammer down any nails or screws so they sit flush with the wall surface. Otherwise, they could interfere with tile application.
Prime painted walls – If the wall is painted, apply a coat of primer to help the tile adhesive properly bond. Use a primer designed for tile projects.
Thoroughly cleaning and repairing flaws in the wall before tiling will provide the smooth, stable surface needed for proper tile installation.
Choose Appropriate Tile Backer Material
For walls, suitable backer materials for tile include cement board, fiber cement board, and coated glass mat backerboard. The backer board will provide extra stability and water resistance behind the tile. Here are the most common options:
Cement board – Made from portland cement and sand, cement board provides excellent stability and prevents moisture transmission. It may require sealing before tiling.
Fiber cement board – This features cement mixed with fiber material for added strength and waterproofing. It is lighter and easier to cut than cement board.
Coated glass mat backerboard – This features a water-resistant coated fiberglass mat, providing lightweight stability for tile projects. It often has a built-in vapor barrier.
Moisture-resistant drywall – Special drywall with additives to repel water can also work, but may require an additional vapor barrier.
For kitchens, we recommend using cement board or fiber cement board specifically designed for tile backsplashes. The extra moisture protection is important in kitchens. Thoroughly read manufacturer instructions for proper installation of the backer board.
Plan Tile Layout and Measurements
Carefully planning your tile layout and measuring the install area is crucial for a seamless backsplash look. Here are some planning tips:
Make a scale drawing of the backsplash area – Draw out the shape and size of the space so you can visualize tile placement. Indicate measurements, sinks, windows, outlets, etc.
Determine your tile layout pattern – Typical options include a basic grid, diagonal bricks, subway tiles, or creative patterns. Sketch your desired layout.
Measure from multiple points – Precisely measure the height and length of the area from several spots. Walls are often not perfectly straight.
Account for uneven surfaces – If the wall is uneven, you may need to adjust tile cuts or use an leveling filler to compensate. Plan tile cuts accordingly.
Order 10-15% extra tile – Purchase extra tiles beyond your measurements to account for broken or damaged tiles, uneven walls, and cut tile pieces. Keep extra tiles for future repairs.
With careful planning and measurements, you can pre-cut tiles as needed and determine the most efficient tile layout before you start installing. This will make for a smooth, seamless installation process.
Level and Prepare the Wall Surface
Once you have thoroughly cleaned the wall and installed your chosen backer board, the next step is to ensure the surface is flat, smooth, and ready for tiling. Here are some tips:
Mark any high/low spots on the wall – Use a straightedge level and mark any uneven spots that are higher or lower than others.
Grind down high spots – For isolated high spots, carefully grind them down with a belt sander or rotary tool to level the surface.
Fill in low spots – In low areas, apply a thinset mortar skim coat to build up the surface to the appropriate level. Allow to fully cure before tiling.
Apply tile backerboard filler – For large uneven areas, use a tile backerboard filler product specifically designed for smoothing and flattening.
Use shims if necessary – For severely uneven walls, shims can be used under certain areas of the backerboard to bring it flush to other areas.
Make final level checks – Use a long level (4 foot or longer) to double check the wall is flat across the entire backsplash area before tiling.
Properly levelling the tile backer surface will allow your tile installation to have a smooth, cohesive finish without lippage issues between tiles. Take the time to get this step right!
Install Vapor Barrier if Needed
If your backer material does not already have a built-in vapor barrier, an additional vapor barrier may be required behind the tile, especially for kitchen backsplash installations. Here are some tips on vapor barriers:
Use polyethylene plastic sheeting – Plastic sheeting 0.010 inch thick is commonly used as an effective vapor barrier behind backerboard.
Run it floor to ceiling – The vapor barrier should cover the entire backsplash area from the counter to upper cabinets.
Overlap seams by 6 inches – Overlapping seams properly prevents moisture intrusion. Tape or seal seams for added protection.
Install behind insulation – If using insulation on exterior walls, install the vapor barrier between wall studs and insulation.
Staple plastic in place – Use staples to firmly attach the vapor barrier to wall studs behind the backerboard.
The vapor barrier provides an impermeable layer of protection from any moisture in the wall cavity making its way through to the tile. This prevents damage like mildew growth.
Choose Quality Tile Adhesive and Grout
The specific tile adhesive (also called thinset mortar) and grout you choose are important for creating a water-resistant tile backsplash that will last. Consider these tips when selecting products:
Choose polymer-modified thinset – This contains polymers that make it stronger and more water-resistant than basic cement-based thinset. It is the best choice for kitchen backsplashes.
Use white adhesive for glass tile – Transparent glass tiles show colored adhesive underneath. Use white thinset mortar for a clean look.
Pick water-resistant grout – Choose an epoxy-based grout or polymer-modified grout for kitchens. Avoid basic cement grout that can stain.
Consider sanded vs. unsanded grout – Sanded grout is sturdier for wider grout lines. Unsanded is best for narrow grout lines less than 1/8 inch.
Get a grout release agent – This protective coating prevents grout from sticking to the tile surface and allows easy grout cleanup. Have it on hand before you grout.
Investing in quality tile setting materials suitable for kitchen installations will give you the best possible results for your new backsplash.
Have Proper Tools Ready
Assembling all the necessary tile installation tools ahead of time will make the tiling process go faster and smoother. Be sure you have these essential items on hand:
- Tile saw with diamond blade
- Tile cutting pliers
- Tile spacers
- Mixing buckets
- Notched trowel for spreading adhesive
- Rubber grout float
- Grout sealer
- Sponges and rags
- Safety gear – gloves, glasses, knee pads
- Levels – small and long
- Carpenter’s square
- Spackling knife
- Utility knife
- Tape measure
- Laser level (optional but useful)
Having the right tools for each stage of the installation is imperative. Consult your specific backerboard and tile adhesive manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you have all recommended tools ready.
Hiring a Professional Tile Installer
While a DIY tile backsplash is certainly achievable for many homeowners, hiring a professional tiling contractor is advisable if:
- You have little to no tiling experience
- The substructure requires significant preparation or repair
- The design uses large format tiles, intricate patterns, or mosaic sheets
- Accessibility is an issue in reaching the install area
- Time is limited and professional installation is faster
- You want expert advice on design and products
Pro tile installers have the skills, knowledge and tools to prep and install your backsplash properly in less time. Focus on choosing a contractor who specializes in tile work and has significant experience with kitchen backsplash installations specifically. Be sure to get a detailed written contract on scope of work and final costs.
Hiring a pro to get your tile backsplash done right can provide great peace of mind!
Step-by-Step Installation Process
Once you have thoroughly prepped the kitchen wall and gathered all necessary materials, you are ready to tackle the tile installation! Follow these step-by-step instructions for properly installing your new backsplash:
1. Mark Your Tile Layout
- Based on your planning, use a level and measuring tape to mark clear horizontal and vertical layout lines on the backerboard as guides.
- Mark vertical lines at both ends and spaced evenly in between. Do the same for horizontal lines.
- Make sure lines are straight and square. Double check all measurements.
- These layout lines will guide the first row of tiles. All other tiles will build off the first row.
2. Mix and Apply Thinset Mortar
- Prepare the thinset mortar according to package directions, using clean buckets and mixing paddles.
- Only mix enough that can be used in its pot life timeframe. Discard any unused thinset.
- Using the proper notched trowel, apply a thin, even layer of thinset to the backerboard over a small section at a time.
3. Set the First Row of Tiles
- Starting at the bottom according to your layout lines, firmly press tiles into the thinset mortar.
- Use spacers between tiles for consistent grout line width.
- Work methodically to get the first horizontal row completely straight and level.
- Let the thinset cure according to directions before continuing. The first row is the foundation!
4. Apply Thinset and Set the Next Rows
- Again working in small sections, apply thinset mortar to the area where the next rows will be installed.
- Place spacers along the top edge of installed tiles so new tiles have consistent spacing.
- Set tiles in the next row, using the guide lines and spacers to keep everything aligned.
- Continue working in rows until you reach the top, checking alignment often.
5. Cut and Install Perimeter and Gap Tiles
- Measure and cut any perimeter tiles needed to fit against walls or the ceiling using the tile saw.
- Cut tiles as needed to fit around outlets, plumbing fixtures, corners, etc.
- Carefully set perimeter and gap tiles into place with thinset when main field is done.
6. Let Tile Set Completely Before Grouting
- Let the thinset mortar cure fully over 24-48 hours before grouting tiles. This prevents tiles shifting.
- Some thinset mortars take longer to cure based on temperature and humidity. Verify cure times.
- Do not wet tiles or walk on them during the curing period.
7. Mix and Apply Grout
- When tiles have fully cured, mix a small batch of grout according to package instructions. Let stand as directed.
- Apply grout over the tile surface, working in small areas and packing it firmly into gaps.
- Use a rubber grout float or squeegee at a 45 degree angle to spread smoothly.
8. Clean Excess Grout from Tile Surface
- Once grout is applied, let haze form on tile surface according to product guidelines. This ensures proper curing.
- Use a damp sponge to lightly wipe and clean excess grout from the tile surface. Rinse sponge frequently.
- Polish and smooth tiles with a soft, dry cloth once initial cleaning is done.
9. Seal Grout Lines
- After grout has fully cured, apply a grout sealer using a small foam brush or sponge applicator.
- This will waterproof the grout lines and prevent staining. Be sure to cover all grout.
- Avoid applying sealer directly on tile surfaces, wipe any excess promptly.
With careful attention to each step and proper curing times, you can achieve a stunning, durable tile backsplash using proper installation techniques. Take your time and refer back to these instructions whenever needed. Let our step-by-step guide help make your project a success!
Tips for Removing Existing Backsplash
If your kitchen already has a tile backsplash or another type of backsplash covering the wall area where you’ll install the new tile, the old backsplash needs to be removed completely. Here are some tips for safely and effectively removing an existing backsplash:
Use a putty knife or oscillating tool – Slide a stiff putty knife under tile edges or gaps to pop them off. An oscillating tool with scraper blade also works well.
Watch for old adhesive – Old tile adhesive on the wall often needs to be scraped off once tiles are removed. Use a putty knife held at a 30 degree angle.
Try a heat gun – For stubborn areas of tile or adhesive residue, apply heat with a heat gun to soften it for easier scraping.
Avoid power chisels – Using a power chisel to chip away old tile can damage the wall behind. Scrape manually instead.
Wear safety gear – Gloves, eye protection, and a dust mask are important when removing old tile. Sharp debris can fly as you scrape.
Dispose debris safely – Carefully contain, bag, and dispose of all tile pieces, backing, adhesive residue, and related debris after removal.
Fill any gouges – Once the old backsplash is totally removed, fill in any gouges, holes, or uneven spots in the wall before installing the new backsplash.
With some time and elbow grease, you can completely remove an existing backsplash and prep the area for a beautiful new tile installation. Take precautions to protect yourself and the wall subsurface.
Tips for Removing Kitchen Countertops
To allow your new backsplash tile to be installed in behind the counters, existing countertops sometimes need to be temporarily removed. Here are some tips for safe countertop removal:
Clear countertops completely – Remove everything from the countertops before attempting removal to prevent damage.
Check for screws underneath – Counters may be screwed into cabinets from underneath. Removing these screws allows the countertop to detach.
Cut any caulk/sealant – Use a utility knife to cut through any caulk or sealant adhering the countertop to walls or backsplash.
Lift straight up – Have a helper lift the countertop up off the cabinets evenly and straight without tilting. Avoid bending or cracking.
Make filler support boards – Cut boards to temporarily bridge the open cabinet tops as support for the countertop after removing it.
Cushion the surface – Place a soft moving blanket or padding beneath the removed countertop as you set it aside to prevent scratching the surface.
Re-install properly – When the backsplash is complete, carefully re-install the countertop and re-adhere it securely to cabinetry according to manufacturer instructions. Re-caulk edges.
Removing kitchen countertops properly without damage takes patience and care. The effort allows for a seamless, continuous backsplash installation.
Tips for Using Tile Spacers
Tile spacers are small plastic crosses or wedges that are essential for keeping consistent spacing (grout joints) between tiles during installation. Here are some tile spacer tips:
Use the right size – Choose a spacer size that matches your desired grout joint width, typically 1/8th inch or 1/16th inch.
Place four per tile – Position one spacer in each corner of a tile where it meets adjacent tiles to keep proper alignments.
Alternate direction – Spacers in a tile should alternate the direction they face, so they interlock with spacers in adjoining tiles.
Avoid dislodging – When setting next tiles, be careful not to dislodge spacers already set in existing tiles.
Leave in until grouted – Only remove tile spacers once grout has been applied and starts to firm up, unless otherwise indicated.
Gently twist and pull – Tile should be firmly set before spacer removal. Gently twist and pull to remove without shifting tiles.
Fill leftover corners – Any corner areas still needing a spacer should be filled with a tile spacer fragment.
Using tile spacers consistently throughout installation ensures your tile joints are perfectly spaced and aligned. This creates a clean, uniform installation.