How to Put on Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can be a fun and rewarding DIY project that adds style and functionality to your kitchen. Subway tiles are classic rectangular tiles that are affordable, easy to install, and come in a variety of colors and materials. With some planning, patience, and basic tiling skills, you can transform your kitchen backsplash into a stunning focal point. This comprehensive guide will walk you through all the steps for successfully installing a subway tile backsplash.

Materials Needed for Subway Tile Backsplash

Before starting your project, assemble all the necessary materials and tools. Having everything you need on hand will make the installation process go smoothly. Here is an overview of the basic items required:


  • Subway tiles – Calculate the square footage of your backsplash area to determine how many tiles you need. Buy 10-15% extra in case any tiles get damaged.
  • Tile spacers – Small crossed plastic spacers used between tiles to create even grout lines.
  • Tile cutting tools – Tile nippers, tile cutter, or wet saw to cut partial tiles to fit edges and corners.

Adhesives and Grout

  • Thinset mortar – Used to adhere tile to the wall surface. Look for unsanded thinset for walls.
  • Grout – Available in different colors to match your tiles. Unsanded grout is best for narrow grout lines under 1/8 inch.
  • Grout sealer – Protects grout from stains and damage. Apply after grouting.

Additional Supplies

  • Trowel for spreading thinset mortar.
  • Grout float for applying grout between tiles.
  • Sponges and buckets for cleaning tiles.
  • Painter’s tape for covering edges.
  • Drop cloth to protect floors and countertops.

Prepare the Surface

Proper preparation of the surface is crucial for ensuring your subway tiles adhere properly and stay in place. Follow these steps:

  • Clean the surface – Use a degreaser to clean off any dirt or oily residue on the existing backsplash area. Rinse thoroughly and let dry.
  • Remove existing backsplash – If there is already a backsplash installed that you are replacing, carefully remove it using a putty knife, chisel, or pry bar.
  • Make any repairs – Inspect the wall and repair any holes, cracks, uneven sections, or damage using drywall joint compound. Let repairs dry completely.
  • Prime – Apply a coat of primer to the entire surface area to improve adhesion. Let the primer dry fully before moving on to the next step.

Plan Your Tile Layout

Take measurements and sketch out a layout plan for your subway tiles. This will help you determine how many full tiles are needed and where cuts and partial tiles will be needed.

  • Measure the height and length of the backsplash area.
  • Sketch a diagram of the design including where the tiles will start and stop.
  • Mark where fixtures, outlets, or switches will need tiles cut around them.
  • Calculate the number of tiles needed for each row, including partial edge tiles.
  • Determine the tile pattern – offset, herringbone, or stacked.
  • Dry lay tiles on the countertop to visualize how they will be installed.

Install the Tile Backsplash

Once you have all your materials and your tile layout planned, you’re ready to start installing the subway tile backsplash. Follow these steps carefully for best results:

Step 1 – Prepare and Apply Thinset Mortar

  • Mix the thinset mortar according to package directions.
  • Use the notched edge of the trowel to spread a thin layer of thinset on the wall, holding at a 45 degree angle.
  • Apply only a small section at one time so the thinset does not dry out before tiles are placed.

Step 2 – Place the Tiles

  • Place the bottom row of tiles first. Press tiles firmly into the thinset and use spacers between each tile.
  • Continue installing rows of tiles one at a time working upwards. Use tile spacers to keep tile spacing consistent.
  • Cut partial edge tiles using tile nippers or a wet saw. File the cut edges smooth.
  • Place cut tiles on ends and edges using tile spacers to maintain proper spacing.

Step 3 – Let Tile Set

  • Let freshly tiled section sit for 24 hours so mortar can fully cure before grouting.
  • Keep foot traffic away and do not grout or clean tiles during this time.
  • Use painter’s tape along the edges to hold tiles in place as needed while curing.
  • Lightly dampen tiles with sponge if they appear dry to slow curing time.

Step 4 – Apply Grout and Polish

  • Mix grout according to package instructions and apply to tile joints using a rubber grout float.
  • Push grout diagonally across the joints, filling them completely.
  • Polish grout with a damp sponge in a circular motion. Rinse sponge often.
  • Allow grout to dry 90 minutes then polish again with a soft cloth.
  • Apply grout sealer once grout is fully dry, following product directions.
  • Remove painter’s tape from edges carefully.
  • Clean any remaining thinset or grout residue with a damp sponge.

Tips for Achieving a Flawless Finish

Follow these pro tips as you install your subway tile backsplash to help achieve a seamless professional look:

  • Stagger tiles so vertical grout lines are not aligned, unless doing a stack pattern.
  • Use tile leveling clips beneath tiles if installing large format subway tile.
  • Be diligent about using tile spacers for evenly spaced grout lines.
  • Use a wet saw for cutting notches and holes for outlets and plumbing.
  • Avoid getting thinset or grout on the tile surface to minimize cleanup needed.
  • Work in small sections so thinset and grout stay workable before drying.
  • Let grout dry thoroughly and polish multiple times for smooth joints.
  • Seal grout to protect it from stains and discoloration over time.
  • Caulk where the backsplash meets the countertop or other surfaces.

FAQs About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

What kind of thinset should I use for a subway tile backsplash?

For walls, use an unsanded thinset mortar. Make sure it is formulated for use with porcelain or ceramic wall tiles.

How long does thinset mortar take to dry before grouting?

Allow the thinset to cure for at least 24 hours before applying grout. This allows it to fully harden so the tiles stay firmly in place.

What color grout should I choose?

Pick a grout color that matches or complements your tile color. White and light grey are common grout colors for subway tile.

What size tile spacers should I use?

1/16 inch or 1/8 inch tile spacers work well for subway tile. The thinner the spacer, the narrower the grout lines will be.

What is the best way to cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw for most cuts, including notches for outlets and pipes. A tile cutter or nippers can be used for straight cuts on edges.

How soon can I use my backsplash after installing?

It’s best to avoid using the backsplash for at least 48 hours to allow the grout and thinset to fully cure and harden.

How do I remove thinset or grout from the surface of the tiles?

Use a damp sponge or soft cloth to gently wipe off any excess thinset or grout residue before it dries. Be cautious not to smear it.

Enjoy Your New Subway Tile Backsplash

With proper planning, patience, and care, installing a subway tile backsplash is a very approachable DIY project. In just a weekend, you can transform your kitchen with a beautiful, classic backsplash design. Refer to these tips whenever questions arise as you work through the process from start to finish. Soon, you’ll have a stunning new backsplash you installed yourself at a fraction of the cost.