How to Put Up a Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash is a great way to add visual interest and value to your kitchen. With their classic rectangular shape and ridged edges, subway tiles create a clean, streamlined look that works with many design styles. Putting up a subway tile backsplash is also a relatively easy DIY project that can be completed in a weekend. Follow this step-by-step guide to learn how to properly prepare your workspace, cut and install the subway tiles, and grout and seal the finished backsplash.

Choosing Your Subway Tiles

The first step in installing a subway tile backsplash is selecting the right tiles. Here are some tips for choosing subway tiles for your project:

  • Tile material – Subway tiles come in either ceramic or porcelain. Ceramic tiles are more porous and prone to staining, while porcelain tiles are less porous, more durable, and stain resistant. Porcelain tiles are a great option for kitchen backsplashes.
  • Tile size – The most common subway tile sizes are 3×6 inches and 4×8 inches. Larger tiles will speed up installation. Smaller tiles allow for more creative patterns.
  • Tile color – Subway tiles come in virtually every color imaginable. Whites and light greys are the most popular as they give a clean, bright look. Consider if you want glossy or matte finish.
  • Tile pattern – Most subway tile backsplashes use a basic brick pattern. You can also opt for more complex designs, like herringbone. Make sure to pick a pattern that aligns with your design vision.
  • Order extra tiles – Order 10-15% more tiles than you think you need to account for broken tiles and custom cuts. Keep the extra tiles for future repairs.

Once you’ve selected your subway tile, order the amount you need based on your project measurements andTile Materialheading. Get all your tiles and other supplies before starting installation.

Gathering Supplies and Tools

Installing a backsplash requires some specific supplies and tools. Having all your materials ready beforehand will make the project go smoother. Here are the supplies you’ll need:

Tile and Grout

  • Subway tiles
  • Tile spacers
  • Grout (sanded grout for joints wider than 1/8 inch, non-sanded for joints 1/8 inch or smaller)
  • Grout sealing product

Adhesives and Adhesive Materials

  • Thinset mortar
  • Cement backerboard
  • Fiberglass mesh tape
  • Polymer-modified thinset mortar (for areas that will get wet like behind sinks)


  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Level
  • Tile cutter (manual cutter or wet saw)
  • Tile spacers
  • Rubber grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout sponge
  • Utility knife
  • Carbide-tipped hole saw (for light switches, outlets, etc.)
  • Safety gear (gloves, goggles, mask)

Make sure you have all the required tools and tile adhesives before you start. Thinset mortar and grout can be purchased at most hardware stores. Having the right tools like a tile cutter makes professional-looking cuts much easier.

Preparing Your Work Surface

Proper preparation of the installation area is crucial for a long-lasting backsplash. Follow these tips to prep your work surface:

  • Clean thoroughly – Wipe down the entire backsplash area with a clean, damp cloth to remove grease, dust and debris. This helps the thinset adhere properly.
  • Remove existing backsplash – If there is an existing backsplash, carefully pry it off the wall with a putty knife or chisel. Scrape off all old tile adhesive.
  • Apply cement backerboard – Cut pieces of cement backerboard to fit your backsplash area. Apply with tile adhesive and screw into studs. Cement backerboard provides a water-resistant base.
  • Tape seams – Cover all seams between backerboard pieces with fiberglass mesh tape. Embed the tape in a layer of thinset. This seals the seams.
  • Mark proper height – Measure up from your countertop and mark a level line where you want the bottom row of tiles to sit. Account for grout joints in your measurement.

Take your time prepping the worksurface. Any unevenness will transfer to your tile job. Thoroughly cleaning and removing debris also prevents the tiles coming loose later on.

How to Cut Subway Tiles

Most subway tile backsplash installations require some careful tile cutting to fit around outlets, pipes, corners, and edges. There are a few techniques for cutting subway tiles:

  • Tile cutter (scorer) – Use a manual tile cutter for straight cuts and simple notches. This tool scores the glaze so tiles snap cleanly. Great for miter cuts.
  • Wet saw – A wet saw with a diamond tile blade makes precise curved and angled cuts. Essential for cutting L-shapes and holes.
  • Nippers – Tile nippers nibble away small bits for rounding corners or other small adjustments after breaking scored tiles.
  • Grinder – Use a rotary tool with a diamond wheel for detailed cuts like electrical boxes. Wear a mask to prevent inhaling tile dust.

Plan your tile layout on paper first to determine which tiles need cutting. Always cut tiles face up for best results. Cut tiles before installing whenever possible.

Applying Thinset and Installing Tiles

With your surface prepped and tiles cut, you’re ready to start installing the subway tiles. Follow these steps:

  • Mix thinset – Mix up a batch of thinset mortar adhesive according to package directions. Let it slake for 10 minutes before using.
  • Apply thinset – Use a notched trowel to spread a thin layer of thinset onto the backerboard where the first tiles will go. Spread in straight rows.
  • Set bottom row – Press the bottom row of tiles into the thinset with light twisting motions. Use spacers between tiles for consistent grout joint size.
  • Check level and alignment – Make sure the bottom row is perfectly level using a spirit level. Adjust as needed before the thinset dries.
  • Apply more thinset – Spread more thinset with the notched trowel and set the next row of tiles. Align with spacers and level. Repeat until all full tiles are set.
  • Cut edge tiles – Measure and cut edge and corner tiles to fit. Grind cut edges smooth. Set cut tiles in thinset.

Work in small sections so thinset doesn’t dry before tiles are set. Always check each row for levelness and alignment. Wipe away any excess thinset with a damp sponge as you work.

Grouting and Sealing the Tile Backsplash

Once all your tiles are firmly set in the thinset adhesive, it’s time to grout and seal the backsplash. Take your time with grouting to prevent smearing or staining the tiles.

  • Let thinset cure – Let the thinset fully cure behind the tiles according to manufacturer’s directions before grouting, usually 24-48 hours.
  • Mix and apply grout – Prepare grout according to package directions and work it into the joints with a rubber grout float.
  • Wipe away excess grout – Let the grout sit for a few minutes before wiping diagonally across tiles to remove excess. Rinse grout sponge frequently.
  • Clean haze – Once grout dries, use a clean, damp sponge to wipe any remaining grout haze off the surface of tiles.
  • Seal grout – After grout has cured 24-48 hours, apply a penetrating grout sealer following manufacturer instructions. Allow sealer to soak in fully.
  • Caulk edges – Once grouted, run a bead of bathroom caulk along the top edge and side edges where tile meets wall.

Always mix grout and follow package directions. Using sanded caulk for joints wider than 1/8 inch and non-sanded for narrower joints. Sealing the grout prevents stains and damage from moisture.

Helpful Tips and Tricks

Follow these additional tips and tricks for ensuring your subway tile backsplash installation goes smoothly:

  • Stagger tiles brick pattern style for most visually appealing results
  • Use leveling clips beneath tiles if your wall has uneven spots
  • Thoroughly mix adhesive and grout to a smooth, lump-free consistency
  • Plan your layout and tile cuts on paper first to minimize waste
  • Use painter’s tape around edges to protect cabinets and countertops from thinset and grout
  • Ensure edges and corners have full tile coverage by balancing cut tiles
  • Clean any grout haze immediately before it dries using damp rag or cheesecloth
  • Use a popsicle stick or toothpick to fix any missed grout joints after cleaning
  • Avoid wiping grout joints too early or it can pull grout out of joints
  • Allow thinset and grout to fully cure before sealing or exposing to moisture
  • Apply penetrating sealer annually to protect grout from stains and damage

With the right tools, attention to detail, and thorough planning, you can achieve stunning results with a DIY subway tile backsplash. Taking the time to properly prepare your worksurface and carefully laying the tiles and grout will give you a flawless finished product.

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing a Subway Tile Backsplash

Many homeowners have additional questions when taking on the project of installing a subway tile backsplash. Here are answers to some of the most common FAQs:

Do Subway Tiles Need to Be Sealed Before Grouting?

Sealing subway tiles before grouting is not necessary. The grout will provide the seal between the tile joints. Sealing tiles beforehand can prevent the grout from properly adhering.

What Thinset Should Be Used With Subway Tiles?

A polymer-modified thinset is the best choice for a subway tile backsplash. The latex polymers make the thinset more flexible and water-resistant once cured. This provides a stronger bond and protection from moisture.

How Long Does Thinset Take to Dry and Cure?

Thinset adhesive dries within 24 hours but takes longer to fully cure. Avoid grouting or exposing the tile to moisture until the thinset has cured for a full 72 hours. Check the thinset packaging for recommended cure times.

What’s the Easiest Way to Apply Grout Between Subway Tiles?

Using a rubber grout float makes applying grout smooth and effortless between subway tiles. Hold the float at a 45-degree angle and work it diagonally across tiles to press grout into joints. Always mix grout to a smooth, lump-free consistency.

Should You Use Sanded or Unsanded Grout for Subway Tiles?

In most cases, sanded grout is ideal for subway tile joints since they are at least 1/8 inch wide. Sanded grout has fine sand particles that allow it to bond tightly in wider joints. Only use non-sanded grout for joints less than 1/8 inch.

How Long Does Grout Need to Cure Before Sealing the Tiles?

Allow grout to cure for 72 hours before applying a protective sealer. This gives the grout time to fully harden and avoid issues with sealing. Only use a penetrating sealer formulated for grout for best results.


Installing a subway tile backsplash boosts your kitchen’s style and makes a bold design statement. By following the techniques outlined here for properly preparing your worksurface, carefully applying thinset adhesive, accurately cutting and placing tiles, expertly grouting, and sealing the installation, you can achieve a stunning, professional-looking backsplash project. With the right materials, tools, and focus on the details throughout each step, your new backsplash is sure to be strong, sleek, and beautiful for years of cooking and entertaining.