How to Put Up Subway Backsplash


Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom can transform the whole look and feel of the space. The classic rectangular shape and clean lines of subway tiles create a timeless, yet trendy backdrop. Subway tiles come in all sorts of colors, materials, finishes and sizes, so you’re sure to find something that matches your style. Putting up a subway tile backsplash is a relatively easy DIY project that can be done in a weekend. With some planning, the right materials and tools, and these step-by-step instructions, you’ll have a stunning new backsplash in no time.

Benefits of Subway Tile Backsplash

There are many reasons subway tile is such a popular choice for backsplashes:

  • Timeless look – Subway tiles have been used in kitchen and bathroom design for over a century. Their classic rectangular shape gives them a clean, uniform look that works in both traditional and contemporary spaces. The look never goes out of style.
  • Budget-friendly – Subway tiles are an affordable backsplash option. The tiles themselves are relatively inexpensive, starting around $5 per square foot.
  • Easy to install – Subway tile layouts are simple and straightforward. The repetitive, grid-like pattern is beginner-friendly.
  • Low maintenance – Subway tiles are very durable and water-resistant. The hard glazed surface resists stains, moisture and grime. They are easy to clean.
  • Design flexibility – Subway tiles come in a huge range of colors, sizes, materials and finishes. They can be paired with different grouts or arranged in patterns.
  • Coordination – It’s easy to match subway tiles with other design elements like countertops, cabinets, floors, accessories. Their neutral shade blends well.

With the right design, subway tile backsplashes can look modern, vintage, rustic, minimalist, or contemporary. They give you great versatility.

How to Choose Subway Tiles

There are a few considerations when selecting subway tiles for your project:

Tile Material

Subway tiles come in a variety of materials:

  • Ceramic – Most common and affordable option. Offered in a wide range of colors and finishes. Durable but can chip or show grout lines.
  • Porcelain – More durable and water-resistant than ceramic. Withstands moisture and daily wear-and-tear. Resists staining and fading. Easy to clean.
  • Glass – Made from recycled glass. Glossy finish and resistance to moisture. Easy to wipe clean but fragile and can break.
  • Natural Stone – Elegant look but very porous unless sealed properly. Higher price tag than ceramic or porcelain. Requires re-sealing over time.

Take into account the amount of moisture and daily use the tiles will be exposed to. Porcelain is best for backsplashes around sinks or stoves.

Tile Finish/Texture

Subway tiles come in glossy, matte or textured finishes:

  • Glossy – Reflective, mirror-like surface. Makes colors pop but shows imperfections easily.
  • Matte – Understated, natural look. Disguises grout lines or inconsistencies well.
  • Textured – Adds dimension and visual interest. Consider a subtle pattern or raised design.

Finish plays a big role in the overall look. Glossy tiles make a contemporary statement, while matte options are more subdued.

Tile Size

Traditional subway tiles measure 3-by-6 inches, but many size variations exist:

  • Jumbo – 4-by-8 inches or larger. Makes a bolder visual impact.
  • Mini – Around 1-by-4 inches. Great for mosaics or adding detail.
  • Elongated – 4-by-12 inches. Gives a sleek, modern look.
  • hexagons – interlocking six-sided shape. Provides pattern and geometry.

Larger subway tiles can make a small space appear bigger, while smaller tiles create more intricate designs.


Subway tiles now come in every color of the rainbow and pattern you can imagine. Consider options like:

  • Solid colors – Available in glossy or matte shades. Easily matched with other kitchen or bath elements.
  • Multicolored – Blend tiles in complementary hues. Use mosaics for retro vibe.
  • Handpainted – Tiles with painted patterns, designs or finishes. Provide artistic flair.
  • Metro tiles – Repetitive geometric or floral motifs. Offer vintage character.
  • Subway brick – Reds, browns, tans replicate look of brick. Rustic appeal.

Select a color scheme that fits your overall room design and decor. Keep in mind light colors open up a space while dark colors lend an intimate feel.

Grout Color

Don’t overlook the grout. Contrasting grout lines make the tile pattern pop while matching grout blends seamlessly:

  • White – Most popular choice. Clean, bright look.
  • Gray – Sophisticated and modern aesthetic.
  • Black – Striking dramatic effect. Use with light tile.
  • Colored – Make a bold statement by matching or contrasting tile.

Grout provides vital structural support and prevents moisture damage. Make sure to use high-quality grout suited for backsplashes.

With the right tile and grout combination, you can create any look from vintage to modern. Now let’s go over everything you need to install your subway tile backsplash.

How to Put Up Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these steps to install a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom:

Gather Supplies

You’ll need the following supplies:

  • Subway tiles
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Grout
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Trowel for spreading adhesive
  • Mixing bucket
  • Tile cutter (snap cutter tool or wet saw)
  • Rubber grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Pencil
  • Safety gear (gloves, goggles, mask)

Make sure to get all the necessary tools and accessories before starting work. Consider renting any equipment you may not already own.

Prepare the Surface

Proper prep work ensures tiles adhere properly for the long haul:

  • Remove existing backsplash if there is one and scrape away any remaining debris or adhesive.
  • Thoroughly clean the surface using an all-purpose cleaner or mild solvent. Make sure the wall is smooth, dry and free of grease.
  • Fill any holes, cracks or uneven spots with spackle. Sand smooth once dry.
  • Prime the surface with a latex primer if painting existing wall. Allow primer to fully dry.

Taking time to correctly prep helps prevent tiles from popping off later. Check for any problem areas that need patching.

Plan the Layout

Carefully mapping out your tile layout is a key step:

  • Measure the space and sketch the wall layout. This allows you to visualize the pattern and design.
  • Determine the tile arrangement. Subway tiles are often laid in a straight stacked grid but can also be laid on a diagonal or in patterns.
  • Choose the starting point based on focal points and sightlines.
  • Use spacers between tiles for consistent grout line width.

Having a defined layout eliminates guesswork and wasted time during installation. Don’t rush this important planning step.

Install the Tile Backsplash

Now it’s time for the fun part – installing the tiles:

  • Mix the thinset mortar adhesive according to package directions. Spread it evenly over a small section of the wall, using the trowel’s notched edge.
  • Press the first tile into the adhesive and wiggle it into place. Use spacers at the corners to allow room for grout.
  • Continue laying tiles row by row. Check occasionally that tiles are level using a spirit level.
  • Cut border and filler tiles using the wet saw or tile cutter. Score and snap tiles for straight cuts.
  • Let the thinset mortar dry completely per manufacturer guidelines before grouting.

Take your time laying the tiles and verifying they are level. Don’t rush through the adhesive drying time before grouting.

Apply the Grout

Grouting seals the tiles and brings the whole design together:

  • Mix the grout according to package instructions and let slake for 5-10 minutes.
  • Use a rubber grout float to spread grout over the tile surface, pressing into joints. Hold float at a 45° angle.
  • Wipe away excess grout with a damp sponge. Rinse sponge frequently to remove haze.
  • When grout has dried to a haze, buff surface with a soft cloth to polish.
  • Apply grout sealer to protect from moisture and staining.

It’s crucial to fully seal grout lines. Go over the area methodically and rinse sponges regularly for best results.

Enjoy Your New Backsplash!

Let the grout cure fully for 48-72 hours. Then stand back and admire your handsome new backsplash! With proper prep and installation, your subway tile backsplash will provide many years of stylish, low-maintenance function.

Now that you know all the steps involved, you can confidently tackle this DIY project. The classic subway tile look will instantly elevate your kitchen or bath. Roll up those sleeves and create a backsplash you’ll absolutely love!

FAQs about Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Many common questions come up when installing a subway tile backsplash. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:

What kind of tile adhesive should I use?

Use a polymer-modified thinset mortar adhesive suitable for wet areas. Avoid multi-purpose glues which are not ideal for prolonged moisture exposure. Make sure adhesive is designed specifically for the tile material you have chosen.

Can I install subway tiles directly over drywall?

No, tiles should never be installed directly on regular drywall or plaster. The surface must first be treated with a waterproof membrane like cement backer board, fiber-cement board or acrylic sheet membranes.

What spacing is best between subway tiles?

A 1/8 inch spacing is common, achieved using tiny spacers placed at tile corners. Wider spacing of 1/4 inch provides room for more grout and a more visible grid pattern. Narrower 1/16 inch gaps create a tighter mosaic effect.

How long does thinset need to dry before grouting?

Allow 24 hours for thinset mortar to fully cure before grouting tiles if using a traditional product. Rapid-setting adhesives may only require about 2-4 hours before grouting can begin. Check the product specifications.

Should I use sanded or unsanded grout?

For narrow grout lines 1/8 inch or less, use unsanded grout. It can fully pack into skinny joints. For wider grout lines over 1/8 inch, use sanded grout. The sand in the mixture helps fill and firm up bigger grout gaps.

Can I use dark grout with light subway tiles?

Yes, dark grout like black or dark gray can create appealing contrast with white or light tiles. Be aware it will show dirt easily. Use a grout release or sealer to minimize staining on light grout with dark tiles.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Use a manual snap tile cutter for straight cuts and a wet saw with a diamond blade for specialty cuts like L-shapes. Score and snap tiles for clean breaks. For single holes or notches, use a nibbler drill bit tool.

How do I maintain my subway tile backsplash?

Ceramic and porcelain tiles require minimal maintenance. Just use a gentle all-purpose cleaner for routine cleaning. Re-seal grout yearly to prevent staining. Address any new cracks or damage promptly to avoid moisture issues.

With the right know-how, you can install an eye-catching subway tile backsplash in your home. Follow these tips for success!

Products and Tools Needed

Completing a subway tile backsplash project requires having the right products, tools and supplies on hand. Here is a comprehensive list of everything you will need:


  • Subway tiles
  • Accent tiles (if using)
  • Tile spacers

Adhesives and Grout

  • Thinset mortar
  • Grout (sanded or unsanded)
  • Grout sealant


  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Level
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel
  • Tile cutter
  • Wet saw (for specialty cuts)
  • Rubber grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Rags
  • Bucket
  • Safety gear (gloves, goggles, mask)

Additional Supplies

  • Drop cloths
  • Painter’s tape
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Caulk/silicone sealant
  • Sponges
  • Grout haze remover
  • Cleaning solutions

Rental Equipment

  • Wet saw
  • Tile cutter

Having all materials and tools gathered ahead of time prevents delays in getting your project completed. Be sure to protect floors and surfaces with drop cloths during the installation process.

Step-by-Step Installation Guide

Follow this step-by-step guide for properly installing a subway tile backsplash:

Step 1: Prepare the Work Area

  • Clear countertops and remove items from walls.
  • Protect surrounding surfaces with drop cloths.
  • Have all tools, tiles and materials organized and ready.

Step 2: Prepare the Surface

  • Remove any existing backsplash material.
  • Inspect wall for damage or imperfections; repair as needed.
  • Thoroughly clean and dry the surface.

Step 3: Plan the Layout

  • Measure the space and mark the center point.
  • Determine tile arrangement, starting point and pattern.
  • Dry lay tiles if needed to visualize layout.

Step 4: Apply Thinset Mortar

  • Mix thinset per package directions.
  • Spread thinset evenly over a small section with trowel.

Step 5: Install Tiles

  • Place the corner of your center starting tile into the thinset.
  • Apply force to press tile into adhesive and achieve full coverage.
  • Use spacers between each tile for consistent spacing.
  • Repeat process row by row until complete.

Step 6: Cut Accent Tiles

  • Mark and cut border and accent tiles to fit.
  • Use a tile cutter or wet saw for specialty shapes if needed.

Step 7: Allow Thinset to Dry

  • Let thinset mortar cure fully according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Step 8: Apply Grout

  • Prepare grout mix per package directions and slake.
  • Spread grout over the tile surface, forcing into joints.
  • Wipe away excess grout with a damp sponge.
  • Rinse sponge frequently and change water as needed.

Step 9: Allow Grout to Dry

  • Allow grout to cure according to manufacturer guidelines.
  • Polish with a soft cloth once dry.

Step 10: Seal & Finish

  • Apply a penetrating grout sealer to protect from stains.
  • Caulk edges and joints if needed.
  • Clean any remaining grout haze.
  • Allow 72 hours drying time before use.

Following these key steps will result in a stunning, professional-looking subway tile backsplash you’ll love. Take it slow and steady for best results.

Tips and Tricks

Installing subway tile backsplash can be straightforward, but these pro tips will ensure success:

Carefully organize tiles before starting. Look for any defects and match tiles for consistent sizing.

Thoroughly mix thinset mortar to avoid sections that cure at different rates. Let it slake 5-10 minutes before applying.

Use a two-part epoxy thinset for installing tile on walls that will get wet. It offers maximum adhesion.

Level tiles frequently as you go using a spirit level. Don’t rely on counters or back walls as guides.

Plan accent tiles throughout the design. Use decorative listellos, mosaics, inlays or borders to add interest.

For outlets, boxes or switches on the wall, measure and cut tiles to fit around them.

For square inside corners, use a specialty L-shaped bullnose tile. For rounded edges, use rounded edge/corner trim.

Change the water in your sponge bucket frequently when grouting to prevent redistributing dirt and haze.

Clean any haze immediately with a grout haze remover cleaner. Don’t allow it to dry on the tile surface.

Caulk where the backsplash meets the countertop later; allow everything to cure fully first.

With careful prep and attention to detail, you can achieve a subway tile backsplash that looks professionally installed. Focus on proper techniques for best results.

Common Problems and Solutions

Despite best efforts, some issues can come up during installation:

Problem: Tiles are adhering unevenly or coming loose.

Solution: Ensure mortar coverage is even. Check expiration date and remix if needed. Allow thinset to fully cure before grouting.

Problem: Tiles crack or chip during cutting.

Solution: Mark and score tiles with cutter before snapping. Use a wet saw and go slowly for specialty cuts.

Problem: Grout lines appear uneven and width varies.

Solution: Use spacers between tiles to maintain proper spacing. Check that your tile layout is level.

Problem: Grout smears on tile face.

Solution: Wipe a damp sponge diagonally across tiles to remove haze. Change rinse water frequently.

Problem: Grout appears cracked or powdery.

Solution: Ensure it is mixed properly and use within its working time. Seal