How to Put Up Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look and feel of your kitchen. Subway tiles are classic rectangular tiles that create a timeless, clean look. With some planning and effort, you can install subway tile yourself and save on labor costs. This guide will walk you through all the steps for a successful DIY subway tile backsplash installation.

Choose Your Tile

The first step is selecting the right subway tile for your kitchen. Here are some things to consider:

Tile Material

Subway tiles come in several materials:

  • Ceramic – Budget-friendly option that’s easy to cut and install. porcelain is very durable and stain resistant.
  • Glass – Provides a glossy, sleek look. More prone to chipping.
  • Marble or Stone – Natural material that can be expensive but adds elegance. Requires sealing.
  • Metal – Great for a modern, industrial vibe. Choose tin-look or stainless steel.

Tile Size

Standard subway tiles are 3 x 6 inches, but smaller and larger sizes are available too. Large tiles like 4 x 12 inches go faster to install. Smaller tiles allow more creativity in patterns.

Tile Finish

Matte, gloss, polished, or textured – the finish impacts the overall look. Matte is better at hiding flaws while glossy reflects more light.

Tile Color

White and gray are the most versatile. Accent colors like blue or green can complement cabinets or countertops.

Order Extra Tiles

Order 10-15% extra to account for breakage, uneven walls, and future repairs.

Gather Supplies

Installing a subway tile backsplash requires some specific tools and materials. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Tile
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile adhesive
  • Grout
  • Grout sealer
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout float
  • Grout sponge
  • Tile nippers
  • Tile cutter or wet saw
  • Level
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife
  • Masking tape
  • Drop cloths
  • Safety gear like gloves and goggles

Make sure to get the right quantities of adhesive, grout, and sealer for the total square footage of your backsplash. Having all supplies on hand before starting will make the installation go smoother.

Prepare the Work Area

To get started, you’ll need to prepare the work area:

  • Remove existing backsplash if there is one
  • Clean the wall thoroughly to remove dust, oil, and soap residue
  • Fill any holes or uneven spots with spackle and let dry completely
  • Mark the tile layout on the wall with a pencil so you can visualize placement
  • Cover counter and floors with drop cloths to protect from mess

Proper prep prevents problems later on. So take your time to get the work area cleaned and marked before installing.

Apply the Tile Adhesive

Applying the tile adhesive evenly is crucial for getting tiles set firmly in place. Follow these steps:

  • Choose the right adhesive for the tile material and wall type. Latex or thinset mortar adhesive works for most subway tile projects.
  • Prepare the adhesive according to package directions, mixing it to a smooth, lump-free consistency.
  • Use a notched trowel to spread adhesive evenly across a small section of the wall, holding at a 45 degree angle.
  • Apply enough adhesive to cover the section while the mixture is still tacky. Don’t spread too far ahead or the adhesive could dry and not bond well.
  • Use the notched side of the trowel to ensure consistent depth and coverage.
  • Back-butter each tile by applying a layer of adhesive to the back before placing it onto the wall. This improves adhesion.
  • Don’t get adhesive onto the surface of the tiles or in the grout lines. Wipe off any excess immediately with a damp cloth.

Take your time applying the adhesive properly. Rushing could lead to tiles not sticking or uneven spacing.

Cut Tiles Appropriately

Most subway tile backsplash installations require cutting some tiles to fit around outlets, corners, or edges. Make precise cuts with these techniques:

  • Use a wet saw to make straight cuts through subway tiles for a clean edge. Wear eye protection when using a wet saw.
  • For small notches like around outlets, use tile nippers to nibble away small pieces gently.
  • To cut tiles lengthwise, use a utility knife and ruler to score the glaze and snap the tile.
  • For irregular cuts, trace the shape onto the tile and use the utility knife method. Smooth the edges with sandpaper.
  • Apply adhesive fully to cut edges and allow extra time to dry and bond before grouting.

Save leftover tile scraps as they may come in handy for repairs down the road.

Set Tiles in Place

Once adhesive is spread, it’s time to set and space the tiles:

  • Start tiles in the center and work outward to corners to avoid narrow edge pieces.
  • Use plastic tile spacers between tiles to get consistent 1/8” grout lines.
  • Press tiles firmly into the adhesive when placing to ensure maximum contact.
  • Strike tiles with a rubber grout float to embed them further into the adhesive.
  • Check level and plumb lines often to keep tiles aligned. Adjust as needed.
  • Don’t walk on the tiles until adhesive has cured, usually about 24 hours. Allow extra drying time for cut tiles.
  • Remove spacers when adhesive has dried completely before grouting.

If tiles become misaligned, remove and reset them quickly while adhesive is still wet.

Apply Grout Between Tiles

Grout fills the joints between tiles with a waterproof material to finish the backsplash. Follow these tips when grouting:

  • Allow tile adhesive to cure fully before grouting, usually 24-48 hours.
  • Use a grout float to spread grout over the tile surface, forcing it into joints. Hold at a 30° angle and move diagonally across tiles.
  • Let grout sit for 5-10 minutes so it can settle. Then wipe off excess grout with a damp sponge and rinse often.
  • Work in small sections so the grout doesn’t dry before you can wipe off residue.
  • Apply sealing grout for a water resistant finish according to package directions.
  • Allow grout to dry 72 hours before sealing and applying grout sealer according to manufacturer’s directions.

Using a grout color that matches the tile minimizes appearance of uneven grout lines. Contrasting grout can be bold too.

Seal and Finish Matte Tiles

Sealing the grout and tiles is an important final step:

  • For matte finish tiles, apply grout sealer 1-2 times to protect from stains and moisture. Use an applicator bottle or brush on sealer evenly.
  • Buff off any haze after 10 minutes with a soft cloth. Allow sealer to cure fully before using the backsplash.
  • Check manufacturer instructions as some tiles may not require sealing. Over-sealing can lead to a shiny finish on matte tiles.
  • Re-apply grout sealer every 1-2 years for best results and to prevent staining or moisture damage.

Sealing is optional for glazed porcelain or glass subway tiles. Always refer to your specific tile and grout product directions.

And that completes the installation of your beautiful new subway tile backsplash! Proper planning, careful tile setting, and meticulous grouting will lead to years of enjoyment from your upgraded kitchen design.

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Here are answers to some common questions about installing a subway tile backsplash yourself:

How long does it take to install a subway tile backsplash?

The timeframe can range from 1-3 days depending on the size of the area and your DIY experience. Allow additional time for adhesive and grout to fully cure between steps.

What tools do I need to install subway tile?

You’ll need basic tools like a tape measure, level, mixing bucket, notched trowel, grout float, sponges, and utility knife. A wet saw is recommended for optimal subway tile cutting.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw for straight cuts and a utility knife and tile nippers for notches or irregular shapes. A rod cutter can also snap tiles on a scored line. Apply adhesive well on cut edges before setting.

What thinset should I use for subway tile?

A latex or polymer-modified thinset mortar works best. It provides a stronger bond on most surfaces compared to mastic adhesive. Refer to tile manufacturer instructions.

How do I get thinset mortar off tiles?

Carefully wipe any adhesive off tile surfaces before it dries using a barely damp sponge and water. Dried thinset can be scraped off carefully with a razor. Be cautious not to scratch tiles.

Can you use dark grout with white subway tiles?

Yes, contrasting dark grout can provide drama against white tiles. But it also highlights any uneven grout lines. White or light gray grout is easiest to work with and matches most tiles.

How soon can I use the backsplash after installing?

Allow 72 hours for grout and adhesive to fully cure before regular use. Avoid cleaning with harsh chemicals for at least 2 weeks so grout can cure properly.


Installing a subway tile backsplash can make a dramatic difference in your kitchen’s appearance. With careful planning and attention to detail, DIYers can achieve professional-looking results. Focus on proper surface prep, precise tile setting, and smooth grouting for a successful project. Remember to seal the grout and tiles as a final step for long-lasting protection. Let the simple elegance of a subway tile backsplash become a focal point in your kitchen for years to come.