How to Set Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. The classic rectangular tiles arranged in a brick pattern create a timeless look. Setting subway tile is a relatively easy DIY project that can make a big impact. With some planning, the right materials, and proper technique, you can achieve a beautiful backsplash that suits your décor and style. We’ll walk you through the entire process of how to set subway tile for your backsplash.

Choose Your Tile

The first step is selecting your actual tile. Subway tiles come in different sizes, colors, textures, and materials. Decide what will pair well with your existing decor and what size tiles you prefer.

Tile Sizes

The most common subway tile sizes are:

  • 3 x 6 inches – This long, rectangular size has a traditional look. The elongated tiles help draw the eye up and create a sense of height.
  • 4 x 4 inches – Square tiles have a more contemporary, streamlined appearance. The tiles fit neatly together with barely any grout lines.
  • 3 x 12 inches – Extra long tiles can make for an elegant, dramatic statement. Fewer grout lines create a sleek look.
  • 2 x 8 inches – Smaller tiles like these work well in a herringbone pattern. The petite scale offers plenty of grout lines and texture.

Consider the overall vibe you want for the space. Larger tiles and less grout create a more seamless, modern look. Smaller tile sizes have a classic charm with their grids of grout.

Tile Materials

Subway tiles come in an array of materials:

  • Ceramic – Budget-friendly and easily available. Offered in a huge range of colors and finishes.
  • Porcelain – More durable and water-resistant than ceramic. Withstands moisture and stains. Can mimic natural stone, metal, and other textures.
  • Glass – Gorgeous glossy finish. Can be solid colored or transparent like a stained glass. Available in bold hues. Prone to chipping.
  • Marble – Elegant and timeless. Softer appearance with natural veining in the stone. Requires sealing. Can stain or etch.
  • Metal – Brings contemporary, industrial vibe. Often made with tin, aluminum or stainless steel. Prone to scratches.

Tile Style

Beyond just size and material, there are numerous style options:

  • Solid – Single color tiles for a clean, seamless look. Easy to match with other decor.
  • Patterned – Decorative touches like gradients, dots, stripes, or geometric shapes. Makes the tiles more dynamic.
  • Textured – Adds depth and dimension. Choose a subtle linear etching or more pronounced 3D pattern.
  • Glossy or matte – Glossy finishes reflect more light. Matte is more muted. Consider the amount of shine you want.
  • Accent strip – An intermittent row of tiles in a contrasting color, finish, or material adds interest.

Get creative and mix up sizes, textures, materials, and designs. Don’t be afraid to blend complementary tiles. The varied details will make your backsplash unique.

Gather Your Materials

Once you’ve selected your subway tile, ensure you have all the necessary materials on hand before starting the project. You’ll need:

  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Grout
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Tile spacers
  • Mixing bucket
  • Notched trowel
  • Grout sponge
  • Grout cleaning sponge
  • Tile cutter
  • Safety gear – gloves, goggles, knee pads
  • Cleaning supplies – sponge, bucket, towels

Use sanded grout for joints wider than 1/8 inch, which includes most subway tile applications. Make sure all materials comply with the tile manufacturer’s instructions. Having all your supplies in order ahead of time will make the installation process go smoothly.

Prepare the Surface

Proper prep work is crucial to ensure your subway tiles adhere properly and last. Make sure the surface is:


Eliminate any grime, sealers, waxes, and oils so the thinset can bond effectively. Clean with an ammonia-based degreaser if needed. Rinse thoroughly.

Smooth and Flat

Any bumps, ridges, or imperfections can cause tiles to crack or pop off later. Sand down any high spots. Use self-leveling compound if the wall is very uneven.

Structurally Sound

Look for cracks, loose paint, or weak spots. Repair before tiling. Holes or damaged drywall should be patched and primed.

Mark Your Layout

Map out your tile arrangement with chalk lines before applying any adhesive. This helps ensure the tiles will be evenly spaced and aligned. Mark horizontal and vertical reference lines where tiles will intersect.

Tip: If installing a focal tile like an accent strip, center and level it first since the surrounding tiles will be laid based on its position.

Apply the Thinset

With your layout planned, it’s time to spread the thinset mortar that will adhere the tiles. Follow the adhesive manufacturer’s mixing instructions carefully. Use a notched trowel to spread a thin, even layer of thinset onto the surface where tile will go.

Choose the Right Trowel Size

  • For walls, use a 1/4” x 3/8” V-notched trowel
  • For floors, use a 1/4″ x 1/4″ square-notched trowel

These sizes match up well with standard subway tile. The ridges will help support the tile and create full adhesive contact.

Only Spread a Workable Area

Thinset dries quickly, so only apply enough for tiles you can set within 10-15 minutes. Once an area starts to dry, scrape it off and apply fresh thinset.

Use the Proper Technique

Hold the trowel at a 45° angle and spread with a firm, straight motion. Maintain consistent depth and fully cover the marked sections. Immediately follow with horizontal ridges for maximum grip.

Set the Tiles

Once the thinset is prepped, it’s time to set your tiles. Work methodically section-by-section to keep the spacers even and tiles aligned.

Use Tile Spacers

These small plastic crosses ensure consistent grout line size. Place spacers at tile corners when setting each piece.

Set Tiles in the Thinset Bed

Press tiles firmly into place, twisting slightly. Use light taps with a rubber mallet if needed to fully embed them.

Check Alignment Frequently

Make sure tiles remain level and aligned with your chalk lines as you go. Make minor adjustments quickly before the thinset dries.

Leave No Gaps or Raised Edges

Inspect all sides of each tile to ensure it’s flush with no gaps, raised edges, or lippage between tiles.

Tip: For easier installation, use nippers to trim and shape edge tiles to fit instead of trying to adjust full tiles.

Grout the Tile

Once the thinset has cured fully (usually 24-48 hours), it’s time to grout. Grout fills the joints and bonds the whole surface together.

Mix the Grout

Follow the package directions to get the ideal thick, peanut butter-like consistency. Let it slake for 10 minutes then remix before grouting.

Apply Grout Along the Joints

Use a rubber grout float to spread it evenly across the tiles, pressing into joints fully. Hold the float at a 45° angle and scrape diagonally across tiles.

Let It Set Up Slightly

Wait 10-15 minutes for the grout to firm up some. This makes it easier to clean off the tile faces smoothly.

Clean Excess Grout

Wipe a damp grout sponge diagonally across tiles to remove excess grout. Rinse the sponge frequently to keep it clean.

Polish the Surface

Once all haze is removed, rub a clean, dry towel across the tiles to polish them and remove any remaining film.

Tip: Avoid wiping across joints to prevent pulling grout out. Go diagonally or use circular motions.

Seal the Grout

Applying a penetrating grout sealer is highly recommended. This prevents stains from working into the porous grout over time.

Allow Time to Fully Cure

Wait at least 72 hours after grouting to apply sealer so it can absorb deeply.

Apply the Sealer

Roll or paint it evenly across all grout lines, taking care not to spill onto tile faces. Wipe up any excess.

Allow Proper Curing

Let the sealer soak in fully, usually 30 minutes to 1 hour. Avoid wetting the area during that time.

Once your grout is sealed, your striking new subway tile backsplash is complete! Proper prep, careful tile setting, and meticulous grouting will result in a stunning, long-lasting installation you can enjoy for years.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some subway tile backsplash ideas?

  • Classic white 3×6” tile paired with marble countertops and stainless steel appliances for timeless style
  • Bold, varied colors and patterns for an artsy, eclectic look
  • Mini tiles in herringbone design for visual texture and movement
  • Extending tile up to ceiling for a towering, dramatic focal point
  • Mixing glossy and matte tiles for dimension and shine
  • Contrasting edge or decorative border tiles to add interest

What color grout should I use with white subway tile?

For white subway tile, stick with a light grout color like white or light gray to maintain a clean, seamless look. Avoid any dark grout tones that would make the grid pattern more pronounced. White or off-white grout blends in discreetly.

Should subway tile go all the way to the ceiling?

It’s an aesthetic choice whether to extend subway tile all the way to the ceiling or stop at a standard backsplash height. Floor to ceiling tile can create a bold, dramatic statement and sense of height. But it also requires precise tile-setting to keep tight grout lines when covering such a large area. The standard backsplash height of 4 feet or so allows you to concentrate on flawless tile work within a smaller space.

What kind of subway tile is best for kitchen backsplash?

Porcelain and ceramic tiles work extremely well for kitchen backsplashes. The tiles stand up to heat, grease, stains, and moisture. Porcelain tiles are more durable and water-resistant. For high traffic kitchen areas, choose tiles with PEI rating of 4 or higher for abrasion resistance.

How do you cut subway tiles?

The easiest option is using tile nippers to nibble away small bits to shape and customize edge pieces. For straight cuts, score the tile with a cutter then snap downward over an edge. For intricate curved cuts, use a wet saw with a diamond blade. Apply painter’s tape where cutting to reduce chipping.

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Installing a subway tile backsplash offers a satisfying DIY project that can completely transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. With the right preparation, materials, and technique, you can achieve pro-level results. Focus on cleaning and evening the surface, proper thinset application, precise tile-setting, uniform grout lines, and sealing. The finished product will be a stunning, low-maintenance tile backdrop to enjoy for many years. With some planning and persistence, you can master setting subway tile backsplash on any wall and gain handy tiling skills.