How to Start Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that have a timeless, classic look. The small shape and tight grout lines create a clean, sleek finished product. Subway tiles have increased in popularity in recent years due to their versatility and affordability. With some planning, tile setting materials, and time, you can create a stunning backsplash featuring subway tiles.

Selecting Subway Tiles

Many factors go into selecting subway tiles for your backsplash. Carefully consider these aspects before making a purchase:

Tile Material

Subway tiles are available in different materials:

  • Ceramic – This is the most common. Ceramic is affordable, easy to cut, stain and scratch resistant. Offered in a range of styles.
  • Porcelain – Denser and less porous than ceramic, making them more water- and stain-resistant. Prone to chipping if cut improperly.
  • Glass – Made from cut glass, these have a shiny, luxurious look. Prone to chipping and harder to cut. Need extra caution when installing.
  • Metal – Made from tin, stainless steel or other metals to give an industrial vibe. More expensive but long-lasting.

Tile Size

Standard subway tiles are 3 by 6 inches, but thinner 2 by 6-inch versions and longer planks are available. Consider what size suits your design aesthetics and space best.

Tile Color

Subway tiles come in virtually endless color options. Whites and light neutrals are most common, but bold colors like black and navy add drama. Consider undertones so tiles complement your cabinets and counters.

Tile Finish

Subway tile finishes include:

  • Gloss – Reflective, shiny surface that amplifies light. Easier to clean. Can show imperfections.
  • Matte – Flat, non-reflective finish with a classic look. More prone to staining and holding dirt if not sealed properly.


Measure your backsplash space and use an online calculator to determine how many tiles you need. Purchase 10-20% extra to account for broken tiles and cutting.

Tile Variation

Subway tiles can look slightly different from one another. If variation concerns you, inspect them in person rather than buying online.

Preparing for Installation

Proper prep work is crucial for achieving a successful backsplash installation.

Clean Surface Thoroughly

Use a degreaser to remove any dirt, oil or soap scum from the installation surface. Rinse and let dry completely.

Remove Obstacles

Take out existing backsplash, outlet covers and switch plates if present. Fill any holes or imperfections in the wall.

Prime Painted Surfaces

If installing over painted drywall, apply a primer coat so the thinset mortar adheres properly.

Gather Supplies

Purchase tile adhesive, grout, grout sealer, caulk and all necessary tools before starting. Having materials ready prevents delay.

Plan Tile Layout

A well-thought-out tile layout looks more cohesive and professional. Decide the positioning of full, cut and border tiles.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

With proper preparation completed, you’re ready for installation. Follow these steps:

Step 1: Apply Tile Adhesive

Use a notched trowel to spread a layer of thinset mortar adhesive on the installation area. Apply only as much as you can tile over within 30 minutes.

Step 2: Place Tiles

Working in sections, press tiles firmly into the adhesive. Push them forward and back to collapse the mortar ridges and achieve full coverage.

Step 3: Check Alignment

Ensure tiles are evenly spaced and aligned. Use spacers between tiles if needed. Work methodically row by row for the straightest possible rows.

Step 4: Cut Border Tiles

Measure and cut border tiles to fit around edges and obstructions using a wet saw or tile cutter. File edges smooth.

Step 5: Clean Up Excess Adhesive

Before adhesive dries, use a damp sponge to wipe away excess. Be diligent to prevent haze and adhesion issues.

Step 6: Allow Tile to Set

Let tile set for 24-48 hours without disturbing. Verify all tiles are firmly attached and evenly aligned.

Step 7: Grout Tile Joints

Using a rubber grout float, spread grout over the entire installation to fill joint spaces completely. Hold float at a 45° angle.

Step 8: Wipe Away Excess Grout

Again work in small sections. Wipe diagonally across tiles with a damp sponge to remove surface grout haze. Rinse sponge frequently.

Step 9: Seal Grout

Once grout has cured 24 hours, apply grout sealer following product directions. This prevents staining and makes grout easier to clean.

Step 10: Caulk Edges

Use a flexible silicone caulk to fill any gaps between tiles and countertops, cabinets, walls, and edges.

That covers the essential process for achieving a flawless subway tile backsplash! With care and patience, you can get professional-looking results.

Tips for Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these tips and tricks for making your subway tile backsplash installation go smoothly:

  • Always use a level and measure twice to ensure your tile rows stay straight.
  • Mix tiles from several different boxes while installing to minimize shade variation.
  • Use a tile wet saw for quicker, cleaner cuts than a manual tile cutter.
  • Wipe away adhesive on tile surface before it dries using a damp sponge in a circular motion.
  • Make perfectly square cuts by taping tiles to mark cut lines before placing on tile wet saw.
  • Use a grout sealing sponge for less mess and waste applying grout sealer.
  • Change rinse water often to avoid spreading dirt and haze during clean up.
  • Caulk where tile meets countertop or other materials to allow for normal expansion and prevent cracking grout.

Common Problems Installing Subway Tile

Even if you follow all the right subway tile backsplash installation steps, you may encounter a few issues. Here are some common problems and how to avoid them:

Uneven Grout Lines

Solution: Check tiles for even alignment and use spacers. Inspect grout lines for consistency and redo areas with irregular gaps.

Grout Haze

Solution: Wipe tiles thoroughly during installation to remove adhesive. Buff dried haze gently with cheesecloth and mild cleaner.

Cracked or Popped-Off Tiles

Solution: Ensure adhesive coverage is complete and setting time adequate. Replace cracked tiles and re-adhere popped tiles.

Crooked Rows

Solution: Frequently check level and tile spacing. Remove and adjust tiles if rows drift noticeably off.

Grout Cracking

Solution: Avoid excess water during grouting. Seal grout properly and caulk tile edges to allow for subtle expansion and contraction.

With careful installation and some patience, you can achieve beautiful backsplash results with subway tile. Don’t be afraid to seek help from an experienced tile pro if you run into trouble.

Backsplash Design Ideas with Subway Tile

The classic rectangular shape and small scale of subway tiles lend themselves well to both vintage and contemporary backsplash designs. Here are some stylish ways to use subway tile:

All-White Backsplash

Creating a backsplash using only white subway tiles and white grout results in a seamless, clean appearance. The simplicity highlights decorative wall accents and ties into both traditional and modern kitchens.

Subway Tile With Accent Strips

Alternating plain white subway tiles with rows of metallic or brightly-colored tiles adds eye-catching contrast. Place the accent tiles sparingly for a hint of color.

Herringbone Pattern

Installing subway tile in a zig-zag herringbone pattern adds beautiful visual interest to a backsplash. The geometric design works with many color combinations.

Subway Tile With Decorative Borders

Frame basic white subway tiles with decorative listello, mosaic or handmade ceramic tiles. This elevates the look while allowing the subway tile to shine.

Mixing Tile Sizes

Incorporating different tile sizes, such as 4×4 or 6×6 tiles, can break up the uniformity of traditional subway tiles. Use these larger tiles sparingly as accents.

Boldly Colored Subway Tile

Paint your backsplash with exciting color by installing vibrantly colored or multi-colored subway tile. Contrasting grout lines also emphasize the color.

With limitless options for color, patterns, borders and designs, subway tile adapts well to both rustic and modern backsplash styles. Pick a look that excites you and fits your kitchen or bathroom style.

Choosing Grout Color for Subway Tile

Your grout color plays a big role in the look of a subway tile backsplash. Follow these guidelines on selecting the right grout color:

Match Grout to Tile

Choosing a grout color that matches or blends with the tile minimizes visibility of grout lines for a cleaner look.

Contrast Grout for Drama

With light colored subway tiles, a dark charcoal or ebony grout makes the grout lines pop for added visual interest. Keep wider than 1/8 inch.

Softly Contrasting Grout

For white or light tiles, grout shades like almond or linen provide subtle contrast without overpowering the tile color.

Avoid Staining

Opt for an epoxy-based grout if using natural stone or porous tile where staining is a concern.

Always apply grout sealer after installation to maximize stain resistance. Consider your tile color and design style when selecting a grout color. The right choice can make your backsplash look crisp and cohesive.

Subway Tile Backsplash Maintenance and Care

A subway tile backsplash is a long-lasting investment. Follow these maintenance practices to keep it looking fresh:

  • Seal grout annually to protect it from stains and abrasion. Reapply more frequently in busy kitchens.
  • Immediately wipe away any food, oil or grease splatters to prevent stubborn staining.
  • Clean with mild, pH-neutral cleaners. Avoid harsh chemicals and abrasives.
  • Use a specially formulated tile and grout cleaner regularly to remove residue and soap scum.
  • Rinse thoroughly with clean water and avoid flooding the area when cleaning.
  • Re-caulk areas that show cracking or gaps seasonally. This prevents moisture issues.
  • Inspect for damage or loose tiles over time. Re-adhere or replace individual tiles as needed.

With proper care, your subway tile backsplash will maintain its beauty and function for many years in your home. Don’t hesitate to call a tile professional for deep cleaning or repairs.

FAQ About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

What type of tile adhesive should I use?

For most surfaces, a polymer-modified thinset mortar is recommended. It provides a strong bond on surfaces like cement, drywall, plywood, and plaster. Reference manufacturer instructions.

How long does thinset mortar last after mixing?

Tile adhesive is usable for 2-3 hours typically. Discard after it becomes stiff and difficult to apply in an even layer.

What size notch trowel do I need?

Use a 1/4 x 3/8-inch square or U-notched trowel for subway tiles to achieve proper adhesive coverage.

How soon can I grout after installing tiles?

Wait at least 24 hours after installing tiles to allow adhesive to cure fully. This prevents tiles from shifting when applying grout.

Should my subway tile backsplash go all the way to the ceiling?

Usually backsplashes end around 4 inches above countertops. Going to ceiling lends a contemporary, sleek look.

How are subway tiles different from other ceramic tiles?

Subway tiles have a classic rectangular shape sized lengthwise at 3-6 inches. The elongated shape installs in a linear pattern.

What’s the best way to cut subway tiles?

A wet saw with a diamond blade produces precise cuts. Use a sharp utility knife and ruler to score and snap smaller cuts.

Can I install subway tiles directly over existing tile?

Yes, if old tile is in good condition you can install right over it to save time. Use caution to avoid damaging the subsurface.

How long does grout need to cure before sealing?

Grout should cure 24-72 hours typically before applying a protective sealer according to manufacturer’s guidelines.


Installing a subway tile backsplash brings a major style boost to your kitchen or bathroom. With smart planning, care, and effort, you can achieve striking results. Focus on preparing your workspace, using quality materials, and applying tiles carefully according to these recommendations. Don’t rush the process. Keep your design vision in mind, but allow time for proper thinset mortar curing and grouting technique. Finish by sealing and maintaining your backsplash to promote longevity. With patience and persistence, your subway tile backsplash can become a beloved focal point in your home for years to come.