How to Subway Tile a Backsplash

Subway tile backsplashes are a classic and timeless look for any kitchen. Installing subway tiles on your backsplash is an easy DIY project that can completely transform the look of your kitchen. With some planning, the right materials, and good technique, you can achieve a beautiful and long-lasting backsplash.

Introduction to Subway Tile Backsplashes

Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that get their name from their resemblance to the tiles used in New York City subway stations. They come in a standard size of 3 inches by 6 inches and have a slight beveled edge.

The tiles are typically glazed for easy cleaning. Popular colors choices are classic white, light grey, and black, but subway tiles come in a huge variety of colors and finishes these days. The classic white subway tile backsplash never seems to go out of style and works well in both modern and traditional kitchen settings.

Subway tile backsplashes offer many benefits:

  • Timeless and classic look
  • Available in endless color/finish options
  • Durable and easy to clean
  • Inexpensive compared to other backsplash options
  • Easy for DIY installation

Installing a subway tile backsplash is an approachable project for most DIYers. With proper planning and preparation, you can completely transform the look of your kitchen over a weekend.

This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to successfully install subway tile for your kitchen backsplash.

Planning Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Careful planning is crucial before tiling a backsplash to ensure you purchase the correct quantities of materials and achieve the look you want. Here are some key considerations when planning a subway tile backsplash project:

Selecting Your Tile

Subway tiles come in different material types, sizes, colors, and finishes. First decide what look you’re going for. Some popular options include:

  • Tile material – Ceramic or porcelain. Porcelain is more durable and water-resistant.
  • Tile size – Standard 3×6 inches or more unique sizes like 4×8 inches.
  • Tile color – Classic white, light grey, black are popular. Choose a color that complements your cabinetry and countertops.
  • Tile finish – Glossy, matte, or textured. Matte is the most popular for backsplashes.
  • Accent tiles – Consider using a decorative accent tile between sections or in the niche.
White Subway Tile Backsplash

A classic white subway tile backsplash.

Measuring Your Space

Carefully measure the backsplash area to determine how many full tiles and cut tiles you will need. Don’t forget to account for accent tiles and inside corners when calculating square footage.

Use a measuring tape and take notes of all measurements:

  • Length and height of backsplash area
  • Location of outlets, windows, and cabinets to avoid
  • Size of any niches or special areas

Having accurate measurements allows you to purchase the exact quantity of tile needed. Plan to add 10% extra to account for broken tiles and cutting waste.

Purchasing Materials

Use your measurements to create a subway tile backsplash shopping list. Be sure to include:

  • Tiles – Calculate total tiles needed plus 10% extra.
  • Tile adhesive – Thinset mortar. Budget 1 bag per 30-40 sq ft.
  • Grout – 1 lb covers 30 sq ft. Add 10% extra.
  • Grout float, spacers, grout sealer.
  • Backerboard if needed – Cement, tile, or fiber cement boards.
  • Trowels for thinset and grout.
  • Wet saw for cutting tile – Can rent if needed.
Subway Tile Backsplash Materials

The necessary materials for a subway tile backsplash project.

Designing Your Layout

Map out the tile layout based on your measurements to minimize small cut tiles. Here are some subway tile design tips:

  • Start layout from center and work outward.
  • Place full tiles around focal points like cooktops.
  • Minimize small cut pieces on outer edges.
  • Keep grout lines aligned and even.
  • Use decorative edge tiles for finishing touches.

Make sure your layout follows any specific requirements your tile manufacturer provides. Having a well-planned layout ensures an easy installation process.

Preparing and Priming the Surface

Proper prep work is crucial before installing tile. Follow these steps to prepare your backsplash area:

Cleaning the Surface

Thoroughly clean the entire backsplash area with an all-purpose cleaner or tsp substitute to remove dirt, oils, and soap residue. Rinse well and let dry fully.

Testing for Moisture

Tape a 2 ft x 2 ft plastic sheet on the wall and leave for 24 hours. If condensation forms underneath, there is excess moisture that must be addressed before tiling.

Removing Wall Coverings

Take down any existing backsplashes, wall tiles, wallpaper or other coverings. Scrape off all residual glue or mortar. Fill any holes or cracks with joint compound.

Installing Backerboard

Cement, tile, or fiber cement backerboards provide a water-resistant surface for tile installation. Cut boards to fit using a utility knife. Attach to studs with screws every 6 inches.

Priming Surface

Prime surfaces with a PVA primer to improve adhesion. Allow primer to fully dry. Apply any waterproofing membrane if needed.

The backsplash area should now be prepped and ready for tile.

Installing the Subway Tile Backsplash

Once your prep work is complete, it’s time to start setting those beautiful new subway tiles! Follow these step-by-step instructions for proper installation:

Step 1: Mix Mortar

Mix thinset mortar in a bucket according to package directions. Use a margin trowel to evenly apply a thin layer to the backsplash surface, about 1/4 in thick. Work in sections applying mortar only where you can set tiles before it dries.

Step 2: Set the Tiles

Following your layout, firmly press tiles into the mortar one at a time. Use tile spacers between tiles to ensure consistent grout line spacing of 1/16 or 1/8 inches.

Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Setting the subway tiles into the thinset mortar.

Step 3: Cut Edge and Accent Tiles

Measure and mark any tiles that need cut edges or notches to fit around outlets, corners, or niches. Carefully score and snap tiles using tile nippers. For angled or detailed cuts, use a wet saw. Set cut tiles into place.

Step 4: Apply Grout and Seal

Allow thinset to fully cure per manufacturer instructions before grouting. Apply grout using float, packing it into joints. Wipe away excess. After grout dries, apply grout sealer to protect finish.

Step 5: Seal Tile Surface

Apply sealant to the surface of subway tiles for added protection and water resistance using a paintbrush or foam applicator. Let sealer fully dry.

Once complete, you can now enjoy your brand new, professionally finished subway tile backsplash! Be sure to utilize cutouts behind outlets for easy access.

Tips and Tricks for Achieving a Flawless Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing subway tile is one DIY home project with little margin for error. Use these pro tips to help you achieve a beautiful, long-lasting backsplash installation:

  • Use leveling clips beneath tiles to keep all grout lines perfectly straight.
  • Tape sheets of cardboard to base of upper cabinets to protect surfaces from thinset and grout mess.
  • Apply painter’s tape around edges of backsplash area and electrical outlets to ensure clean finishing edges.
  • Mix tile adhesives and grout precisely according to package instructions for proper curing.
  • Clean any thinset or grout from tile surface immediately to prevent drying and etching tile finish.
  • Install an outlet cover plate right after grouting to prevent it from getting stuck on.
  • Caulk where backsplash meets countertop or other surfaces with quality silicone caulk for clean finish.
  • Seal grout lines once fully cured per manufacturer recs to maximize stain resistance.
  • Use a grout haze remover product to safely clean off any residual grout film or residue after installation.

Taking your time and utilizing pro techniques will ensure your subway tile backsplash transforms your kitchen for years to come!

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing Subway Tile Backsplashes

Still have some lingering questions about DIY subway tile backsplash installation? Here are answers to some of the most common questions:

Do I Need to Hire a Pro for a Subway Tile Backsplash?

While hiring a professional tiler is always an option, installing a subway tile backsplash is definitely a DIY-friendly project for most homeowners with some basic tiling experience. Having the right tools and materials along with following best practices makes achieving a quality finished product very feasible.

What Tools Do I Need for a Subway Tile Backsplash?

Essential tools needed include a tape measure, pencil/chalk line, tile cutter, wet saw, notched trowel, grout float, tile spacers, sponges, buckets, safety gear, and more. You can often rent a tile cutter and other specialty tools if needed.

How is Subway Tile Installed on Drywall?

Subway tiles should not be installed directly on drywall. A water-resistant backerboard rated for walls must first be installed to provide strength and prevent moisture damage. Examples are cement board, tile board, or fiber cement board.

Should I Use Thinset or Mastic for a Subway Tile Backsplash?

Thinset mortar is the recommended adhesive for subway tile backsplash installation. It provides a much stronger, longer-lasting bond than mastic. Only use mastic on surfaces like plaster where thinset can’t adhere.

How Long Does Thinset Take to Dry Before Grouting?

Thinset drying times can vary based on temperature and humidity. In general, allow thinset to cure for at least 24 hours before applying grout. Check manufacturer recommendations for exact thinset cure times.

What Color Grout Should I Use With White Subway Tile?

White subway tiles look best paired with either bright white or off-white grout. Avoid darker grout colors with white tile as it creates a busy appearance. Light grey grout also works well depending on your color scheme.

Transform Your Kitchen With a Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash is one of the best ways to give your kitchen an instant facelift. With the right tile choice and careful installation, you can achieve a high-end backsplash look and increase the style and value of your home.

We hope this comprehensive guide gives you the confidence to tackle your own subway tile backsplash project. Just take it step-by-step, utilize the right tools and materials, and apply the pro tips and tricks provided above. You’ll be thrilled when you complete your sleek new backsplash that will last for years of cooking and entertaining to come.