How to Subway Tile Backsplash Kitchen

Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen is a great way to add visual interest and texture while protecting your walls from splashes and stains. Subway tiles are classic rectangular tiles that are arranged in a brickwork pattern. The rectangular shape and thin grout lines create a sleek, modern look that works in almost any kitchen style. Installing a subway tile backsplash is a DIY-friendly project that can be accomplished in a weekend. With some planning, the right materials, and these step-by-step instructions, you can achieve a stunning backsplash that makes your kitchen look pulled together.

Supplies Needed

Before starting your project, gather all the necessary supplies:

  • Subway tiles: Choose classic glossy white 3×6 inch subway tiles or go bold with glass, marble, or colorful options. Purchase 10-20% extra to account for broken tiles and pattern matching.
  • Tile adhesive: Use white premixed adhesive suitable for walls and wet areas. Avoid multipurpose adhesives.
  • Grout: Choose sanded grout for joints wider than 1/8 inch or unsanded for smaller joints. Match grout color to your tile.
  • Trowel: Use a notched trowel suitable for your tile size. Larger tiles require a trowel with deeper notches.
  • Spacers: Small crosses ensure even grout lines between 3/16 to 1/8 inches.
  • Tile cutter: Snap cutter for straight cuts and nippers for irregular cuts around outlets and fixtures.
  • Grout float: A grout float helps smooth and shape grout lines.
  • Grout sealer: Sealant protects grout from stains.
  • Caulk: Waterproof kitchen-bathroom caulk seals perimeter gaps.
  • Miscellaneous: Buckets, sponges, mixing paddle, grout sponge, clean cloths, painter’s tape, safety gear.

Preparing Walls

Proper prep work ensures your tiles adhere correctly:

  • Clean surfaces: Use TSP cleaner to remove grease and soap scum from walls. Rinse thoroughly.
  • Fill holes and joints: Fill any holes or joints wider than 1/8 inch with joint compound. Sand smooth.
  • Prime: Apply wall primer if painting. Prime bare drywall or questionable existing paint.
  • Mark layout: Measure and mark stud locations. Draw plumb vertical guide lines spaced equal to tile width.
  • Apply backerboard: For best results, install cement backerboard secured with screws to studs.

How To Lay Out Tiles

Planning your layout is crucial for perfectly aligned grout lines:

  • Mark a center plumb line near the middle of the backsplash area.
  • Dry lay tiles up to your line starting from either edge to evenly split any cuts.
  • Adjust layout to avoid slivers smaller than half a tile. Balance cuts on both sides.
  • Mark your final tile location on the last full tile. Protect edges with painter’s tape.
  • Transfer dry layout to your wall using tile spacers for consistent grout line width.

Setting Subway Tile Backsplash

Follow these steps for flawless installation:

1. Mix and Apply Adhesive

  • Pour adhesive powder into a bucket and mix to a thick toothpaste consistency with a paddle.
  • Load notched trowel with adhesive at a 45° angle pressing hard enough to leave ridges.
  • Spread thin layer over a small section of wall using trowel ridges to optimize contact.

2. Set Tiles

  • Beginning near your center line, press tiles firmly into adhesive using light twisting motion.
  • Push tiles toward previous tile to collapse and evenly align spacers.
  • Work in small sections and check level and alignment often. Adjust as needed.
  • Cut edge and fixture tiles using tile nippers and set aside to allow adhesive to cure slightly.

3. Finish Edges

  • Once adhesive begins to skin over, set perimeter and cut tiles. Rebutter back of tile if needed.
  • Run flat edge of trowel back and forth over tiles to flatten ridges and optimize contact with adhesive.

4. Allow Tiles to Set

  • Let tiles set undisturbed for at least 24 hours. Avoid walking on tiles while adhesive cures.
  • Keep area clean and dry. Prevent contamination by food, dirt, or other substances.
  • Do not grout until tiles are firmly secured. Test by trying to twist a tile.

Grouting Subway Tile Backsplash

Grouting fills joints between tiles. Follow these tips for best results:

To apply grout:

  • Holding grout float at 45°, firmly pack joints with grout, pressing diagonally across tiles.
  • Remove excess grout held on tile faces by holding float edge flush and drawing diagonally across tiles.
  • After 10-20 minutes, use a damp grout sponge in a circular motion to smooth and shape joints. Rinse sponge frequently.
  • Avoid excessive wiping which can pull grout from joints. Match grout line widths.
  • Once grout becomes firm, polish tiles with a soft cloth to remove haze.
  • Allow 24 hours for grout to cure before sealing or using fixtures. Avoid wetting grout for at least 3 days.

Sealing the Tile and Grout

Sealing your backsplash protects it from stains:

  • Clean backsplash thoroughly before sealing to remove any residue or film.
  • Apply grout sealer according to manufacturer instructions. Use an applicator brush for grout lines.
  • Buff off any excess sealer with a clean cloth to prevent residue.
  • Apply 2-3 thin coats of sealer allowing 30 minutes between coats.
  • Avoid walking on sealed surface for 2-3 hours. Keep dry for 24 hours.
  • Reapply sealer once a year or as needed to refresh water repellency.

Finishing Touches

Add the final details for a fully finished backsplash installation:

  • Once grout is fully cured, caulk perimeter joints with a flexible kitchen/bath caulk.
  • Remove any remaining painter’s tape and adhesive residue.
  • Seal around fixtures, outlets, pipes, and other penetrations.
  • Reinstall fixtures, receptacles, switch plates, and appliances.
  • Give grout joints about a week to cure fully before intensive cleaning.
  • Stand back and admire your stunning, easy-to-maintain backsplash!

FAQs About Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Still have questions? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

Should I use sanded or unsanded grout?

Use unsanded grout for joints smaller than 1/8 inch as it offers smoother application and appearance. For larger joints, sanded grout is stronger and resists cracking.

How long should I wait before sealing grout?

Wait a full 72 hours after grouting to allow grout to cure completely before sealing. This prevents sealant from trapping moisture or altering grout color.

What color grout should I choose?

Match grout color to your tiles for a monochromatic look. For contrast, choose a slightly lighter or darker shade that complements the tile color. White and light grey are popular with white subway tiles.

Should I caulk perimeter joints?

Yes, caulking the joints between your backsplash and countertops or walls will seal the installation from moisture. Use a flexible silicone caulk designed for kitchens and baths.

Can I cut subway tiles with a wet saw?

Wet saws are not ideal for subway tiles. The water spray can warp the thin tiles. Use a manual tile cutter for straight cuts and tile nippers for small irregular cuts.

How high should a backsplash be installed?

The standard height is 4 inches above countertops but can be increased if you want more dramatic impact. Building codes limit tile above electrical outlets to avoid covering.

Should backerboard or drywall be used?

For kitchens, cement backerboard is recommended since it resists moisture and provides a more stable base than drywall alone. Follow manufacturer’s installation instructions.


Installing a subway tile backsplash transforms the look of a kitchen by adding eye-catching visual texture. By following the step-by-step process outlined above, you can achieve a stylish, professional-looking backsplash that suits your kitchen’s style. With some careful planning and elbow grease, you can install subway tiles as a DIY project and save on the expense of hiring a pro. Just be sure to properly prepare, use quality materials, and take care to lay out tiles evenly. The end result will be an elegant, easy-to-clean backsplash that instantly elevates your cooking space.