How to Subway Tile Kitchen Backsplash


Installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen can transform the entire look and feel of the space. Subway tiles are classic rectangular tiles that are arranged in a brickwork pattern. Often bright white or classic black and white, subway tiles create a clean, timeless look for any kitchen design.

Installing a subway tile backsplash is a relatively easy DIY project that can be completed in a weekend. With some planning, patience, and the right materials, you can add this elegant and affordable backsplash to revitalize your kitchen.

In this comprehensive guide, we will walk through every step of how to subway tile kitchen backsplash successfully. We will cover how to plan your design, select tiles, prepare the surface, lay out tiles, grout, and seal. With these tips and techniques, you will gain the confidence to tackle this rewarding upgrade to your home’s heart yourself. Let’s get started!

Choosing Your Tile

The first step is selecting the perfect subway tile for your kitchen backsplash. Here are some things to consider when making your selection:

Tile Dimensions

Traditional subway tiles are 3 inches by 6 inches, but you can find many variations on this standard size. Elongated 4×8-inch tiles have a more modern look. Smaller tiles like 2×4 inches create a more intricate pattern. Larger tiles go up faster, while smaller tiles allow more creativity.

Choose the size that best suits your design aesthetic and complexity of the installation space. Standard 3×6 size is the easiest for first-time installers.

Tile Material

Subway tiles come in ceramic, porcelain, glass, and stone. Ceramic and porcelain are most common. Porcelain is less porous than ceramic and more durable. Glass subway tiles make a shiny, sleek statement. Natural stone like marble adds elegance.

Consider the maintenance required for each material along with the look you want to achieve. Porcelain and glass are lower maintenance than natural stone.

Tile Finish

The finish of the tiles determines the visual texture and light reflection. Glossy tiles have a shiny, reflective surface that bouncing light. Matte or satin finishes offer a classic, subtle look. Textured tiles have varied surfaces for added visual interest.

The tile’s finish impacts the overall feeling of the kitchen. Glossy tiles lend a sleek, modern vibe while textured or matte tiles provide a more traditional charm.

Tile Color

Subway tiles come in endless colors and patterns to match any kitchen’s style. The most popular choices are white, black, gray, and beige for a versatile neutral palette. Bold colors like navy blue, emerald, and sunshine yellow create a vibrant flair.

Consider colors and patterns that align with your overall kitchen design. Neutral white tiles suit both modern and traditional spaces. Don’t be afraid to create contrast with dark grout on light tiles or vice versa.

Accent Tiles

In addition to field tiles, consider using accent tiles to add personality. Patterns, textures, mosaic tiles, trim pieces, and specialty tiles like subway rounds or penny tile provide visual interest.

Accent tiles allow you to highlight a certain area, like behind the stove or around the window. Use them sparingly to keep the look cohesive.

With an endless array of sizes, materials, colors, and textures subway tiles offer, focus on finding ones that suit your kitchen’s needs and style. Sourcing tile samples to view colors in person is highly recommended.

How Many Tiles Do You Need?

Once you have your tiles selected, determine how many you need to purchase. You will need to calculate the square footage of your backsplash area using the tile’s dimensions.

Measure the height and width of the backsplash area. Multiply the height times the width to get the total square footage.

Add a 10-15% overage to account for tile cuts, pattern matching, and future repairs. Round up to order full boxes.

If using accent tiles, measure and calculate those sections separately. Having too many leftover tiles is better than running short during installation.

Carefully review the tile dealer’s return policy before purchasing. Most do not allow returns of opened boxes.

Tools and Materials Needed

Installing subway tile backsplash requires some specialized tools along with basic equipment. Ensure you have everything on hand before starting.

Essential Tools

  • Tile cutter – score and snap cutter for straight cuts
  • Wet saw – for detailed cuts
  • Tile spacers – keep consistent grout lines
  • Tile leveling system – keep tiles even in plane
  • Rubber grout float – apply grout smoothly
  • Grout sealer – seals grout pores

Helpful Tools

  • Laser level – ensures straight layout
  • Mixing paddle – mix thinset and grout
  • Grout bag – fill grout lines evenly
  • Sponge – smooth and clean grout
  • Utility knife – detailed cuts and scraping
  • Carpenter’s square – checking right angles


  • Subway tiles
  • Thinset mortar – attach tile to surface
  • Grout – fill in tile joints
  • Backerboard – cement, Durock, Hardiebacker
  • Waterproofing membrane – for wet areas
  • Trim pieces – edges, transitions, finishes
  • Caulk – seal edges and corners

Preparing the Surface

Installing tile over existing drywall or plaster is not recommended. These materials can crack under a tile’s weight. A proper substrate is required.

For walls, cement backerboard is ideal. It’s moisture-resistant and designed for tiling. Popular options are Durock and Hardiebacker.

For floors or countertops, exterior-grade plywood is suitable. Look for a thickness of 1/2″ to 5/8” to prevent flexing.

Here are the steps to prep the surface:

  1. Remove existing backsplash if present. Scrub surface thoroughly to remove all grease, paint or residue.
  2. Cut backerboard to size with utility knife. Seal joints with mesh tape.
  3. Fasten backerboard with appropriate screws every 6-8 inches.
  4. Fill any gaps or uneven areas with thinset to create a flat surface.
  5. Seal material joints and corners with waterproofing membrane.

The surface must be completely clean and smooth for tiles to adhere properly. Take time to correctly prep, or issues can occur down the road.

Laying Out Your Tile Pattern

Now comes the fun part – planning your tile layout! With subway tile patterns, you can create various visual effects through arrangement.

Classic Brick Pattern

The standard brickwork pattern has each tile offset by half its length. This creates a timeless look and is easiest for beginners.

Decorative Patterns

Get creative with herringbone, chevron, basketweave, and pinwheel designs. Combine shapes and colors. Frame inserts and medallions provide fancy focal points.

Accent Banding

Use trim tiles or borders to define sections. Outline the window, frame the hood vent, or border the bottom. Contrasting colors or materials help accent bands stand out.

Blending Multiple Tiles

When combining field tiles with mosaics or accents, plan the layout carefully. Ensure accent tiles align across grout lines. Balance the space evenly.

Create sketches or use design software to map out patterns accurately. This helps order materials correctly and provides a guide during installation.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Now comes the rewarding part – installing your tiles. With proper prep work and layout completed, the tile setting process goes smoothly. Here are the step-by-step instructions:

Step 1: Apply Thinset Mortar

Mix thinset mortar according to package directions to a toothpaste-like consistency. Use a notched trowel to spread a thin, even layer over a small section of the prepped surface. Spread only enough that tiles can be set before mortar dries.

Step 2: Set the Tiles

Following your layout pattern, press tiles firmly into the mortar. Use spacers between tiles to maintain even grout line width. The mortar should squeeze up to fill any gaps underneath. Periodically check the tiles are level and aligned.

Step 3: Repeat Setting Process

Work in small sections applying mortar and setting tiles. Soon you will have your beautiful pattern emerge row by row. Avoid the temptation to rush!

Step 4: Cut Accent and Border Tiles

When you reach the edges and accent areas, measure and cut tiles to fit. Use a wet saw for specialty cuts and tile cutter for straight cuts. File cut edges smooth.

Step 5: Allow Mortar to Cure

Let the mortar cure 24 hours before grouting. This allows bonds to fully develop strength. Do not walk on tiles and avoid getting them wet during this time.

Tile setting is satisfying but requires patience as you go step-by-step. Measure twice, cut once. Soon you will have a professional-looking backsplash installed by your own hand!

Grouting Subway Tile Backsplash

Once tiles have firmly set, it’s time to grout. Grout fills the joints between tiles with a waterproof material to prevent moisture issues.

Choose a grout color that complements your tile. Contrasting grout highlights the lines, while matching grout minimizes them. Typically, darker grout works better than white.

Follow these pro tips for grouting success:

  • Carefully read grout package instructions before mixing. Use exact water ratios for right consistency.
  • Grout in small sections of about 10 square feet. This prevents drying too quickly before wiping clean.
  • Hold float at 45° angle to force grout deeply into joints. Remove excess grout with minimal wiping or dragging.
  • Smooth grout with light pressure in circular motions. Goal is to fill joints fully without removing too much.
  • Always grout diagonally across tiles to prevent pulling out still-soft grout from edges.
  • Once section is cleaned, rinse sponge frequently to prevent haze and film from drying on tile.
  • Avoid excess water to prevent light colors grout from staining tile. Wring sponge well.

Taking these steps creates clean, uniform grout lines that really make the tile pattern pop! Let the grout cure fully before using the area.

Sealing the Tile Surface

The final step is applying a penetrating sealer on porous tile materials like natural stone. Sealers prevent stains from setting into the tile surface.

Wait a full 72 hours after grouting so that grout has time to fully cure before sealing. Carefully read and follow product application directions.

Apply a thin, even layer across the tile surface using a paint pad, sponge, or spray bottle. Thoroughly wipe off excess sealer with a clean cloth. Multiple thin coats often work better than one thick application.

Reapply sealers periodically over time per manufacturer recommendations. This keeps tiles looking their best for decades to come.

With sealer applied, your stunning new backsplash is complete! Enjoy the stylish focal point and easier-to-clean surface in your kitchen.

Subway Tile Backsplash Maintenance Tips

To keep your backsplash looking fabulous, follow these care recommendations:

  • Use mild soap and water for routine cleaning. Avoid abrasive cleaners or scrubbing pads.
  • Re-seal natural stone tile once a year or as needed to prevent staining.
  • Inspect grout lines occasionally for any cracks or deterioration. Re-grout if needed.
  • Take extra care to avoid nicking or damaging edges when cleaning around the tiles.
  • Immediately clean up spills, splatters or greases to prevent staining. Soap and water can tackle most substances.
  • Consider using a tile cleaning system with a handheld brush for deep, routine cleaning.

With proper care, your subway tile backsplash will provide beauty and function for many years in your kitchen. The time and effort spent are rewarded every time you enjoy using the warm, welcoming space.

FAQs About Subway Tile Backsplash

What is the best grout color for white subway tile?

Popular choices are white, light gray, or off-white. Bright white can create too much contrast and show dirt quickly. A warmer soft white or beige is optimal for a clean look.

Should you seal subway tile before or after grouting?

Always seal natural stone tiles after grouting. Sealers keep stains from penetrating porous materials and grout can stain if not sealed over.

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

For an experienced DIYer, allow 2 full days – 1 day for prep work and laying tile, 1 day for grouting and sealing. Working in small sections helps the process go smoothly.

What color backsplash goes with white cabinets?

White subway tiles are classic, but consider pale blues, soft grays, beige and warm whites for versatility. Dark grout adds contrast against light cabinets. Avoid matching whites exactly.

How do you cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw for specialty cuts like L-shapes, U-shapes and circles. For straight cuts, a snap tile cutter is the quickest option. A sharp utility knife also works in a pinch. Use a tile file to smooth cut edges.


Installing a subway tile backsplash offers an affordable yet dramatic update to any kitchen. With proper planning, tools, and techniques, DIYers can tackle this project successfully. Sourcing quality tile material, prepping the surface, methodically laying tile, expertly grouting, and effectively sealing are the keys to a long-lasting, beautiful outcome.

The finished product provides a cook-friendly, easy-to-clean focal point. The simple classic look of subway tile never goes out of style. With this guide’s step-by-step instructions, you can confidently take on this satisfying upgrade. Soon your family and friends will be admiring your skillfully tiled backsplash for years to come.