How to Tile a Backsplash with Subway Tile

Tiling your own backsplash with subway tile is an easy and budget-friendly way to give your kitchen an updated, stylish look. With some planning, the right materials, and basic tiling skills, you can transform your backsplash in just a weekend. Here is a step-by-step guide to tiling a backsplash with subway tile.

Choose Your Tile

Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that get their name from their resemblance to tiles used in New York City subway stations. When selecting subway tiles for your backsplash, you’ll want to decide on:


The most common sizes for subway tiles are 3×6 inches or 4×8 inches. The smaller tiles will create more grout lines for a busier look. Larger tiles have fewer grout lines for a cleaner look.


Subway tiles are available in ceramic, porcelain, or glass. Ceramic is the most affordable option. Porcelain is more durable and water-resistant. Glass tiles provide a shiny, sleek finish.


Subway tiles come in glossy, matte, or textured finishes. You can choose a simple white or experiment with bold colors or patterns. A popular design trend is the herringbone pattern.

Accent Tiles

Consider using accent tiles sparingly between subway tiles. Options include mosaic tiles, penny tiles, or decorative listello tiles. Accent tiles provide visual interest.

Gather Your Materials

Before starting your project, gather all the necessary materials:

  • Subway tiles
  • Tile adhesive (thinset mortar)
  • Grout
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Trowel
  • Spacers
  • Tile cutter
  • Wet saw (for cutting intricate shapes)
  • Buckets
  • Tile nippers
  • Safety gear (gloves, goggles, mask)

Make sure you purchase enough tile and grout for the entire backsplash area. Having extra materials on hand is always better than running out halfway through!

Prepare the Surface

Proper surface preparation is crucial for a long-lasting backsplash installation. Follow these steps:

  • Remove existing backsplash if there is one. Scrape off any adhesive residue.
  • Thoroughly clean the area. Remove any grease or soap scum.
  • Inspect for any damage to the drywall. Repair holes or imperfections.
  • Make sure the surface is smooth and dry before tiling.

Check for level and plumb. Use shims if the wall is not perfectly straight.

Plan Your Tile Layout

Take measurements of your backsplash area including the countertops, corners, outlets, and cabinets. Sketch out a layout for your tile pattern. Plan for the tile edges and grout lines. Cutting thin strips of tiles at the edges should be avoided. Adjust your layout to use whole tiles on the outer edges.

Determine if you want the tile pattern to be centered on the backsplash or aligned with a specific cabinet or edge. Planning the layout will make the installation go smoothly.

Apply the Tile Adhesive

Mix up a batch of thinset mortar adhesive according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Use a notched trowel to spread it evenly across a small section of the backsplash, holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle.

Only cover an area that you can tile in about 20 minutes before the thinset dries. Using spacers between tiles will ensure even grout lines. Be sure to press each tile firmly into the thinset.

Cut the Tiles

Use a tile cutter, wet saw, or nippers to cut any edge tiles to fit or to go around outlets. You may need specialty angled cuts to fit around non-90-degree corners. Cut tiles should be no less than half a tile. Wipe dust from cut edges before installing.

Apply the Grout and Finish

Once the thinset has cured fully (usually 24 hours), mix up grout and use a rubber grout float to spread it across the tile surface, pressing into joints. Wipe away excess grout with a damp sponge. Allow grout to dry and apply a sealant.

Finally, caulk between the countertop and backsplash as well as where the backsplash meets the walls. Your subway tile backsplash is complete! Enjoy your stylish new focal point!

FAQs About Tiling a Subway Tile Backsplash

What type of tile adhesive should I use?

Use an adhesive specifically formulated for wall tiles, such as thinset mortar. Do not use multipurpose adhesives which can fail over time.

How do I cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw for specialty cuts and tile nippers for small notches. A manual tile cutter works for straight cuts. Always wear safety goggles.

What size grout lines should I have?

1/8 inch is standard, but you can go as small as 1/16 inch or larger for a more vintage look. Just ensure grout lines are consistent.

How long does the tile adhesive need to dry before grouting?

Refer to adhesive instructions, but generally 24 hours is adequate if the area is kept dry. Longer dry times lead to stronger adhesion.

What’s the best way to apply grout?

Use a rubber grout float and spread diagonally across tiles. Push grout firmly into joints and spaces. Wipe excess grout off tiles before it dries.

Should I seal the grout?

Sealing is highly recommended to prevent staining and discoloration of grout over time. Use a penetrating grout sealer for the best protection.

How do I cut subway tiles around electrical outlets?

Use a rotary tool or saw for straight cuts. Nippers can notch small pieces out. Turn off electricity when working around outlets.

Can subway tile backsplashes have accent tiles?

Absolutely! Small accents of mosaic, penny tile, or glass tile can add nice visual interest. Just don’t overdo it.

Should I remove old backsplash or tile over it?

Removing the old backsplash is best, as tiling over it could lead to failure down the road. Proper thinset adhesion is critical.


Installing a subway tile backsplash boosts style and makes a big impact without a major renovation. With some handy skills and the right materials, tiling your own backsplash is definitely doable. Just be sure to plan your design, properly prepare the surface, use quality thinset mortar, and take care with grout application. Enjoy the satisfaction of the finished project! A stylish, new backsplash can completely transform your kitchen.