Large Subway Tile Backsplash: Classic Tile Design with a Modern Touch

A backsplash is an integral part of any kitchen design. Not only does it protect the walls from splashes and stains, but it also adds visual interest and ties the whole space together. Large subway tiles have become a wildly popular backsplash tile option in recent years – and for good reason! This classic tile shape blends seamlessly into both modern and traditional kitchens.

In this article, we’ll look at why large subway tiles make such a great backsplash design. We’ll cover how to pick the right tiles, patterns and layouts to try, grout considerations, and how to give this timeless look a modern twist. Read on to learn how to install a subway tile backsplash that will stand the test of time!

What Makes Large Subway Tile Backsplash So Popular?

Subway tiles got their name from their similarities to the tiles used in New York City subway stations. The elongated rectangles, with a length around three times their height, have been used since the early 1900s. While the tiles themselves have been around for over a century, they still have major design appeal today.

Here are some of the reasons large subway tiles are consistently used in backsplashes:

Timeless and Classic Look

The subway tile shape is simple but enduring. The elongated rectangles have a clean, understated look that has never really gone out of style. While trends come and go, subway tiles remain a classic. They work with any kitchen aesthetic from modern to farmhouse to traditional. Their timeless appeal makes them a great investment that won’t look dated.

Sleek and Streamlined

The elongated rectangle shape has a visual effect of making spaces appear taller and walls seem smoother. The large tile size also minimizes the number of grout lines for a streamlined appearance. Fewer grout lines make the space feel cleaner and more upscale.

Easy to Clean

The minimal grout lines of large subway tile backsplashes make them a breeze to clean and maintain. Less grout means there are fewer spots for grime to build up. A damp microfiber cloth is all you need to keep them looking polished.

Great for Small Spaces

The sleek, simple look of subway tiles prevents them from overwhelming a small kitchen. The large tile size also makes the space feel bigger by creating an illusion of expanded walls. For small kitchens, opt for a classic white tile and color in other elements like the cabinets.

Inexpensive Yet Classy

Real subway tiles are made from glazed ceramic or porcelain. This makes them more affordable than other natural stone and tile options. Their classic look also punches above their price, appearing elegant and upscale. With the right design, subway tiles can look just as bespoke as premium materials at a fraction of the price.

Design Versatility

From colors and patterns to shapes and orientations – there are endless ways to design with subway tiles. Their rectangular shape lends well to creativity. Stacked or staggered layouts, bold patterns, contrasting grout and trim are all ways to make them your own.

With all of these benefits, it’s no wonder large subway tiles are the go-to backsplash option for designers and homeowners alike! Next, let’s look at how to pick the perfect subway tile for your kitchen.

How to Choose the Best Subway Tile

Subway tiles may all have a similar shape, but they come in a variety of colors, materials, sizes, and quality levels. Considering the following factors will help you select the right subway tile type for your backsplash installation.


Subway tiles are available in ceramic, porcelain, glass, and stone. Each material has different properties to weigh:

  • Ceramic – Made from clay and glaze. Most affordable option. Can chip if hit. Avoid near stoves.
  • Porcelain – Denser and more durable than ceramic. Resists moisture and stains. Marginal cost increase.
  • Glass – Translucent appearance. Prone to shattering. Not heat resistant. For low-contact areas.
  • Natural Stone – Elegant veined look. Material inconsistencies. Stains easily. Most expensive.

Porcelain is the best combination of durability, affordability and style for backsplashes. High-fired porcelain is dense, water-resistant, and scratch-resistant. It’s suitable for the heat and moisture of kitchens.

Tile Size

Standard subway tiles are 3 x 6 inches or 4 x 8 inches. However, large-format subway tiles up to 12 x 24 inches are also available. Larger tiles minimize grout lines for a cleaner look. The most common options are:

  • 3 x 6 inch
  • 4 x 8 inch
  • 4 x 12 inch
  • 6 x 12 inch
  • 8 x 24 inch
  • 12 x 24 inch

A 6×12 inch or larger size is ideal for maximizing impact and minimizing grout. Just ensure your wall is properly prepared for the heavier tile.

Tile Finish

Subway tiles come in shiny glazed finishes as well as natural unglazed options:

  • Glazed – Glass protective coating. Reflective sheen. Enhanced color. Easier to clean.
  • Unglazed – Natural clay tile appearance. Less slick surface. Needs sealing. More grout stain prone.

Glazed finishes better suit kitchen backsplash applications for their moisture resistance and wipe-clean convenience.

Tile Color

White may be the most popular, but subway tiles come in virtually every color imaginable. Choose a color that complements your cabinetry and counters. Bold hues make a statement while neutral tones blend in.

Some top color choices include:

  • White – Clean, bright, versatile
  • Light Grey – Modern, softens all color schemes
  • Navy – Dramatic punch
  • Green – Natural, earthy appeal
  • Black – Striking contrast
  • Beige – Warm, understated Hickman’s Idea: Include a color wheel image to illustrate color scheme options

Ultimately the tile color you select will come down to your personal style, cabinet colors, and overall kitchen aesthetic. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Varying tile colors, patterns, and orientations is an excellent way to make subway tile backsplashes unique.

Subway Tile Patterns and Layouts

One major advantage of subway tile is the countless array of patterns you can create by laying the rectangular tiles in different orientations. Beyond the basic brick laid pattern, here are some subway tile design ideas to consider:


Stacking the tiles vertically creates a modern, sleek look. It makes ceilings feel taller and rooms appear more spacious. The elongated orientation works especially well for contemporary kitchens. Using a ledger board ensures straight vertical grout lines.

Stacked subway tile backsplash

Stacked subway tiles create clean vertical lines. Photo from The Spruce

Brick Laid

The classic layout, brick laying tiles in a horizontal offset pattern for staggered seams has been used for generations. The offset rows prevent a noticeable grid pattern. Brick laid subway tiles have an effortlessly timeless appeal.

Brick laid subway tile

Brick laid subway tiles in a white kitchen. Photo from Pinterest.


Angling the tiles in a herringbone pattern adds nice visual interest. It remains understated but with a subtle geometric flair. The zigzag layout works in either direction – sloping left or right. Use mosaic sheets to easily achieve precision.

Herringbone subway tile

Herringbone subway tile pattern. Photo from Forgarden.


Chevron patterns use angled ziggurat shapes to form a dramatic zigzag look. Advance planning for tile cuts is needed, so mosaic mesh sheets are the easiest installation method. The bold geometric style pairs well with contemporary kitchens.

Chevron subway tile

A bold chevron design makes a statement. Photo from Pinterest.


Basketweave patterns combine vertical and horizontal tiles for an interlaced look. Using two tile colors enhances the woven texture. Stagger the tile rows for greater dimension. Add white grout to contrast the colors.

Basketweave subway tile

Woven basketweave tiles. Photo from Pinterest.


For a modern pixel vibe, use varying tile sizes like a mosaic. Combine 1”x4” and 4”x4” sizes as contrasting “pixels”. Group lighter and darker tiles randomly for a retro digitized appearance.

Pixelated subway tile

Pixelated mosaic subway tiles create a random pattern. Photo from Pinterest.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

While subway tile itself is relatively inexpensive, professional installation adds cost. With some planning and patience, you can tackle the project as a DIY and save substantially. Here is an overview of how to install a subway tile backsplash:

Step 1: Prepare the Wall

Proper prep work is crucial for a long-lasting result. Clean the wall thoroughly and fill any holes or imperfections with spackle. The surface must be smooth and secure.

Step 2: Plan Tile Layout

Map out your pattern. Account for focal areas like the stove. Cut border and niche tiles accordingly. preorder exact quantities to avoid shortages.

Step 3: Install Backerboard

Screw cement backerboard like Durock or Hardiebacker to the wall studs. This prevents moisture damage. Tape seams with mesh tape.

Step 4. Apply Thinset Mortar

Mix thinset mortar adhesive and apply it to the backerboard using a notched trowel to create ridges. This helps the tiles adhere properly.

Step 5: Cut Tiles

Measure and mark any border, niche, or focal tiles that need cutting to fit. Use a wet saw for clean precise cuts.

Step 6: Apply Tiles

Starting at the center point, press tiles into the grooved thinset and work outwards. Use tile spacers for even grout lines. Allow to cure 24 hours.

Step 7: Grout Tile Joints

Mix grout and apply over the tiles, pressing into joints. Wipe excess grout off tiles before drying. Allow grout to cure fully before sealing.

Step 8: Seal and Finish

Apply grout sealer to protect from stains. Add trim pieces, caulk edges, clean tiles and enjoy your new backsplash!

For detailed guidance, see this step-by-step subway tile backsplash installation tutorial.

Grout Considerations for Subway Tile

Grout fills the joints between tiles, securing them together and protecting from moisture intrusion. Grout color and finish choice are an important subway tile backsplash design consideration.

Grout Color

Lighter grout suits classic white subway tiles, while darker grout can make lighter tiles pop and add definition. Matching or contrasting the grout against the tile color can make a big impact.

Grout Haze

Excess grout residue left on tile faces creates a cloudy “grout haze”. Use caution cleaning tiles before grout dries to avoid a permanent haze. Consider epoxy grout for easier clean-up.

Sanded vs. Unsanded

Sanded grout is best for wide grout lines. It resists shrinking and cracking. Unsanded is for narrow grout joints under 1/8”. Use only unsanded grout with glass tiles.

Sealing Grout

Applying a penetrating grout sealer helps protect grout from stains and discoloration. Annual reapplication is recommended.

Choosing the right grout style for your tile and keeping it well-sealed ensures your subway tile backsplash stays looking fresh.

Modernizing a Classic Subway Tile Backsplash

Subway tile backsplashes suit all design aesthetics from old world vintage to sleek modern. Here are some simple ways to give this classic tile look contemporary relevance:

Mix and Match Tile Sizes

Blending standard bricks with longer planks or mosaics creates eclectic interest. Mixing matte with glossy tiles also adds nice contrast.

Add an Accent Stripe

Boldly framing tiles in a contrasting color or texture adds a graphic liner look. Try a stick on vinyl strip for ease.

Overlap Tiles

Letting tiles overlap slightly and not lining up perfectly gives a relaxed vibe. The staggered seams add organic interest.

Contrast Grout Lines

White tiles with black grout or vice versa makes the joints pop. Thicker grout lines increase the effect.

Add Unconventional Accents

Fun touches like shelf brackets, lighting, metal trims and tile decals modernize traditional subway tiles.

Extend to Ceiling

Running tiles from counter to ceiling in a seamless wall of tile is an on-trend look. It creates a sleek modern aesthetic.

With the right choices, you can easily transform the iconic subway tile shape into a contemporary showstopper.

FAQs About Large Subway Tile Backsplashes

Still have questions about working with large subway tiles for your kitchen backsplash? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

Are large subway tiles hard to install?

The repetitive shape of subway tile makes for a relatively easy DIY install. Just be sure to plan the layout ahead of time and properly prepare the wall surface. Using proper thinset mortar technique and allowing adequate drying time between steps is key.

Should I use different grout colors?

Feel free to get creative and play with contrasting grout colors to complement or accent the tiles. Different grout colors in alternating rows or an accent border can look very modern. Just select grout shades that you find aesthetically pleasing together.

Can I use subway tiles on textured walls?

Subway tiles should only be installed on smooth, flat surfaces like backerboard. Textured paint or uneven plaster walls need to be smoothed with skim coating before tiling. Otherwise, uneven adhesion and cracking can occur.

Are subway tiles suitable for small kitchens?

Absolutely! The sleek minimalism of subway tiles prevents them from overwhelming a tiny space. Larger tiles, stacked layouts, and light colors give the illusion of expanded walls in a small kitchen. Just avoid busy patterns.

Can subway tiles go around corners?

Yes – subway tiles have enough flexibility to turn cleanly around corners and make continuous backsplashes spanning multiple walls. Use white silicone caulk to fill any gaps at inside corners.

Do subway tiles work with under cabinet lighting?

The high gloss finish of glazed subway tiles looks stunning under LED cabinet lighting. Their light reflectivity creates a soft glow and visually enlarges the space when illuminated. Just avoid natural stone tiles, which appear dark under lights.

Achieve a Timeless Backsplash with Subway Tiles

With the versatility to suit any kitchen design, it’s no wonder subway tile backsplashes have been a staple for over a century. Their classic rectangular shape provides a clean, streamlined look. When planning your own kitchen backsplash using these iconic tiles, focus on choosing the right size, color, layout pattern and grout to match your personal style. Mixing in some contemporary touches like bold colors or unconventional shapes allows you to give this timeless tile shape a modern twist. With proper planning and installation, subway tile backsplashes create a fresh, contemporary appearance that you’ll enjoy for decades to come.






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