Subway tiles are a classic and timeless tile option that can work in almost any home. Their simple, rectangular shape and clean lines lend themselves well to a variety of creative layouts and designs. When installing subway tiles, you’re not limited to basic patterns like stacks or running bond. With thoughtful planning and strategic layout techniques, subway tiles can create stunning backsplashes, feature walls, shower surrounds, and more in your home.
What Are Subway Tiles?
Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic or glass tiles typically measuring 3 x 6 inches. They earned the name “subway tile” from their popularity in early 20th century subway station construction. The elongated rectangular shape allowed the tiles to be easily installed in expansive subway tunnels.
Today, subway tiles are a fixture in many modern and traditional homes. While white is the most popular subway tile color, they now come in an array of hues, materials, and finishes. From classic bright white and light grey, to more modern black, bold colors, and unique shapes like hexagons. Subway tile is affordable, low-maintenance, and brings clean lines to kitchens, bathrooms, and other living spaces.
Benefits of Using Subway Tiles
There are many reasons subway tiles remain a staple tile choice:
- Affordability – Subway tiles are very wallet-friendly compared to other tile varieties. Their smaller size allows for greater coverage area.
- Versatility – Available in different colors/finishes, they work in any design style from modern to farmhouse. Easily dressed up or down with grout color.
- Easy Maintenance – Minimal grout lines and smooth surface make subway tile backsplashes easy to keep clean.
- Classic & Timeless – Crisp white subway tiles are a timeless choice that won’t go out of style. They suit traditional and contemporary aesthetics.
- Reflective Surface – Glossy subway tiles can make small spaces feel brighter and more open.
With proper layout techniques, their rectangular shape allows for stunning arrangements beyond basic stacked bonding.
Subway Tile Patterns & Layouts
Subway tiles offer designers an endless array of layout possibilities. Get creative with patterns beyond basic bricks and running bond. Consider layouts like chevrons, herringbone, basketweave, and more. Combining shapes and laying tile on the diagonal opens new doors for eye-catching designs.
Here are some popular subway tile layout patterns and ideas to consider:
The most common and easy layout is stacked, with tiles in straight vertical and horizontal rows like bricks. Traditional white 3×6” subway tiles lend well to basic stack bond patterns. Stacked tiles create clean lines and subtle texture on walls. Slight off-set, brick-like patterns add subtle interest.
[Image caption: White 3×6 subway tiles in a stacked layout create clean lines on a kitchen backsplash.]
For more visual dynamics, lay subway tiles in a herringbone pattern. Rows of rectangular tiles are positioned perpendicular at 45 or 90 degree angles in an interlocking arrangement. Herringbone creates interest and a sense of motion on walls, suitable for modern or traditional spaces.
[Image caption: Bold blue 3×12 subway tiles arranged in a herringbone pattern make a statement.]
Basketweave patterns combine vertical and horizontal tile orientation for serious visual punch. Tiles are alternated to create the look of strands weaving over-and-under each other. The intricate pattern makes a bold style statement and adds loads of personality.
[Image caption: A blend of white and grey subway tiles produce a eye-catching basketweave layout.]
Chevron patterns take advantage of the rectangular subway tile shape to create a signature zig-zag look. Rows are steadily off-set and angled to form jagged stripes down the wall. Chevron makes a modern statement for contemporary kitchens or baths.
[Image caption: Stark white subway tiles form chevron stripes on a bathroom feature wall.]
Laying subway tiles diagonally immediately creates more visual energy. The angled tiles make spaces feel more open and airy. Diagonal subway tiles paired with bold hues or contrasts make a dramatic style statement.
[Image caption: Blue and white diagonal subway tiles create energy and interest in a powder room.]
Subway Tile Inserts
Use subway tiles creatively as insets or accents within a larger tile design. Mini checkerboard patterns with subway tile squares add whimsy. Create false rug inserts on the floor with subway tiles. Use them as a border or frame larger tiles.
[Image caption: A checkerboard of subway and penny round tiles lend playful contrast.]
Mixed Material Accents
Don’t limit yourself to all-tile designs! Mixing in additional materials like marble, stone, metal, or even wood with subway tiles opens new creative possibilities. Contrasting textures and materials prevent all-white backsplashes from feeling flat or mundane.
[Image caption: Rows of marble and white subway tile make an eclectic blend on a kitchen backsplash.]
Subway tiles now come in inventive new shapes, sizes, and dimensions while still keeping their characteristic elongated form. Options like L-shaped, scalloped, or hexagon subway tiles let designers break out of rigid stacked rows. Combine creatively with classic rectangular subway tiles.
[Image caption: Blue L-shaped subway tiles are unconventionally stacked on a bathroom wall.]
Layout Design Considerations
- Space – Consider the size and layout of the area. Small/tight spaces like galley kitchens suit simple stacked bonding best. Larger open concept kitchens can handle bolder herringbone or chevron designs.
- Function – Keep functionality in mind. Intricate herringbone patterns make for tricky grout clean-up behind cooktops. Prioritize easy-to-clean simplicity where food prep occurs.
- Wall Characteristics – Factor in architectural elements like windows, outlets, switch plates, corners etc. when planning tile layouts. Adjust patterns around fixed elements for optimal flow.
- Personal Style – Let your own personal taste and interior design style determine tile layout. Formal traditional interiors suit classic stacked bonding, while contemporary spaces can pull off bold chevron.
With accurate planning and measurements, subway tiles can yield beautiful, creative patterns beyond basic installations. Don’t be afraid to get inventive!
Mixing Multiple Tiles
Another route for outstanding subway tile designs is combining them creatively with other tile varieties. Complementary textures, colors, shapes, and finishes prevents designs from becoming monotonous.
Here are some tips for effortlessly blending subway tiles with other types:
- Color Contrast – Set off plain white subway tiles with bold pops of color like handmade artisan tiles, mosaics, or colorful geometric patchworks.
- Coordinating Hues – Match softer sculpted tiles in complementary light grey or blue hues that work with classic white.
- Mosaic Accents – Dot walls with mosaic tiles that pick up subway colors. Use sparingly as eye-catching medallions, listellos, or borders.
- Metal & Wood – Warm up subway tile with eco-friendly wood-look porcelain or sleek metal tile accents and trims.
- Matching Dimension – Opt for tiles with similar dimensions like 12×24” rectangles that allow flexibility in layout.
- Vary Textures – Contrast ultra-smooth glossy subway tiles with organic textures like pebble mosaics or handmade art tile.
Blending materials creates nuance and interest. Always sample potential pairings to ensurecolors and finishes complement each other.
Contemporary Uses for Subway Tiles
While subway tiles suit traditional kitchens and bathrooms, they’ve emerged as a versatile choice for contemporary homes and commercial spaces too.
Here are some clever modern uses for subway tiles:
Streamlined fireplaces and stoves wrapped in subway tiles make an appealing focal point in open concept living rooms and great rooms. Mix glossy white with marble or stone for contrast.
[Photo of a fireplace clad in white subway tile and charcoal marble.]
Backsplashes Beyond the Kitchen
Backsplashes aren’t just for kitchens! Continue subway tile backsplashes into adjacent spaces like dining rooms or open shelving. Great behind bathroom vanities too.
[Photo of a subtle white subway tile backsplash spanning a kitchen and dining space.]
Unique Shower Niches
Frame out customized recessed niches for bath products within shower walls clad in subway tiles. Great for storing shampoo and soap discreetly.
[Photo of a marble-framed subway tile shower niche.]
Modern Accent Walls
Replace traditional chair rail with a bold accent stripe made from contrasting subway tiles. Works with contemporary media walls and fireplaces.
[Photo of a fireplace featuring a thick black subway tile stripe across a white painted wall.]
Farmhouse Chic Hoods
A hood range covered in classic white subway tile gives a modern stove and range a touch of farmhouse character in an urban kitchen.
[Photo of a professional stove topped with a white subway tile hood.]
Subway tile backsplashes and feature walls lend well to a variety of modern applications, from blogs to corporate office spaces.
Subway Tile Grouting Tips
Grout is an important design consideration when installing subway tiles. Grout color strongly impacts the overall look and feel of tile patterns. Take care in selecting a suitable grout.
Here are some subway tile grouting tips:
- Match Grout Color to Tile – Keep grout the same color as subway tiles for a monochromatic look. White grout (like Mapei’s ‘Bright White’) suits white tiles.
- Contrasting Grout – Go bold with dark charcoal or navy grout to make light tiles pop. Or vice versa with white grout on dark tiles.
- Complementary Contrast – Choose a grout in a slightly different hue like beige or grey to provide subtle contrast with white subway tiles.
- Minimize Grout Lines – Narrow 1/8” grout lines between subway tiles helps walls retain a smooth, unbroken look.
- Grout Haze – Apply grout release or sealer to tiles before grouting to minimize stubborn haze that can form. Use a “grout sponge” tool.
- Caulk Joints – Use flexible mildew-resistant caulk instead of grout in corner joints and transitions to allow for expansion and prevent cracks.
Proper grouting improves subway tile patterns and prevents discoloration or damage over time. Don’t overlook this important step!
Subway Tile Maintenance
The minimal grout lines and smooth glossy surface of subway tiles make them one of the most low-maintenance tile varieties. With proper care, they stay looking fresh for years.
Follow these tips to keep your subway tiles pristine:
- Grout Sealing – Seal grout periodically to prevent staining and discoloration. Look for penetrating sealants that won’t alter grout appearance.
- Clean regularly – Use a mild pH-neutral daily cleaner to wipe away cooking messes on backsplashes before they set in and stain.
- Avoid abrasives – Prevent scratches by using soft microfiber cloths or sponges for surface cleaning. Never use abrasive scouring powders.
- Gentle acids – For hard water marks or soap scum, use a weak acid cleaner like vinegar or citrus-based product formulated for natural stone and ceramic tile.
- Re-seal natural stone – For marble or travertine subway tiles, reapply stone sealer every 1-2 years to maintain water repellency and prevent staining.
With routine light cleaning and periodic re-sealing, subway tile installations will stay looking like-new for many years of use.
FAQs About Subway Tiles
What are the standard subway tile sizes?
The original and still most common size is 3 x 6 inches. Other frequent sizes are 3 x 12, 4 x 12, and 4 x 8 inches which offer longer, skinnier proportions.
What types of tiles can have a subway shape?
Subway tiles come in ceramic, porcelain, glass, and natural stone like marble or travertine. Porcelain is most common.
How are subway tiles different from brick tiles?
Brick shaped tiles are squares while subway tiles are rectangular. Subway tiles also typically have a thinner profile.
Can you lay subway tiles vertically?
Yes! Many vertical applications like backsplashes look great with subway tiles positioned vertically in stacked layouts. Always offset vertical seams.
What color grout looks best with white subway tiles?
It’s a matter of personal preference! For a classic look, match white grout. To add contrast, use light grey, tan, or even black.
Can subway tile be used on floors?
Subway tile is not the most durable for high-traffic floors. Small pieces of glass or mosaic tile prone to cracking underfoot. Use large format porcelain or ceramic instead.
What’s the best tile edge for subway tile – square or bullnose?
Bullnose edges have a softly rounded profile that creates a clean finish. Especially helpful on wall edges and external corners.
The Everlasting Appeal of Subway Tiles
Simple, affordable, and adaptable, it’s easy to see why subway tiles remain one of the most sought-after tile choices. With mindful design, they lend themselves beautifully to all sorts of creative and artistic tile layouts. Keep subway tiles looking fresh and clean by following proper maintenance best practices. Thinking creatively about tile patterns, combinations, and grout color allows you to take subway tile designs to the next level. Let this tile staple bring classic style to your walls, backsplashes, and showers.
Subway tiles may have a reputation as basic and boring, but in reality they offer immense flexibility in layout and patterning. A staggering array of designs – from checkerboard mosaics to sweeping diagonal stripes – can be created with the simple rectangular shape. By playing with grout colors, complementary accents, and creative installations, subway tiles adapt seamlessly to all design aesthetics. With a nod to their past and a flair for the contemporary, subway tiles are a forever staple that bring timeless style to any space.