What Do I Need to Do a Tile Backsplash

Installing a tile backsplash in your kitchen can add visual interest and protect your walls from splatters and spills. With some planning and the right materials, installing a tile backsplash is a DIY project many homeowners can tackle. Here’s a comprehensive guide on everything you need to know to do a tile backsplash yourself.

Choosing Your Tile

The first step in any tile installation project is selecting your tile. There are several factors to consider when choosing tile for a backsplash:

Tile Material

Common backsplash tile materials include:

  • Ceramic – A classic option, ceramic tiles are affordable, easy to install, and come in a wide variety of styles and finishes. Glazed ceramic tiles have a shiny, protective coating and are very stain-resistant. Unglazed ceramics have an earthy, matte look.
  • Porcelain – Made from refined clay and fired at high temperatures, porcelain tiles are harder, denser, and more water-resistant than ceramic. Their polished look makes them popular for contemporary kitchens.
  • Glass – Glass tile adds a translucent, shiny element to a backsplash. Many types can be backlit or lit from below for a dramatic effect. Glass tile costs more than ceramic or porcelain.
  • Metal – Durable metal tiles like stainless steel, tin, or copper bring an industrial vibe. Stainless steel offers a modern look, while copper and tin tiles develop a patina over time.
  • Natural Stone – Options like marble, travertine, and granite have an elegant, high-end appearance. However, they are porous and require sealing.

Tile Shape and Size

Common tile shapes include:

  • Square or rectangular
  • Subway (rectangular bricks)
  • Hexagonal
  • Beveled (diamond-shaped)
  • Penny rounds

Mosaic sheets made up of tiny tiles in various shapes like hexagons or irregular quadrilaterals are also popular. Mixing tile shapes and sizes creates visual interest.

Tile sizes range from mosaics of 1-inch squares to large format tiles of 12 inches or more. Smaller tiles allow for more grout lines and intricate patterns, while large tiles create a sleek, contemporary look. Standard sizes for backsplash tiles are 1-inch, 2-inch, 4-inch and 6-inch.

Tile Finish and Color

The finish and color you choose impacts the overall look and feel of the backsplash. Options include:

  • Matte or glossy glazes
  • Bold, saturated colors or neutral hues
  • Metallic, iridescent, or crackled glazes
  • Patterned, hand-painted, or printed designs
  • Stone-look finishes that mimic materials like marble or travertine

Browse tile samples in person or order samples online to get a sense of colors and textures before making a final decision.

Amount of Tile Needed

Measure the backsplash area to determine how many square feet of tile you need. Multiply the length times the height. Add 10-15% more for cuts and waste.

Order all materials at once, including extra tiles. Tile dye lots and availability can vary over time. Running short mid-project can lead to unavoidable color variations.

Gathering Supplies

In addition to the tile itself, installing a backsplash requires:

Tile Backer Board

Cement backer board provides a water-resistant, stable base for tile installation. It prevents moisture damage by stopping water from seeping into the walls behind. Brands like Durock, Hardiebacker, and Fiberock are available in 3 by 5-foot panels at home improvement stores.

Other tile backing options include:

  • Fiber-cement boards
  • DenShield coated backer boards
  • Water-resistant drywall (e.g. purple board)

Joint tape and thinset are used to seal seams between panels. Backer board screws attach the panels to wall studs.

Thinset Mortar

Thinset is the adhesive used to attach backsplash tile to the backer board. It comes in dry powder bags, needing only water added to create the mortar. Look for unmodified thinset rated for wall installations. Allow it to slake or sit 15 minutes after mixing.


Grout fills the joints between tiles. Sanded grout works best for joints wider than 1/8 inch. Unsanded grout is recommended for narrow tile spacing of 1/8 inch or less. Grout is available in different colors to complement or match your tiles.

Grout Sealer

Sealing the grout makes it stain-proof and water-resistant. Both grout sealers and grout release agents help prevent grout haze.


Trowels apply and spread thinset and grout. Choose sizes and shapes based on your tile type. Common trowel shapes include square, rounded, and notched:

  • Square trowel for mosaic sheets
  • Rounded trowel for pebble tiles
  • Notched trowel for typical square tile

The thinset package often recommends an ideal trowel size.

Tile Spacers

Spacers keep tile rows and columns evenly spaced as the thinset dries. Plastic crosses create consistent 1/8-inch or 1/16-inch grout joint spacing.

Tile Cutting Tools

Unless you’re only using full tiles, you’ll need to cut some tiles to fit around outlets, corners, or edges. Useful tools include:

  • Tile snapper for breaking scored tiles
  • Tile cutter or wet saw for straight cuts
  • Tile nippers for freehand nibbling
  • Grinder for notches or detailed cuts

Safety gear like goggles, gloves, and a dust mask are essential when cutting tile.

Additional Supplies

Other helpful items include:

  • Buckets for mixing thinset
  • Grout float for spreading grout
  • Grout sponges and scrub pads
  • Grout sealer applicator
  • Rags, sponges, and buckets for clean-up
  • Painters tape
  • Carpenter’s level
  • Laser level (for preventing lippage)

Preparing the Surface

To ensure proper tile bonding, the substrate must be clean and smooth. Take time to prep the surface thoroughly:


Wash the entire backsplash area with an all-purpose cleaner or TSP substitute to remove grease and soils. Rinse any cleaner residues and allow the surface to fully dry.

Fill Any Holes or Cracks

Use a filler like spackle to patch small holes or cracks wider than 1/16 inch. Allow filler to dry completely and sand smooth.

Larger gaps require filling with a sealant backer rod before caulking. Ensure the caulk is paintable if painting over it.

Remove Outlets and Switch Plates

Outlet and switch cover plates should be detached prior to tiling. This allows you to tile behind and around them.

Turn off the power at the breaker box. Use a screwdriver to remove receptacle and switch screws and plates. Place screws with the corresponding cover plates so you can easily reinstall them later.

Install the Backer Board

Measure and cut cement backer board panels to fit the backsplash area. They can be cut with a utility knife and snapped after scoring.

Seal all seams between panels with thinset and joint tape. Then, screw panels to wall studs every 8 inches along the edges and every 12 inches in the field of the board. Use backer board screws since drywall screws may corrode over time.

Waterproofing Treatment

Applying a waterproofing paint or membrane reinforces moisture protection, especially for natural stone tile or installations near a sink. Roll or brush on the waterproofing agent and allow it to dry completely.

Prime if Needed

Check manufacturer guidelines to see if priming the backer board prior to tiling is recommended. Priming improves adhesion and prevents the thinset from drying too quickly. Consult the thinset instructions as well.

Laying the Tile

Once prep work is complete, you’re ready to begin tiling:

Plan Your Layout

Map out your tile layout ahead of time so you know where to start and how tiles will align. Draw the backsplash to scale on graph paper, noting the location of outlets and other fixtures. Experiment with different layout options.

Having a plan set helps avoid misaligned final rows and odd tile cuts. Carefully measure and calculate the tile cuts needed around fixtures and at ends of runs.

Consider starting tiles in the center and working outwards for the most symmetrical layout. Accent tiles can be integrated evenly throughout the design.

Mix the Thinset

Combine thinset powder with water in a bucket according to package instructions. Let the mixture slake for 10-15 minutes before applying to backer board. Prep small batches to prevent thinset from drying out.

Spread Thinset on the Wall

Use a notched trowel held at a 45-degree angle to scrape thinset onto the backer board. Spread only as much as can be tiled in 30 minutes.

Apply additional coats to the backs of large format tiles exceeding 8 by 8 inches to prevent sagging and voids.

Set the Tiles

Press tiles into the thinset one at a time. Twist it back and forth to collapse the trowel ridges and help with adhesion. Use spacers between tiles to maintain even grout joint width.

Work in small sections and remove any thinset that gets on tile faces with a damp sponge right away. Periodically check for lippage where tiles are in uneven planes.

Allow the thinset to cure fully (typically 24-48 hours) before grouting. Verify tiles are firmly attached and do not slide around.

Grouting and Finishing

Grout application is the final step in securing and sealing your new backsplash:

Prepare the Work Area

Lay down rosin paper or drop cloths to protect surrounding surfaces from grout and sealant spills. Have rags, sponges, and buckets ready for clean-up.

Tape off any gaps around lighting fixtures or outlets to prevent grout seepage.

Grout Application

Mix grout powder with water or latex additive to a thick, peanut butter-like consistency. Apply grout by working it deeply into the joints with a rubber grout float or squeegee.

Keep grout joints moist and haze-free by wiping diagonally across tiles with a damp sponge every 10-15 minutes. Clean any residue off tile faces before it dries.

Once grout in the joints becomes firm, begin final cleaning. Wipe tiles diagonally with a lightly dampened sponge rinsing frequently. Polish off a light haze with a soft cloth once dry.

Seal the Grout

Applying a penetrating grout sealer protects tiles from spill stains and simplifies cleaning. Use a foam brush to apply sealer evenly across grout lines following label directions. Avoid coating the tile surfaces.

Reinstall outlet and switch plates once sealer has dried.

Caulk Edge Joints

Use a flexible, waterproof caulk or sealant to fill any gaps larger than 1/8 inch between the edges of the backsplash and countertops, walls, or appliances. Follow caulk package directions.

Enjoy Your New Backsplash!

Step back and admire your handiwork. Your DIY tile backsplash adds function and visual appeal to your kitchen. Take proper care of your installation by using cutting boards, avoiding abrasive cleaners, and resealing grout periodically.

Frequently Asked Questions About Installing a Tile Backsplash

Installing a tile backsplash is an achievable DIY project for many homeowners. Here are answers to some common questions about the process:

How long does it take to install a tile backsplash?

The timeline depends on the size of the area, tile layout complexity, and your skill level. Allow 2-3 days for a simple backsplash around a single sink for a beginner. Larger or intricate tile designs can take 5 days or more.

What tools do I need to install backsplash tile?

Essential tools include a notched trowel, tile cutter or wet saw, mixing buckets, grout float, sponges, and safety gear like gloves and eye protection. Helpful extras are a tile nipper, grinder, laser level, carpenter’s square, and grout sealer applicator bottle.

How do I cut tiles for outlets and irregular spaces?

Use a rotary tool or grinder with a tile cutting blade for detailed cuts around outlets. For edge tiles, measure and score with a tile cutter, then snap tile edges with pliers. Nibbling away small bits with a tile nipper also works for custom fitting.

Should the backsplash go all the way to the ceiling?

Not necessarily. Standard height is to install tile 4 to 6 inches above the countertop. Full ceiling height is bold and creates a contemporary, seamless look. But it does require precise cutting around ceiling lights and vents.

How do I remove old backsplash tile?

Use a putty knife to chisel away grout around edges of existing tiles. Then pry off each tile with a flat bar or pull-scraper tool. Remove all old mastic and grout residue before installing new tile.

Can I install backsplash tile directly over drywall?

No, cement backer board is recommended. Water-resistant backer board prevents moisture damage better than regular drywall. Follow manufacturer guidelines for preparing backer board prior to tiling.

How long should I wait to grout after installing tile?

Allow thinset mortar to cure fully behind tiles – typically 24 to 48 hours. Verify tiles are firmly attached and resistant to movement before applying grout. Grout too soon and tiles may shift or become dislodged.


Installing a new backsplash is a satisfying DIY renovation project, even for total beginners. With the right planning, materials, tools, and techniques, you can update your kitchen with tile that suits your personal taste and style. Pay attention to details like proper surface prep, using spacers, cleaning tiles before grout dries, and sealing the grout. Most importantly, take your time and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with tiling your own backsplash!