What Do You Need for Tile Backsplash: The Complete Guide

Installing a tile backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom can completely transform the look and feel of the space. However, there are several important things to consider before starting your tiling project. Knowing what you need for a tile backsplash ahead of time will ensure your installation goes smoothly. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk through everything required for a successful DIY tile backsplash.

Choosing Your Tile

The tile itself is arguably the most important decision for your backsplash. With so many sizes, colors, textures, and materials to pick from, it can be overwhelming to select the right tile type. Here are some of the key factors to consider when choosing tile for your backsplash:

Tile Material

  • Ceramic – A very common option, ceramic tile is affordable, easy to clean, and water-resistant. It comes in a huge range of styles.
  • Porcelain – More durable than ceramic, porcelain tile is impervious to moisture and resists scratches. It’s suitable for both walls and floors.
  • Glass – Adding a beautiful, shiny finish, glass tile can be transparent or opaque in many colors. It’s very eye-catching but also on the pricier side.
  • Metal – Durable metal tiles like stainless steel, copper, or tin can create a modern, industrial vibe. Keep in mind they can be prone to fingerprints and scratches.
  • Stone – Natural stone options like marble, granite, or slate provide an elegant look. However, they are heavier and more porous than ceramic or porcelain.

Tile Size

Some typical tile sizes for backsplashes include:

  • Mosaic (1 inch square or smaller)
  • Metro (2 by 4 inches or 3 by 6 inches)
  • Standard (4 by 4 inches)
  • Large format (12 by 24 inches or larger)

The size you choose depends on your design aesthetic and the scale of the space. Smaller tiles like mosaic and metro formats create busier patterns. Larger tiles tend to make a smaller kitchen feel more open.

Tile Finish

The texture of the tile also affects the overall look. Options include:

  • Glossy – Reflective, smooth surface
  • Matte – Flat, non-reflective surface
  • Textured – Adds visible and tactile grain or pattern

Glossy tiles have a sleek, eye-catching look that can suit contemporary spaces. Matte finishes have an understated, classic style. Textured tiles provide depth and contrast.

Tile Color

Nearly any color imaginable is available when selecting backsplash tile. Consider colors that will complement your cabinetry, countertops, flooring, and overall design scheme. Neutral colors are always a safe bet to provide versatility. Or make the backsplash a bold accent wall with vibrant hues.

Tile Pattern

The arrangement of varied tiles creates different patterns and visual effects. Some examples include:

  • Brick – Offset rows mimic a brick wall
  • Checkerboard – Tiles alternate in color like a checkerboard
  • Hexagon – Tiles fit together in a honeycomb design
  • Subway – Offset rectangular tiles in brick-like rows
  • Herringbone – Tiles form a v-shape pattern

Gathering Your Tile Tools

Installing a tile backsplash is largely doable as a DIY project if you have the right tools. Here are the essential tile tools you’ll need:

  • Wet saw – Cuts ceramic and porcelain tile neatly and accurately
  • Notched trowel – Applies floor tile mortar evenly for a smooth setting bed
  • Grout float – Helps work grout into tile joints and smooth it uniformly
  • Rubber grout float – Made from rubber instead of sponge, it avoids pulling out grout from tile joints
  • Tile spacers – Keeps tile spaced evenly; remove after setting tiles
  • Mixing bucket – Holds tile mortar or grout for mixing
  • Margin trowel – Spreads mortar and pushes it into places the notched trowel can’t reach
  • Rubber mallet – Taps gently on tile to set it evenly into the mortar
  • Wet rag sponge – Removes excess grout from tile surface
  • Grout sealer – Protects grout from stains after installation
  • Safety gear – Glasses, gloves, knee pads to keep you safe on the job

A few extra tools like a tile cutter, hole saw, mixing paddle, and grout removal tool can also come in handy.

Selecting Mortar and Grout

In addition to tools, you’ll need cement-based products for setting the tile and filling joints:

Thinset Mortar

This is the special thin adhesive mortar used to firmly adhere the backsplash tile to the wall surface. It comes in different formulas for specific applications:

  • Dry-set mortar – For most standard wall installations
  • Latex-modified – Has latex added for strong bond, especially with large format tile
  • Mastic adhesive – Premixed adhesive for small mosaics and wall tile

Mortar suitable for wall use is critical – do not try to substitute all-purpose floor tile mortar, which is too thick.


After setting the tiles, grout is forced into the joints between them. Grout comes in sanded and unsanded varieties:

  • Sanded grout – Best for floor tile with joints 1/8″ or larger
  • Unsanded grout – For wall tiles with thinner grout lines under 1/8″

Choose a grout color that complements your tile. Contrasting or bold grout can accentuate the pattern.

Prepping and Priming the Surface

Preparing the wall surface is one of the most important steps to ensure tiles adhere properly and for a long lasting result. Here is how to prep and prime:

  • Remove any old backsplash and inspect wall surface – fill holes or cracks with filler compound and let dry completely.
  • Use painter’s tape to mask off areas at edges and windows. Cover countertops with rosin paper to protect from damage.
  • The surface must be clean and free of any soap film, dust or oils for the mortar to bond. Wash thoroughly with an ammonia-based cleaner.
  • Rough or uneven walls will need a coat of drywall joint compound to smooth the area. Let compound dry and sand smooth.
  • Prime the surface with a tile primer or a watered-down acrylic latex paint. This improves adhesion and prevents moisture damage.

Take the time to correctly prep and prime the backsplash area before tiling. Skipping this can lead to tiles popping off or cracks appearing later on.

How to Install the Tile Backsplash

Once you have all your supplies ready, the fun part begins – installing the tile! Follow these key steps:

Step 1: Plan the Tile Layout

  • Measure the backsplash area and sketch a layout for the tile pattern. Having a plan allows you to visualize the spacing and placement.
  • For most installations, start tiling from the bottom up. Use a level to draw plumb lines for the first row.
  • Dry fit tiles first without mortar to ensure your planned pattern fits the space as expected. Adjust the design if needed.

Step 2: Mix Thinset Mortar

  • Prepare the thinset mortar according to package directions, using an electric drill and mixing paddle for consistency.
  • Only mix up enough that can be used in about 30 minutes before it dries. Discard any leftover material and remix a new batch as needed.

Step 3: Spread Thinset on the Wall

  • Using a notched trowel at a 45° angle, apply a thick layer of thinset to the wall, scraping away any excess mortar.
  • Spread only a small section at a time so the mortar stays sticky. Go back and reapply if needed.
  • Use the flat side of the trowel to smooth and flatten the mortar, removing trowel marks and gaps.

Step 4: Set the Tiles into Thinset

  • Press tiles firmly into place in the thinset, using spacers to maintain even grout joints.
  • Push until each tile is flush in the mortar bed. Wiggle tiles slightly to collapse any air pockets.
  • Use tile cutters as needed to custom cut border and filler tiles. Apply thinset directly to tile backs before placing cut pieces.
  • Allow thinset to cure for at least 24 hours before grouting. Use clamps if needed to keep tiles tight to the wall.

Step 5: Mix and Apply Grout

  • Sweep out joints and wipe off dust. Mix grout paste according to package instructions.
  • Hold the grout float at a 45° angle and force grout deeply into the tile joints in a scraping motion.
  • Wipe diagonally across tiles with a damp sponge to clean off excess grout and shape joints. Rinse sponge frequently.
  • Once grout in joints becomes firm, polish and shape as needed with a damp rubber grout tool.
  • When grout appears uniform, let it cure per product guidelines, usually 24-48 hours.

Step 6: Seal and Finish

  • Apply grout sealer following label directions once grout has cured completely, usually after 72 hours.
  • Sealers prevent staining and make grout cleanup easier over time. Reapply annually.
  • Remove any tile spacers, filler, masking tape and coverings.
  • Caulk corner joints if needed. Stand back and admire your new backsplash!

With patience and proper technique, even first-time tilers can achieve professional-looking results.

Tips for an Easy Installation

Installing your own tile backsplash is very doable, but here are some tips for keeping your tiling project smooth and headache-free:

  • Carefully read all manufacturer instructions for mortars, grouts, primers, etc. prior to starting.
  • Have all your tile, tools, and materials prepared and organized ahead of time.
  • Take your time mixing mortar and grout – don’t rush this important step.
  • Allow recommended drying times between steps. Installing tile or grouting too soon can ruin the bond.
  • Work in small sections, completing each step across the whole backsplash before moving to the next.
  • Keep spare tiles handy in case you break any during cutting or setting. Leftover tiles allow for easy future repairs.
  • Clean excess grout off tiles frequently before it dries. Use minimal water to avoid removing grout from joints.
  • Don’t spread mortar too far ahead of setting tile, as it can dry and lose adhesion strength.
  • Use painter’s tape, rosin paper, and drop cloths to protect surrounding surfaces.

Common Backsplash Tile Problems and Solutions

Even if you carefully follow installation steps, you may encounter an issue or two. Here are some common backsplash tiling problems and ways to fix them:

Problem: Tiles are cracking or becoming loose

Solution: This usually results from lack of proper surface prep or mortar bonding failure. Remove loose tiles and redo thinset application. Ensure the wall is primed first.

Problem: Grout is cracking or crumbling

Solution: If the tile below is solid, re-grouting the joints is often sufficient. Make sure to seal grout after installation.

Problem: Grout is stained or discolored

Solution: Use a specialized grout cleaner made for removing stains from existing grout. Re-seal joints after cleaning.

Problem: Some tiles are uneven or lippage is occurring

Solution: Remove problem tiles and check for mortar clumps preventing even adhesion. Use tile leveling spacers and be diligent about verifying flush placement.

Problem: Gaps showing at joints or corners

Solution: Apply new grout if gaps are in grout joints. Use caulk along countertops, edges, orchanges in plane where movement occurs.

Problem: Cut edges of certain tiles are chipping

Solution: Use a wet tile saw for smoother cuts. Finish off edges as needed with sharpening stones or edge polishing tools.

Frequently Asked Questions About Tile Backsplashes

What is the difference between ceramic and porcelain tile?

Answer: Ceramic and porcelain are both fired clay products, but porcelain contains denser clay and is fired at higher temperatures, making it more durable and water-resistant.

What type of tile is best for the kitchen backsplash?

Answer: Glass, ceramic, or porcelain are popular kitchen backsplash choices. Mosaic tiles and smaller sizes often work well behind a busy workspace. Metal or stone accent tiles can provide a high-end look.

How do I cut curves and holes in my backsplash tile?

Answer: Use a tile wet saw fitted with a diamond blade for most straight cuts. For indented edges, curves, or holes, use a rotary tool with a ceramic grinding bit. Finish edges smoothly with sharpening stones.

Should my backsplash go all the way to the ceiling?

Answer: Usually backsplashes end around 4 inches from the ceiling or bottom of upper cabinets. Going all the way up makes the space feel more closed in. But you can extend tiles higher for a full accent wall effect.

Can I install a tile backsplash directly over drywall?

Answer: Yes, in most cases tile can be installed directly on drywall behind a sink or range. Ensure it is primed and properly prepared. Cement backerboard provides an even more durable subsurface.

How long does a tile backsplash take to install?

Answer: The time required depends on tile size and layout complexity, but expect the installation to take 2-3 days: day 1 for prep and applying tile, day 2 for grouting once thinset has cured, and optional day 3 for sealing grout after it has dried.

Design Ideas and Inspiration

The key to choosing the perfect backsplash tile is finding a style you love that also fits in with your overall kitchen or bathroom design. Here are some beautiful and unique backsplash tile ideas to inspire your project:

Vintage Chic

-Create a chic vintage look with mint, sage, or robin’s egg blue subway tiles arranged in a classic offset brick pattern. Add interest by alternating colors or sizes.

-Accent with white grout and antique hardware. Open white shelving and farmhouse sinks also complement this aesthetic.

Modern Geometric

-Bold graphics like concentric squares, intersecting lines, or triangular mosaics in black and white make a dramatic modern statement.

-Pair with hi-gloss cabinets, stainless steel, or black granite countertops for sleek style. Limit other accessories.

Natural Stone

-Honed marble, travertine, or limestone tiles in soft earth tones exude elegance. Stacked stone patterns provide depth.

-A stone mosaic medallion for the range hood is a focal point. Add character with taupe, beige, or walnut cabinetry.

Wood Look

-Wood-look porcelain planks bring natural warmth. Matte brown hues resembling acacia or white-washed barnwood are on trend.

-Match hardwood flooring and rustic wood countertops or ceilings for harmony. Includes touches of black metal for contrast.

Moroccan Zest

-Vibrant turquoise, purple, or orange handmade encaustic tiles emulate exotic Moroccan style.

-Coordinate with glass vessel sinks, patterned wall hangings, and abundant greenery. Keep cabinetry simple to highlight tiles.

Graphic Metallic

-Shiny stainless, copper, or mosaic glass tiles in high contrast art deco patterns gleam.

-Works well in contemporary spaces with neutral palette. Enhance with brass fixtures. Limit other metallic finishes.


Installing a tile backsplash requires careful planning, patience, and adherence to proper techniques. But the final effect is well worth the effort. A quality backsplash tile unifies your design, protects the walls from moisture damage, and provides a beautiful focal point in the kitchen or bath for years to come. With the guidelines provided above and a well-thought-out tile design, you can achieve a backsplash you’ll absolutely love living with and looking at. So grab your tile and trowel to tackle your next tiling project with confidence!