What is Subway Tile Backsplash?


A subway tile backsplash is a classic and timeless backsplash design that can work in nearly any kitchen. Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles that get their name from their resemblance to the white ceramic tiles commonly found in New York City subway stations. With their clean lines and understated look, subway tiles make an excellent backsplash choice for both traditional and contemporary kitchens. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what subway tile is and the benefits of using it for your backsplash. We’ll also provide tips on how to design and install a subway tile backsplash.

What Are Subway Tiles?

Subway tiles are rectangular ceramic tiles typically 3 x 6 inches, though they can range from 3 x 6 inches to 4.25 x 8 inches. Their elongated shape gives them their classic look. The tiles have a slight bevel along their edges and a glossy or matte finish.

Traditionally, subway tiles were glazed white, but today’s subway tiles come in a huge range of colors, materials, sizes, and finishes. While white and off-white remain popular choices, you can find subway tiles in shades like black, gray, blue, and green. Materials include ceramic, porcelain, glass, and natural stone like marble. Finishes can be glossy, matte, textured, or iridescent.

Benefits of Subway Tile Backsplash

There are several reasons why subway tile makes an excellent backsplash choice:

  • Timeless and classic look – The simple rectangular shape gives subway tile a clean, classic look that has remained stylish for over a century. Subway tile backsplashes work with both traditional and contemporary design styles.
  • Affordable – Subway tiles are an affordable backsplash option. Ceramic and porcelain tiles range from $5-$15 per square foot.
  • Durable – Subway tile is very durable and can withstand moisture, stains, and daily wear-and-tear. This makes it perfect for kitchen backsplashes which deal with water, oil, and food splatters on a regular basis.
  • Easy to clean – The hard, non-porous surface of subway tile resists absorbing stains and is easy to clean with just soap and water.
  • Versatile sizing – Subway tiles come in a range of sizes that allows you to adjust scale. Smaller tiles create fine detail while larger tiles make less of an impact.
  • Design flexibility – The simple shape and variety of colors, materials and finishes available in subway tile allows for endless design options. Subway tiles can create cheerful, funky, modern or traditional looks.
  • Easy to install – Subway tile’s uniform size and shape make it a relatively easy DIY install. No special skills are required.

Subway Tile Patterns and Layouts

One of the great advantages of subway tile is that it lends itself to countless layout patterns. Here are some of the most popular subway tile backsplash design ideas:

Brick Pattern

The traditional layout is the brick pattern, with tiles laid in a classic off-set design, just like bricks in a wall. Each row is offset by half a tile. This creates a timeless look and is easy to achieve.

Stacked Pattern

Tiles are installed in a straight grid, stacked vertically and horizontally without offsets. This gives a modern, streamlined look. Using larger format tiles (4×8 inches) makes more of a statement.


Tiles are laid in a herringbone pattern, with tiles pointing in alternating directions to create a V shape. This adds visual interest and works with tiles of any size.

Penny Round

Penny rounds mix standard subway tiles with rounded penny tile accents. This gives a vintage vibe. Penny rounds can be randomly placed or installed in a pattern.

Subway Tile Backsplash with Accent Strips

Adding strips of decorative tile in contrasting colors or materials can create extra detail. Thin lines of mosaic tiles or tile trim are commonly used.

Mix and Match

For a funky look, mix and match subway tiles in different colors, shapes and sizes. Try combining standard subway tiles with longer planks or decorative shapes.

Tips for Installing Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash is a DIY-friendly project for many homeowners. Here are some tips for a successful installation:

  • Make a plan – Measure your space and create a layout plan. Shop for all materials at once including tiles, grout, mortar and trim.
  • Prepare the surface – Subway tiles should be installed on a clean, dry surface. Remove old backsplash material and paint if needed.
  • Apply mortar – Spread thinset mortar evenly across the installation area using a notched trowel. Work in small sections.
  • Set the tiles – Press tiles firmly into the mortar, using spacers for consistent grout lines. Check tiles for level frequently.
  • Grout the tiles – Let mortar fully cure before grouting. Apply grout with grout float, wiping off excess. Clean tiles with damp sponge.
  • Seal grout – Once grout has cured, seal it with grout sealer to protect it from stains.
  • Add finishing touches – Install trim pieces, caulk edges and seal around fixtures to complete the backsplash.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about subway tile backsplashes:

How much does a subway tile backsplash cost?

The cost of a subway tile backsplash averages $10-$25 per square foot installed. Cost varies based on tile material, size, and quality. Simple ceramic tile and DIY installation is cheapest, while stone and professional installation is more expensive.

What color grout should I use with white subway tile?

White and light grey are popular grout colors with white subway tile. White grout has a crisp, clean look. Light grey is less prone to staining and discoloration over time. For other colored tiles, match the grout to be a shade darker.

How do I cut subway tiles?

The easiest way for DIYers to cut subway tile is with a manual tile cutter. For intricate cuts like L-shapes for outlets, use a rotary tool with a diamond blade. Always wear safety goggles when cutting tile.

Should subway tile go all the way to the ceiling?

Subway tile can end at the standard backsplash height of 4-5 feet above counter or extend to the bottom of upper cabinets. It can also go all the way to the ceiling. Full height is great for making a design statement but requires more cutting around outlets and windows.

Can you put subway tile in the shower?

Yes, subway tile is a great waterproof material for shower walls and floors. Use smaller grout lines (1/8″), waterproof grout and caulk all edges. For steam showers, choose porcelain or ceramic tile rather than natural stone which can react with steam.


A subway tile backsplash offers timeless style and versatility at an affordable price point. The classic rectangular white tile adapts well to both vintage and contemporary kitchens. With an abundance of sizes, colors, textures, and patterns available, subway tile can be customized to match any design aesthetic. Installing a subway tile backsplash is an approachable DIY project that can add beauty and function to your kitchen.