Choosing the right trowel for installing backsplash tile is an important decision that can make the difference between a smooth, professional-looking job and a sloppy, amateurish result. The trowel determines how much thinset mortar is applied to the wall and back of the tile, which affects adhesion and final appearance. With so many trowel options on the market, it can be confusing to decide which is best for your particular backsplash project. This article will examine the key factors in selecting an optimal trowel for backsplash installation success.
Types of Trowels for Backsplashes
There are three main categories of trowels used for backsplash tile installation:
Notched trowels are the most commonly used for backsplashes. They have a rectangular metal blade with notches of various widths and depths cut into one or both long edges. These notches determine how much thinset is applied to the surface. Deeper notches allow more mortar to be spread. Notched trowels come in many sizes and notch configurations to suit different types of tile.
Square-notched trowels create square mortar ridges on the surface. The squares measure an even thickness for consistent coverage across the entire backsplash. These are a good choice for beginners since it’s easy to achieve full coverage. The square notches also let you see the thinset coverage clearly.
U-notched trowels have a semicircular notch that creates a “U” shaped ridge of thinset. The rounded shape provides maximum contact between the mortar and tile, allowing for very secure adhesion. U-notched trowels are often used for large format tiles.
Solid trowels have no notches. They create a smooth, even layer of thinset. Solid trowels are typically used for mosaic sheets or very small tiles where notches are not necessary.
Trowel size is important for obtaining proper thinset coverage. As a general rule, use a trowel that is 1″ smaller than the size of the tiles. For example:
- 4″ tile = 3″ trowel
- 6″ tile = 5″ trowel
- 12″ tile = 11″ trowel
A trowel that is too small for the tile size won’t allow enough mortar to be applied, reducing adhesion. A trowel that is bigger than needed will create humps and unevenness from excess thinset squeezed out between tiles.
Depth of Notches
The depth of the notches, also called tooth size, determines how much mortar is held by the trowel. Deeper notches carry more thinset. Here are some common notch depths for backsplashes:
- 1/4″ deep – For 2″ x 2″ mosaics and small tiles.
- 3/8″ deep – The most popular for standard 4″ to 6″ ceramic tiles.
- 1/2″ deep – For natural stone, large format tiles, and uneven surfaces.
A 1/4″ notch depth is suitable for smooth drywall backsplashes. Use a deeper 3/8″ or 1/2″ notch on concrete, plaster, or rough brick wall installations to allow more mortar for better adhesion.
V-Notched vs Square Notched
V-notched trowels have a V-shaped notch, while square-notched trowels have a square notch. The V-notch provides a larger contact area between the tile and thinset for very secure bonding. It also lets you apply varying amounts of mortar by changing the angle as you spread.
Square notches offer uniform thinset thickness and are simpler for backsplash beginners to work with. Either notch shape will provide adequate adhesion. V-notch is recommended for natural stone installation where maximum adhesion is crucial.
Plastic vs Metal Trowel
Trowels come in metal or plastic versions. Metal trowels are more rigid and hold their shape better under pressure. This makes them ideal for applying force to firmly bed tiles. Stainless steel trowels are lightweight and withstand frequent cleaning.
Plastic trowels are more flexible but can still crack under too much pressure. They are softer on tile surfaces and less likely to scratch. Plastic trowels are cheaper and disposable. They can be useful when installing fragile mosaic tiles. For most standard backsplash installations, a metal trowel is preferred.
Some other features to look for in quality trowels:
- Handle – A curved handle with finger indentations provides good grip and control.
- Reinforced neck – A riveted steel reinforcement at the neck gives strength and prevents warping.
- Blade – Stainless steel blades hold their shape and are durable.
- Flat sides – Allows you to apply vertical pressure evenly across the trowel surface.
- Measurement markings – Markings along the blade help guide consistent mortar application depth.
How to Use a Backsplash Trowel
Once you’ve selected the best trowel for your backsplash, proper technique is key for successful thinset application. Follow these tips:
- Hold the trowel at a 45° angle to the wall surface.
- Apply firm pressure as you smooth the thinset horizontally in straight rows.
- Use the trowel’s side edge to spread vertical strips near the edges.
- Maintain consistent depth and coverage across the whole backsplash.
- Knock down any high points or ridges to create a flat, uniform setting bed.
- Apply only as much thinset as can be tiled over before drying.
- After embedding tiles, twist the trowel edge at a 90° angle to scrape excess from grout joints.
Cleaning your Trowel
It’s important to keep your trowel in good shape by cleaning regularly:
- Rinse frequently in a bucket of water to prevent buildup.
- Use a stiff nylon brush or pad to scrub off dried thinset.
- For stubborn dried material, soak the trowel in water or use an acidic mortar cleaner.
- Avoid abrasives like wire brushes that can damage the blade.
- Re-lubricate metal parts after cleaning to prevent rust.
- Store in a protective cover or sheath when not in use.
Benefits of Using the Right Backsplash Trowel
Choosing and using the optimal trowel for your backsplash project has many advantages:
The right trowel size and notch depth allow you to evenly spread the ideal amount of thinset adhesive mortar. This creates maximum contact between the tile and wall for incredibly secure bonding.
A properly notched trowel leaves straight, consistent ridges of thinset. This helps ensure full coverage and allows tile to be bedded evenly with no gaps, low spots or lippage between pieces. The end result is a flat, attractive backsplash surface.
Easier Tile Placement
The ridges and valleys in the mortar bed create a guide that makes it simple to align and place tiles in the desired pattern. The grid-like ridges hold the tiles steady while the mortar cures.
Prevent Tile Movement
Not only does the right trowel allow proper thinset coverage, using the correct technique firmly presses tiles into the setting mortar. This embeds the tile to prevent slippage, detachment or popping off as the wall surface moves.
Save Time and Frustration
Taking the time to choose and use a trowel designed for your particular backsplash tile avoids many headaches down the road. You’ll have fewer issues with tiles not adhering properly or having to be re-set. Your install will go faster with fewer hiccups.
Long Lasting Result
A trowel that maximizes thinset contact creates a super-strong bond between tile and wall. This durable adhesion prevents tiles from cracking or breaking loose over time. Your backsplash will stay beautiful for years.
Common Backsplash Trowel Mistakes
While using the right trowel in the proper way is key for backsplash success, there are some common mistakes that should be avoided:
Using Wrong Size Trowel
Applying thinset with a trowel that is too small or too large for the tile size is a common misstep. Small tiles need a smaller trowel and large tiles call for a bigger trowel. Using the wrong size makes proper coverage difficult.
Not Deep Enough Notches
Shallow notches don’t allow enough thinset to adhere tiles, especially on uneven wall surfaces. Insufficient mortar can lead to hollow voids behind tiles or lack of bond strength.
For maximum adhesion, tiles should have a thin layer of thinset applied to their backside before placing on the wall. Neglecting this back-buttering step can compromise bonding.
Applying Thinset Improperly
Mortar should be applied in straight, horizontal rows at a consistent depth for proper coverage. Clumping in piles or applying at angles reduces adhesion.
Forgetting Edge Bead
A vertical strip of thinset must be applied around the top edges and sides. Missing this bead can result in the edges pulling away from the wall over time.
Allowing Thinset Skin Over
Mortar dries quickly so only apply as much as can be covered with tiles within about 15 minutes. Letting it skin over makes it less sticky for a quality bond.
Not Pressing Tiles Firmly
Tiles need to be pressed with a slight twisting motion and set firmly into the wet thinset. Just lightly placing without proper force prevents maximum adhesion.
Improper Tile Alignment
The grid of mortar ridges simplifies aligning tiles, but care must be taken to properly space tiles and keep everything straight. Rushing leads to a crooked or uneven look.
Carefully scraping excess thinset from grout joints makes later grouting much easier. Rushing clean-up causes thinset to cure in joints interfering with proper grouting.
Failing to Seal Natural Stone
Sealing natural stone before installation prevents staining and adhesion issues caused by moisture absorption. Neglecting this step compromises performance.
Trowel Options by Tile Type
Certain trowel sizes and notch configurations are recommended for specific backsplash tile materials:
Ceramic & Porcelain Tile
The most common backsplash tile options are ceramic and porcelain. For these standard tiles in the 4”x4” to 6”x6” range, a standard square-notch trowel is ideal. A 1⁄4” x 1⁄4” notch at 3/8” depth efficiently applies thinset evenly.
Small glass mosaic tiles require only a thin coat of mortar. A 3/16” V-notch or 1/4″ square notch trowel is perfect for achieving full coverage without overdoing it. Careful application prevents thinset squeeze-up between tiny glass tiles.
Natural Stone Tile
For marble, travertine, limestone and other natural stones, maximum adhesion is important to prevent cracking or detachment. A 1⁄2” x 1⁄2” square or U-notch trowel at 3/8” depth applies a thicker layer that bonds well to uneven stone.
Large Format Tile
Tile rectangles 12” x 24” or larger qualify as “large format” and require special consideration. The wall must be flat and a larger trowel like 1⁄2” square notch creates the necessary full mortar contact to support big heavy tiles.
Many mosaic tiles come mounted together in 12” x 12” mesh sheets. For ease of installation, use a smooth, solid trowel to apply a consistent thin layer of adhesive across the whole wall surface before setting sheets.
Classic 3” x 6” subway tiles make up many backsplashes. A smaller narrow trowel like 1⁄4” square notch suits these thinner tiles to minimize squeeze-out between their closely aligned stacked layout.
Metal tiles require preparation to improve adhesion before setting with thinset. Smooth metal leaves minimal area for mortar contact so a 3/8” V-notch trowel maximizes bond strength best.
Brick Veneer Panels
Thin brick veneer sheets are installed like tiles so the mortar application technique is important. Use a 1⁄2” v-notch trowel to compensate for the uneven adhesion surface and create good mechanical hold.
How Much Thinset to Apply
Determining the right amount of thinset mortar to trowel on is crucial for proper adhesion. Here are some guidelines:
- For walls, apply enough mortar to create a 2-3mm bed after setting the tile.
- Completely cover the back of the tile with a thin skim coat before placing on wall.
- Use the trowel notch height to judge bed thickness – for example 1/4″ notches = 1/4″ thickness.
- Consider the tile material porosity and absorption rate when gauging amount of thinset to apply.
- Heavily textured tile backs or uneven walls will require more mortar to fill gaps.
- Be conservative with grout joints spacing when calculating how much thinset to allow per tile.
- Application angle changes mortar volume – holding trowel at 45° maximizes amount applied.
- Apply 1/4″ bead of thinset around perimeter edges in addition to overall coverage.
- Continually check application depth and consistency using tile spacers as guides between ridges.
- There should be full mortar contact but no squeeze-out between tiles when properly set.
Applying the right amount of thinset for the tile type results in a backsplash that is fully supported, securely bonded and visually appealing.
Trowel Care & Maintenance
Proper care and cleaning of your trowels ensures they function at optimal performance level:
- Rinse Often – Frequently rinse trowel during use to prevent buildup of old thinset.
- Clean Thoroughly – Use a stiff nylon brush and water or solvents to fully remove all material after finishing use. Never allow material to fully cure on trowel.
- Avoid Harsh Chemicals – soak in water first to loosen dried material before using solvent cleaners which can damage trowel.
- Dry Completely – Always fully dry trowel after cleaning to prevent moisture damage.
- Apply Release Agent – Coat metal parts with lubricating oil or silicone spray to prevent bonding with thinset.
- Inspect for Defects – Look for warping, nicks, wear and straightness issues and replace worn trowels.
- Store Properly – Keep trowel in a protective cover or hanging vertically on a hook when not in use.
Proper trowel maintenance maximizes the tool’s longevity while helping ensure optimum thinset application for many successful future backsplash installations.
Backsplash Trowel Texture Options
In addition to varied notch sizes and shapes, backsplash trowels are also available with different blade surface textures:
A trowel with a smooth, flat blade surface is the most common. The smoothness helps regulate the thickness and improve the consistency of the applied thinset. Smooth blades are easy to clean after use.
Ribbed trowel blades have raised ridges running along their length. These are designed to help spread mortar more efficiently and create a more uniform setting bed. The ribs also make it easy to see if thinset is collecting on the blade during use.
Trowels with perforations in the blade are created to enhance the flow and release of the mortar. The holes optimize distribution and reduce drag for a smoother more consistent spread. Perforated trowel blades also tend to stay cleaner.
Wire Brush Surface
Some trowels have a wire brush attached to the blade surface. The stiff bristles help scrape and key the thinset into the wall providing a mechanical bond. Wire brush trowels are often used on rough or uneven substrates.
Plastic Coated Blade
A flexible plastic coating on the blade provides a smooth surface that prevents thinset from sticking to the metal. This causes less drag for effortless spreading and easier Cleanup. The plastic surface is also gentle on delicate tile surfaces.
Exploring the different blade textures available can help select a trowel that optimizes the application of thinset for your particular backsplash installation. The right trowel makes the mortar glide on easily and stay on the wall, not the tool.
Trowel Safety Tips
Proper handling and use of backsplash trowels is vital for safety:
- Select a trowel with a handle size and shape that fits your hand comfortably to allow good control.
- Choose a lightweight trowel with a properly balanced design to prevent hand fatigue.
- Wear gloves to improve grip and protect skin from sharp trowel edges or rough surfaces.
- When not in use, place trowel flat on a clean surface or store in a holder, never leave upright.
- Avoid using trowels with split, cracked or loose handles which could break during use.
- Discard worn trowels with bent, warped or wobbly blades which make proper thinset application difficult.
- Keep blade lubricated to reduce friction and likelihood of slipping while spreading mortar.
- Position body stably and don’t overextend reach which could cause loss of control.
- Scrape excess mortar by sweeping trowel flat against surface instead of digging corner into grout joints.
- Take care when cleaning to prevent cuts from sharp edges and points – use brush instead of bare hands if possible.
- Carry tools at your side, never over your shoulder where a fall could embed the trowel blade into your back.
- Warn others working nearby when moving about with trowel in hand to avoid contact injuries.
Staying alert, using proper technique, and keeping equipment in good shape ensures trowel use won’t contribute cuts, scrapes or other safety issues on the job.