Where Do You Start Backsplash Tile? A Detailed Guide

Installing a backsplash tile can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom. But before you start applying those beautiful tiles, it’s important to plan out the project and make sure you have all the necessary materials and tools. Here is a comprehensive guide on where to start when installing backsplash tile.

Getting Started with Your Backsplash Tile Project

Determine the Area to Tile

First, measure the area you want to tile. This will determine how much tile and grout you need to purchase. In kitchens, backsplashes typically go above the countertop on the walls between the cabinets. For bathrooms, they flank the sink and mirror areas. Decide if you want the tile to extend all the way to the ceiling or stop at a specific height.

Choose Your Tiles

Next, select the type of tile you want. Ceramic and porcelain tiles are most common for backsplashes. Consider the size, texture, color, and style. Smaller tiles like mosaics create a busy pattern. Larger tiles make less of an impact but are faster to install. Make sure the tiles complement your overall design scheme.

Buy the Right Materials

Here’s what you’ll need for a typical backsplash install:

  • Tile and extra tiles in case some break during installation
  • Tile adhesive or thinset mortar
  • Grout
  • Grout sealer
  • Trowel for spreading adhesive
  • Grout float for applying grout
  • Sponges
  • Buckets
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile cutter and/or wet saw

Buy a little extra of everything to be safe. The quantity will depend on the size of your backsplash.

Prepare the Surface

The surface must be smooth, clean, and dry for the tile to adhere properly. Remove any old backsplash tiles or materials on the walls. Scrape off paint or wallpaper remnants and sand bumpy areas.

Clean the surface with water and a TSP substitute to eliminate grease and soap scum. Rinse thoroughly. Let it dry completely. Repair any holes or cracks with patching compound and sand smooth.

Prime painted surfaces with a specialty bonding primer made for tile. This helps the thinset stick tightly.

Plan the Tile Layout

Map out your tile layout on the walls. Most backsplashes use a basic grid pattern. Adjust the arrangement to avoid narrow tiles around the edges. Draw guidelines in pencil on the surface to follow when installing the tile.

Consider where you want the accent tiles and decorative borders to go. Plan for evenly spaced tiles and a balanced look. Leave room for grout lines between each tile.

Step-by-Step Installation of Backsplash Tiles

Now let’s go through the process of properly installing backsplash tile:

Step 1 – Cut the Tiles (if needed)

First, cut any perimeter tiles to fit around pipes, outlets, corners, and edges. Make sure tiles rest on the countertop. Use a wet saw or tile cutter tool for best results.

Cut notches in tiles around electrical boxes and plumbing fixtures so they lay flat. Follow the safety rules for using tile cutting tools.

Step 2 – Mix the thinset mortar

Mix the thinset adhesive according to package directions, to a toothpaste-like consistency. Only mix what you can use in 30 minutes. Use a grout float or putty knife to apply a thin, even layer on the surface, about 1/8-1/4 inch thick.

Spread just enough thinset for four tiles or so. Work in small sections. Use the trowel’s notched edge to comb the mortar evenly.

Step 3 – Apply the Backsplash Tiles

Press each tile firmly into the thinset with a slight twisting motion. Make sure full contact is made with the adhesive. Follow the layout lines. Use plastic spacers between tiles for consistent grout lines.

Work methodically and level. Check periodically for flush, even coverage. Clean away any squeezed-out thinset immediately with a damp sponge. Allow the thinset to cure per manufacturer directions before grouting.

Step 4 – Grout the Backsplash Tiles

Let the thinset cure fully before grouting, usually 24-48 hours. Mix the grout just before use. Apply it to the joints with a rubber grout float. Spread it at a 45-degree angle pressing into the grout lines.

Wipe away excess grout with a damp sponge. Rinse the sponge and wipe again. Use as little water as possible. Allow grout to dry completely.

Step 5 – Seal the Grout

After the grout dries thoroughly, apply a grout sealer. This will protect the grout from moisture and stains. Use a small foam brush or sealant sponge and follow the product directions. Let it cure completely.

Step 6 – Caulk Around Edges

Run a bead of bathroom/kitchen caulk around all the edges where the tile meets the countertop, walls, or cabinets. Wipe with a damp finger to smooth it out. Let it dry fully. This seals any gaps.

That concludes the basic installation process. Now it’s time to enjoy your new backsplash!

Tips for a Successful Backsplash Tile Project

Here are some additional pointers to ensure your backsplash looks fantastic and lasts a long time:

  • Carefully read all manufacturer instructions for thinset, grout, caulk, etc. Follow their guidelines for best results.
  • Plan for the recommended tile joints in your layout. 1/16 inch for mosaics and 1/8 inch for standard sizes.
  • Use tile spacers between each tile to maintain even grout line spacing.
  • Only spread thinset mortar over small workable sections at a time.
  • Push tiles firmly into the adhesive using a back-and-forth motion across the surface.
  • Be extremely careful removing any cracked or damaged tiles.
  • Tiles may need periodic re-grouting over time. This is a normal maintenance task.
  • Use a tile sealing product to protect the grout from stains and moisture.
  • Clean backsplash tiles regularly with warm water and a mild detergent. Avoid abrasive cleaners.

Following proper techniques and taking your time will ensure your new backsplash looks amazing for years to come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Backsplash Tile Projects

Many homeowners have additional questions when installing a backsplash tile project. Here are answers to some of the most common queries:

How difficult is it to install a backsplash?

Installing a tile backsplash is considered an intermediate DIY project. Beginners can certainly do it with proper planning and patience. The main skills involved are measuring, cutting, mixing thinset, leveling, and grouting. Have an experienced DIYer assist if you feel unsure.

What tools do I need for a backsplash install?

Standard tools include a tape measure, pencil, level, tile cutter, mixing buckets, thinset trowel, grout float, grout sponge, caulking gun, and various clean-up sponges and rags. A wet saw is great for mosaics or diagonal cuts. Tile nippers can help on curved or intricate jobs.

Should I hire a pro to install backsplash tile?

A professional tiler is always an option if you want flawless results with no headaches. The cost ranges from $6-$15 per square foot for labor. Consider pros if dealing with a tricky layout, expensive tile, or limited DIY experience.

How long does a backsplash installation take?

Once materials are purchased, the active work time is usually 1-3 days for an average kitchen. Allow drying times up to 48 hours between steps. Removing old materials can add a day. The total depends on the size of the job and tile details.

Can backsplash tile go directly over drywall?

Yes, backsplash tiles can adhere directly to drywall behind a sink or range. It’s best to use a drywall primer first. Cement board offers an ultra-stable base but requires more labor to install.

How do I cut holes in backsplash tile for outlets?

Use a rotating tool or oscillating tool to cut tile holes for outlets and switches. Turn off power to be safe. Cover the opening with a rectangular outlet cover plate once done. Be sure to make cutouts before attaching tile.

Can I install backsplash tile over existing tile?

Installing tile over tile is not normally recommended, as it can lead to poor adhesion. It’s better to remove old tile first. If the existing tile is in excellent shape, use a bonding primer before adding new tile.

Avoiding Common Backsplash Tile Mistakes

While backsplashes are relatively straightforward, it’s easy to make a few preventable mistakes:

  • Not cleaning and prepping the surface – Any paint, soap scum, or debris will weaken the thinset bond.
  • Applying thinset unevenly – Use the notched trowel method to achieve consistent adhesion.
  • Allowing thinset to skin over before applying tile – This impairs the bond strength. Work in small sections.
  • Neglecting the grout sealing step – Unsealed grout absorbs stains easily.
  • Using too much water when sponging grout – Excess water weakens grout and may cause shrinkage cracks.
  • Applying caulk before grout is fully cured – Allow 24-48 hours for grout to dry completely before caulking.
  • Failing to account for countertop overhang – Leave a small gap between tile and overhang for caulk.
  • Not using tile spacers – Spacers prevent uneven grout lines and spacing issues.


Installing a backsplash tile project significantly improves the appearance of any kitchen or bathroom. While proper planning and preparation are required, it is an attainable DIY project for many homeowners. Carefully follow each step and allow adequate drying time between stages. Maintain the finished backsplash by sealing grout and using gentle cleaners. With some patience and attention to detail, you can achieve a stunning new backsplash design.