Where to Start Backsplash Subway Tile

Installing a subway tile backsplash can transform the look and feel of your kitchen. The classic rectangular tiles lend a timeless and elegant touch. While subway tiles are relatively easy for DIYers to install, careful planning and preparation are needed to achieve the perfect finished look. Follow these tips on where to start when installing a subway tile backsplash.

Selecting the Right Tile

The first step is choosing the right subway tile for your design aesthetic. Consider the following:

Tile Material

Subway tiles come in ceramic, porcelain, glass, and natural stone. Ceramic and porcelain are the most popular. Ceramic is classic, versatile, and budget-friendly. Porcelain is less porous, more stain-resistant, and durable. Glass tiles add a modern, sleek look. Natural stone like marble or travertine provides an elegant, high-end appearance.

Tile Size

The common subway tile size is 3×6 inches, but sizes range from 2×4 inches to 4×12 inches. The elongated 4×12 size gives a more contemporary look. Make sure larger tiles fit the scale and proportion of your kitchen.

Tile Color

White or light grey subway tiles are the most popular as they give a clean, bright look. However, subway tiles come in every color imaginable. Consider coordinating or contrasting with your cabinetry, countertops, and paint colors.

Tile Finish

Subway tile finishes include glossy, matte, textured, or crackled glazing. Glossy tiles have a shiny, reflective quality, while matte is more subdued. Textured tiles add visual interest. Crackled glazing provides an antique appearance.

Planning the Layout

Carefully mapping out the tile layout is crucial to achieving a cohesive look. Consider the following:

Select a Starting Point

Determine the most visually appealing starting point, such as directly above the cooktop or centered on the primary kitchen window. Avoid awkward cuts in highly visible areas.

Decide on Your Pattern

A basic offset brick pattern with staggered tile rows is the most common. Or create interest with patterns like herringbone. Accent strip tiles can provide contrasting colors. Plan the grout lines carefully around niches and outlets.

Calculate Necessary Materials

Determine the total number of full tile sheets needed based on your measurements. Add at least 10% more to allow for cuts and waste. Include extra tile for future repairs. Buy all materials in the same lot to ensure consistent coloring and sizes.

Prepping the Surface

Proper prep work ensures long-lasting adhesion. Steps include:


Thoroughly clean the installation surface. Remove existing backsplash tile or wall materials as needed. Eliminate all grease, dirt and soap residue using cleaning solutions like TSP.

Flattening Imperfections

Fix any dents, chips or uneven areas in the wall surface using spackling compound. Sand smooth. This prevents irregular tile spacing.


Prime painted or freshly spackled surfaces with a bonding primer. Unpainted drywall or plaster should be primed with a PVA drywall primer. Priming improves adhesion.

Applying Backerboard

Consider cement backerboard over drywall, especially for stone tiles. It provides added moisture-resistance and prevents sagging. Secure firmly per manufacturer instructions.

Installing the Tiles

Now comes the fun part! Follow these tips for installing subway tile:

Spreading Thinset Mortar

Use a notched trowel to spread a thin, even layer of latex-modified thinset mortar on just a small section at a time. Do not glob on too much at once.

Laying the Tiles

Following your layout pattern, carefully lay the tiles. Use tile spacers for even grout line spacing. Periodically check for levelness using a spirit level tool.

Cutting Tiles

Measure and mark tiles to fit around outlets, edges, and corners. Cut with a wet saw for clean edges. Use a tile nipper for small irregularities. Grind sharp edges.

Sealing Natural Stone

Seal porous natural stone tiles with a penetrating sealer. This prevents staining and simplifies cleaning. Apply sealer evenly before grouting.

Grouting and Finishing Touches

The grout color makes a huge impact on the overall look. Final steps include:

Grouting the Tile

After tiles cure 24-48 hours, mix and apply grout using a rubber grout float. Push into joints smoothly. Wipe away excess grout diagonally across tiles. Rinse sponge and change water frequently.

Sealing Grout

Once grout dries fully, apply a penetrating grout sealer. This adds water-resistance and stain protection. Re-seal grout every 1-2 years.

Caulking Joints

Use silicone caulk to fill expansion joints where tilework meets the countertop, cabinetry, or other materials. This allows for normal shifting.

With careful prep and attention to detail, you can achieve a stunning and long-lasting subway tile backsplash. The classic look never goes out of style. Let your creativity shine through in the design.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are subway tiles different from other ceramic tiles?

Subway tiles are rectangular with a brick-like shape. The most common size is 3×6 inches but they range from 2×4 to 4×12 inches. Other ceramic tiles come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and patterns.

What tools do I need to install a subway tile backsplash?

Basic tools include a tape measure, spirit level, pencil, tile cutter, grout float, sponges, buckets, a notched trowel, and mixing paddle. A wet saw is needed for stone or large format tiles. Always use tile spacers.

What type of mortar should I use?

Latex or polymer modified thinset mortar provides superior adhesion and more flexibility. It is the best choice for most subway tile installations over cement board or drywall.

How are subway tiles installed in a herringbone pattern?

In a herringbone pattern, tiles are laid perpendicular in an interlocking arrangement. Each tile meets the corner of two neighboring tiles. Careful planning of the tile layout and cutting is required.

How soon can I grout after installing subway tiles?

It is best to wait at least 24-48 hours for mortar to cure before applying grout. Grout can scratch or dislodge tiles if applied too soon. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.


Installing a subway tile backsplash boosts your kitchen’s style factor. With smart planning and preparation, the project can be readily DIYed. Focus on creating the right surface prep, precise tile layout, meticulous tile cutting, proper spacing, and thorough grouting. The finished product will provide a lifetime of elegance and easy-to-clean functionality. Let your personal taste and kitchen’s style guide your design decisions. With a quality installation, you’ll enjoy your beautiful new backsplash for years to come.