Where to Start Backsplash Tile

Setting up a backsplash in your kitchen or bathroom can instantly upgrade the look and feel of the space. However, installing tile on a backsplash can seem daunting if you’ve never tackled a tiling project before. Knowing where to start when adding a backsplash tile will help set you up for success.

Choose Your Tile

The first step for any tiling project is picking out your tile. Backsplashes come in a wide range of materials, colors, sizes, textures and patterns. Considering the overall look you want for the space will help narrow down your options. Here are some tile types to consider for backsplash projects:

Ceramic Tile

Ceramic is one of the most popular choices for backsplashes. Ceramic tiles come in a huge range of styles, colors, shapes and textures. They are an affordable option that is easy to clean and durable. Subway tile, mosaic tile and decorative ceramic tile are common backsplash options.

Porcelain Tile

Porcelain tiles have an extremely low water absorption rate, making them very dense and durable. This material resists scratches, stains and moisture better than ceramic. They also come in a variety of colors and styles. Porcelain is more expensive than ceramic but also more durable.

Glass Tile

Glass tile can add a reflective, shining touch to a backsplash. These tiles come in every color imaginable, along with patterned and mirrored varieties. Glass tile is prone to chipping so it requires a professional installation. Use care when cleaning to avoid scratching the surface.

Metal Tile

Metal backsplashes bring contemporary, industrial style to a kitchen or bath. Stainless steel, copper, bronze and tin tiles are options. Metal stands up well to heat and moisture while adding a touch of shine. This is one of the most expensive backsplash materials.

Stone Tile

Granite, marble, travertine and slate backsplash tiles lend an elegant, natural look. Stone has unique veining and texture. These materials are porous and require sealing to prevent staining and discoloration. Stone is very durable but also on the pricier end.

Mosaic Tile

Tiny mosaic tiles come mounted on sheets to create stunning patterns. Mosaics can be made from ceramic, glass or stone. Opt for mosaic sheets with plastic or paper backing for easier installation. Mosaics add visual interest and work well in small spaces.

Consider factors like your design style, budget, kitchen or bath finishes and color scheme when selecting backsplash tile. It’s smart to purchase 10-15% extra in case any tiles crack or break during installation.

Choose the Right Tools

Installing backsplash tile successfully requires having the proper tools. Investing in quality tiling tools makes the installation process smoother. Here are the must-have tools for tiling a backsplash:

  • Wet saw – A wet saw is the ideal tool for precisely cutting tile to size. It eliminates dust and chips. Rent or buy a wet saw depending on your project size.
  • Rubber grout float – This tool helps apply grout smoothly into the tile joints. Opt for a rubber instead of foam float.
  • Grout sponge – Use a grout sponge to wipe away excess grout once it has set in the joints. Rinse it often for best results.
  • Mixing bucket – You’ll need a bucket on hand to mix up thinset mortar and grout. Get a large 5-gallon bucket with a measuring scale.
  • Notched trowel – A notched trowel helps spread thinset evenly on the backsplash surface before laying tile. Pick a trowel suited for your tile size.
  • Tile spacers – These small pieces keep tile a uniform distance apart. Use spacers suited for the grout joint width you want.
  • Tile cutter – A simple tile cutter with a carbide scoring wheel can handle straight cuts. It’s fine for small projects.
  • Level – Use a level often to ensure your tiles are perfectly horizontal and vertical. Get a long level to span the backsplash area.
  • Grout sealer – After grouting, apply a grout sealer to protect the joints from stains and moisture. Use a sealant suited for your grout type.

Investing in high-quality tools will make tiling your backsplash much easier. Don’t forget safety gear like gloves, dust masks and eye protection.

Prepare the Surface

Before you can start tiling, you need to make sure the backsplash area is prepared. Take time to correctly prep the surface to ensure the tile adheres properly. Follow these steps:

Clean Thoroughly

  • Remove any existing backsplash tile, grout or adhesive with care.
  • Wash the entire backsplash area with an all-purpose cleaner and rinse well. Let it dry fully.

Evaluate and Repair

  • Inspect the surface closely and make any necessary repairs.
  • Fill any holes, gaps or cracked areas with filler designed for the substrate. Let dry completely.

Apply Primer/Membrane

  • For surfaces like drywall or plywood, apply a primer to aid adhesion.
  • Cement board requires a waterproof membrane before tiling.

Mark Layout Lines

  • Plan your tile layout and mark center lines and base lines on the surface to guide installation.

Proper prep helps tiles adhere tightly to the backsplash over time. Don’t skip steps or else tiles may eventually loosen or crack.

Mix Thinset and Prep Tiles

With a prepped backsplash surface, it’s time to prepare the thinset mortar and cut any specialty tiles needed:

Mix Thinset Mortar

  • Pour dry thinset powder into a bucket according to package directions.
  • Add the right amount of water and mix to a smooth, lump-free consistency.
  • Let it slake for 10 minutes then re-mix before using.

Cut Any Specialty Tiles

  • Use a wet saw to cut border, edge and other specialty tiles to fit your layout.
  • Make slow, steady cuts with a new diamond blade to get clean edges.

Back-Butter Tiles

  • Spread a layer of thinset on tile backs to maximize adhesion. Use a notched trowel at a 45° angle.

Mix only as much thinset as you can use in 30 minutes. Have all materials and tools organized beforehand.

Install the Tile

Once thinset and tiles are prepped, installation can begin. Follow these tips for properly installing backsplash tiles:

Spread Thinset on Surface

  • Use a notched trowel held at a 45° angle to spread thinset evenly on the backsplash.

Place Tiles in Layout

  • Press tiles firmly into the thinset, using spacers for consistent grout joints.
  • Work in sections, completing one area before moving to adjacent tiles.

Check Level and Alignment

  • Use a level often to ensure tiles are perfectly straight and aligned.
  • Make adjustments quickly before thinset dries.

Cut and Fit Remaining Tiles

  • At edges and corners, hold tiles in place and mark where cuts are needed.
  • Cut specialty pieces as needed for a precise fit.

Clean Up Excess Thinset

  • Remove any excess thinset with a damp sponge before it dries. Keep grout joints cleared.

Work methodically, allowing thinset to dry fully before moving on. Avoid prematurely walking away once tiles are in place.

Apply Grout and Seal

Once tile adhesive has cured 24-48 hours, grouting is next. Follow by sealing grout for best results:

Mix and Apply Grout

  • Prepare grout per package instructions with water in a bucket. Let it slake then remix.
  • Use a rubber float to spread grout over the entire tile surface, pressing into joints.

Wipe Away Excess Grout

  • Allow grout 10-15 minutes to partially dry in joints before wiping away residue.
  • Wipe diagonally across tiles with minimal pressure to avoid pulling grout from joints.

Seal Grout

  • After grout has cured fully, apply a grout sealant with a small foam brush.
  • Avoid excess sealer on the tile faces. Buff any residue off with a soft cloth.

Sealing grout will protect it from moisture and make it easier to clean. Use caulk between tile and countertops/fixtures to allow for movement.

Tips for Backsplash Success

Follow these additional tips to ensure your backsplash tile installation goes smoothly:

  • Carefully plan tile layout on paper first to identify potential issues.
  • Inspect all tiles beforehand and set aside any with defects. Arrange tiles in the final pattern.
  • Always mix thinset and grout to a consistent texture to prevent bonding issues.
  • Use tile spacers for perfect joint alignment and consistent grout line widths.
  • Only spread thinset mortar over areas you can tile within 30 minutes before it starts to dry.
  • Avoid walking or working on newly tiled sections so tile can adhere properly as thinset cures.
  • Use a grout release if installing polished or porous tile to prevent grout haze and residue.
  • Wipe tiles down with a damp sponge after grouting to remove any remaining film before it dries.
  • Allow tile thinset and grout full cure times as recommended before using the backsplash.
  • Seal natural stone tiles and grout lines to prevent staining and increase water resistance.

With careful planning and patience, you can get professional-looking results tiling your own kitchen or bath backsplash.

FAQs About Backsplash Tiling

Where should I start tiling a backsplash?

It’s best to start tiling in the corner furthest from the countertop or fixtures and work outwards. Complete one section entirely before moving to adjacent areas.

What thinset mortar should I use for backsplash tile?

Choose white thinset for porcelain, ceramic and glass tiles on wall surfaces. Use a polymer-modified thinset for natural stone tiles.

How long does thinset take to dry before grouting?

Thinset adhesive typically takes 24-48 hours to fully cure before grouting can be done. Always check manufacturer’s instructions.

What color grout should I use for a backsplash?

White or light gray grout works well with most tile colors and helps grout lines recede visually. Use a darker grout only with lighter tile colors.

How soon can I use the backsplash after tiling?

It’s best to avoid use for at least 2-3 days after grouting to allow thinset and grout to fully cure initially. Take care when using for 2 weeks after install.

How do I cut backsplash tiles?

Use a quality wet saw with a new diamond blade to cut tiles cleanly. Make slow, steady cuts and keep water tray filled during use.

What’s the best way to adhere backsplash tile?

Spreading a layer of thinset adhesive on both the tile back and backsplash surface creates maximum adhesion for a long-lasting installation.


Installing a tile backsplash can take your kitchen or bathroom from basic to beautiful. With the right planning, materials and methods, you can achieve a successful DIY backsplash project. Focus on proper surface prep, precision tile-cutting and monitoring thinset cure times. The end result will take your space to the next level visually and functionally.

With an understanding of where to start when tiling a backsplash, you can feel confident tackling this project on your own. Use quality tiling tools, take your time, and don’t be afraid to call in a tile pro if certain aspects seem too difficult. In no time, you’ll have the stylish, new backsplash of your dreams.