Where to Start Subway Tile Backsplash

Subway tile backsplashes are a classic and timeless choice for kitchens and bathrooms. The rectangular tile in white or colored glazes can create a clean, elegant look. But before installing a subway tile backsplash, there are some key steps to consider so your project goes smoothly. Here is a detailed guide on where to start when planning a subway tile backsplash.

Choosing Your Tile

The first step for your subway tile backsplash is selecting the right tile. Here are some factors to consider:

Tile Material

Subway tiles are traditionally made from ceramic or porcelain. Ceramic tile is more affordable, while porcelain is more durable and stain resistant. Porcelain subway tiles are ideal for kitchen backsplashes.

Tile Size

The classic subway tile size is 3 x 6 inches, but sizes range from 2 x 4 inches up to 4 x 12 inches. The standard 3 x 6 size offers the most traditional look. Larger tiles can make for faster installation.

Tile Finish

Matte, gloss, or a satin finish are available. Matte has an understated, classic look. Gloss is shiny and reflective. Satin has a soft low sheen. The tile finish impacts the overall style, so consider your design aesthetics.

Tile Color

White subway tiles are the most common, but many hues are available like grey, blue, and black. You can opt for one solid tile color or mix and match hues. Adding tile colors can create eye-catching designs.

Accent Tiles

Consider using accent tiles along with standard white or colored subway tiles. Accent tiles with patterns, textures, or contrasting colors can add visual interest. Use them sparingly to highlight specific areas.


Ceramic subway tile is very budget friendly, while porcelain, larger tiles, and specialty shapes tend to be more expensive. Set a tile budget beforehand so you can choose options within your price range.


Check what subway tile sizes and styles are available at local stores. Ordering specialty tile online can increase lead times. Verify tile availability before finalizing your design.

Designing Your Layout

The layout of your subway tile backsplash makes a big impact on the overall look. Here are some subway tile design considerations:

Backsplash Height

Standard backsplash height is 4 inches from the counter, but you can opt for a full height backsplash up to the underside of the upper cabinets. Higher backsplashes provide more protection and make a bolder design statement.


A basic brick laid pattern is most common. You can also do patterns like herringbone. Mixing patterns can add interest, but too many looks busy. Keep the overall design clean and streamlined.

Inset Designs

Using accent tiles or materials like marble or stone to create geometric or artistic inset shapes can elevate your backsplash. Minimalist insets suit modern kitchens, while elaborate mosaic insets work for traditional spaces.

Open Shelving

If open shelving separates upper and lower cabinets, you can do a continuous subway tile design or different looks above and below. Tiling around open shelves creates a cohesive finished look.

Backsplash Only vs Full Wall

Subway tile can cover just the backsplash area or extend across full walls. Full wall tile provides seamless uniformity, while a backsplash-only design allows using different wall paint or wallpaper above.

Tile Layout Around Features

Map out tile placement around windows, outlets, switches, lighting, and other features. This will help you determine custom tile cuts, accent details, and the most pleasing layout.

Prepping the Surface

Proper prep work ensures your subway tile adheres securely and withstands moisture. Here are some tips for prepping the backsplash area:

Clean Surface

Thoroughly clean the backsplash area to remove grease, dust, and debris so the thinset mortar bonds well. Cleaning agents like TSP also etch the surface for better adhesion.

Remove Old Backsplash

If replacing an existing backsplash, carefully remove the old tile without damaging the wall. Scrape off leftover thinset so the new tile sits flush. Sand and repaint if drywall is exposed.

Moisture Protection

On wall areas that may get wet like behind sinks, apply a waterproofing membrane. RedGard and Noble products create water barriers to reduce moisture damage risks.

Level Uneven Areas

If the wall surface is heavily textured or uneven, use self-leveling underlayment to create a smooth, flat surface for tile. This prevents cracks and adhesion issues.


Applying primer-sealers designed for tile projects helps bond the thinset to the wall and prevents absorption into porous surfaces. They inhibit moisture damage too.

Gather Supplies

Having all the necessary subway tile backsplash supplies on hand will make your installation go efficiently. Here are the supplies you’ll need:


Purchase 10-15% extra tile than your measurements show to account for broken tiles and custom cuts. Keep all batch numbers the same for uniform tile color.

Thinset Mortar

Choose polymer modified thinset for strongest bond on backsplash walls. It comes in different strengths for various surfaces like concrete, plaster, and drywall.


Grout fills the joints between tiles. Sanded grout works for grout lines wider than 1/8 inch. Unsanded is best for narrow grout lines. Match grout color to the tile.


Notched trowels are used to spread the thinset evenly. Choose a trowel notch size to match the tile type and size per manufacturer specs.

Tile Spacers

Spacers keep tile evenly spaced for consistent grout line width. Rubber spacers allow adjustment while maintaining even gaps.

Wet Saw

A wet saw fitted with a diamond tile blade cuts tile cleanly. The water prevents overheating and chip-out. Rent or buy a quality wet saw.

Gloves, Safety Gear

Wear dust masks, safety goggles, gloves, and ear protection when cutting tile. Have a first aid kit available in case of nicks or abrasions.

Grout Float, Sponges

A grout float efficiently presses grout into joints. Soft sponges are used to wipe away excess grout and shape finished grout lines.


Sealing grout after it cures prevents staining and damage. Epoxy sealers formulated for grout offer the best protection.

Measure Carefully

Precise measurements ensure you purchase enough tile and that cuts are minimized. Follow these tips for accurate backsplash measurements:

Measure Multiple Times

Re-measure the backsplash area, corner to corner, at both the top and bottom. Multiple measurements prevent math errors or missed dimensions.

Include All Features

Note measurements around cabinets, windows, outlets, and any other features protruding into the backsplash area so you can plan tile placement accurately.

Height x Width

Measure full height from counter to ceiling. Record width from outer corners. Multiply height x width for total tiling area. Add areas of any inset shapes.

Include Extra Tile

Add 10% onto your tile area calculations to account for tile cuts and possible breakage. Round up each measurement to the nearest 1/4 inch when ordering.

Draw Detailed Plan

Sketch your backsplash layout with exact measurements noted. Indicate tile, accent, and grout line placement. A good plan is a key to success.

Install Tile Properly

Installing subway tile properly ensures a long-lasting, damage-resistant backsplash. Follow these pro tips:

Mix Thinset Well

Mix powered thinset per package directions, using the right proportions of powder to water so it reaches the proper heavy consistency.

Apply Even Layer

Use the notched trowel to spread a 1/4 to 3/8 inch layer of thinset evenly across a small section of the prepared wall, holding at a consistent 45-degree angle.

Set Tiles Firmly

Set tiles into the wet thinset firmly in the planned positions. Push and wiggle gently to collapse the thinset ridges and maximize contact and adhesion.

Use Spacers Consistently

Place tile spacers evenly as you set each row of tile to maintain even grout line width. Remove spacers once thinset hardens.

Check Alignment Frequently

As you set tiles row by row, step back and verify tiles are aligning level and plumb. Adjust to keep straight vertical and horizontal rows.

Cut Border Tiles Carefully

Measure and cut border tiles accurately for a tight fit. Use the wet saw fitted with a new diamond blade designed for cutting ceramic or porcelain.

Let Thinset Cure

Allow thinset mortar to cure fully (typically 24-48 hours) before grouting. Do not grout until thinset has hardened completely to prevent cracked grout.

Grout and Seal

Grouting and sealing are the final steps for a durable and stylish backsplash. Follow these tips:

Grout Small Sections

Grout only about 10 square feet at a time, so you can wipe away excess before it dries and hardens. Use a grout float to fully pack joints.

Clean Diagonally

Use a damp sponge to wipe diagonal across tiles to prevent dragging grout out of joints. Rinse sponge frequently for best results.

Shape and Smooth

Once grout haze is removed, shape joints by sculpting an even profile across tiles with an edge of the damp sponge.

Multiple Cleanup Passes

Do a second pass with a clean sponge moistened with cool, clean water to remove any remaining grout haze and shape joints.

Allow Full Curing

Leave grout undisturbed for 72 hours of curing time before sealing or putting into service. Avoid moisture until grout is fully cured.

Seal Completely

Apply grout sealer according to package directions, ensuring complete coverage on grout joints. Reapply sealer periodically for ongoing protection.


How do I cut subway tiles?

Use a wet saw fitted with a fresh porcelain tile blade to cut subway tiles cleanly. Measure and mark cuts carefully. Cut tiles evenly and slowly to avoid chipping. The water prevents heat buildup and damage while cutting.

Should I seal subway tile before or after grouting?

Sealing subway tile before grouting is not recommended. The sealant prevents proper grout adhesion. Only seal the grout once it has fully cured, typically 72 hours after grouting. The sealant protects grout from stains.

What thinset mortar is best for subway tile?

Use a polymer-modified thinset specifically formulated for wall applications. It provides a strong, water-resistant bond and flexibility to prevent cracks. Consult manufacturer guidelines on appropriate thinset for your tile type.

Can I install a subway tile backsplash directly over drywall?

Yes, subway tiles can be installed directly onto drywall if it is in good condition. Prepare the surface by cleaning with TSP and apply a primer-sealer to optimize adhesion. Use a polymer modified thinset to prevent moisture damage.

Should I use sanded or unsanded grout with subway tile?

For typical small grout lines under 1/8 inch with subway tile, unsanded grout is easiest to work with and provides smoothest finished joints. Only use sanded grout for wider grout lines. Consult grout package specs.


Installing a subway tile backsplash enhances your kitchen or bathroom with timeless style. Following the steps outlined for planning, preparing, designing, and properly installing your tile results in a stunning backsplash you’ll admire for years. Paired with your careful grouting and sealing, a subway tile backsplash adds beauty and value to any home.