Where to Start Tiling a Backsplash

Tiling a backsplash can transform the look of a kitchen or bathroom by adding eye-catching visual interest through color, texture, and pattern. However, as a tiling novice, knowing where to start can be daunting. Proper planning and preparation are key to achieving a successful DIY backsplash tiling project. This comprehensive guide will walk you step-by-step through the entire process, from initial planning to grouting the final tiles. With the right information and a careful, methodical approach, even first-time tilers can install a backsplash they can be proud of.

Selecting Tiles

Choosing the right tiles is the first step in planning your backsplash tiling project. With so many options to consider, it helps to have a strategy when making your selection.


Ceramic and porcelain tiles are the most popular choices for backsplash projects. Consider the following when selecting tile material:

  • Ceramic – Made from clay and available in a huge range of colors, styles, and finishes. Softer than porcelain, better for DIY cuts.
  • Porcelain – Made from denser clay and fired at higher temps than ceramic. More durable and water-resistant. Difficult for DIY cuts.
  • Glass – Gorgeous reflective surface. Can be prone to chipping. Difficult for DIY cuts.
  • Metal – Often stainless steel or copper. Provides an industrial, modern look. Needs special cutting tools.
  • Mosaic – Small tiles mounted together in a grid. Creates intricate patterns. Sheets make installation easier.
  • Stone – Natural products like marble, granite, or slate. Add organic texture. Need sealing. Hard to cut.


Smaller tiles are better suited for do-it-yourself installation. Large format tiles are tricky for beginners to cut evenly and keep straight. For backsplashes, stick to tiles under 4 inches. Some common sizes include:

  • Mosaic sheets – 1/4 inch tiles in 12 x 12 inch grids
  • Metro tiles – 1 x 6 inch subway-style rectangular tiles
  • Hexagons – 1 to 3 inch dramatic geometric shapes


The hues and textures of your tiles will define the look of your backsplash. Consider the style of your kitchen or bath and the cabinets/counter finishes when choosing.

  • Matte or glossy glaze
  • Bold colors like jewel tones, or muted earthy tones
  • Varied tones or uniform single color
  • Subtle stone finishes or vivid patterns


  • Select tiles in person rather than online if possible so you can see accurate colors, textures, and sizes.
  • Purchase 10-15% extra to account for broken or damaged tiles during installation.
  • Don’t mix and match lots; verify tiles are all from the same batch.
  • Ensure tiles complement adjacent cabinetry and countertops.

Design and Layout

Once you’ve selected the perfect tiles, it’s time to map out the design. Create a basic layout specifying tile locations, patterns, accents, and borders.

Measure Carefully

Use a measuring tape to measure the height and width of the backsplash area. Make sure to account for any outlets, windows, or irregular spaces. Having accurate measurements allows you to calculate the precise number of tiles needed.

Create a Grid

Sketch the backsplash area to scale on graph paper, marking all openings and appliances. Use tile dimensions to draw a grid showing how tiles will be laid out. This will visualize the pattern and help determine optimal starting points.

Choose a Pattern

Common backsplash patterns include:

  • Basic grid – Simple aligned tiles in straight rows/columns
  • Brick or staggered layout – Rows are offset half a tile width
  • Diagonal – Tiles placed at 45 degree angles
  • Herringbone – Rows/columns form “v” shapes
  • Geometric mosaic – Combinations of hexagons, diamonds, etc.

Accent tiles can be added for color and visual interest. Outline the entire area or just highlight specific sections like behind the stove.

Borders and trim pieces give a polished look. Frame the outer edges of the backsplash or define sections within the tiled space.

Make Adjustments

Review the layout to ensure the pattern aligns properly around fixtures or outlets and that grout lines will match up. Make adjustments before finalizing the design. Allow a 1/8 inch gap between tiles.

Preparing the Surface

The backsplash installation surface must be cleaned and prepared to ensure tiles adhere properly.

Clean Thoroughly

Clean the installation area with soap and water, then a degreaser to remove residue. Rinse and let dry completely. Remove existing backsplash if present.

Ensure Surface Is Sound

Check that the surface is smooth, dry, and structurally sound. Repair any damage, holes, cracks, or uneven areas.

Apply Primer/Sealer

For drywall, use drywall primer to improve adhesion. For painted areas, sand glossy finishes and apply primer. Use a sealing product for porous surfaces like cement board.

Mark the Area

Once the surface is prepped, use painters tape and a level to mark tile locations on the wall. Mark the planned grid to guide installation.

Setting the Tiles

With the prep work complete, it’s time to start setting the tiles using thinset mortar adhesive. Have all materials and tools ready to go beforehand.

Mix Thinset

Combine thinset powder with latex additive and water in a bucket. Mix to a smooth, toothpaste-like consistency per package directions. Let sit 5-10 minutes then re-mix before using.

Apply Thinset

Use a notched trowel to spread a thin layer of thinset mortar onto the backsplash area, holding at a 45 degree angle. Apply only 1-2 square feet at a time to prevent drying.

Set Tiles

Press tiles firmly into place, using spacers to maintain even grout lines. Ensure full coverage by pushing and sliding tiles through thinset. Work in small sections.

Check Alignment

Periodically step back and verify tiles are lining up with the planned grid and are level. Make adjustments right away before thinset dries.

Cut Tiles

Use a wet saw to cut border and filler tiles to fit. Make precise cuts with tile nippers around outlets or fixtures. Use edge pieces if needed.

Let Dry

Allow thinset mortar to dry completely per manufacturer instructions, typically 24 hours. Keep area clean while drying. Don’t walk on tiles until fully set.

Grouting the Tiles

Grout fills the spaces between tiles, finishing the installation and creating a water resistant surface.

Tape and Seal

Use painter’s tape to cover walls and outlets. Seal expansions gaps with backer rod. Apply grout release or mineral oil to tiles to prevent staining.

Mix and Apply Grout

Prepare grout per package directions. Apply grout over the tiles using a rubber grout float. Push firmly into joints at a 45 degree angle.

Clean Excess Grout

Let grout firm up slightly, then use a damp sponge to clean haze and expose the tile edges again. Rinse sponge frequently.

Polish and Seal

Once grout has dried, polish the tiles with a soft cloth to a bright finish. Apply grout sealer 1-2 days later following manufacturer recommendations.

Remove Tape

Carefully peel off all masking tape once grout is fully cured, typically 72 hours. Avoid pulling off tiles. Touch up grout if needed.

Finishing Touches

The final details complete your newly tiled backsplash and make it ready to use and enjoy.

Install Accessories

Replace removed outlet covers, switch plates, soap holders and reattach any fixtures that were removed during tiling.

Caulk Perimeter

Use silicone caulk to fill any gaps between the countertop, walls, and edges of the backsplash. Smooth the caulk with a wet finger.

Clean Surface

Use a pH neutral cleaner and soft cloth to remove residual grout haze or dust. Re-seal if needed. Avoid abrasive scouring pads.

Enjoy Your Work

Step back and admire your work! Bask in the satisfaction of successfully installing your own professional-looking, high-quality backsplash.

Tips for First-Time Tilers

Installing tile for the first time can be daunting, but having a game plan helps ensure success on your DIY backsplash project. Follow these tips to gain confidence and get started on the right foot.

Gather Your Supplies

Make a detailed list of all required materials and tools to have on hand before starting work. Nothing derails progress like realizing you’re missing vital items mid-project. Your supply list should include:


  • Tiles
  • Thinset mortar
  • Grout
  • Trim pieces
  • Backer board if needed
  • Caulk
  • Grout sealer


  • Measuring tape
  • Level
  • Trowels
  • Tile cutter or wet saw
  • Mixing bucket
  • Tile spacers
  • Grout float
  • Sponges

Safety gear

  • Work gloves
  • Safety goggles
  • Knee pads
  • Dust mask

Watch Tutorials

Study online videos detailing the tiling process before attempting your own project. Seeing techniques demonstrated will build understanding and demystify unfamiliar terms or procedures. Take notes on key steps to refer back to during your installation.

Start Small

Tackle a small backsplash space first, like behind a bathroom vanity. This allows you to get comfortable with measuring, cutting, setting, and grouting tiles on a manageable scale before moving on to larger kitchen backsplashes.

Be Patient

Rushing through steps can lead to crooked tiles or uneven grout lines. Work methodically and don’t get impatient during drying times. Tiling requires allowing thinset, grout, and caulk to fully cure for best results.

Expect Mistakes

Perfection is difficult, especially as a novice tiler. Don’t be discouraged by minor mistakes in your first backsplash project. Focus on learning techniques properly and you’ll improve dramatically on your next try.

Clean as You Go

Stopping to clean excess thinset or grout from tiles as you work prevents permanent dried material that is difficult to remove later. It also gives you a chance to inspect and adjust tiles.

Start in a Hidden Spot

When trying a new pattern or technique, start in an inconspicuous corner or area hidden by cabinets. This minimizes the impact if it doesn’t go smoothly. Once mastered, move on to exposed areas.

By educating yourself, creating a plan, and allowing plenty of time, even inexperienced DIYers can achieve beautiful, professional-looking backsplash tile results. Be patient with yourself, embrace the learning process, and have fun with it!

Recommended Materials for Tiling Backsplashes

The right materials are essential for a long-lasting, high-quality backsplash installation. Use the following recommended products designed specifically for backsplash tiling:

Backer Board

Cement backer board provides an ideal subsurface for backsplashes. Brands like Durock or HardieBacker cement board are waterproof and prevent damage from moisture. Use 1/4 or 1/2 inch thickness.

Thinset Mortar

Use white polymer-modified thinset mortar that contains latex additives. This creates a stronger bond and prevents absorption from porous tiles. Popular brands include Laticrete and Custom Building Products.


Look for unsanded grout for backsplash joints narrower than 1/8 inch. Sanded grout can scratch glossy tile. Use a latex-based formulation like Polyblend rather than cement-based.

Trim Pieces

Matching metal or plastic edge trim finishes off the backsplash perimeter for a clean look. Options include bullnose, chair rail, and corner trims.


For sealing gaps and corners, use a flexible, mold-resistant silicone caulk designed for kitchen and bath applications, like GE Silicone II.

Grout Sealer

Applying a grout sealer like Aqua Mix boosts stain resistance and prevents discoloration or damage from moisture and cleaning. Use a spray or wipe-on formula.

Grout Release

Pre-treating tiles with a grout release product like Armstrong Flooring Grout Release prevents grout from adhering to and staining the tile surface during application.


Have tile specific hand tools like a notched trowel, tile spacers, tile cutter, grout float, and grout sponge. Safety gear like gloves, goggles, and knee pads is also recommended.

Investing in the proper backsplash materials prevents potential problems like cracking, discoloration, or tiles detaching from the wall. Always refer to manufacturer instructions for recommended uses and installation methods.

Step-by-Step Backsplash Installation Guide

Carefully following best practices at each phase of installation leads to professional looking results on your first try tiling a backsplash. Here is a step-by-step process:

1. Select Tiles

Choose tiles you love – color, pattern, sizes, and texture to suit your style. Get 10-15% extra. Buy from one batch.

2. Measure Space

Measure height and width of the backsplash area. Account for irregular spaces or outlets. Sketch grid on graph paper.

3. Prep the Surface

Clean thoroughly. Sand glossy paint. Fill holes and cracks. Prime and seal the surface.

4. Mark Layout

Tape off installation area. Use a level and tape to mark the planned tile grid.

5. Cut Tiles

Measure and mark tiles to be cut. Use a wet saw for straight cuts and tile nippers on edges.

6. Mix Thinset

In a bucket, mix thinset mortar powder with latex additive and water to a smooth consistency. Let sit 5-10 minutes before using.

7. Spread Thinset

Apply thinset adhesive using a notched trowel at a 45 degree angle in small sections where tiles will be placed.

8. Set Tiles

Press tiles into thinset firmly, using spacers for grout lines. Push and slide to ensure full adhesion.

9. Check Alignment

Step back periodically and view tiles from a distance. Adjust now if any tiles are crooked or uneven.

10. Let Thinset Dry

Allow thinset to dry completely, around 24 hours typically. Area must remain clean and dry during this time.

11. Tape and Seal

Cover walls and outlets with painter’s tape. Fill expansion gaps with backer rod before grouting.

12. Apply Grout Release

Wipe tiles with grout release or mineral oil to prevent grout from adhering to the tile surface.

13. Mix and Apply Grout

Prepare grout per package instructions. Use a rubber grout float to spread grout forcefully into joints.

14. Clean Excess Grout

Let grout firm up slightly and use a damp sponge to wipe tiles clean and reveal edges again.

15. Remove Tape

Carefully peel off painter’s tape once grout has fully cured, around 72 hours.

16. Polish and Seal

Buff tiles with a soft cloth. Apply grout sealer 1-2 days later.

Following these meticulous steps leads to stunning results! Take it slow and steady.

Tiling Problems and Solutions

Even skilled tilers run into occasional problems. Don’t be discouraged if you encounter common issues on your first backsplash project. There are solutions! Here are some potential problems DIYers face and ways to address them:

Crooked Tiles

Solution: Adjust within the thinset mortar drying time. After drying, remove and re-apply adhesive to reset.

Uneven Grout Lines

Solution: Use plastic tile spacers for consistency. Check alignment as you go and adjust.

Thinset Skinning Over

Solution: Only apply thinset adhesive to areas being actively worked to prevent drying out. Discard if hardened.

Gaps Between Tiles

Solution: Press tiles firmly together and use spacers to prevent gaps. Caulk small gaps after grouting.

Cracked Tiles

Solution: Take care when cutting tiles and handling. Replace any cracked tiles toward the end.

Grout Smears on Tiles

Solution: Wipe tiles immediately while grouting. Wash with pH neutral cleaner after grouting. Re-seal if needed.

Grout Cracking Over Time

Solution: Ensure proper grout for the tile joints. Seal grout to protect from moisture damage.

Grout Discoloration

Solution: Use epoxy or latex-based grout for increased stain resistance. Apply grout release before grouting.

Hollow or Drummy Sound When Tapped

Solution: Indicates poor thinset adhesion. Remove loose tiles and re-apply thinset before resetting.

Don’t get overwhelmed looking at your tiles! Diagnose the issue, then take corrective steps. With patience, you can achieve beautiful results and gain tiling knowledge.

FAQs About Tiling Backsplashes

Still have some uncertainties about backsplash tiling? Review these frequently asked questions for helpful answers:

Do I need to remove the existing backsplash?

Yes, old backsplash tiles or other materials should be fully removed down to the bare wall subsurface to allow thinset to bond directly.

What tools do I need for cutting tiles?

A wet saw is best for straight cuts and an ceramic tile nipper for notched detail cuts around edges or openings. Always wear goggles.

How do I cut holes for outlets in tiles?

Mark the opening on the tile, then use a tile bit on a drill or angle grinder to cut the hole to the right size. Take care not to crack tile.

Should tiles go all the way to ceiling?

Usually not, unless you are doing a full wall application. Standard backsplashes end around 4 inches above counter height.

How soon can I grout after setting tiles?

Wait at least 24 hours after applying thinset for it to fully cure before grouting to prevent cracking