Dueling DIY, Kitchen, Tutorials

How to Prep Kitchen Walls for a Tile Backsplash

Everyone who is finished tiling the kitchen, take one step forward.  Not so fast, Sarah…

dueling DIY kitchen

Today’s Dueling DIY update is all about the prep for my tile backsplash.  As you may have noticed from Instagram, the good news there is that yes, I have my tile!  In my possession.  Finally.  And it’s going to be awesome.  Just look at these beauties:


Classic.  Will let the star (my walnut butcher block countertops) shine.  And even better, they come with built-in spacers on each side of the tile (called “lugs” by the pros).  In case you’re wondering, I picked these up for just 21 cents per tile at one of my favorite flooring/tile suppliers, Floor and Decor.  But more on that later.

Since I want these guys to stick around for the long haul, I wanted to make sure I had a clear plan of execution & didn’t miss a step… which means getting the walls nice and smooth (the lugs provide a 1/16″ spacing, and I’ve read that because this tile has such a narrow grout line built in, it can be relatively unforgiving if the wall surface is uneven… so best to just do the job right and avoid problems later).

You’ve already seen me remove the wallpaper around the kitchen (the parts that will have tile on them, at least).  Ripping off the wallpaper caused a few gouges, so I needed to first repair those spots with some joint compound (similar to how I repaired the pantry wall).

I also pried the bottom trim off of the window (it was original to the house & I want to re-install it on top of the tile… otherwise it will look like the tile is eating the bottom piece of molding).

And next comes the skim coat to patch lumpy and bumpy areas…

Followed by some sanding.  In previous rooms, I’ve done this step using a simple hand sander (and you can see a full tutorial in detail on how I skim coated my bathroom walls right here).  But this time around, I planned ahead and snagged a new tool for the job (I’ll use it again when I finish a few other rooms in the house like the dining room… #slackerprojects):

drywall sanding kit

This is a Hyde drywall hand sanding kit.  It comes with a 6ft long hose and two access points for pole and hose attachment (there are several brands available, but I’m a sucker for great reviews, and this one had them in spades).  The genius is that it can attach to my new shop vac (a Christmas gift from Dad; like all of my tool gifts, I hugged it like it was a pony), which means that all of the messy drywall dust that I normally get covered in is sucked up into the vac instead.  Nearly 100% dust-free, which means less cleanup later and healthier air to breathe after the fact.

Tip: Normally, the standard shop vac is fine for most dust and debris, but for fine drywall dust, it’s best to use a HEPA filter that specifies it’s meant for drywall sanding and a collection bag that says the same.  These will cost you another $15 bucks or so each at the hardware store, but it’s worth it not to have the dust blowing back out of the vac & floating around in the air.

And what a quick job it made of the sanding step!  As in, less than a half hour for the entire bottom half of the kitchen walls (from the bottom of the upper cabinets to the floor).  The suction of the vac helped the sanding screen snugly slide along the wall (I highly recommend sanding screens even if you don’t use a sander like this one; they knock down any textures in drywall much faster than regular sandpaper & last much longer).  For harder-to-reach areas around the sink, I used a low-grit sanding sponge.

After the wall was smooth, it was time to seal the wall (a step my handy uncle recommended that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise, but made more sense as I didn’t want to have anything re-wet the joint compound and cause any type of slippage once I applied the tile).  A simple sealer-primer did the trick (I had plenty left over from cabinet painting).

And then, I mapped out the tile placement again to double check my thoughts.  Since the kitchen wraps around in an L shape, it seemed best to start the brick pattern in the corner (tiny slivers of tile would be very noticeable there).

Nothing left to do now but take the leap & get it done.  Cross your fingers that it’s all completed by next week’s update!

As for Carrie, I’m clearly kicking her ass at this point.  But then again, she’s actually building her cabinets, which I never even did (so technically, it would be inaccurate to say I’m beating her when she’s doing more work.  Nevertheless, this competition is supposed to involve as much smack talk as it includes actual progress, so what the hell, “kicking her ass” it is.).  And also, your link up to your kitchen updates!  Show me show me…

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  1. Ellen says

    Thanks for mentioning the sanding kit. I’ll be tiling a backsplash at our new house and that will definitely come in handy!

    Are you planning on painting the underside of your upper cabinets? Just curious. We did that in our last kitchen, and it really lightened up the under cabinet area, even before the under cabinet lights were installed. It did involve a number of odd painting angles to complete, so I also understand why you might not want to.

    • says

      I thought about that, but I also thought I might procrastinate on it until I install under cabinet lighting :)

      Though if it brightened up your kitchen, even without it, I should probably get to that before I install the tile (that way I don’t accidentally paint the tile!). Great idea & perfect timing!

  2. wilma says

    Hi, I was wondering if you could please show exactly what you mean by the “lug” (ie, no spacers required) bits on your tile.

    I’m asking because I *thought* I had this on the tiles I used for our kitchen backsplash, but when I asked at the orange home store, the employees had NO idea what I was talking about. And so I used spacers, which adds to the work. I am thinking of doing the tile when we redo our bathroom, and would like to specifically pick out tiles that do not require spacers, but I don’t want to rely on the “expertise” of the store employees to tell me whether any tile has them.

    So….could you post a picture of the lugs, pretty please?

    • says

      Lugs are teeny tiny, so it’s hard to get a close-up shot, though I’ll definitely try to take more of those on the next post when I actually tile the wall (so that will be in next week’s update). A lot of times the big-box stores do not take the time to learn the “real” terms for certain features (and I get where you’re coming from on that, it’s SO frustrating to think they’ll have more info than you!), and I think they are often just called “self-spacing” tiles. I suppose that’s so they can sell their products to the average consumer who wouldn’t know what “lugs” are either.

      I went to both orange and blue to look for tile, and NONE of the brands that I saw there have this feature… I picked up my tile at a specialty store, and they are the ones who pointed it out (I asked about spacers & they corrected me). The lugs are pretty easy to figure out if they are on your tiles (and my photo at the top, of all of the tiles lined up in a brick pattern, just baaaaarely shows them, but that’s the best I’ve got for now). If they are there, they are elongated bumps on each edge… they are small, but you can feel them with your thumb when you run your hand along the sides. In the photo showing my tile above, you can almost see where the nubs are causing the spacing along the dark grout line created by the change in the color of the line (it’s dark and then lightens and then darkens again where there is no lug).

  3. wilma says

    Oh, and I agree that painting the cabinet undersides brightens the space, even without lights. It’s a pain, but I thought it was worth it…

  4. says

    Kitchen is looking great! It’s amazing what a little hard work, elbow grease, some blood, a few swear words, alcohol and possibly even a temper tantrum will do! I usually experience all of those things when I do any remodel. Can’t wait to see the next installment.

  5. says

    Okay, that sander kit is WAY cool!!! It attaches to the shop vac?! Genius!
    Can’t wait to see what it looks like once the tile is added! =)

  6. Kyla says

    This is so helpful and well-timed, you have no idea. Thank you! In case you ever wonder why in the middle of a DIY project that you have to stop and take pictures – just, thank you!

  7. says

    This post could not come at a better time. We are hopefully going to tile soon, so we will be prepping our walls for tile any day now. We have just been waiting for Douglas to get over his pneumonia so that we can do it. Seriously, he is being so difficult. ;)

  8. Carla says

    This is possibly a stupid question but here goes….how will you attach back that bottom piece of window molding over the tile? Glue?

    • says

      In DIY, there’s just no room for stupid questions, so there’s really no such thing. Some of this stuff just isn’t straightforward. I’m not planning on actually tiling all the way up to the bottom of the window ledge, just making sure that the tiles go under the molding & look like they are (so no wasted tiles under the ledge unless it’s necessary). So more than likely, I’ll use my nail gun to shoot a few nails through the molding, at an angle, upward & back into the bottom of the ledge (but not using nails long enough to protrude through the top). That will affix it back into place & won’t actually have me going through any of the tile. If things don’t go to plan, I’ll just affix it directly on top of the tile with some construction adhesive. Not ideal though, so I’ll try the nails first.

  9. Joyce says

    Doing a backsplash in a kitchen of a manufactured home. The walls are vinyl wallpaper which can not be removed without removing the panels. Is there a way to prep this kind of wall without removing the panels? I also want to paint the kitchen, was wondering if you knew how to prep the same kind of walls for paint?

    • says

      If you can’t remove the wallpaper, your options are probably limited. I would guess that your best option is to prime things really well to give the tile something less slick to stick to. Or for painting, again either primer or a thin skim coat over the wallpaper and then primer. Definitely consult your local home improvement guys; they’ve probably been asked this before! Lots of luck!

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