How to Tile a Kitchen Backsplash

Yesterday, I covered my timeline for getting the kitchen backsplash covered in subway tile.  Tile that is still radiating all of those wonderful “damn, I look GOOD” vibes all over it.

And as promised, here are the full DIY details I learned, tools I used, and some handy tips for executing a subway tile backsplash of your own.  Fair warning:  this is a long post.  So go ahead and run to the bathroom, and then come back (and while you’re at it, grab some coffee).  If you’ve got crossed legs by the time you’re done reading, well…  can’t say I didn’t give you a chance.

backsplash tile supplies

Tools

  1. Pre-mixed thinset:  I bought the bigger bucket available off the shelf from Home Depot and honestly thought I’d bought WAY too much.  Nope.  I’ll probably need to buy another container of this size before I’m finished with the third & final wall.  I chose it over tile mat (which is kind of like industrial double-sided sticky tape… and pricey) mainly because I wanted the ability to wiggle the tile around if there was an issue (I did what I could to even out the walls, but this is still an old house).  Tip: pros will tell you all over the web that this isn’t really thinset, it’s just sanded mastic.  Either is still fine for a kitchen backsplash, but “real” thinset mortar supposedly only comes in dry form that you then mix with water.  Thinset vs. mastic makes a huge difference if you’re tiling a wet area like a bathroom shower, so just be sure you’re buying the right stuff for the right project.  That said, when pros post in forums about certain topics like this, they go a little overboard in my opinion about how much they dislike pre-mix stuff.  But it worked just fine for me for a kitchen backsplash  and I’ll probably use it again for the laundry room.
  2. 4-in-1 tile adhesive spreader:  I thought I was going to wind up using this for just the corners & hard-to-reach areas of the backsplash, and use the regular notched trowel (the one you need depends on the size of your tile - found via Bower Power), but noooope.  I used just this spreader the whole time.  And it’s only $2 when the trowel is usually $7-10.  So even though it was a minimal amount of a financial difference, I still took the other trowel back when I realized I wouldn’t be using it (it’s the equivalent of a half box of subway tile, after all!).
  3. Spacers:  the tiles were self-spacing (more on that a little later), but I purchased some wedges to fit between the counter and tile.  They were great for ensuring that my first row was nice and level (so that I could get up to 1/8″ wide spacing, but narrowed on one end just in case I needed to go narrower in some spots.. luckily that wasn’t really a necessity and used the 1/8″ width the whole time).
  4. Rubber mallet:  for tiles that don’t play well with others.
  5. Level:  because no one likes tile that looks like a bad influence.
  6. Plastic wrap:  since my walnut butcher block counter top is oiled and waxed, it didn’t make for a great surface for sticking down tape to protect any adhesive from dropping & sticking around (and this IS a messy project, so you’ll need protection of some kind, even if you’re not that afraid of having to scrape something off a waxed surface like me).  So I sort of winged it with just a sheet of plastic wrap while installing the first row, then used painter’s tape to attach the plastic wrap to the first row of tile after it had set (to better keep the plastic protecting the entire surface & wouldn’t accidentally peel up while I was working).
  7. Paper towels:  (damp) for cleanup.

Tile saw (not pictured, but you can see me using it during my bathroom tile install):  I started and ended the project before I managed to find my tile nippers.  I didn’t wind up needing them because I could easily make the cuts I wanted with a tile saw only.

Putty knife/scraper: I love this thing for so many reasons.  It’s got the perfect blade tip and shape to get under things (like stuck-on tile that needs to be reworked or to scrape off thinset that’s gotten too dry), the perfect width to scrape between tile, and a great grip.  Just well made.

Small utility knife: I bought these in packs of 3 at the dollar store and use them constantly.  Great for scraping away the thinset in between two tiles that are very close together without accidentally moving them.  And opening boxes. And cutting wallpaper along cabinets.  And everything else in my house that I need to absentmindedly stash small knives for.

Ready for the tutorial?  Let’s get on with it!

Self-spacing tiles

Some ceramic tiles are manufactured to have tiny nubs along all four edges of each tile, called “lugs”.  This allows the tile to butt up against each other and still have a grout line, but will provide near-perfect 1/16″ spacing and won’t require extra spacers in between (unless you wanted extra-wide grout lines, which I don’t prefer).  They are a little hard to see unless you run your fingers along the tile, but I’ve done my best to capture a photo of what they look like during install below (arrows are pointing to a few, but they are on all sides of the tile).

lugs

I bought my tile from Floor and Decor and didn’t realize that self-spacing was a possibility until one of the clerks corrected me when I asked about spacers.  I looked to find similar tiles (also called “self-spacing” in areas where the word “lugs” would be confusing for most people) in my local Blue and Orange but didn’t see these available, so you may have to find a specialty store if you’re looking for them.

When you zoom out, they really don’t look at all significant (photo altered to bump up the contrast a little to make them easier to see).  I got lucky on a few tiles and saw that one edge was coated, which allowed the lugs to stand out just a little bit more.

Spacing above the counter

Each tile was 1/16″ spaced, but I used 1/8″ spacers between the countertop and first row of tile.  Since my wood countertop will most definitely expand and contract thanks to temperature and humidity levels, I didn’t want there to be any tight areas that would cause cracking.  The space between these two will be filled with silicone caulk.

Where to start (planning your layout)

I chose to plan my layout by starting in the corner.  Because the kitchen has an L-shape, I knew that if I were to start in the middle of the sink or stove (two very noticeable areas that you want to pay attention to layout-wise), there was a small chance that the tile wouldn’t be even by the time it reached the corner.  Or, worse yet, I’d have a sliver of a tile every other row.  It would look terrible.  So, beginning in the corner it was.  I used spacers below the first row of tiles and in the corner to account for any uneven spots in the wall (that way if the next row had a bump in the wall on the end, it wouldn’t force me to cut tiles to fit).

Once the first row was set though, I started all of the other rows in the center area of the sink (since I already knew my placement because of the first row) and worked out from there.  I did this because now that the first row was down, I also figured that the tiny spacing between tiles had a decent chance that one or two might be every so slightly off (even if they’re self-spacing, you’re dealing with other factors like uneven walls, which can sometimes lead to a wider-than-normal gap in one spot).  If that were to happen, I didn’t want the entire row to look crazy on one end.  By starting in the middle, I could make sure nothing got too out of whack by the time it reached the end of the run.

First Row

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I put down the first row of tile and let it set overnight (since I was using adhesive that would have to settle as it dried, I didn’t want to risk the first level row from moving around with extra weight from more tiles on top).  I didn’t want any adhesive to stick to the wall above the row I was working on, so to play it safe, I just “back buttered” the entire first row.  What is “back buttering”, you ask?  It pretty much goes like this:

back butter tile

  • Spread the adhesive over the entire back area of the tile
  • Scrape it just like you would do the wall with the spreader (45-degree angle to get those lines of adhesive over the back of the tile).  The simplest explanation for why you need grooves is because it helps adhesion and ensures that you’re getting the right amount/depth of tile adhesive on the wall.
  • Stick that bad boy up onto the wall & give it a little wiggle to make sure it’s sticking well.  Use a level and your spacers to make sure the tile is level & adjust if necessary.

Second & subsequent rows

A brick pattern is pretty easy to do (which is why, for my first backsplash job, I went with this pattern).  The next row after the first will break the first row’s tile exactly in half, which you can easily determine with a ruler.  The next row after that will match exactly to the first row, creating an every-other-row pattern.

Did I seriously just explain the most self-explanatory pattern in the world?  I’m going to blame the coffee.

Getting the hang of it

After the first few tiles, you will notice that you develop a rhythm of sorts.  If you’re laying down full tiles, you just spread the tile adhesive over the surface area (if you’re working with smaller tiles, only spread about one or two square feet at a time to keep it from drying out too fast).  Then use your notched trowel at a 45-degree angle and create grooved lines in the adhesive.  Then plop a tile into place and wiggle it slightly to make sure the tile is set.  You may notice that you’ll have to push on one corner to get it to sit flush with the tile next to it (especially if your walls are somewhat uneven), or you may have to push on the opposite corner of one tile to get another corner to lift slightly.  You’ll eventually develop a flow and get pretty comfortable with it; just be patient and work tile by tile.  If one is being particularly difficult, use a rubber mallet to gently tap it further into place.

Cutting around outlets and light switches

A tile saw is your best friend when needing to work around outlets.  The easiest method is just to mark the tile with a marker and cut away the parts that aren’t necessary (seems pretty easy, right?).  I marked mine with a small x to always note which side was the cutting side (so I wouldn’t accidentally cut things a smidge too short and account for the blade’s width).  The marker I used washed off completely once it ran through the saw; so if I wound up reusing a tile I’d already marked, I could just wipe it off.

Corners are pretty simple, and you can always cut off a little bit more at a time if the first cut doesn’t fit (just like cutting anything else, start conservatively and then cut away more if you need to; you can’t add back what’s cut if you take out too much!).  For tiles that need to be cut in the middle, you’ll need to cut slices every half centimeter or so.  It will look like mangled teeth, but the point is to cut enough straight lines in the tile that when you gently (!) tap it with a mallet, the slivers of tile break off and leave you with the cut you need.

cut tile around outlets

Note: outlets may need an extender or spacers in order to fit the new depth of your tiled wall.  Don’t forget about this when you’re cutting space around the outlet (make sure the screws and metal tabs are all still accessible!).  I haven’t addressed mine yet, but I’m going to need to extend them out slightly to fit the covers back on. (Updated: see how I extended mine, and it took only minutes to do!)

Cutting around windows and trim

The easiest way to care for windows and trim is not to cut the tile to fit exactly, but to cut chunks out of the trim to slip the tile underneath (much like you would cut under door frames with a jamb saw).  A multi-tool is great for this.  However, I’m planning on using caulk to finish off the edges in certain areas of my tile job, and since my cuts were really straight-forward, I didn’t bother to cut out the window trim and fit the tile in place.  Instead, I just cut the tile corners where needed and called it a day (you’ll probably want to cut yours with a multi-tool, but I didn’t).  I also pried the bottom piece of trim off of my window because of depth issues (if I had just installed it without removing the bottom piece, the bottom edge of the molding would actually be deeper set into the wall than the tile, which would look really odd).  I’ve already received some questions about this, so I’ll show you how I re-attached it in a later post (there are just too many tips & this post is long enough already).

Exposed ends of the backsplash

It’s a matter of personal opinion, but I really dislike traditional bullnose tile, especially for kitchens (I have it in the bathrooms and don’t plan on retiling, but if given the choice, I probably wouldn’t use bullnose there either).  So when it came to finishing off the tile where the cabinets end and the rest of the wall begins, I had to have a plan ready.  I explored a few options and didn’t really find what I was looking for at my local stores, so I turned again to my outlet supplier at Floor and Decor, where they shared these little plastic end pieces with me.

They were inexpensive, matched the tile’s color and sheen perfectly, and would cap off the edges very nicely (for about the same cost as buying bull nose tile pieces).  To install, you just measure and cut to the length as needed and use a little tile adhesive to set it in place (use a level to make sure it’s straight).  Then, your last tile on each end will cover the bracing material underneath (so be sure to plan your layout accordingly so you don’t have a sliver of tile on the ends).

Grout eventually fills in the rest of the line created (I’m still planning to use caulk to create a perfectly straight line, which I’ll be able to show you after grouting).

Keeping everything clean

If anything gooshes out, just clean it up with a damp paper towel or scraper.  Be sure to keep anything between your tiles very tidy.  If the adhesive dries between two tiles, it won’t leave room for grout.  And adhesive is a lot easier to take care of before it’s dry.  Your muscles will beg you to just stop and take care of the rest later, but don’t.  Take care of it now.

Your hands get messy as you tile, so damp paper towels are your best friend.  Wipe the entire surface of the tiles down before walking away to let it tall dry.

A second pair of eyes

I discussed my game plan with my uncle and parents before getting started, which was helpful to keep the details in mind (you can easily get lost “in the zone” of laying tile after tile).  Having a second pair of eyes is helpful for making sure you see the big picture and catch mistakes early (and if you’re sending teaser pictures to the competition, maybe sharing has a little more to do with bragging rights).  By Sunday afternoon though, my project supervisor was more interested in the goings-on of the neighbors and couldn’t care less about how much I was staring at the wall.

And, before too long, (possibly a sore knot or two in your shoulders), you’ll have a wall of tile ready to grout.  That you did yourself.  Like a tiling badass.

Chances are, by the time you’ve now reached the end of this post, you either need a nap or you REALLY WANT TO TILE.  Either way, I think I’ve accomplished something.   I’m no pro, but as far as this DIY is concerned, I LOVE the outcome and am really looking forward to completing the rest.  I’ll need to cover a few more items, such as grouting, caulking, tiling behind the stove, and re-attaching the window molding, but this post is LONG enough.  Feel free to leave me your questions if you’ve got ‘em!

P.S. There are some tutorials I looked up before beginning my project.  So a big thank you to Katie, Brittany, and Cassity, for giving me a little more info for research!

Comments

  1. says

    sarah – it looks awesome. i’ve been toying with what to do in our new kitchen and this just affirms how much i love subway tiles… can’t wait to see the finished product! :)

  2. wilma says

    Great tutorial!!!! Thanks so much! I like how you did the u-cuts. When I did my kitchen backsplash (also white subway tiles in a brick pattern), I did my u-cuts by first doing the sides, and then taking the guard off the blade and oh so carefully cutting the third side. Of course, you can’t cut all the way through because of the curve of the blade, so you still end up having to “snap” the piece out, which had mixed results and necessitated redos at times. It did work, but I think your way is better.

  3. Guerrina says

    You are a tiling badass! Your kitchen has become drool worthy! lol Great job and you give me hope that I will be able to accomplish the same sometime this year!

  4. says

    The backsplash tile living in my garage thanks you. I am terrified to get started and my husband is absolutely useless with little details like tiling – aka, all me. Now, when I get everything ready to go and freeze mid-project, will you talk me off the ledge?!

  5. Kaitlyn says

    Love this kitchen!! Seriously, I might just copy it so that I don’t have to think as hard. I love it. You are doing an awesome job, so keep up the good work (and the good instructions, they are NOT BORING)!!!!

  6. Carla says

    This is a really, really great post! That was me that asked about re-attaching the molding under the window and your response made total sense, but thank you for planning to show it! I’m also glad to see what the plastic end pieces look like with the tile actually in. I looked at those this week when I bought my tile, but I couldn’t quite figure out how it would look. Now I know….looks good!

  7. Martha says

    LOVE. Every time you post photos of that kitchen I drool over those counters!

  8. Karen says

    Sarah, you did a fantastic job!! I have a question about the corner. Does the tile just butt up against each other at the corner or do you need to bevel it somehow? Will the edges touch or will there be room for mortar? I can’t picture that part. Thanks for the tut!

  9. says

    I think I mentioned this before but we are looking at redoing our kitchen this spring so this is perfect. Right on time:) I love getting directions from someone actually doing it and not factory directions. You rock!

    Keep up the good work.
    -V

  10. says

    looks fantastic!

    also, just fyi, blue and orange don’t say that any tiles are self-spacing, but the in-stock white/bone/black plain ceramic tiles they have (orange sells US Ceramic) are the self-spacing stuff.

    –a former orange employee

  11. Tina says

    @Karen I don’t know how she did it, but in my bathroom we tiled one wall and then tiled the perpendicular wall right up to it. Caulking took care of the rest, nut special cutting required. Also- I prefer thinset to mastic for two reasons- Mastic stinks and thinset seems easier to clean up.

  12. says

    Thanks for this post! I was directed over here by Suesan at the Frou-Fru Gal because we’re doing our own kitchen renovation right now. The backsplash is one of the few things neither of us has done that we’re planning on tackling ourselves. So I appreciate the tutorial :)

    Looking forward to reading more about your kitchen renovation!

  13. says

    My Mom’s redoing their kitchen and she’s in the stage of deciding what color to do for a back splash. I’m a big fan of the subway Tile and will have to pass on the information to my mother. Looking good.

  14. Josh says

    Great Guide to doing a kitchen back splash. Keep it up and I’m looking forward to seeing it all finished.

  15. Lori says

    Hi Sarah, Great tips on the back splash. I saw those plastic edges at home depot but the lady couldnt explain what they would look like once they were installed. Your pics were very helpful. Now–did you also use those plastic edge things in the corner or did you butt the tile up to one another? Would love to hear your ideas. Yours turned out beautiful. Thanks hope to hear from ya, Lori

    • says

      I butted the tile up against each other (I started in the corner so each half of a single tile would essentially be smack in the corner). Putting these in the corner would only bring more interruption to the flow of the counter (it would look more broken in half than leaving this out).

  16. Larry says

    Sarah: great post a lot of really good, practical advice. On another note, what did you use to oil and seal your butcher block counter tops. Any problems? thanks!

    • says

      I have a whole post dedicated to how I treated mine with oil and beeswax. It’s something I have to maintain a few times a year, but I am happy with the results so far!

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