Subway Tile Backsplash Installed

by Josh on February 22, 2012 · 21 comments

in Kitchen,Projects

When I last wrote about the progress of my low cost kitchen remodel, the new apron sink and cherry butcherblock countertops had been installed. Now I can share the backsplash tile installation and result that finishes off the sink-area countertop. (Spoiler: I really dig it!)

About The Tile

First, a word about my choice of tile. Yes, subway tile is trendy right now. It is particularly popular in white and in the 3″ x 6″ size I chose, but similar tiles are widely available in alternate dimensions–oversized, long and skinny, really oversized– and in a variety of colors of ceramic and glass. But for all its hipness today, white subway tile is a classic design that was widely employed in early 20th century homes, and public buildings, including… wait for it… subway stations. It was a favored choice for bungalow bathrooms and kitchens because it was simple, low-cost, and easy to keep clean.

The only original subway tile left in my bungalow is a row of mopboard tile in the bathroom. All the wall tiles were replaced with light blue squares sometime in the 1950s. By then plain white subway tile would have looked bland and old fashioned, and household cleanliness was assured not by white tile but by an array of post-war chemical cleaners like Tide (1946), Ajax (1947), Formula 409 (1957), and Mr. Clean (1958)  to name a few.

Now subway tile has come full circle. All its original virtues of simplicity, affordability and cleanliness hold true today and there is renewed appreciation for its classic good looks. Depending on spacing and grout color, white subway tile can look historic or contemporary, which makes it a perfect choice for my kitchen.

Tile Backsplash Installation

My tiling process in the kitchen started with repairs to the plaster wall above the countertop. Some of the finish coat of plaster had pulled off the wall when I removed the gross, adhesive-attached melamine backsplash, so I evened the surface with premixed plaster patch. The photo below shows the wall repair in process and you can see I got a little sloppy on the new countertop. It was easy to wipe away this excess plaster while it was wet, but it would have been easier to patch the wall before the countertop and sink went in if I had been willing to go another couple days without water in the kitchen.

backsplash wall collage


Once the wall was patched, I measured and marked some tile layout lines on the wall. Because of the strong presence of the sink and faucet in this area, I concluded the tile would look unbalanced if it wasn’t centered on the faucet. After marking the “center” behind the faucet, I marked a few additional vertical layout lines by adding increments of 6 1/16″ — 6″ for the tile width and 1/16″ for the spacing. This tight spacing is less forgiving on the installer, but is more like how original subway tile would have been placed.

marking tile layout

With the wall and layout prepped, it was time for the fun part: setting the tiles. I spread mastic on the wall with a notched trowel roughly one square foot at a time. The I set tile into the mastic, starting at one of my layout lines above the countertop. When it came time to cut tile, I tried using a manual tile cutter, but quickly found I was breaking nearly as many tiles as I was cutting. I ended up buying a pretty basic wet saw for $100, which cut down my tile loss significantly and made possible more complicated cuts than the tile snapper allowed. For the money, the wet saw really is the only way to go for almost any conceivable tiling job.

backsplash tile going up

To get the correct row offset on my running bond pattern, I used a carpenter’s square, with the ruler adjusted to 3″– half the width of the tile.

measuring tile row offset

Outlet boxes and the window trim proved the most difficult to tile around, but in the end I finished all my oddball cuts and had the tile all mounted to the wall.tile installed before grout

As I mentioned earlier, grout color can determine a lot of the character of a subway tile installation. White grout looks uniform and contemporary, gray grout looks historic, and colored grout looks edgy and modern. Can you guess which direction I went?

grouting backsplash tile

It is best for grout to set gradually, so after I spread the grout and removed the excess, I returned to wipe the surface with a wet cloth twice a day for a few days until the grout was well set. Then I used a grout sealer and spread a thin bead of caulk at the seam with the countertop and sink to keep any moisture on those surfaces from getting into the grout.

finished tile install

All finished, the light gray grout highlights the pattern of the tile, without overdoing the contrast. White tile also ties well with the white apron sink and my white appliances, making them all more of a cohesive design element.

finished backsplash tile detail angle 2

I’m very pleased with how the grout turned out and how straightforward the project was. I’ll have more backsplash tiling to do when I finish the wall with the stove. But before I get to that, I have planned a couple more changes for the sink wall, including adding some color to my upper cabinets and modifying some cabinet trim.


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon February 22, 2012 at 1:28 am

We installed our subway tile with dark grey grout and it has been working really well. It doesn’t show dirt and I’ve been real happy with our decision. Enjoy!


Josh February 22, 2012 at 11:03 am

Thanks, Sharon! Your kitchen– and so much else at your place– looks amazing.


Janelle February 22, 2012 at 10:19 am

We also live in a Minneapolis bungalow and went with the classic white subway tile with light grey grout. After 18 months, I’m still just as happy with it as I was went we installed it.

Nice work, soooo jealous of your sink!!


Josh February 22, 2012 at 11:04 am

Thanks, Janelle. Great site, too, by the way. It’s always cool to connect with other Minneapolis house bloggers.


Reuben February 22, 2012 at 11:01 am

Nice work. The tiles look great! You did some really quality work here.


Josh February 22, 2012 at 11:07 am

It’s definitely not perfect, Reuben, but I’m proud of the result. Thanks!


Art February 22, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Great job, Josh. I think you are ready to do some tiling up at Luther Park now.


Deanna @ TheChangingHouse February 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I think it’s a great choice. I like subway tiles! You did an excellent job!


Meg February 22, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I have a question about a finished edge. There is only one place in my kitchen where the subway tiles will end on a wall that doesn’t butt up to trim or corner. How should I trim or edge it? Did you have anywhere like that and what did you do? I hope that makes sense.
Any help would be appreciated!


Josh February 22, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Hi Meg! To finish the end of a tile run that doesn’t butt into something else, you should use bullnose tile. These will be the same dimensions as your field tile (3″ x 6″ for basic subway tile) but with a finished curved edge on one or more sides. In fact, I used bullnose tile to finish the right side of this backsplash. For an installation like mine, you would want short-side bullnose to finish the end of a tile run, long-side bullnose to finish a top edge, and corner bullnose for corners. Depending on where you buy your tile, these specialty pieces may stocked alongside the field tile or they may require a special order. Stocked or ordered, be sure to check for color variation between tiles from different cases or runs.


Jen February 22, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Looks ahh-mazing!


katie February 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm

love love love it! Want to come tile our shower for us?! 🙂 We need it bad! It’s next on our list of house updates. . . and if the market stays where it is, we will be in our house for a loooong time, so we might as well make it what we want:) So fun.


Linda S February 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I love it! It looks awesome!


Heather @ Interior Groupie March 3, 2012 at 9:32 am

I just came across your blog – we are embarking on tiling our kitchen backsplash today! You did a great job on it – I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog…now following!


Josh March 3, 2012 at 11:42 am

Welcome, Heather, and good luck with your tiling project!


west_philly March 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm

looks great josh. if you don’t mind sharing, what tile brand do you end up using?


Kelly April 12, 2012 at 10:06 am

The tile looks fabulous! I love that you chose a light gray grout. Question: Did the tiles butt up completely to under the cabinets or did you have an odd gap? We did our backsplash a couple of months ago and are left with a small-ish gap between the top of the tile and the cabinets and we aren’t sure what to do with it?


Melodie May 12, 2012 at 8:47 am

This look beautiful, and is similar to what we are planning. (countertops go in next week!) Does the gray grout you used have a color name? Is it a sanded grout or an epoxy? I love the look, but a friend is worried it will look “dirty”. Yours does not – so do I go with a very dark grey, or what?
Thanks! Your kitchen is perfect. I kind of wish we had gone with butcherblock…sigh…too late now!


Duncan September 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm

The wall where I’m about to install subway tile is fairly uneven. Do I flatten it out with plaster or should I use backer board?


Jen September 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

Your kitchen is lovely–I came across this because I’m about to grout our white subway tiles with gray grout this afternoon, and am rethinking the caulk I bought–did you go with white caulk or gray?



Ike October 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Is it necessary to space the tiles with spacers rather than butt up against each other? Is spacing functional or simply aesthetic?


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