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.


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