Subway tile is both classic and contemporary. Installing a subway tile backsplash into your kitchen provides both an updated look (that will never go out of style) and a neutral one.
There are many variations of how to install subway tile, but this tutorial is for the classic pattern. Laying tile isn’t terribly difficult, but a few tips and tricks will definitely help to make things easier…and make the end result looking professional. Enjoy!
DIY Level: Intermediate
*Note: The author is an experienced, but not professional, home improvement enthusiast. Neither the author nor Homedit is responsible for any potential damages or harm caused during the process of following this tutorial.
Materials Needed(not all are shown) to install subway tile backsplash:
- Tiles (rule of thumb: 10% more than your square footage)
- Mastic (tile adhesive)
- Trowel and putty knife
- Tile saw (“snapper” manual tile saw or tile wet saw)
- Float and tiling sponges
- Grout sealer
- Colored sanded caulk that matches grout
How to install subway tile backsplash step by step:
Step 1: Start from the bottom
Begin by laying out an old towel or sheet over your countertop for protection. Starting on the bottom row at an outer corner, wipe a layer of mastic onto the wall with a putty knife. Go slightly higher than the tile height. Tip: Work row by row in 3’-4’ sections for best results.
Use trowel teeth to “score” the mastic.
Trowel marks should be in the same direction. This minimizes air pockets under the tile and keeps the tiling surface as level as possible.
Align your outer lower tile flush with the edge of your countertop, and press into the mastic.
Working horizontally, place your second tile.
Clean out any mastic that has squeezed out between the tiles. A toothpick, old knife, or even a flat screwdriver works well for this. Tip: The mastic can be chipped off fairly easily after it’s dried, but it’s even easier to take care of before it’s had a chance to dry.
Step 2: Place subway tile spacers
Place spacers between the tiles. Tip: Place two spacers per side of tile, about ½” to 1” away from each corner of the tile.
Before you move on to the third tile, check for level. Make any adjustments needed. This is a critical step, particularly for the bottom row of tiles, as it sets the foundation for the rest of the backsplash. You want it straight and flat!
Continue along the bottom row, checking for level after every tile or two and adjusting as needed.
Working behind the kitchen faucet can be tricky, but do your best to reach the trowel teeth back behind the faucet from both sides.
Step 3: Second subway tile backsplash row
After completing the bottom row of tiles, you’ll be ready to start the second row. If you’re following the traditional subway tile layout, this means that you’ll start with a half tile from the outer edge. Measure halfway down your tile and mark with a pencil.
Line up your halfway mark with the middle of a manual tile snapper, shiny side up. Push the blade along the line to score the tile – one pass should be sufficient.
Without moving the tile, push the tile snapper’s foot down on the tile. Your tile should split along the scored line…
Step 4: How to cut a tile
…to create two equal tile halves.
Pay attention to where your cut edge is on your new half-tile piece. This will go on the inside edge of your row.
Line up the outer edge of your second row tile with the first row. You’ll need to be precise in your alignment for a successful tile lineup. Tip: Use a level for this, as eyes can be deceiving.
Step 5: Tile around outlets
Continue working from the outer edge toward the corner, row by row. When you approach an obstacle, such as an electrical outlet or light switch, measure the distance between the electrical box and the last tile laid. Subtract the length of your spacer (in this case, 1/8”), then mark a tile for cutting.
Cut the tile along your marked line. Tip: A tile wet saw makes this tile backsplash project much faster and easier…with better results than other methods of tile cutting. If at all possible, get your hands on a wet tile saw.
If there is no mastic on the wall in your tile’s space, you can add mastic to the back of the tile and run the trowel teeth along the back of the tile itself. Tip: Always run the trowel teeth in one direction for a single tile.
Again, pay attention to the cut edge. You’ll want this edge to be closest to the outlet or switches. Tip: Even the best cuts will still be sharper than the tile’s actual edge, so it’s best to keep them “tucked away” as much as possible, such as hidden under the switch plates.
You may run into places where the edge of your tile row doesn’t line up exactly with the edge of your outlet. This will require some notching in your tile. Measure and mark, then cut along the line one way.
Turn your tile, and cut along the line the other way to complete the notch.
You now have a crisp corner cut out of your tile.
Install this tile next to the obstacle. If you’ve measured and notched your tile correctly, it should fit perfectly.
You may run into a situation where a piece needs to be cut out of single tile – not just notches from the corners of two tiles. This is tricky. I cut along the two short edges, then stood behind the tile wet saw with the tile (shiny side up) and carefully cut the space between. Tip: You must be very, very careful in doing this; in fact, I can’t recommend this strategy because of its risk. You’ll be flipping up the safety guard to cut the tile this way. A safer, yet slower, alternative is shown later.
Here is the tile with the piece cut out of the center.
A nice fit above a double light switch box.
In the instance that the cut-out section of a single tile is smaller than the tile wet saw blade (or in the instance that you want to be safer in cutting your tiles), use a multifunction tool, also known as a Dremel, to score and cut the tile. A diamond blade will cut through the tile safely. Tip: Make the two perpendicular cuts with the tile wet saw first.
If a cut isn’t straight and a bit needs to be trimmed off, use some tile nippers to clip off the excess.
That inside corner is straight and good as new.
Row by row, working from the outer edge toward the corner, progress is being made!
It’s never a bad idea to use the level occasionally to make sure you’re on track. Probably with the spacers you’re doing just fine, but it’s a good idea to check before the mastic starts to harden.
For a thin row, where the tiles are cut lengthwise into narrow strips, apply mastic for both the full-tile row below and the thin-tile row above. Use the trowel teeth for both rows at the same time, because you won’t have enough room to work with the trowel for a narrow row all alone.
Again, be aware of the cut edge. This time, you’ll want it directly under the cabinet edge because, let’s face it, no one ever sees there.
Place the tile and the spacers.
If you spread the mastic with the trowel teeth and find gap spaces, you’ll need to add a little more paste to that spot, then spread again with the trowel in the same direction.
It’s not uncommon to get mixed up on which edge or corner you are supposed to be cutting. Tip: It helps to mark the tile, then hold it up to the spot where it goes to make sure you’re cutting out the right section.
It is critical that, when two rows meet in a corner, they line up perfectly. This will work out if you’ve been keeping things level as you work your entire way down the rows toward the corner.
In the instance that you don’t have enough space to spread the mastic (tile adhesive) and mark it with the trowel teeth, such as behind a light fixture or cabinet-mounted radio or TV, you may need to work tile by tile.
Lather the mastic on the back of the tile in about the thickness of the trowel teeth.
Run the trowel across the mastic.
Carefully place the tile and add spacers.
The spacers are in, and things are looking pretty good.
Now you wait 24 hours for the mastic to dry thoroughly.
Once the mastic has dried completely, it’s time to add the grout. Tape off any edges you don’t want the grout to go, such as the sides of adjacent cabinets.
Also tape off any walls next to the subway tile backsplash.
Cover outlets and light switches with electrical tape to protect them from the grout. It can be pretty drippy.
Choose the color of grout you want. Here is where you can really make things your own – from white to grey to black to any color you want. Choose something that will stand the test of time for your style.
You’ll also need a tile float and a couple of large tiling sponges.
Following the directions on the grout package, add water and stir thoroughly.
You want the consistency to be not runny, similar to peanut butter.
Use the tile float to apply the grout to every tile space.
Working in 2’-3’ sections, after you’ve carefully applied the grout to all tile spaces, it’s time to sponge off the grout from the tiles themselves. Wet down a sponge and wring out most of the water.
Begin wiping the grout.
It’s a messy job. You’re going to have to rinse out the sponge many times.
Get the tiles mostly cleaned off, then leave it alone. You’ll be able to clean off the tiles completely after the grout sand has dried. If you keep wiping and wiping with the wet sponge, you’ll start to pull grout out of the tile spaces, which is obviously counter-productive.
This photo shows one section of tile after being wiped off one time.
This tile has been wiped twice.
This tile has been wiped four times.
This tile has been wiped six times, the last time with the terry-ish side of the sponge.
When you spread the grout on with the float, you’ll want to apply pressure into the tile spaces themselves. The goal is to squeeze grout completely into these spaces to prevent cracking and flaking over time. You should also run the float over the grout lines from multiple directions, to make sure each side of the grout adheres to the adjacent tile’s edge.
Notice how the float streaks are going in multiple directions? That’s a good thing; it means the grout has been applied in multiple directions, and the tile spaces are completely filled.
Use the terry cloth side of the sponge for your final wipedown before allowing the grout to dry completely.
This side of the sponge wipes the tiles clean while leaving most of the grout in the spaces. Again, don’t worry about getting it completely clean right now, though. There will be time for that after the grout dries.
Stand back and admire your handiwork. The grout will be darker at this point than when it is dry, so if it looks too dark right now, don’t worry.
Subway tile backsplashes are so classically beautiful.
As a simple pattern and light color, they are a perfect choice for any kitchen, particularly one that is small and lacking natural light from windows.
Let the grout dry at least 48 hours before applying grout sealer.
When your grout has dried completely, it is time to apply grout sealer. This sealant will help to lengthen the life of your grout and keep it looking clean and fresh.
Dip your foam brush or soft-bristled paint brush into the grout sealer, then apply it carefully onto your grout lines. Work in a systematic pattern (e.g., one horizontal line and the above vertical lines) so you can keep track of what you have sealed and what still needs sealing.
Every minute or so, wipe off all excess sealer from the tiles’ surfaces with a paper towel. The sealer will leave a residue on your tiles that’s much harder to get off when it has dried, so wipe it off when it’s still wet.
Let your sealer dry (as per instructions) before applying a second coat, if desired.
While the grout sealer is drying, you can replace your outlet covers. With the addition of tile onto your backsplash, your wall surface has likely been pushed “out” a ways. In order for your outlets to lie flush with the new tiled wall surface, you will need to add spacers. These are plastic strips that can be folded and cut to the desired width, then placed between the outlet itself and the electrical box in the wall.
Make sure that the electricity to the outlets has been switched off before doing any sort of electrical work, then proceed to unscrew the outlets or switches and place the desired number of spacers behind the screws.
Depending on the number of spacers your outlets and switches now need, you might need longer screws than the standard length. These are available at your local home improvement store, in the electrical department around where the outlets and switches are. These will save your life if you need more than three or four spacers.
Replace fixture (in this case, a cable plate is shown). This step actually includes reinstalling the outlets or switches, with the spacers intact on the screw length, to the blue electrical box within your framing, then reinstalling the face plates. Clean off outlets and face plates as needed.
When your tile grout has fully dried, you are ready to apply caulk. I recommend sanded ceramic caulk that is available in the same colors as the grout itself (this tutorial uses 09 Natural Gray in both grout and caulk).
Snip the tip of your caulk bottle off at an angle, then place it in the caulk gun. Begin your caulking in an area less visible (such as in a far corner, or behind the refrigerator, or beneath the upper cabinets), so you can get the hang of it before moving on to highly visible areas.
Lay a thin strip of caulk along the edge of your tile backsplash. This includes the edges between the countertop, the upper cabinets, and the walls.
Run your moistened finger along the caulk. The goal here is to seal the edges of the caulk to the two surfaces it touches. Try to avoid letting the caulk squeeze out all over. If you have much excess, remember to apply less caulk in the strip next time.
Wipe off any excess from the adjacent surfaces (e.g., tile and countertop, in this case). Allow caulk to dry.
Congratulations! You have just installed a beautiful subway tile kitchen backsplash.
It was a lot of work, but we hope you think it was well worth it.
This simple, classic backsplash is so versatile, design-wise.
And, unlike many trends or fads, a subway tile backsplash in the kitchen will stand the test of time.
We love the fresh appeal of a white subway tile kitchen backsplash.
Elegant, yet friendly, simplicity.
A subway tile backsplash pairs beautifully with concrete countertops.
Enjoy your gorgeous “new” kitchen!