To lower the cost of our kitchen renovation, I decided to install the subway tile backsplash myself! The most expensive part of installing a new backsplash is generally the labor and not necessarily the materials. If you can master the skill of installing tile, you will save big bucks! This kitchen backsplash installation is my third tiling project and I love how it turned out. I definitely have lots of tips to share when it comes to installing subway tile on your own.
My first tiling project attempt was in our basement bathroom when we lived in Denver in 2016. I learned an incredible amount from that tile project, including what products I do NOT want to use again.
The second tiling project I tackled went much smoother at our Toledo flip house. I knew I needed to improve my skills, so I hired a tile installer and asked if I could help him with the installation. Not only was I saving money by acting as the assistant, I also learned valuable tiling skills! I highly recommend shadowing someone with a stronger skillset if you are intimidated by tiling projects on your own.
Tip: A great way to save money is to buy all of the materials for your contractor. I purchased all of the materials for the tiling project when I shadowed the professional tile installer to cut down on costs.
In 2019 we moved into our new home and began a major kitchen renovation. To save some money in our budget, I decided to tackle the backsplash installation myself. It was a little intimidating considering the scale of our kitchen project, but I knew with careful planning I could pull it off.
I purchased all of the materials required for this project and determined the tile trim that I wanted for the kitchen. The wall behind our range ended at our cabinets and wood planking, so it did not require edge tiles or Schluter trim.
Our wet bar, however, did require a finished edge on one side of the wall. I chose a bullnose edge tile for a streamlined look, but Schluter trim would have also looked good and offered a variety of options based on material or color.
For a complete source list, scroll to the bottom of the blog post.
Beginner’s Guide to Installing Subway Tile Backsplash
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Step 1 | Measure the Backsplash for Materials
Using a tape measurer, measure the height and width of the backsplash you will be tiling. This will allow you to calculate how much material you will need to install the subway tile backsplash. Mark the center point of each wall where the backsplash will be installed. The tile will be installed at the center of the wall (not in a corner) and from the bottom of the wall to the top.
Before installation begins, you want to determine how the subway tiles will be laid out on the wall. This will prevent awkward cuts at the end of a row or the top row of the subway tiles.
Calculate Subway Tiles Needed Horizontally in Each Row
The wall backsplash wall is 60″x60″ and I am using 3×6 subway tiles.
Width of the backsplash wall / 2 = Center point of the backsplash
- 60″/2 = 30″ (marked on the wall)
The center of the first tile will be installed on this center line. The subway tile is 6″ wide, so there will be 3″ on each side of the center line. Subtract the 3″ from the center point (30″) then divide the remainder by the width of each tile.
Center of the backsplash – Half the width of the subway tile = Total distance remaining on each side of the center line
- 30″-3″=27″ remaining on each side of the center tile
Distance remaining on one side of the center line / Width of subway tile = Total tiles needed on that side of the center line
- 27″/6″=4.5 subway tiles on each side of the center tile
The .5 means that the final tile on both ends of the row will be 3″, or half the 6-inch width tile. You want to avoid something like 4.1″ where each edge would be a tiny sliver of a tile. If you do end up with a sliver of a tile, you can shift the center point on the wall slightly to make that final cut easier.
If 4.5 subway tiles are needed on each side of the center line, we will double that number and add the single tile on the center line.
- 4.5 + 4.5 + 1 = 10 subway tiles per row
Calculate Subway Tiles Needed Vertically (or # of rows)
You will then make the same calculation for tiles going up the wall. Again, you want to avoid any cuts that are super small on the last row that would look odd.
Take the total height of the wall and divide it by the height of the tile (3″).
Height of the backsplash / height of the subway tile = # of tiles needed vertically
- 60″/3″=20 tiles (and rows) needed vertically (no spacers included in this calculation)
An even number is great, however, most homes do not have perfectly level ceilings. Be aware of how your grout lines will look if a slope in the ceiling is significant. The ceiling over our wet bar had a noticeable slope and I had to make slightly different cuts for all of the tiles in the top row.
Don’t forget to take into consideration the spacer between the first tile and the countertop. There are many different spacer sizes, but I used 1/8 for our kitchen and subtracted it from the final number. I wanted small grout lines, so I did not use spacers between the subway tiles. If you want bigger grout lines and decide to use spacers, remember to subtract it from your final number.
Total # tiles per row * total # of rows from top to bottom = Total Tiles Needed
- 10 per row * 20 rows = 200 subway tiles
Factor in an additional 10% for waste (20) giving us a total of 220 subway tiles for the backsplash behind the stovetop.
Step 2 | Make a Vertical Centerline on the Wall
Use your level to make a vertical line in the center of your wall. A laser level is ideal for tile installation, but I do not own one, so I used a hand level marked on the wall with a pencil. In the image below, I first marked the edge of the tile backsplash on the left and then found the center of the backsplash.
For the wet bar, I used a bullnose edge subway tile for the edge of the backsplash and installed this edge piece before beginning the backsplash. If you will be using bullnose tile for the edges, make sure to use that in your calculations when determining the size of the final tile in each row.
I took the original length of the wall and subtracted 2 inches to account for the 2×6 bullnose edge. I divided that total by 6 to determine the total tiles needed in a row. When marking the center of the backsplash I took the distance from the inside edge of the bullnose edge to the other end of the wall.
Next, check that the countertop is level before installation. A horizontal laser level is ideal, but checking with a hand level works as well. If the countertop is not level, you will need to adjust the first row of tiles so the remaining rows will not be crooked.
Step 3 | Place the First Tile
Your starting point is the centerline on the wall. Even if you choose to skip spacers when installing the subway tile, you will need to add a spacer between the countertop and the first row of tiles. This allows for any expansion and contraction of the countertops and cabinets.
*I decided to add a soldier detail to the first row of subway tiles, which means the first row is installed on its side. The same rules apply.
To be exact as possible, I physically mark the center of the first tile in each row to ensure it is completely centered. Using a marker, I made a small line right at 3″ on the subway tile (for the soldier row, I marked at 1.5″).
I applied the tile adhesive to the back of the tile whenever installing the bottom first row of backsplash. Using a putty knife I scooped the tile adhesive onto the back of the subway tile and used the square notch trowel and scrape the adhesive at an angle to create deep grooves. The deep grooves creates a suction when it attaches to the wall and secures the subway tile in place. Place a tile spacer on the countertop and attach the subway tile to the centerline on the wall.
Step 4 | Install Tiles That Do Not Require Any Cuts
Once the first row of subway tiles were installed, I began intalling all of the center tiles that did not require cuts. Basically all of the edge pieces were left until the end so I could cut them at once.
The tile adhesive can either be applied directly on the wall or on each individual tile (back buttering). You want the thickness of the tile adhesive to be the same thickness across the entire wall. I used both options when installing the subway tile backsplash, it’s really just a personal preference.
Tip: When starting a new row, I prefer backbutter the first tile so I can better aline the center of the tile to the center line marked on the wall.
Every time I start a new row, I create a center mark on the tile and place it directly above a seam of the row below. I also back-butter tiles if I can’t get a good angle putting the adhesive on the wall.
Once you complete one or two rows, use your tile float tool to press the tiles towards the wall. Lightly pressing on multiple tiles at the same time helps to keep them level against the wall. You want to avoid having any tiles or tile corners pressed further down into the adhesive. Periodically check your rows on top with the hand level to make sure you are not going crooked.
Step 5 | Cut Final Tiles
I prefer to wait until the end to make all of my end cuts with a tile saw. Once all of the uncut pieces have been installed on the wall, then I take the measurements and cut them with a tile saw.
Tip: While the uncut tiles are being installed, use a spare tile to check the vertical spacing for the end pieces.
I ran into a few instances where the end tile was too tight so I had to shave a sliver off of the top of the tile to get it to fit. It isn’t noticeable, but it is easily avoidable by doing a quick spacing check during installation.
Cutting Tile Around Outlets
When cutting around outlets, take the measurements and cut small lines on the tile using your wet saw. Snap off the slivers of tile to create the perfect inset for the outlet.
Cutting the subway tile is the most time-consuming part of the project but it is important to take your time to get the cuts as accurate as possible. Instead of putting the adhesive on the wall, you will back butter the tiles individually and place them in the appropriate spot. Use the tiling float to press the tile to the wall. This will ensure your tile aligns with the other tiles and is not sticking out or indented.
When your tiles have all been installed, let the adhesive dry for 24 hours.
Step 6 | Clean Between the Subway Tiles
Use a putty knife to scrape out any seams that have adhesive smushing through. You want your grout to fill the seams and it won’t be able to if the cracks are already filled with adhesive.
Step 7 | Apply the Grout
I chose a dark gray grout for the subway tile in our kitchen. I generally tend to lean towards darker grout in the kitchen to avoid stains from food like spaghetti sauce. You can buy pre-mixed grout or mix it yourself. I actually prefer pre-mixed grout but Home Depot did not offer any that was un-sanded. When you have tiny grout lines (I didn’t add any spacers), it is better to have un-sanded grout for a cleaner finish.
Tip: Before applying the grout, tape the walls and ceiling around the tile edges. This will prevent paint touch-ups once the grouting is complete.
Lay down a drop cloth under the tiles to keep the area clean. Use your grout float to apply the grout to the subway tile seams. Work it fully into the seams to avoid any air pockets. Check the directions for the grout you purchased to see their recommended wait time to wipe off the grout on the tiles. Mine recommended 20 minutes.
Step 8 | Remove Grout Haze
Wait 2 hours for the grout to cure and harden. Next, use cheesecloth (I just used an old cloth towel) to clean the grout haze off of the tiles. I take this time to clean up any seams that look uneven or too thick. Usually, by wiping them harder they start to look more cleaned up.
Tip: Once the grout has been wiped off with a wet sponge, I wait 20-30 minutes and then lightly wipe down the tiles again with a dry cheesecloth or rag. The grout has begun to harden and you can remove a lot of the haze with this extra step. After 2 hours I wipe the tiles again to remove remaining haze.
With good preparation, installing subway tiles can be quite easy! Each time you tackle a tiling project you will feel a little more confident and make fewer mistakes, so don’t be afraid to take a chance and try it out.
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DIY Subway Tile Source List
- Daltile subway tile
- Bullnose Edge Tile or Schluter Trim for finishing edges
- Tile Adhesive: I prefer pre-mixed adhesive
- Grout: For smaller grout lines, unsanded grout creates a smoother finish.
- Spacers: For the smallest grout lines, you can skip spacers, but remember they will be needed for the space between the first row and countertop
- Square Notch Trowel
- Grouting Float
- Tape Measurer
- Marker & Pencil
- Putty Knife
- Sponge & Bucket
- Tabletop Tile Saw for more precise cuts around outlets, but the manual cutter works just fine for straight cuts