I installed the subway tile backsplash in our kitchen and I am excited to share the tutorial and recommended materials today! If you can master the skill of tiling, you will save big bucks! The materials for a tile project are generally inexpensive, but the labor will increase your budget significantly.
My first tiling project attempt was in our basement bathroom when we lived in Denver. 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 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. Assisting with this project allowed me to learn valuable new skills and save money! 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.
How to Install Subway Tile
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As we began our major kitchen renovation in our new home, I finally felt comfortable completing a tile project on my own. 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.
Step 1 | Measure the Wall & Calculate
Measuring the wall and determining the tile layout through basic calculations is one of the most important steps with tile installation. Determining the placement of your subway tile before it is installed will allow you to avoid weird cuts, like a tiny sliver of a tile at the end of a row.
Measure the height and width of the wall using your tape measurer and mark the center point. Tile installation begins in the center of the wall (not left to right) and from bottom to top.
Calculations for Subway Tiles in Each Row
- The wall is 60″x60″ and I am using 3×6 subway tiles
- The center of the space is is 30″
- With the first tile installed on the center line, there will be 3″ on each side of the line. Subtract the 3″ from the center point (30″) then divide the remainder by the width of each tile
- 30″-3″=27″ How many full tiles will I need to complete this row?
- 27″/6″=4.5″ – Each side from the center tile will have 4.5 subway tiles
- The .5 means that the final tile on both ends of the row will be 3″, or half the tile. You want to avoid someting like 4.1 where each edge would be a tiny sliver of a tile. If this is your calculation, you can fudge the center line slightly to create bigger end cuts.
Calculations for Subway Tiles From Bottom to Top
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. You will take the total height of the wall and divide it by the height of the tile (3).
- An even number is great, howoever, most home’s do not have perfectly level ceilings, so 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 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 countertop. There are many different spacer sizes, but I used 1/8 for our kitchen and subtracted it from the final number.
If a wall that you are tiling requires any finished edges, now is the time to determine where the edge of the final piece will be installed.
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. Mark a vertical line where the tiles will end as well.
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, then I divided by 6 to determine the total tiles needed in a row. I also moved the vertical centerline on the wall so the first tile was centered between the wall and the inner edge of the bullnose tile. For our wet bar, I installed the bullnose edge tile on the wall at the beginning of the project.
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 tile. 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″). Use a putty knife to scoop tile adhesive onto the back of the subway tile. Next, take the square notch trowel and spread it across the tile at an angle.
You want there to be deep grooves in the adhesive to get a good suction to the wall. 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
Place the tile adhesive on your square notch trowel and hold it at an angle as you apply it to your wall.
You want the thickness of the tile adhesive to be the same thickness across the entire wall. I like to use the putty knife to pull the tile adhesive out of the tub. Once the first tile is installed, you have the option of back-buttering the remaining tiles or applying a larger amount of the tile adhesion directly to the wall and attaching the tiles.
Tip: I like to back-butter the first tile of each row to better align the center of the tile and the centerline 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 full pieces have been installed on the walls, then I take the measurements and cut them with a tile saw.
Tip: Use a spare tile to check the spacing between rows that will need a final tile cut at the end. If you run into an issue where the final tile is too tight, shave a sliver off of the top of the tile to get it to fit.
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 the seams
Use a putty knife to scrape out any seams that have adhesive smushing through. You want your grout to fill the seams and it can’t 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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- Building a Kitchen Breakfast Bar
- Nail the Open Concept Design in Your Home
- How to Hang Pre-Pasted Wallpaper by Yourself
Product 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
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