I have always had an obsession with subway tile. It likely started when I bought my 1936 two-story cottage (that’s what it’s called here in the Northwest, Cape Cod is probably another frequently used term.) I dreamed of restoring to its former vintage glory with 1″ octagonal floor tiles and wainscoting and of course SUBWAY TILES. Brick-set, thank you, none of this trendy grid or herringbone crap.
I never actually got the tile into that house, I ended up going a bit more modern. But subway has always spoken to me with it’s timelessness and refusal to be trendy.
Other reasons to choose subway tile for a back splash or tub/shower surround:
- It’s CHEAP. Dirt cheap. Generally under $2/sqft
- It’s always available in your local orange or blue store
- It’s easy to install
- It’s easy to cut
- It’s easy to layout
Most subway tile comes with built-in lugs so you won’t even need tile spacers for most of your installation.
I recommend white on white for several reasons:
- It goes with everything
- White grout on white tile will make all your DIY sins evaporate- like MAGIC
- If you choose rounded end trim, or any type of spacer trim or chair-rail tile (like in a bathroom) those pieces are also very available in white
I know a lot of white subway is installed with black grout, and yes, this looks fabulous — if you know EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE DOING. In order to use a contrasting grout, all your cuts have to be absolutely perfect. We are not perfect- we are DIYers and we need all the help we can get. If you absolutely hate white and still want to install subway, consider black. Also readily available in tile and trims.
MEASURE: You’ll need to measure your wall area where the tile will be applied, then do some math (not much! won’t hurt!) to calculate how much material you’ll need. My project was about 56 square feet x 10% for waste and mistakes. Since you’ll likely be buying by the box, you want to round up to the next box if you have a fraction. My tiles came in boxes of 12.5 sqft, for me that was 4.92 boxes, so I got 5.
WALL PREP: Sadly, the least fun part of any project is the tedious prep work. If there is any glue on the wall from a previous attachment scrape it off as best you can. Sometimes part of the gypsum board paper will come up as well, this can be plastered down with spackle or mud.
MATERIALS: Just about everything you’ll need is conveniently co-located in the tile area of your orange/blue store.
- Adhesive: I used this and it was super easy to work with. You can mix your own but why do that to yourself? Are you going to spend a half hour trying to get it it to the consistency of peanut butter?? (And why do they SAY THAT?? It’s more like hummus, really.)
- A notched trowel: If you’re working in a small area with small tiles, get a small one.
- Putty knife: you will use this in areas where your trowel won’t fit OR when you realize that it’s easier to splop adhesive on the wall first, then notch with trowel.
- Tile nippers: to bust off tiny pieces of tile for corners and tight spots. This is an art, do not get discouraged.
- Clean up rags: about a million
- Grout: LISTEN TO ME NOW!!! Get the right grout for your project. Subway tile has very tiny grout lines an should be installed with un-sanded grout. Do not make the mistake I did and buy the pre-mixed grout in a convenient bucket. It costs more and it doesn’t say “sanded”– but it is!! Unless your grout says “un-sanded” on the package, it will have sand in it and that will make you CRY when you are trying to smooth it (smoothing not actually possible) on to a vertical surface and then moosh it into tiny tiny grooves.
- Grout float: although some of it will be installed with your fingers, believe it.
- Grout sponge: to wipe off excess grout from tile surface
- Tile saw: Yep, you need one. Borrow one if you can, if not they don’t really cost that much (about $300) and remember that you are doing a job that would cost $1500-2000 or more if you hired it out, so it’s really worth the expense. Barring that, there is a newish product that I almost bought but ended up borrowing one instead. I don’t recommend the cheapie ones that only score the tile and then you snap it, you’ll waste a ton of tiles and your husband will suggest calling a contractor (don’t listen to him!)
- Tile: I used traditional 3″x6″, You can buy locally or buy online, but I recommend buying locally so you can run out and get more if you need it. However if you decide to do a fancy color buy extra- even if you can purchase it locally, you may not get the same color lot.
- Grout sealer: I bought a bottle with a spout, then bought another product in an aerosol can, which seemed infinitely easier.
- Tile spacers: 1/8″ and 1/16″
- Tile caulk: for the spaces between your tile and your cabinets or counter surface or ceiling or floor.
- A really good friend/willing spouse: you can do this alone, but you have a Cutter and an Installer your job will go much faster. Even having someone hand you tiles while you are shoving your body up in to the corner under a cabinet will be of great assistance. Also another “eye” is useful.
I was going to draw out my grid on butcher paper and then lay out my tiles..but that suddenly seemed really tedious and I just wanted to start getting them up. So I bagged it.
Start from the bottom and work your way up and over.
In this area, I started on the left next to the tall cabinet:
Tile under the cabinet
Since my tile run stopped and started in a corner it didn’t really matter, but in general you’ll want full & half tiles (for brick joint) on the end where it’s going to show. That way, your small pieces and slivers will be in a corner and eventually swathed in grout.
Slivers of tile in corner
Your first row will require 1/8″ tile spacers between the tile and counter surface (or back splash if you are starting above that). This is to accommodate the caulk that will form a water-proof seal. Determine how many tiles it will take from the bottom row to the top (including spacer measurement) and pre-cut half tiles (these will start your 2nd, 4th, 6th, etc rows and create the brick joint pattern). Smooth some adhesive on the wall and notch it with your trowel, it should be about 1/8″ thick, enough to stick the tile on but not squish out between tiles. This takes a bit of practice. Work your way over as far as you can go with full tiles. YOU WILL NEED TO MAKE SOME CUTS.
You will need to fit cut tiles around light switches and electrical outlets. Measure the space you need to fit and cut while keeping in mind the finished tile edge always goes next to the last full tile, the raw cut edge goes next to the outlet (it will be covered by a plate) Also keep you pattern going. Sometimes you have to “imagine” the pattern continuing through your outlet so that it matches up with full tiles on the other side.
Tiles cut around outlet
A note on electrical outlets: your existing and new outlets will need to be “raised” about 1/4″ to be flush with the adhesive and tile. Picture above is actually below the tile surface and needs to be shimmed. You can see below an outlet that was shimmed. My electrician advised me that (at least in Oregon, please check your local codes) you can shim an outlet as long as it’s 1/4″ or less. He used washers for this but there are plastic outlet spacers as well. If you are installing/replacing outlets you can buy extended boxes for this purpose.
Cutting tip: we found that placing a full tile against the saw fence as a buffer kept the tiles from chipping as you finish your saw cut. You can reuse it by moving it around, but saw should bite into an uncut surface of the buffer tile each time.
You will also need to cut small pieces to fit directly under cabinets or into corners. Just keep the pattern going. These small pieces will likely need to be “back-buttered” by applying adhesive directly to them as you won’t be able to get a trowel into small spaces.
Tiles cut to fit in place
When it came to the back splash above the stove I had just enough space for a decorative line of trim and terminating tiles so I chose that over cutting down tiles.
Decorative trim tile on stove backsplash
And here’s the whole stove backsplash
In this area, I started on the right at my terminating line. I determined where the tile would stop then used a level (with plumb reading) to draw my line. Because this end is finished with terminating trim tiles (they are rounded for a finished look), I measured in from the line the width of the trim tile and drew another line.
Tile on window wall- sink side– cable outlet needs a new cover
Same application, working left, til we get to the window, then I had to wing it. I wanted to do something “fancy” around the window trim so I measured out from the frame, drew a line and continued my rows to the line. Then I placed the rope and pencil trim tiles around the frame, spacing them with spacers more or less equally between the tile row and window. These required a diagonal cut to resemble mitered picture frame. I used a carpenter’s triangle to get a 45 degree angle. Mitering tile trim is a lot like mitering crown molding, you have to flip your adjoining tile backwards and upside-down to the get the two 45’s to meet in a 90.
Rope trim and pencil trim around window frame
Any tile without a built in lug (terminating or decorative trim) is going to need a spacer to keep it in place, either a 1/8″ or 1/16″ depending on your look or how much room you have to fill. You’ll end up using both sizes turned in various directions.
A note on cutting tiles for weird spaces: it is very hard to cut a puzzle piece out of tile. So get the size and shape as close as possible then use generous amounts of grout and/or caulk. Try to keep the funky cuts in corners or under cabinets where you are not really going to see them.
Once the tile is installed it needs to cure for at least 24 hours before you apply your grout. Which brings us to…
My nemesis. Not my favorite part. Theoretically, you should be able to scoop grout onto your float and smooth it into all the spaces. In reality, you have to shove it in. So do yourself a favor and accept that it’s going to be super messy and put more grout on rather than less. Work the grout in with edge of float moving at a diagonal (where you can, this won’t always be possible). If you need to use your fingers, so be it. You can smooth it out later. Also, you may want to cover your counter surface prior to grouting. It should come off of surfaces like granite but not easily, I had to scrub a bit. There are products however that will remove excess grout, so don’t worry too much.
You should be wiping your excess grout off with a wet grout sponge every 10 minutes or so to keep it from drying on your tile, but be careful not to get the sponge too wet or press too hard or you’ll scoop the grout right back out of your joints.
Let grout cure for 24 hours.
Now it’s time to caulk. You’ll be caulking all the seams where the tile meets another surface.
Caulk in seam between tile and granite
You are supposed to let it cure as well before you introduce water (such as behind the sink) but I’m a gambler and I needed to use my sink. And that’s why I need to re-caulk this area. You make the call.
Icky caulk needed to cure before water was introduced
Apply grout sealer to grout lines. Technically this is supposed to cure too, but it’s a wall, right? Try to avoid splashing on it.
And that’s it! This project took me (and a friend! Thank you, Jackie!! also my husband helped) two weekends, about 20 hours total not counting trips to the DIY mart. I did the grouting and caulking on my own.
Total cost was about $250 (I borrowed the saw, otherwise it would have been more).
It won’t look really glorious until I get the walls and cabinets painted, and now that I’m taking closeup pictures I can see some areas that need to be re-caulked or scraped or need more grout, but it’s better than a powder blue laminate back splash and fugly wallpaper.
I hope this post inspired someone to do their own tile, even if it isn’t subway. It sounds a bit complicated but I am telling you that anyone can do this. Also, I hope it was worth the hype.
If you have any questions about something I missed or wasn’t clear about, or if you have a suggestion for something I could have done better, please post in comments or message me at firstname.lastname@example.org