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How to Install a Tile Backsplash

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Installing your own tile backsplash is an approachable and satisfying DIY renovation project. With a little bit of patience and determination, you can totally transform your kitchen.

In this article, we will show you how to install kitchen backsplash tile, step by step.


Tools You'll Need

  • Pry bar or hammer
  • Screw driver
  • Finishing nails
  • Tile cutter
  • Notched trowel
  • Margin trowel
  • Mixing bar
  • Buckets (3)
  • Grout float
  • Caulk gun
  • Sponge
  • Dry cloth
  • Safety goggles

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Prepare the Area

Remove any countertop items and place them safely away from the work area. Appliances such as an oven or refrigerator may also need to be moved to make tiling behind them easier. Cover the countertops and any adjacent areas with a protective sheet, such as a drop cloth or plastic sheeting, to prevent damage from debris or spills. Remove any countertop items and place them safely away from the work area. Appliances such as an oven or refrigerator may also need to be moved to make tiling behind them easier. Cover the countertops and any adjacent areas with a protective sheet, such as a drop cloth or plastic sheeting, to prevent damage from debris or spills.

You will also need to remove any outlet covers and switch plates in the area where the backsplash will be installed.  This helps prevent damage to these items and makes the tiling process around electrical outlets easier and more precise.

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Prepare the Wall

If you're replacing an existing backsplash, carefully remove it using a pry bar and hammer. Patch any holes or cracks in the wall with spackle and sand smooth. For uneven surfaces, consider using joint compound to create a level base for the new tiles.

Next, thoroughly clean the surface where the backsplash will be installed. Any grease, dust, other or residues should be removed so the adhesive can properly bond to the wall.

If your tile backsplash is being installed over a particularly uneven surface or somewhere with a lot of moisture, such as a bathroom, consider installing a backer board. This thin backing creates a smooth, even surface for the tile to adhere to and protects the wall from moisture.

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Install a Ledger Board

Installing ledger board to support the weight of a subway tile kitchen backsplash behind a stove.

A ledger board is a thin, sturdy strip of wood that helps you achieve a precise and even tile installation where there is no counter, such as behind appliances. It will support the weight of the tiles as they cure and facilitate precise, even tile placement.

Using a level, mark a line on the wall where the bottom row of your tile backsplash will be. Then, using finishing nails, attach the ledger board to the wall using the line you marked to keep it level.

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Plan the Design

Planning the design of a subway tile kitchen backsplash before beginning installation.

Measure the area where you will be installing the backsplash. Using these dimensions, lay out the tile on a flat surface to test out the configuration. You can also use these measurements to determine the center of the area which will allow you to center the tile, creating a pleasing and even design. Don't forget to account for outlets and switches.

If tiles on one side need to be cut especially small, they may be difficult to work with and will not look as good. In this scenario, rearrange the tiles so that the cuts made to tiles on either side are symmetrical.

Many tile types, especially mosaics, do not have many options for playing with the layout. However, for those figuring out how to install a subway tile backsplash, this step will allow you to experiment with how the tiles are arranged. A staggered pattern is most popular, but a stacked look or even a herringbone design can be a fun change of pace.

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Cut the Tiles

Using a wet saw to cut white subway tiles to the correct size before installing tiles in a kitchen backsplash.

The tiles that meet the cabinets and the wall will need to be cut to size. To achieve a clean cut, it's important to use the right tool. You can use a snap cutter, a wet saw, or an angle grinder to cut your tile. Remember to measure and mark the tile carefully before cutting.

It is also very important to wear safety equipment, such as eye protection and a respirator, while cutting tile. This will protect you from errant tile shards and dust. It's also important for both your own safety and the quality of the cut that the cutting tools are in good condition.

For more detailed instructions, see our guide on How to Cut Tile.

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Mix and Apply Adhesive

Using a notched trowel to apply tile adhesive to a kitchen wall before laying tile.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for mixing the adhesive. This typically involves adding water to the powder in a clean bucket. Do not mix more adhesive than you will be able to use within approximately 20 minutes to prevent the adhesive from curing in the bucket.

To apply the adhesive to the wall, use a notched trowel to spread it evenly over a small area. Be sure to use a trowel with a notch size that is suited for the type of tile you are using. Hold the trowel at a 45 degree angle for even application.

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Install the Tile

Using tile spacers between the kitchen counter and first row of a subway tile backsplash ensures the correct width for the expansion gap.

Carefully press the first tile into the adhesive, using a slight twisting motion to ensure even contact with the adhesive. Avoid sliding the tile too much, which can cause the adhesive to spread unevenly and affect the tile's final position. Be sure to leave a 1/8 expansion gap between the counter and the tile. 

As you add more tiles, insert tile spacers at the corners of each tile to maintain consistent grout lines. The size of the spacers depends on the desired width of your grout lines and the type of tile being used.

Using tile spacers to ensure even, level spacing of white subway tile when installing a kitchen backsplash.

Regularly check for alignment and level, both horizontally and vertically. Catching any mistakes early will help ensure you get the best results. Use a level or a straightedge to ensure that each row or column of tiles remains straight.

Using a level helps to ensure each row of tiles is straight before moving on to the next row.

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Mix and Apply the Grout

Using a grout float to apply grout to a white subway tile kitchen backsplash.

Clean the tiles so they are free from adhesive residue. Remove all spacers from between the tiles. Once the tiles are ready, mix the grout according to the manufacturer's instructions. As with the adhesive, mix the grout in small portions to prevent it drying prematurely.

To apply the grout, use a rubber grout float and scoop out a dab of grout. Apply this to the tile surface at a 45-degree angle to the grout lines. Press the grout firmly into the joints, making sure they are completely filled.

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Clean and Seal Grout and Fill the Expansion Gap

Using a damp sponge to clean excess grout from the surface of a subway tile backsplash before allowing grout to dry.

Before the grout dries, clean up the excess grout. Use a damp sponge (not dripping wet) to wipe diagonally across the tiles, removing the excess without digging into the joints. Rinse and re-wring your sponge frequently. After the grout has had more time to firm up (usually a few hours), polish away any remaining haze from the tile surface with a clean, dry cloth.

Next, fill the expansion gap with tile caulk. You can also add tile caulk to the corners where the tile meets the wall and where the tile meets the cabinets for a more finished look.

For added protection against stains and moisture, apply a grout sealer after 24-48 hours. Follow the sealer's instructions for application and drying time.

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Clean and Reassemble the Area

Once the grout has cured and has been sealed, clean up any dust and debris left over from the project. At this point you can put appliances back and replace the outlet and switch plates.

This is also when you will remove the ledger board. Using a pry bar or hammer, gently pull the ledger board away from the wall. Take care not to mar the tiles or grout when you do this.

A subway tile backsplash on wall above counter. White subway tile is laid horizontally in stacked columns of tile for a modern and minimalist feel.

Installing a Backsplash FAQs

  • How much does it cost to install a kitchen backsplash?

    The cost to install a kitchen backsplash will mostly depend on the type of tiles you use, as well as the total square footage of the backsplash area. Kitchen backsplash tile costs can range from $25 to $150 per square foot, with a few options that cost more and a few that cost less.

    For all other materials, including grout, adhesive, and tools, you can expect to spend between $200 and $300.

  • Do you put a backsplash directly on drywall?

    Yes, it is possible to put a tile backsplash directly on drywall if the area is not regularly exposed to high levels of moisture. Drywall provides a smooth, stable surface that is suitable for tile adhesive. The drywall must be clean, dry, and in good condition.

    For the purposes of a tile backsplash, behind a sink is usually not considered a high moisture area. However, backsplashes in highly wet areas like showers need a backer board for waterproofing and stability. Drywall alone cannot withstand continuous moisture exposure, even when it is behind tile.

  • Is it difficult to install a kitchen backsplash?

    No, it is not difficult to install a kitchen backsplash. Even if you have limited experience with DIY projects, you can definitely tackle a backsplash with proper planning.

    The key to a successful tile backsplash installation is having the right tools and materials ready to go when you start the project. Follow manufacturer instructions carefully for every element of the project, such as the correct adhesive, grout, and notched trowel.

    With these manufacturers' instructions and the guide above, you should be able to confidently install your own tile backsplash.

  • What is the best adhesive for a backsplash?

    The two most common types of adhesives used for backsplash tiles are thin-set mortar and mastic. The best adhesive for your backsplash will depend on the type of tiles you're using and the specific conditions of your kitchen.

    Thin-set mortar is best for areas with lots of exposure to moisture. It's also good for larger tiles that need a stronger bond to stay in place. This type of adhesive can be used for ceramic, porcelain, and natural stone tiles.

    Mastic is a good choice for backsplashes where heavy moisture exposure is not a concern. This type of adhesive is less common in kitchen backsplashes, but for areas that are unlikely to experience regular exposure to moisture it can be a suitable option.

    As always, your best bet is to follow the tile manufacturer's instructions when selecting an adhesive. Shop all adhesives >