DIY Subway Tile Backsplash: Soup to Nuts

This was a big project. Not hard, really, just time-consuming and physically demanding. (So, yes, hard!) If you’re on the fence about whether to tackle a DIY subway tile project, hopefully this post will uncover the honest nitty-gritty of the whole process.

I hadn’t planned to tile before painting our countertops (post coming soon!) but when the weather turned unseasonably warm (it was in the 60s the day after Christmas!!) and we got access to a tile saw, we knew it was go time. I’d actually bought the tiles, tile adhesive, and trowel all the way back in early October… Jumping the gun much?

If you remember all the way back to my early kitchen mockup, I wanted to do a row of pretty tiles at the bottom of the wall and subway tile up the rest of the way:

The day before Christmas, we painted the kitchen – ceiling and walls – and it was SUCH a breath of fresh air after having giant holes in the wall and patchy drywall for so long!

Obviously I didn’t paint behind where the tiles were going. That would be silly!

With the walls all prepped, nothing was stopping us from getting started. Oh boy.

What You Need

You need surprisingly little, actually. Other than, uh, tiles, the big thing is a tile saw, which we borrowed from a generous neighbor:

You could get away without one, I suppose, but with so many outlets/windows/fixtures to tile around, we had complex geometries only practical to cut with a saw.

Other essentials:

  • Tile adhesive. We used AcrylPro Ceramic Tile Adhesive, but there are plenty of options out there. We needed 2-3 gallons for our job.
  • Notched trowel. (These are abundant and cheap!) Why notches? I’ll get to that below! Just bear in mind that your tile size dictates the size notch required. Fortunately, both sizes of tile I was using required 1/4″ notches!
  • Straightedges/Measuring tape. When you need to cut your tiles, you gotta measure. And you gotta make straight cut lines to follow on the saw!
  • Wax Pencil. You need something that can write on the tiles and doesn’t get washed away immediately while blasted with water in the tile saw.
  • Tile Spacers. Optional, depending on whether your tiles have built-in spacers. I HIGHLY recommend tiles with built-in spacers!! My larger decorative tiles did not have spacers, so I had to use them for the bottom row.
  • Towels. Lots. Trust me.
  • Sponge. One like this. Very necessary for grouting, very useful for cleaning up excess tile adhesive!
  • Grout. Sanded or unsanded depending on your tile spacing. Unsanded is good for 1/8″ or less tile spacing, which is what I went with. You can go nuts with colors here but I stuck with boring ol’ white.
  • Grout Flout. This is what you use to spread and smush the grout into all your tile gaps.
  • Bucket. You don’t need a huge one! But you do need something to mix up your grout in.
  • Grout Sealer. I used this one. Otherwise, your grout is more prone to staining. Not awesome in the kitchen!

For completeness: I used these subway tiles by Daltile and these decorative tiles by Merola, both from Home Depot. I’m dreaming of a bathroom floor with that pattern…!

It looks like a lot, but you probably already have towels, straightedges, and a bucket, right? Let’s get started!

Tiling: The Bottom Row

There are two approaches to tiling. One has you apply the adhesive to the tiles (and then stick the tiles on the wall), and the other has you spread the adhesive on the wall and then stick the tiles on top. We used both methods. Why would you use one over the other? Applying the adhesive to the tile first (called back-buttering) is useful in tight spaces or, for us, when you’re only doing one row of tile and you don’t want a lot of excess adhesive spilling out onto the next row. That was exactly the case with our bottom row of decorative tiles.

We cut the tile spacers so we could use them to create a gap between the countertop and bottom of the tiles. Here are the first few tiles applied:

When applying adhesive to the tiles, the amount you apply matters. So, instead of painstakingly applying a layer of consistent thickness by hand, the notches on your trowel allow you to slop on a generous amount and remove everything save what the tile requires for good adhesion. (The larger your tiles, the larger the notches required. My tiles were ~8″x8″ and 3″x6″, and both called for 1/4″ notches.)

Back-buttering tiles goes something like this. Slather on a good amount of adhesive with the straight side of the trowel:

(Definitely hold your hand at a weird angle.) Then, once it’s nice and buttered up, go ahead and scrape off the excess with the notches. Hold the trowel at about 45 degrees as you drag it in one smooth motion across the tile:

Then, stick it on the wall! The reason this method is slow is because you’ve got to apply the adhesive to each tile individually. It really picks up when you can do lots of tiles at once!

Tiling: Subway Tiles

The bottom row only required us to make two straightforward cuts. No outlets or fancy stuff to dance around. Climbing a bit up the walls, it was a different story entirely, and we became quite well acquainted with Mr. Tile Saw.

For starters, though, we finally got to apply adhesive directly to the wall! And, because our subway tiles had built-in spacers, the process was lightning-fast!

The bummer was coming to spots like the bottom of the window and needing to take out a corner of the tile.

Again, it’s not hard, it just takes time, and going back & forth to the tile saw. To navigate these tricky spots, the key is to measure twice and cut once. Measure how far in the obstruction will cut, transfer those measurements to the tile, and mark them with your straightedge and wax pencil:

Hey, a stir stick makes a fine straightedge! Hold your tile up in place just to do a sanity check, then head to the tile saw and cut along your lines.

Unfortunately, the blade is round. This means that if you’re cutting to the end of your line on the surface, the cut ends well shy of that on the back side of the tile. The solution is to flip the tile over and cut from the reverse side, following your existing cut lines:

You’ll need to overshoot a bit to get it to cut all the way through on the front, but with a little practice (impossible to avoid…) it’ll get easier and easier.

Complicated Cuts

Let’s say you’ve got, oh, 5/8″ threaded rods sticking out of your walls, and you need to cut a notch in your tile? Here’s where it got dicey. I’m not sure there’s a really safe way to cut something like that on the tile saw. I didn’t take pictures of this process because I didn’t want to promote potentially dangerous habits, but it’s worth at least explaining what we did to achieve cuts like we did around some of the more unfortunately placed electrical boxes and the threaded rods:

For instances like these, I drew my lines like usual and made the vertical cuts, but then I did a series of diagonal cuts hand-holding the tile as I tried to clear out as much of the notch as I could. This means you can’t use the saw’s cutting fence – you’re on your own. Then, I held the tile up at an angle and used the tile saw blade as more of a grinder than a saw. This lets you move laterally and shave away along the horizontal line that you can’t actually cut across.

Are there other ways to do this? Probably. One way is using a Dremel tool with a tile cutting attachment. It acts like a router and allows you to follow any arbitrary line as you cut. I didn’t want to buy any more specialty tools and just wanted to get the job done quickly and safely, and it worked (zero injuries!) so it is what it is. YMMV.

Tiling: Postscript

One major thing I’d do differently is be more precise with the measurements. I was assuming that caulk would fill in any and all gaps along edges, but I was definitely pushing the limits in places like this:

Also, ear protection is great, but wear some dang eye protection. Do as I say and not as I do:

At least I’m wearing shoes!

Hilariously, we had exactly 2 tiles left over after our all-day tile-a-thon:

I… suggest giving yourself a bit more buffer. Because remember that towel I told you you’d need? Ours looked like this by the end of the day:

A veritable tile graveyard of cutoffs and misfires!

Hurry Up and Wait

That bracket to the left of the window is the cleat for hanging the range hood. I mounted it to a 1/4″ piece of wood I had lying around so it would be flush with the tiled surface, not the wall behind it.

We finished all the tiling (plus the wall behind me that you can’t see) in a full day of work. It could technically be a one-man show, but it was so wonderful to have an extra pair of hands.

We went over every square inch with toothpicks, sponges, and flathead screwdrivers trying to clean off all the visible tile adhesive. It’s a tradeoff, clean as you go and slow yourself down, or wait till you’re exhausted and just really want to take a shower to do the unfun stuff. Your call.

From there, the tile adhesive needs 48-72 hours to set up, so the no-using-the-sink rule persisted for a bit longer as we waited to be able to start grouting…

Grouting

It’s messy. Really messy. And exhausting. And definitely a two-person job! I started out going solo while husband worked on painting the dining room but quickly realized I was in over my head. And I’m not usually one to ask for help!

What’s so exhausting about it? Well, let’s start from the beginning. As mentioned up at the top of the post, I used a nonsanded grout for my 1/8″ tile gaps.

Everything I read said that the water:powder mixing ratios on the package are bogus, so I winged it. I poured a couple pounds into a bucket (I’d use a MUCH smaller bucket next time…) and added water little by little, mixing with a putty knife, till I got what I thought was a good peanut-buttery consistency:

This photo makes it look stiffer than it was – it needs to be easily spreadable, but nowhere near being drippy. I think there’s a wide band of workable consistencies, so mix till you get something you like.

From there, grab a big glob with your tile float and lay it on your tiles, smushing it down into the crevices at a 45 degree angle. You never want to attack it perpendicular to the cracks, or else you’ll just pull the grout right out.

Repeat over the whole wall, making sure you get grout in every. single. gap.

This was exhausting.

But the real reason I needed a second pair of hands is that there’s a finite working time with this stuff before it sets up. You can’t just leave it all sloppy like that over the tiles – you have to go back in and clean it up with your big yellow sponge:

This means not only cleaning up the grouty mess you made on the tiles, but in particular it means cleaning up the grout lines so they’re clean and uniform. And yes, this means going over every. single. grout line. with a damp sponge. This takes forever. And you’re racing the clock as the grout starts to set up.

So, the best way to handle this is to have one person grouting and one person cleaning it up. Then, because the grouting is a bit faster, the second person can come back in and help with the cleanup.

No matter what you do, you’ll have a lovely little haze all over the tiles. This isn’t a big deal – it comes off pretty easily later on with a clean, damp sponge. What you are really trying to avoid is having wonky grout lines. Those will firm up and be annoying to fix later.

*Special Note: you’ll go through a lot of water keeping your sponges clean and damp, but resist the urge to dump the water down the drain. The grout will wreak all kinds of havoc on your plumbing (or so I’ve heard). The more you know!

Next Steps?

The next step was to let the grout set up (the package specifies how long, I think it’s something like 24-48 hours), give the tiles a good cleaning, and then you’ll need to seal your grout with a tile/grout sealer. I didn’t take photos of this process because it was so fast/simple. The tile sealer comes in a spray bottle. Working one small section at a time, I sprayed the sealer on a clean sponge and wetted all the tiles and grout lines with it. By the time I finished applying it to a small section a few minutes later, I was ready to start wiping it off with a clean rag.

It’s a quick process, and you really don’t want to let excess sealer dry on your tiles and leave weird streaks. I read some horror stories in the reviews, but I think working quickly is the key to avoiding those issues. I went back and did a second coat everywhere, and a third coat behind the sink & stove areas for extra super bonus protection!

Coming up next: countertop painting (finally!) and caulking!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.