How to Install a Tile Kitchen Backsplash
A veteran installer shares his priorities and process.
Photo: Michael Piazza
Synopsis: Although more modern varieties of tile are also common, the classic look of 3×6 subway tile never seems to go out of style. In this article, veteran tile installer Tim Keefe shares his methods for tiling a backsplash so that it looks right and lasts a long time. The process starts with setting up the work area, sealing the tile, and laying out the running-bond pattern for the backsplash. Keefe identifies his favorite thinset, grout, and caulk, and he shares advice on how to mix and/or apply each. Accent tile is also part of this job, so Keefe offers tips for working with mosaic tiles and sheds some light on how to avoid common layout problems.
Web extra: Preparing for a tile backsplash
Kitchen backsplashes are among my most frequently requested tile jobs. Whether a backsplash is part of a new construction project, a full kitchen remodel, or a quick update of an existing kitchen, few other tile projects can bring such a huge transformation to such a contained area.
Although more-modern varieties of tile are common, the classic look of 3×6 subway tile never seems to go out of style, and I’m asked to install it often. In this particular kitchen, the homeowners decided to boost the look of their subway backsplash by choosing crackle-glazed tiles and including a section of mosaic tile above the range. This particular type of tile and the use of a mosaic accent are options that are growing in popularity, and each holds its own challenges in terms of layout and installation.
Done right, this combination of a subway-tile field and a mosaic-tile accent becomes a beautiful background for the kitchen. Done poorly, either in terms of layout or installation, the backsplash becomes a daily eyesore. The good news is that a pleasing layout isn’t hard to achieve, and the process of laying up and grouting tile isn’t complicated, as long as you plan carefully and work through each step slowly.
Before all else, set up and prep
When I’m installing a backsplash in a finished house, I typically don’t set up the wet saw inside. Putting the saw outside or in the garage eliminates the risk of water damage to the floor. I cover the countertops and the floor—EconoRunner (protective products.com) is an excellent choice —and if the kitchen has a freestanding or slide-in range, I pull it away from the wall and cover it with a drop cloth so that I can tile behind it. After cutting the power to any electrical boxes in the backsplash area, I loosen the screws on the fixtures and pull them out of their boxes slightly so that the tile can fit tightly around them. If tile is to go around a window, I remove the apron molding below the stool. That means less-complicated cuts, and the finished look is cleaner.
The next step, and one that far too many installers brazenly skip, is to get to know the tile. Tiles and their recommended installation practices vary widely from brand to brand and from tile to tile. If the tile comes with instructions, it’s important to read them. They might mean the difference between an easy job and a nightmare installation.
The maker of the field and mosaic tile installed on this job, Encore Ceramics, recommends that these tiles be coated with sealer before installation to prevent thinset from getting trapped in the hairline cracks of the glazed finish. It also makes it easier to remove dried globs of thinset from the face of the tiles after installation. I’ve had great success with products from Miracle Sealants Company.
For more photos and details on tiling a kitchen backsplash, click the View PDF button below.