Friday, January 21, 2011

Workday Weekend Tutorial: Tiling the Backsplash

( This old post continues to get a huge number of hits each week.  Be sure to leave a comment to tell me how you discovered it and if it is helpful to you.   I will be happy to do what I can to answer any questions via email ... my email address is in my profile)

This project has been on my To Do list longer than any other, I do believe.  We remodeled our kitchen five years ago, as part of the never-ending renovation of our historic house, and I have had the tile on hand since then. 

The tiles I'm using are 3" x 6" handmade subway tiles.  I love how each tile is ever-so-slightly different, creating a pleasingly imperfect look.  See how carefully they were packaged.  The tiles are stacked back to back, with cardboard spacers to protect them and to keep the faces from rubbing against each other.

Here is what the backsplash looked like before I started yesterday morning.  (It has looked like this for five full years.) 

After I cleared the counters, and taped down resin paper over the counters to protect them, and I gathered my tools.  It doesn't take many tools.

Rows of tiles MUST be level, so it's important to start with a level base.  If your counters are installed correctly, they are already level ... double check just to be sure.

For backsplashes, I use premixed tile mastic.  It's easy to work with, and it's perfect for laying tile on walls.  Mastic is NEVER to be used in showers or anywhere that gets wet ... for showers, use thinset.  Because my tiles are thick, I used a 1/4" notched trowel to apply the mastic to each tile.  You can apply the mastic to the wall instead, but be careful not to work in too large an area, or the mastic can skin over and begin to dry before you get tile on all of it.

The ridges created by the trowel apply the exact right amount of mastic to the tile.  When you squoosh the tile in place on the wall, the ridges also create suction which holds the tile in place instantly.

I started laying tile on the outside corner, using a running bond pattern, laying the first row from the corner outwards working in both directions.  Bullnose tiles create a smooth transition around the corner.  The tiles are slightly beveled, creating a roughly 1/8" to 1/16" space for grout between each tile when set in place ... the perfect spacing for subway tiles!

Running Bond pattern simply means that tiles are laid like bricks.  Because these tiles are handmade, some of them didn't sit exactly straight ... I used little pieces of folded cardboard as shims, when necessary if things looked cock-eyed.

The second row is laid with the center of each tile exactly over the space between the tiles in the previous row.  I use a ruler to mark the center on the first tile, to make sure everything is perfect.

The first two rows went on very quickly.  On row three, I had electrical outlets and switches to work around.  Here is a quick lesson to show you how I mark and cut the tiles around outlets and switches.  (Marking is much more accurate than measuring.) 

Before working near ANY electricity, ALWAYS turn off the power at the breaker box and test it to make sure it is OFF!

1.  Hold the tile in place and mark the vertical edge of the electrical box on the top edge of the tile with a pencil.

2.  Now make a mark on the side of the tile below the screw and about in the middle of the ears that secure the switch/outlet.

3.  Use these marks to draw lines to show where to cut, to notch the tile to fit around the outlet.  (Yes, this is my quilt ruler.  It's super handy for making perfectly straight, perpendicular and parallel lines.)

4.  I cut tile with a wet saw set up in our basement garage.  This little saw was probably the best $89 I ever spent!  In the 9 years I have had it, this saw and I have tiled countless backsplashes, three bathrooms, and acres of floor.

To set the tile in place, I loosen the screws that hold the outlet to the box, and slip the tile behind the outlet's ears.  This brings the outlet forward to the level of the new tile.  After the mastic is set, I retighten the screws and replace the outlet cover.


I kept setting tile, working toward the inside corner.

Here's another obstacle.

The last tile in each row must be cut to fit accurately into the inside corner.  To turn the corner and start on the adjacent wall, I think it looks best to keep some symmetry by matching short pieces to short pieces and long pieces to long pieces in each row ... if that makes sense.  Here's a picture so you can see what I mean.

Almost finished.  Each tile on the top row had to have about 1/8" cut off so it would fit underneath the upper cabinets.  This was really time consuming!

I finished off the end of the counter with a short side-splash, using bullnose tiles to transition cleanly to the wall.  I don't have any extra of these tiles with the bullnose on the long side, and I can't get any more, so I was a nervous wreck while marking and cutting this miter joint.

At the end of today, this is what the right-hand side of the kitchen looked like:

I ran out of mastic, just as I put the last tile in place on the side-splash.  Tomorrow, I will go to the store to get more and I will try to finish the tile on the other side of the kitchen ... which I will show you in the next installment of this project ... when we learn how to GROUT!

Tiling isn't difficult.  If you have any questions, or want some clarification, be sure to let me know.  I will answer any and all questions the best I can.


  1. Are you related to Martha Stewart?

  2. Connie, You are amazing! Love the tiles and the backsplash will be fabulous when finished. Did you make it to Chartreuse?

  3. The wonderful people at home depot gave us mastic to use in our shower...

    I hope we aren't ruined!

  4. Do you remember where you bought your handmade subway tiles? They look really nice and we're about to remodel our kitchen and I'm still trying to pick our backsplash.

  5. Connie, we are definitely kindred spirits. I did my backsplash in this house with 6x8 white tiles with 2x2 Mexican tiles (bought on Ebay) on the diagonal at the corners and a patchwork-type of medallion of Mexican tiles over the range; front & back porches here and the master bathroom floor in our last house which was exquisite when it was done. I hated leaving it. Yours is an excellent tutorial. You do fine work - on many levels.

  6. Grouting is easy but oooohhhh sooooo messy. And by the way, I love the white subway tile... great choice!


  7. Ok, wow! You have inspired me to get my backsplash done...but by someone else, you know me, I would do a horrible job, even with your wonderful directions!! It looks great!

    Kat :)

  8. I hate to admit this, but I'm probably going to be redoing the backsplash we just had done. Not for a while, but eventually this year or next. Thanks for the tutorial.

  9. Gorgeous!! I did brick-style myself, but mine were on sheets-I could never do all that spacing properly haha. Love the classic white!

  10. We bought our tiles at Expo Design Center (RIP). They are by Sonoma Tilemakers. I searched their site, and the line may be their Stellar tile. There are distributors all over the country. Check out their site, to see if there's one near you.

    Kat, WE can DO your backsplash! Just feed me and be my helper. It's really not that difficult.

    Don't panic if you've ALREADY used mastic in your shower. Most big-box employees don't know any different, and I have 'educated' more than one on the proper tools/materials for a given job. For your shower, be sure that you keep your caulk at the bottom of the tile, and at the corners, in good condition. You should be fine as long as water doesn't get behind the tile. You DID caulk the bottom and the corners, didn't you?

  11.'re amazing...I want to do this so bad, but it scares the crud out of me. BUT YOU ROCK!!!

  12. You make it look so easy! Makes me think maybe even I could figure it out. Looks great!

  13. It looks great! The fact that it's taken you 5 years to do this project made me feel better about the 8 boxes of tile that I have had for 3 years. I really am going to put them around my tub one of these days!

  14. Connie, Very nice, you ARE amazing!

  15. You ...are... thoroughly..amazing.

    And no, you're not related to Martha, or the job would have been hired out.

  16. Great work! Love the tile! I miss the Expo Design stores too!

  17. This is looking so fab. I LOVE the bull-nose ends to the tiles for taking them around the corner. I've not seem those before and it gives such a fantastic look.

    I'm REALLY impressed!


  18. Hi Connie, I am so impressed--you are quite amazing. Not only are you creative and talented, but energetic as well!! The tile looks great!

  19. I'm chiming in with everyone else to also say that I am very impressed Connie. It looks great!


  20. Hello! Thanks for the tutorial. I found this because I'm trying to get straight information on how to tile around electrical outlets. Your pictures are really clear. Thanks! - Victoria

  21. Hi again,
    I left a comment a couple days ago..I was curious...why no use of spacers? Is it because of off size of tile?

  22. Dear Anonymous,
    I hope you see this.
    When using subway tile, it's really not necessary to use spacers, because they naturally create the perfect 1/16th inch grout line when you lay them. The only place I used anything to space the tiles was on the bullnose corner tiles, because they were slightly smaller than the field tiles. This was a feature of the handmade tiles I used for this backsplash, and may or may not be applicable to your project.

    If you have any other questions, let me know.

  23. Great tutorial. I googled "subway tile outside corner" for ideas on how to tile an outside corner of my kitchen back-splash and I stumbled across your site. Great work.

    Thanks for excellent pictures! Made doing my job easier to see it all done.

  24. Thanks!

    I remember when I was in your position, trying to find any kind of instructions or photos showing how to make a decent looking outside corner in my backsplash. Apparently, there aren't many backsplashes with outside corners ... so I figured out how to do it by myself, then I documented what I did so others coming after me wouldn't be as frustrated with their tile projects.

  25. This looks great! I am tiling a shower for the first time using subway tiles similar to this. I can't figure out how to do the inside corners, though. Is the side supposed to butt up to the back wall? I'd love any advice you can give. Thanks!

  26. Hi, I found this site on interest. On the outside corner bulldoze that bulldoze only on ONE short side of a 3x6 tile ?

  27. That's it exactly, Nikki! The corner is made using tiles that have a bullnose on ONE short side of the tile. This is exactly how it's done in the NYC subway stations, which is how the tiles got their name. I have a couple of photos from tiled corners in NY in this post:


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