A Subway Tile Backsplash Install

When you just need a classic…

…then you can’t go wrong with a white subway tile backsplash. This post describes how to replace a kitchen backsplash with maximum results for minimal cost. If you’re looking for a simple backsplash solution as part of either a kitchen repair or complete makeover, then read on for tips!

The Situation

These folks had to replace their kitchen base cabinets and countertops due to an unfortunate plumbing leak. They were able to keep the previous overhead wall cabinets, but had to demolish the base cabinets and replace the kitchen countertop.

This meant that the tile subway backsplash had to be redone too. Trying to “repair” a backsplash after a new counter install by knocking out and replacing just the bottom course of tile never looks right.

Also, in this case the original backsplash was quite slapdash to begin with. A previous home flipper had used a real cut-rate kitchen tile contractor. Here are some examples of how NOT to properly tile around switches and window ledges:

Crooked, uneven, and wobbly is no way to live. So completely replacing their backsplash was a win-win. It had to go anyway, and they never liked it in the first place.

The Design

These folks had just spent a lot of money on a completely unplanned emergency kitchen cabinet and countertop replacement water damage repair “remodel”, and therefore had a pretty tight leftover home insurance reimbursement budget for finishing bits like a new backsplash. Fortunately, their aesthetic worked well for a simple yet classic subway tile backsplash design.

Their cabinets were white, and the new stone countertop they splurged on was a very pretty bright white onyx with interesting dark-ish grey mineral inclusion veins. They were wanting to both highlight the countertop and keep an overall simple bright modern French farmhouse-style aesthetic to match the rest of their house decor.

“Looking for classic white and grey, you say?”

This was all perfect for the classic tux of kitchen backsplashes, white ceramic rectangular subway with grey grout. Perfectly compliments stainless steel finishes, fits any decade from 1920 to 2020, and even resists blood stains (just ask Bond). It’s what the previous houseflipper was trying for originally, but failed to execute.

Proper tailoring is what makes the difference. You can get a ton of class from even basic practical polyester if you cut it right.

The Budget Challenge

Again, these folks were on a budget. So the new subway tile backsplash had to shine by design. The tile itself was bargain basement 3×6-in white ceramic Daltile with simple 2×6-in bullnose trim. The key to making the most of any tile material is to install it with a thoughtfully balanced pattern and impeccable lines.

As any skilled chef will tell ‘ya, even basic ingredients will shine bright if treated right. So, skill challenge accepted!

The Plan

Every backsplash tile replacement project starts with a careful but full demo of the substrate. You can install backsplash tile directly on top of drywall, since kitchen backsplashes don’t have to be watertight like a bathroom tub surround or shower wall. You can also install backsplash tile on concrete backerboard if you’re into overkill.

Either way, definitely demo to the studs anytime you’re replacing a backsplash. At worst, even an extremely careful demo and backerboard replacement will take less overall time than trying to chisel off existing tile piecemeal in a (guaranteed to fail) attempt to preserve and re-use the original substrate. And at best, going to the studs will reveal any previous wall shenanigans and also give an easy opportunity for re-configuring the kitchen wiring to add new outlets or undercabinet lighting.

These folks were happy with their previous outlet and switch situation, though they were also happy to get rid of some legacy wiring like an outdated hardwire kitchen phone outlet jack. They were also pretty skeptical of the previous homeflip work (remember that kitchen plumbing leak?) and so were interested in seeing right to the home bones. That’s one benefit to demo surgery. It is an opportunity for exploration.

So here were the project steps:

  1. Cut out the previous tile and drywall to the studs from countertop to wall cabinet height
  2. Repair, replace, eliminate, or reinforce anything that the demo reveals
  3. Button up the backsplash wall with new drywall backerboard
  4. Install ceramic subway tile straight and true
  5. Install grout that will wear like stainless steel
  6. Finish with evenly caulked and easy to clean joints and corners

Interested in getting into the weeds on each step? Read on for deets then!

Demo and Repair

Cutting out the legacy drywall revealed that the previous reno flipper had indeed skimped on more than just surface finish details. The bumped-out kitchen sink window ledge had literally zero insulation to keep out winter freeze drafts, which partly explained the previous plumbing emergency.

Opening up the wall also provided an opportunity to stuff extra insulation into all the other stud bays, but discovering a complete lack of insulation in the absolutely coldest part of the wall directly behind the sink plumbing was a real revelation.

Button Up

Perfectly fine for backsplash tile-ready!

Some folks think that it’s necessary to use concrete backerboard as a substrate for every wall tile install. It’s not. Unlike a shower or tub surround, a kitchen backsplash will never even come close to seeing the level of moisture that makes concrete backerboard a necessity. So regular drywall is just fine.

It’s also not necessary to tape and seam the drywall substrate for a tile backsplash install. The tile will, after all, completely cover all the joints and seams.

Just be sure to securely screw the backerboard to the studs, and make the entire substrate completely flat. Do not leave any wavy spots, since this will needlessly complicate the tile install. If some of the wall studs are out of plumb, then use shims to make sure the replacement drywall is all flush to itself.

Install the Tile

Balancing a tile pattern can be difficult if major elements like windows are not centered!

Even a “simple” subway tile backsplash needs careful layout planning in order to look balanced and purposeful. This is especially important for a kitchen counter run with several corners and openings. You ideally want to perfectly center the pattern on both the sink and stove. You also want to balance the subway pattern around windowsills and wall cabinets. This is how you can avoid little skinny tile bits in the inside corners and other sloppy layout imperfections. Practically however, there are usually pattern trade-off decisions to make when putting arbitrarily-sized tiles in an already built space.

In this case, the kitchen cabinet and countertop installer had not exactly lined up the sink and faucet to the window opening. This made it impossible to center the pattern on both the sink and the window, so we chose the sink as the centerpoint. Since the window opening was pretty wide (and also not centered to the wall cabinets), it made sense to use the faucet as the main focal point.

You can install wall tile with a wide variety of thinsets or mastics. Thinset is basically fine concrete, and you can use different formulations for various special tile types like glass, natural stone, etc. Mastic is basically organic glue, and can be used for just about any tile type in non-wet applications like a backsplash.

The least expensive adhesive you can use is unmodified thinset. I personally prefer the Mapei brand because it has a fine texture and comes in plastic bags (more convenient than the paper bags that PolyBlend thinset comes packaged in). You can install a kitchen backsplash on drywall with just about any adhesive. So, don’t spend needless money on fancy thinset.

Once the start points were set, installing the subway tile backsplash was “simply” a matter of maintaining perfectly even gaps between the individual tiles and making sure that each tile was perfectly flush to all the tiles around it. There were also a lot of very precise cuts that needed to be made around the cabinet and window trim, and also of course around all the electrical boxes. It’s important to make these electrical box cuts very precisely, since outlets and switches won’t sit securely unless their metal tabs are completely supported by the tile.

It can also be tricky to get perfectly consistent grout line widths between each tile when working with really inexpensive ceramic tiles. Individual tiles will often have some variation in the amount of ceramic overglazing around the edges. Therefore you need to be careful with the overall level and sometimes use bits of cardboard instead of plastic spacers to jigger particularly problematic tiles into place.

Oh, and you have to do all of this while working quite quickly since unmodified thinset in particular will begin to “skim over” pretty much immediately after being spread on drywall in a thin coat. The drywall will immediately start sucking moisture out of the thinset mix from behind, while the open air will cause a dry film to develop on top. Both of these things will prevent a good bond with the tile and can result in tiles literally popping off the wall once the thinset fully cures.

All of this is why installing even a “simple” ceramic backsplash takes skill and practice. Putting tile on a wall isn’t rocket science. But it is a craft. If you want a perfect result, then you need a pro.

Install the Grout

There are lots of options when it comes to grout. Sometimes the tile determines the grout (for example, traditional sanded grout can’t be used with glass tile since it’ll scratch and dull the tile surface while installing). Sometimes the pattern determines the grout (for example, sanded grout has to be used for grout widths greater than 1/4-in since this requires the extra strength of sand additive).

This project used basic Daltile ceramic tile with 1/8-in grout lines, so any grout type could have worked. However, going with the least expensive unsanded grout would have been a mistake in this instance. The clients were really into cooking and often hosted big dinner parties featuring homeade chili, pasta, and other sauce dishes. Therefore, they needed a grout that would resist staining and be super easy to clean.

So that’s why we used my favorite all-purpose grout, Mapei’s “Ultracolor Plus FA” formulation. It’s a highly modified cement-based grout that uses extra-fine silica to match the density of traditional sanded grout without the abrasive install issues. It can also pack into tight 1/16-in grout joints or span superwide 3/4-in gaps. It doesn’t shrink or crack as it dries and cures. Mapei “Ultracolor Plus FA” grout is very dense, and it is pre-sealed. This grout will resist staining for a lifetime. It’s also easy to work with and fully cures within 24hrs.

Finish with Caulk

Unfortunately, you cannot pack grout into 90deg inside seams along countertops. Same goes for tub surrounds and inside tile seams in showers. Grout is fantastic for staying in place between tiles on a flat surface. It will, however, eventually crack and crumble out of inside joints. So you need to finish these installations by installing caulk in the seams. Caulk is flexible enough to expand and contract a bit even when fully cured, and so will fill seams without cracking or chipping out.

However it’s important to use the correct caulk and install it with precision. DO NOT go to the big box paint section and get plain ‘ol painters caulk or even straight silicone caulk! Instead, go to the tile aisle and get proper color-matched grout caulk. Both Mapei and PolyBlend (the two big grout manufacturers) have a full line of specialized caulks that match every grout color that they offer. For a kitchen countertop backsplash that will see a lot of cleaning over its lifetime, sanded siliconized caulk is a great choice. This is a very durable caulk type that’s both waterproof (so it’ll resist stains) and that can hold up to any scrubbing (because it’s very dense with the added sand content).

It’s also important to install the caulk with precision. DO NOT just squeeze a bead into the seams, lick your finger, and hope for the best. This will result in an uneven mess that’ll make an otherwise fantastic tile job look like junk. Instead, take the time to carefully mask off your caulk joint lines with tape. The prep will be an annoying pain, but the actual caulking will then be a breeze. With everything masked off, you can simply smooth all the seams to precise thickness without worrying about the mess. You can simply smooth out the caulk and then peel off the masking tape to get perfect finish lines.

The Finish

This subway tile backsplash project took five days overall. A full workweek. It takes time to install even a “simple” ceramic subway tile backsplash correctly. In this case, demo and wall prep took a full day. The actual tile install took two days due to a lot of cuts and corners. Properly grouting a tile backspash takes a full day. The final day was for re-installing all the electrical outlets and switches and covers and then caulking all the seams.

If you want a perfectly tailored fit, then even basic white subway tile backsplash won’t be cheap for the labor. But a perfect installation will definitely pay for itself over a literal lifetime of use.