Handmade Tile Backsplash: PLANNING

When your tile design is potentially complicated…

…then it’s important to plan carefully! This post describes how to plan a tile backsplash design that will accommodate the challenges that often come with making custom tile fit a specific design goal.

Remember that these particular clients chose some really fancy handmade fireclay tile that featured a somewhat translucent ceramic coating and a really cool cracked glaze effect. These tiles were also somewhat irregularly sized and shaped, which is a “feature” of pretty much all handmade tile.

This post explains the basic steps for successfully planning a perfect layout for any tile backsplash project, even a challenging one like this.

The “Before” Kitchen

The clients’ kitchen space was pretty Scandinavian 1970s, with cleanly straightforward modernist cabinets and an off-white quartz countertop with flecks of grey to light brown mineral inclusions. The sink, fixtures, and appliances were all stainless steel, and the layout was simple galley-style with a cook-top stove on the large open island side of the galley.

The cabinet -side “before” view, sorely in need of some dressing!

The clients chose a bright and kinda funky teal colored tile for two reasons. First, they wanted to add some pop to the otherwise subdued kitchen decor. It was a true 1970s house, so this would really match the vintage of the home. And second, they wanted to soften the otherwise utilitarian Scandinavian design elements by introducing just a bit of irregularity.

They also chose a very light grey grout color to subtly bridge the grey flecks in the onyx stone countertop with the almost white glaze perimeter of the handmade backsplash tile glaze. The clients wanted to make the tile pop without a lot of bling. Basically, they wanted the style to be the bling. This made light grey grout a perfect choice. Light grey grout is simultaneously the clean black dress and simple white tux of understated impeccable style.

The Design Goal

The overall goal was to create “regular irregularity,” balancing Scandinavian rectilinear-ity with some 1970s Austin individuality.

Dressy, but Casually So!

The handmade nature of the tile itself would create a bit of built-in design irregularity. Because each tile would be a little bit differently sized and shaped, there would be just a touch of unevenness in the grout line widths between any particular tiles. There were also slight variations in color shade and other color “imperfections” between each tile, which would add to this irregularity effect.

And finally, every tile was engineered to have a randomly cracked clear top glaze that contrasted really nicely with the very rectilinear lines of the overall subway-style layout. Each tile was truly a little bit unique, and changed character depending on which angle you looked from.

So, the general backsplash design goal was to make it look purposeful but not exactly uniform, logical but not regimented.

Kinda like a mildly scruffy Scandinavian in an otherwise impeccably tailored teal tuxedo.

The Field Pattern

Remember that irregular handmade rectangular tile requires relatively generous grout line widths for an overall even installation. Also, the lippage problems caused by the randomly concave and convex warps in even machine-made rectangular ceramic tiles is always exacerbated by a full offset subway pattern (sometimes called “50 offset” or “50% offset”).

These folks therefore chose a 1/8-in wide grout line width (pretty much the skinniest practically possible), and a relatively complex pseudo-random “1/4 step pattern” for the offsets:

There is no truly random subway pattern, but this one is real close!

It’s not actually possible to make a truly random subway offset pattern using same-size rectangular tile. But this pattern comes real close, since it takes four full rows to repeat. Plus it has a sneakily Texan-appropriate rhythm for 8-in wide tile: TWO inches left, FOUR inches right, TWO inches right, FOUR inches left, and REPEAT!

The Corner Bits

One key challenge for any offset-style rectangular tile backsplash install is planning ahead to prevent unsightly little skinny bits stuffed into corner joints. Ideally, you want inside corners to continue the look of the overall field tile pattern. You want it to look like completely full tiles have been magically squished into each inside seam with perfect foresight.

Don’t guess, plan instead!

This of course takes planning. And the easiest way to clearly plan is to simply lay out literal tiles and mark up the wall with what different starting point options would look like. You’re going to cover the wall with tile anyway, so there’s no harm in using magic marker to make sure that a layout pattern will work.

Mind the Levels!

You also want to be real careful about where the horizontal grout lines will land when dealing with kitchen wall cabinets that are already installed. You don’t want to be stuck with impossible tile cuts around cabinet trim or little tile slivers filling vertical gaps. Assume nothing, and measure everything!

Never trust chance, plan and VERIFY instead!

This especially applies to checking level. In an ideal world, every cabinet and countertop installer will always make their work level to the center of the earth. But in practice, hardly anything in the built reno world is ever perfectly on the level.

For a 12-ft wide countertop like this one, even an out-of-level difference of just 1/16-in per foot from one side to the other would mean almost a full half-tile-width difference in height between the left and right corners of the backsplash.

Realize that you can’t put a completely rectilinear grid on a fundamentally cockeyed surface without some seriously unbalanced results. And, plan accordingly!

The Bottom Line

Properly planning any rectangular tile backsplash layout takes time and care. It’s easy to just slap tile on a wall. What’s hard is making it look good. So just follow these general planning steps for perfect results:

  1. Work with the material limitations (in this case, a minimum 1/8-in grout line width and irregular 1/4 offset pattern was needed to compensate for tile size variations and to prevent noticeable lippage)
  2. Find a single centerpoint starting point that best balances the overall pattern (in this case, centering the overall tile pattern between the sinktop cabinet opening was key for preventing an off-balance optical effect)
  3. Check the resulting corners pattern (ideally, you want to make it look like the field tile pattern is continuous, with full tile widths mushed into both the left and right wall corner turns)
  4. Make sure the countertop and cabinets are level enough (you can cheat a slightly cockeyed situation, but not without planning for it first)

Seriously, you CANNOT skimp on this planning work if you’re wanting a perfect final result. For example, here’s a spoiler alert look ahead to the final result on this job:

As they’d say in Boston, “Pretty wicked fahkin nahwt rando fer irregulah!”

Sometimes you have to make a Sophie’s choice between a centered pattern versus unbalanced tile slivers in the corners, or a full tile height start at the countertop versus less than half tile slices going into the wall cabinet bottoms. Even in those tough cases, planning ahead means you can at least make conscious tradeoff choices rather than just leaving everything up to chance.

Hopefully the layout planning advice here has been useful for thinking about your own potential project. If you’re thinking about taking the next step and doing an actual DIY backsplash install yourself, then this installation explanation post has all the details on how I actually put these tiles on the kitchen walls once the planning was done.