Maybe the previous homeowners loved the garish pink tiles covering every inch of the bathroom. But if you don't, that's OK. Replacing old tile with timeless subway tile is easy to do yourself. There's no need to call a professional—our detailed steps will guide you through the entire process.
Before you begin, remove the old tiles and smooth out the walls. You'll want a flat surface to lay your tiles on. Also make sure you're comfortable completing the skills needed for this project, such as cutting tile, grouting, and caulking. You can expect to spend a weekend installing the tile, but total times will vary based on the size of your bathroom.
What You Need
- All-purpose cleaner
- Painters tape
- Premixed thinset mortar
- V-notch trowel
- Subway tiles (we used Daltile Finesse tiles in Bright White)
- Wet tile saw
- 1/16 tile spacers
- Microfiber cloth
- Grout (we used Delorean Gray Simple Premium)
- Rubber float
- Large sponges
- Large bucket
- Bright white tile caulk
- Caulking gun
Step 1: Prep the Walls
Make sure your walls are smooth and flat. If you have any holes, patch them and smooth out with sandpaper. You don't want anything protruding, or else the subway tiles will look rocky. Clean walls with all-purpose cleaner, and unscrew all the outlet and switch covers. Mark the outer boundaries of the tile installation area with painters tape.
Step 2: Attach Tile
Apply mortar to the wall using the V-notch trowel, then stick the tile on the mortar bed by pressing it in. Scoop up some mortar with the flat side of the trowel, then spread the mortar evenly on the wall with the notched side. Comb the mortar to form parallel lines. Apply mortar in small sections. If there are spots the trowel won't fit, apply an even layer of mortar directly on the back of the tile. Use the wet tile saw to cut tiles as needed. When cutting, make sure you take into account room for the spacers.
Editor's Tip: Standard subway tiles are 3x6 inches. In other words, the short side is half the length of the long side. This is helpful because you can use the short side as a ruler to mark the halfway point of the long side. This is a time-saver if you're laying your tile in a brick pattern like we did and have to cut a lot of tiles in half.
Step 3: Insert Spacers
Make sure everything is parallel by placing two spacers per tile side. Wiggle the tile to make sure the spacers fit snuggly.
Step 4: Let Dry
Dry overnight. Clean up any unwanted mortar that got onto surrounding surfaces.
Step 5: Remove Spacers
Take out the spacers and wipe down the tiles to make sure there is no dust on the surface. We used a microfiber cloth and some all-purpose cleaner.
Step 6: Apply Grout
Scoop up some premixed grout with the rubber float. Then sweep the grout over the tile at a 45-degree angle. This will get the grout into the spaces. Go over the same area in different directions to make sure the grout is packed evenly.
Step 7: Clean Tiles
Clean the tiles with a sponge about an hour after applying the grout. Fill a bucket with warm water, and go back and forth between cleaning the grout and rinsing the sponge.
Editor's Tip: Don't worry if you can't remove all of the excess grout in one go. You may need to go over the same area several times to remove all the haze.
Step 8: Apply Caulk
Caulk where the tile meets the countertop and under any cabinets. Tape off any areas where you don't want caulk, apply the caulk, then go over it with your fingers or applicator tool. Remove tape before caulk fully dries.
Bonus: Popular Subway Tile Patterns
Classic Running Bond
We chose to install our subway tile in the classic running bond pattern. It's reminiscent of traditionally laid brick and works well in kitchens and bathrooms alike. To get the look, lay a row of tiles, then offset the next row so the tile joints are centered on the neighboring tiles.
Vertical Running Bond
Add extra height and drama to a space by installing tiles vertically. Get the look by placing one row of tile end-to-end up the wall. Then lay the next row so the top of the first tile reaches the midway point on the adjoining tile. Alternate tile placement of each row as you move across the space.
Horizontal Stacked Bond
Tile patterns don't get much easier than this. Evenly stack rows of the same-size tile across the length of your wall. It's an orderly look that's perfect for transitional and modern designs. With a super symmetrical pattern like this, you'll notice any imperfections in your tile spacing and wall texture.
Vertical Stacked Bond
Are you sensing a theme? Many tile patterns work both horizontally and vertically, and the stacked bond is no different. Just like it's horizontal counterpart, the vertical stacked bond is super simple to install. Just align same-size tiles in vertical rows across the wall.
Double Basket Weave
In this classic pattern, tiles are paired together to form a square, then placed next to other squares. The trick is to alternate horizontal and vertical squares. The end result is similar to the weave on a basket—hence the name.
Stacked Running Bond
If you're using multiple colors of subway tile, this is the perfect pattern to emphasize it. Rows of horizontally set tiles are offset by a vertical line. This pattern creates a striped effect and often makes a space appear taller.
Another classic, the 90-degree herringbone pattern sets tiles perpendicular to one another. The design is relatively simple but can add movement to an otherwise stoic space. Install tiles at 90-degree angles so their joints offset and hit the centers of neighboring tiles.
This angled pattern is reminiscent of the scales on the fish it was named after. Peaks and valleys in the design help to draw eyes up and around a room while maintaining a sleek, uniform look. Create a herringbone pattern by setting tiles at 45-degree angles so their joints offset and hit the centers of neighboring tiles.