How to Tile a Backsplash Like a Pro

taping subway tile for placement
Photo: Carson Downing

Give your kitchen a new look in just one weekend with a do-it-yourself tile backsplash. With our easy step-by-step instructions, you'll learn how to tile a backsplash using affordable sheets of ceramic or porcelain tile.

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DIY Tile Backsplash

kitchen blue cabinets and white subway tile
Stacy Goldberg

Installing a DIY backsplash is more than just a way to amp up your kitchen's style. If you've ever lifted your mixer out of a bowl of batter just a tad early, you know that an easy-to-clean backsplash makes practical sense, too. Plus, it's a quick home improvement project. The beauty and utility of a new tile backsplash can be yours in a single weekend with our step-by-step guide. We'll show you how to cut, install, and grout ceramic tiles for a fresh kitchen finish.

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What You Need to Tile a Backsplash

classic running bond pattern
Adam Albright

Before you begin installing a tile backsplash, gather the following tools and supplies:

  • Sander (optional)
  • Sponge
  • Bucket
  • Rags
  • Putty knife (optional)
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
  • Tile
  • Painters tape
  • Utility knife
  • Pencil
  • Schluter strip (optional)
  • Thin-set mortar
  • Drop cloth
  • Notched trowel
  • Spacers
  • Level
  • Tape measure
  • Screwdriver or drill
  • Electrical box extender
  • Wet saw or tile cutter
  • Grout float
  • Non-sanded grout
  • Stirrer
  • Grout sealer
  • Caulk and caulk gun
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Step 1: Clean Walls

scrubbing wall with orange sponge
Jason Donnelly

Start by turning off the power to the kitchen and removing any switchplates or outlet covers. Tile can be applied to drywall, but remove any wallpaper or loose paint. Sand the wall of any imperfections and wipe away dust for good adhesion. Use trisodium phosphate (TSP) to remove any tough grease stains or residue. Finish by wiping walls clean with a damp rag and letting them dry thoroughly before tiling your backsplash.

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Step 2: Plan Tile Layout

taping subway tile for placement
Carson Downing

With the wall clean, tape your tile sheets in place to check your layout. Cut the ceramic tile sheets as needed using a utility knife, cutting the mesh from behind. Work out how you will handle any gap between the tile and the bottom of the wall cabinets. Aim for a gap as close as possible to a half tile. You can start your tiles without a grout line along the countertop or leave a grout line to help close the gap above. Tape sheets in place all the way to the corner, again trying to achieve a gap no larger than a half tile. Mark the location of the sheets with a pencil as you remove them.

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Optional: Install Schluter Strip to Create Tile Edge

aligning edge of backsplash with cabinet
Carson Downing

If you plan to end the backsplash with a Schluter strip, measure, cut, and install the strip before tiling and incorporate it into your layout. Simply add the strip where you'd like your backsplash to stop with thin-set mortar. You can also choose to end your backsplash with bullnose tiles, which provide a rounded edge treatment. Bullnose tiles are installed once you've reached the end of your backsplash, not at the beginning.

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Step 3: Apply Thin-Set

spreading mortar with tile trowel
Carson Downing

Tape a drop cloth to your countertop to protect the surface. Ladle thin-set mortar onto the wall, and carefully work it with a notched trowel to make smooth, even ridges. Check manufacturer's specifications for recommended trowel notch size (1/8 inch is common).

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Step 4: Install Tile Backsplash

placing subway tile onto mortar
Carson Downing

Install the whole tile sheets first, lining them up with your reference marks (you'll be able to just see them through the thin-set mortar). Keep the joints between the sheets consistent using tile spacers. Once it's applied, pull the sheet back to check for voids. Apply more thin-set mortar as needed.

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Step 5: Install Tile Around Switches and Receptacles

placing electrical box in tile
Carson Downing

You'll likely run into at least one outlet or switch while installing a tile backsplash. To tile around receptacles, make sure the power is switched off at the breaker panel, then unfasten the two screws holding the switch or receptacle, and gently pull it away from the wall. When tiling and grouting are complete, add a box extender. Because of the extra thickness of the tile, you might need longer screws.

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Step 6: Continue Adding Tile Spacers

detail of spacers between tiles
Carson Downing

Use spacers throughout your backsplash installation so your tile is aligned along the length and width of the wall. Without spacers, your tile will likely be crooked. Also keep in mind that your walls might not be completely square. To account for this, you might have to cut some tiles to fit or compensate with a larger grout line beneath the upper cabinets.

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Step 7: Install Last Row of Tile

tiled backsplash with spacers
Carson Downing

Once you've reached the Schluter strip, cut tiles to fit the end row with a wet saw or tile cutter. As necessary, smooth any uneven edges with a rubbing stone.

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Step 8: Set Tiles

pressing tile with grout float
Carson Downing

When all the tiles are in place, firmly press them onto the wall with your fingers or a clean grout float. Check that all the tiles are set evenly. Wipe off any excess thin-set mortar.

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Step 9: Apply Tile Grout

spreading grout between tile
Carson Downing

Allow the thin-set mortar to set (usually 12 hours), then mix the grout. Work the grout into all the joints by moving the grout float across the tiles vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. Fill all voids between the tiles with grout. There should be no holes, gaps, or air bubbles.

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Step 10: Wipe Clean with Sponge

washing tile and grout with sponge
Carson Downing

After you've finishing grouting your tile backsplash, wipe repeatedly with a damp (not wet) sponge to clean the excess grout off the tile.

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Step 11: Wipe with Dry Towel

wiping tile and grout with rag
Carson Downing

Once the grout has dried according to the manufacturer's instructions, use a clean, dry cloth to remove any haze on the tiles.

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Step 12: Seal Tile Grout

applying sealer to grout
Carson Downing

grout sealerFor easy maintenance down the road, apply grout sealer. It will reduce the likelihood of staining. Caulk where the backsplash meets the upper cabinets to complete your tile backsplash installation.

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