DIY-ing a kitchen backsplash is easy—here’s how to do it
Patience plus grout gets you halfway to success
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Backsplash tile is a critical component to any kitchen. Not only does it complete your design by tying your countertops and cabinets together, a kitchen backsplash provides an easy-to-clean surface to protect your wall from splatters, steam, and stains.
If your current kitchen backsplash isn’t cutting it—or worse, you don’t have one at all—you’re in luck. Installing a tile backsplash is one of the easiest DIY projects you can take on. With a little knowhow and a lot of patience, any homeowner can tile their own kitchen backsplash.
Here’s everything you need to know, including what kind of tile is best, what tools you need, how to complete the job, and where to find great backsplash ideas that will give your kitchen a timeless look.
1. How to prep your wall to install a tile backsplash
No matter what design you wind up picking (more on that in a bit), you’ll be sticking your tiles to your walls. Unlike drywall or other materials that are fastened to the wall, tiles will stick to your wall with adhesive and hang there. So, you need a surface that the tile can stick to and support the extra weight.
For a normal-sized backsplash with standard porcelain or ceramic tiles, you can likely get away with standard sheetrock or drywall. If you’re using a heavier stone tile, you’ll want something like cement backerboard. Drywall is much easier to cut with basic tools, so if removing the existing tile means removing sections of the wall with it, you can replace it with basic drywall and be fine.
While there are plenty of DIY videos about tiling over existing tile, we do not recommend it. You don’t know if the wall can support that much weight, and tile is so easy to remove that you’re not really saving yourself much hassle.
In most cases, pulling your existing tile off isn’t that hard. Just use a small prybar and tap it with a hammer to pull the tile away from the wall.
You can then use a scraper to get as much of the previous tile adhesive off the wall as possible. It doesn’t need to be fully smooth, but anything that comes off easily should be scraped off. If you just have a painted wall, you should sand it down so the adhesive can fully stick to the wall when you begin tiling.
Lastly, turn off the power to any outlets, switches, or appliances near the area where you will be tiling. You’ll also have to remove the face plates for the outlets, and you may want to wrap the connections with electrical tape. Since multiple steps involve water or a moist material, any live electrical connections are a bad idea.
2. Gather the tile tools and materials you’ll need for installing the tile backsplash
Tiling requires quite a few tools that are specifically meant for working with tile. These include measuring tape, levels, tile cutters, trowels, and more.
There are also three basic materials you’ll need for your tile install: adhesive, grout, and the tile itself. If you choose a porous stone tile, you’ll also need a sealer but we’re not covering that here.
To keep things simple I’ll assume you’re going with a standard ceramic subway tile, since it’s so common, timeless, and easy for beginners to work with.
3. Design your pattern
Now that you have all your tools and your wall is prepped, the rest is a breeze. Begin by laying your tile out on the counter so you can start to see how the pattern will come together and where you want to begin.
Depending on your design and the height of your wall, you may need to make “ripped” cuts all along the edge (or buy specific border tiles that curve into the wall).
For example, if you have 32 inches of height to cover and your tiles are three inches tall, you’ll need one row to be cut down to 2 inches. If the tile will finish into the ceiling, and cabinets, you can just leave these cuts for the top row since the ceiling or cabinets will hide the roughness of their edges.
If you have some open areas where the tile won’t finish into anything, then you may want to have your cut row at the bottom. Turn the tiles so the cut part is facing down and leave spacers at the bottom. You can caulk this edge between your tile and counter and hide the slight roughness from your cuts.
You’ll also want to offset your pattern. There are tons of patterns to consider, but the simplest is to just have every other row start with a half tile, cut straight. This will keep your grout lines from lining up, and it will make the tile stronger, while also looking good and helping hide imperfections.
I recommend cutting these before you begin, just count how many rows high your design is and cut half as many (so for 12 rows high, have 6 half-tiles ready to go). Save your scraps, they may fit perfectly on the other side of the pattern.
4. Stick your tile to the wall
Once you begin, just use the square level to make sure your first tile is in the right place. For larger, open areas, I recommend working about 5 to 6 square feet at a time. Apply a layer of adhesive, scrape the notched part of the trowel along the wall so there’s not too much adhesive, and stick your tile in. The adhesive should be like a thick, sticky frosting so you can put the tile in and move it around slightly so it’s level.
Then, move on to the next tile, popping the spacers between each tile. The tiles should be positioned just slightly apart so that the spacers need to be pushed into place. This will ensure there’s enough pressure to hold the spacers there and that your tiles are evenly spaced.
On longer sides you’ll need at least two spacers, but they’re cheap so I recommend using at least two on every side to ensure your tiles remain level.
The adhesive will dry out if you leave it out for a few hours. You can always add a few drops of water if it’s not as workable as it was, but make sure you only put adhesive on the wall when you’re ready to cover it with tile.
5. Cutting around obstacles
The large “field” areas of your wall are the simplest places to lay tile. But, inevitably, you’ll run into areas where you need to cut around things.
We’ve already covered the basic cuts to give yourself an offset pattern. These straight cuts are the easiest to do with a basic, cheap tile cutter. Your tile should snap neatly along these straight lines.
If you’re lucky, most of your obstacles will only require these straight cuts. The challenge is when you need to nip off a corner, or cut around an outlet, especially if you have a tile that will extend past an outlet that requires a section taken out of it.
For simple corner cuts, the tile nipper can do the trick. Just work slowly and take small chunks off at a time. You may need to attempt the same cut multiple times to get it just right, and it’s best to make it a bit too tight and sand it down with a sanding stone than to be too aggressive.
For more complicated cuts that require a saw, you can break up your pattern with a series of smaller cuts, or you can use a saw or angle grinder to take out small vertical slices of the area you want to cut.
Once you’ve got these small cuts in, the nipper can remove the remainder and you can sand it smooth. This is trickier than it sounds, as angle grinders and rotary tools are meant to be used freehand (so, you’ll need to be extra careful and clamp your tile to a surface so it doesn’t move).
Wet saws are bulky and expensive (though you can rent one), and equally dangerous. If you aren’t confident in these cuts, see if you can get it cut at a hardware store or simply opt to break your pattern up slightly with smaller vertical cuts.
6. Backbutter tiles in tough spaces
One technique you’ll definitely want to know is how to backbutter a tile. This is just putting the adhesive on the back of the tile like butter on a piece of bread, rather than onto the wall directly. It’s simple, especially if you have a smaller margin trowel.
With the notched part of your trowel, apply a small amount of adhesive covering the central 75% or so of the tile and pop it into place. It should hold firm, and you can work spacers around it.
This technique is especially useful for beginners, because you can work one tile at a time in tough areas, or you can handle your larger areas first before coming back to fill in the tougher spots.
You can also backbutter to fix issues where a tile may have slid out of place or wasn’t level to begin with. Use your pry bar to pop off the errant tile, scrape off the dried adhesive, and put it back the right way with a fresh layer.
7. Fix any outstanding issues
Before moving on to grout, now is the time to fix any issues. Check that your tiles are level, evenly spaced, and look good without any scratches, chips, or scrapes you may have missed while installing them.
It’s simple enough without grout in place to pop out just a single tile without damaging anything else, so now is the best time to find and fix issues.
You also have a bit of time, since you will want your tile adhesive to cure for about 24 hours before you begin grouting, since that will trap moisture against the wall and could weaken the tile bond.
8. Begin grouting and sponge down
Grouting is a super simple step that just involves throwing some grout on your float, working it into the spaces, and dragging the float around in different directions until it evens itself around. First, you’ll want to remove all the plastic spacers from the wall, which should no longer be necessary since the adhesive is dry.
Follow the directions on your grout container to figure out the best way to apply it, but most will tell you to spread it out at a 90 degree angle before going back over it at 45 degrees.
As you did when laying the tile, you’ll want to work in smaller 5-6 square foot sections at a time when grouting. As a final reminder, if you’re using a porous stone tile, you need to seal it before grouting or you’ll ruin it. For standard porcelain or ceramic glazed tile, you’re good to go.
You can mostly eyeball your work as you go. Make sure that you’re fully filling the spaces between the tiles, working the grout all the way in. It’s fine if there’s a little too much caked on certain lines or it gets stuck to the tile, we’re about to fix that.
Once your grout lines are filled in evenly, and you’ve spread everything out with the float, it’s sponge time. Just grab the utility sponge, apply a small amount of water (think maybe a tablespoon at a time), and work the sponge over the grout. You just want enough to give the sponge the ability to free the grout on the top of the tile and work it into the spaces.
You don’t need to get all the grout off at once, and there will definitely be a “haze” to your tile from the grout residue that you’ll need to clean once it’s fully cured. Your grout instructions should tell you how long you need to wait before cleaning the backsplash area.
9. Clean up and put it all back together again
Once finished, it’s time to clean up your mess. You should have a bucket of water to clean your hands and tools. Do not wash grout or tile adhesive into your sink—it can cause a nasty clog.
With your tile backsplash fully installed, grouted, and cleaned it’s time to put your outlet face plates back on and turn on the power. For the face plates, you may need to buy “jumbo” or “oversized” covers that help to cover any rough cuts or spaces.
If you added tile to a flat wall, then you may also need to get an extension for your outlet/switch junction boxes. These are just plastic additions that help extend the boxes that house your switches and outlets so that the front of them is even with the surface of the tile.
Once everything is all installed, you’re ready to wrap up. Clean off your work area, caulk the remaining edges with a waterproof caulk so water doesn’t seep in behind your tile, and you are done!
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