subway tile
A kitchen sporting a beautiful backsplash is much like dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s – it is a nearly essential finishing touch. If you’re searching for a look that completely “wows” your guests after you’ve finished your kitchen remodel then it’s pretty penultimate to at least start choosing the styles that you’d like to incorporate. Today, we’re going to discuss Subway tile, how to correctly prepare for its installation, and what you can do to make it as appealing as possible.

Measuring the Subway Tile Space

subway tile
I’m pretty sure I’ve stressed this before, but taking precise measurements is a crazy essential part to this entire process. Measure the space you’re working with, and make sure you have an ample amount of material to work with. This should be your beginning. Trust me, you don’t want to get everything setup, prepared, and installed to find out that you’re short four tiles at the very end. There are few things more aggravating than that.
Account for the small spacers you’ll be using on install, as well. Measure from one end to the space to the other. This measurement should give you exactly what you need as far as how many tiles you’ll need AND also where the center of your space is. This is always a good stopping point to take a step back and look at how level your work is.  Tile installation is my father’s expertise, his speciality, his bread-and-butter, if you will. So much that we’ve taken half an hour to an hour mapping everything out before I’ve even setup the tile saw. Yes, it is that important.

Leveling the Subway Tile

Subway tile is usually very light in weight and easy to maneuver. Thus, the leveling process isn’t too difficult to begin with, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to get off somewhere. Now, you don’t want to lay the tile in accordance with your countertop unless it’s as level as possible. To figure this out, simply place a leveling tool horizontally on the countertop and look at the bubble. If you’re my father, that bubble needs to be 100% in the middle or it’s off. He’s a perfectionist, mind you, so I’ll say that if the bubble is within the two middle lines, it’s safe to say that everything will check out, at least to the naked eye.

If it’s not level, stand a tile at the lowest spot of the countertop and place a mark on the wall at the top of the tile. This should be your starting point. Using a level or some sort of straight edge, you can extend this line across your entire workspace and use it while you lay the tile. This is the surest way to make sure you don’t get way off. You can either lay in sections or by rows. Either way, it doesn’t matter, but it’s best to just take a few steps back and check out your work periodically to make sure you’re in line with everything. You can never be TOO careful, right? Also, you can do a dry run? And if you haven’t already guessed it, you’ll simply place the tiles along the wall from your starting point until you reach the end. This is another way to measure how many tiles you’ll need, and acts as the last step before you begin cutting! Don’t forget your spacers!

Tools and Materials

For a job like this, it’s nice to know that you have everything you need. Of course you’ll need the subway tile of your choosing, maybe some decorative tile for a more elaborate design. You’ll need the appropriately sized spacers for the tile that you’ve chosen. When it comes to the adhesive you’ll use to place the tile on the wall, you have a couple of options. You can either go with pre-mixed mastic or powder-based mortar. Now, my father and I strictly used powder-based mortar for ground tile and mastic for vertical installations.
subway tile
This is solely because mastic tends to be a thicker and is therefore easier to operate when working with walls. Doesn’t leave as much of a mess, either. You’ll need a trowel to apply the mortar. Personally, I’d go with a smaller inset for subway tile. Always keep a level close when dealing with tile, always. Then, of course, the wet tile saw to make the precise cuts you’ll need. Although, I’ll say this, usually when dealing with subway tile, cuts are rare and far between. It’s always good to have a warm bucket of water nearby with a sponge in case things to get messy. No one likes an overly sloppy working space, you know what I mean? And then, honestly, that should about cover it! You’re ready to install!

Installing Subway Tile

You’ve got everything ready and set to go, and now it’s time to get started! Begin by applying a smooth, buttery coat of your choice adhesive. A nice layer will do, you don’t want a lot of excess. Lay your tiles on it accordingly, pressing it flat against the wall, and holding it for a second. And then so on and so forth. I personally recommend taking it in sections, covering the entire wall, and then afterwards, using the level to make sure you’re on track. Take a few steps back and eye it closely to make sure that your lines are straight.
Once you’ve completed this process, you SHOULD wait 24 hours before touching it all. The time will solidify tile placement. Come in the next day, clean the grout lines with a razor blade to rid yourself of the excess mortar. Then it’s time to grout! With this type of tile, it’s usually best to go with unsanded grout. Now, grout can dry quickly, so be careful. Apply it generously to make sure you fill each and every line properly. Wait a couple of days after this step, usually around 48 hours, and then you’re ready to seal in your tile. This can be done with a sponge, or by hand. Either way, make sure to cover the entire surface, the tile and the grout lines. Wait another 24 hours, and there you have it, your beautiful backsplash.
Honestly, the hardest parts about this project are making sure your measurements are precise…and then not wanting to jump the gun during the waiting times. It’s crucial that you give the tile, grout, and sealer the appropriate amount of time to set itself before moving onto the next step. In any case, I hope this will help you during your kitchen remodel, and you’ve gained a little bit of knowledge of subway tile and its installation.

Builders Surplus is a full service renovation company with locations in Louisville, Kentucky, and Newport, Kentucky, which also serves Cincinnati, Ohio. We specialize in interior design, kitchen design, bathroom remodel, building materials, and home improvement. Interior Design and measurements come as a free service to our clients. We sell building materials ranging in every price point, from unfinished kitchen cabinets to top of the line Wellborn cabinets. In addition to interior design, we also offer installation services. If you have any questions or would like to set up a free design consultation with one of our interior designers, we would encourage you to do so. We love sharing our knowledge with clients & potential home renovators. We write about interior design, home decor, decorating ideas, and home improvement. We hope you’ll check back in for our next article! Happy Renovation!
Written By: Chris Chamberlain