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DIY Subway Tile Backsplash Wall

Last weekend we finally got around to tiling the backsplash in the kitchen. As I may have mentioned in one of my earlier posts, instead of just tiling a small strip of the wall, we decided to tile the entire top half of the wall (above the wood paneling) to the ceiling. This is because we don’t have upper cabinets and we thought it would look weird to have wood paneling, tiles, and then just…wall.

We’re really, really happy with how it turned out. As it was our second foray into tiling (the first was the bathroom floor, which is a whole other saga that I will explain in a future post), everything was easier because we knew what to expect.

We were originally planning to use 3″x6″ white glossy subway tiles, but ended up using 2″x4″ ones because that size came on mats, which makes it a whole lot easier. These were the tiles we used. We also decided not to mess around this time, and rented a small tile saw from Home Depot.

Our full supply list was:

  • Subway tiles
  • mortar (gray, latex modified thinset)
  • 1/8″ spacers
  • unsanded grout (gray)
  • trowels
  • small wet tile saw
  • sponges
  • buckets
  • pencil
  • lots of good tunes to listen to

If you’re doing any tiling, I can’t recommend the tile saw enough. It was sooo much easier than score-and-snap tools and gave much better results. Since we had to do some L-shaped cuts, we really didn’t have a choice, the saw was kind of crucial.

Before we began doing any tiling, we needed to find the studs in the wall. This is because we plan to hang some shelving above the counter for a little bit more storage, and naturally those shelves will need to be screwed into the studs. Because of the material the old walls are made of, our cheap studfinder sometimes isn’t reliable. So, we found them the old-fashioned way: by drilling little holes into the walls.

finding wall studs the old fashioned way

Once we had found the studs, we marked their positions with tape on the ceiling and adjoining wall so that when we need to hang the shelves, we won’t have any trouble finding them.

markers for the wall studs

If you’re tiling a backsplash, keep in mind that you might need to set up some type of shim or support for your tiles along the wall – a piece of wood that is there for them to rest on while the mortar hardens. We, luckily, had the lip of the wood paneling that is already on the wall to support our tiles, so we were able to skip this step.

Next, we had to figure out which tiles to cut and how. Luckily, we only needed to cut tiles for the two edges and for around the outlets. We came up with a numbering system of the tile mats, where the mats were numbered left to right, and each outlet had letters corresponding with the tiles that needed to be cut. We wrote the respective numbers and letters on the backs of the tiles in pencil so that we would know how to position them on the wall, and drew lines along the backs of the tiles where they needed to be cut.

cutting tiles for the subway tile backsplash

Then, while Anna was mixing the mortar, I cut the tiles. Did I mention that the wet tile saw was A JOY to use? It is just so satisfying to have something that was so hard before (when we were trying to score and snap) be so easy.

With the mortar mixed and the tiles cut, it was time to lay them. Anna applied the mortar to the wall, scored it, and then I stuck the tiles up and placed the spacers. We had a few last-minute cut modifications that we had to make, but since we had plenty of extra tiles it was no problem.

laying tiles for backsplash laying tiles for backsplash

When we got to the top row, we realized that the very top was juuuust thin enough that a row of tiles wouldn’t fit. I went out to cut the 37 tiles we would need to go across the top of the wall, and the tile saw overheated (my fault). We consulted again and decided to not tile that section, because we planned to install a thick crown moulding anyway and it would just be covered up. Lazy? Probably. But it’ll still end up looking fine!

That night we crossed our fingers that the tiles would stay attached to the wall and went to bed. Come morning, they were still attached! Yay!

tiles applied to subway tile backsplash detail of cut tiles

The next day we put in the grout. We chose a darkish gray unsanded (recommended for backsplashes) grout. Anna scraped it on and I went over it with the sponge afterwards removing the extra. We were left with almost no haze after a final wipe-down because of the glossiness of the tiles. That bodes well for cleaning in the future!

subway tile wall grout application
subway tile wall detail after grouting

So now our kitchen wall is tiled, and the space is starting to actually look like a kitchen! We’re planning to put an edger on the corners of the wall so that the uneven edge of the tiles doesn’t show. In hindsight we probably could have been more careful about that outer edge, but hey, we’re not professionals. We’re still very happy with the outcome.

tiled wall in kitchen


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