How to Install a Ceramic Tile Backsplash

Written by 


Installing a ceramic tile backsplash is a great do-it-yourself project and a nice introduction to working with tile. Join our host, Jeff Wilson, as he talks about choosing tile for a backsplash and what tools and supplies you’ll need for the job and then demonstrates how to get the job done right.

How to Set the Tile for a Ceramic Tile Backsplash

Planning and Setup

For this project, we chose the sleek staple of ceramic wall tile, the white subway tile, to give the project a clean, retro look. The 3” x 6” subway tile is a porcelain tile with a smooth finish that is ideal for kitchen backsplashes. One feature of the tile is a built-in spacer system that leaves a slender 1/8” space between the tiles for the grout joint.

Measure the area you want to cover and determine the total surface area for your project. You will want to order about 10% more than the area to cover so you have enough pieces for any cuts and accidental breakages. Also be sure to calculate for any trim tile at borders, accents, and edges to ensure you get all the types of tile you need. Our subway tile has companion bullnose pieces with a rounded edge that we’ll use for a nice finish at the exposed edges.

Consider the wall surface to which you’ll be attaching the tile as well. For typical application over standard drywall, such as in our kitchen project, a pre-mixed acrylic mastic can be used. The mastic is non-cementitious adhesive, similar to glue that works best for small wall tiles in a dry location. For larger tiles, wet locations, and heavily trafficked areas like floors, the Portland cement-based thinset mortars should be used.

The final material decision you’ll need to make is the selection of grout. Grout is used to fill the voids between the tiles and is available in different types and many colors. The two main types of grout are sanded and un-sanded. Our project calls for un-sanded grout due to the tight 1/8” joints and the glossy, scratchable surface of the subway tile. We have selected white grout to match and blend with the white tile.

Necessary Tools and Materials

  • Paper (to protect our countertop surfaces)
  • Painter’s tape
  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Scraper
  • Trowel (with a 1/4" tooth)
  • Mastic
  • Wall tile including trim
  • Bucket for water
  • Tile cutter
  • Wet tile saw

How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile

First, you want to protect any countertops, surfaces, and fixtures with a drop cloth or paper and tape. It’s always a good idea to properly protect your workspace; also, it makes clean up much easier.

Next, scrape down any rough or high spots on the wall. The wall surface doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth, but you want to remove any high spots to prevent wobbly tiles.

The next step is layout, which In our case is fairly simple. The white subway tile will be installed in a running bond pattern (like the staggered joints on brick). We will start on the ends and work toward the corner and lay the tile up from the countertop. This way our cuts are hidden in the corners and under the bottom edge of the cabinets.

Installation begins with the application of the mastic to the wall surface.

  • Use the trowel with 1/4” teeth to evenly spread a bed of mastic.
  • Work in small areas (approx. 10 sq. ft. at a time) to allow for time to set the tiles before the mastic dries.
  • Put enough mastic on the wall for about 85% coverage to hold the tile to the wall.
  • Do not spread the mastic on too thick or it will fill the grout lines.

Start by installing the tiles on the bottom row.

  • Use 1/4" spacers to hold the tile off the countertop for a good caulking joint. This will allow for expansion and contraction of the countertop against the tile that is adhered to the wall.
  • In setting the tile, press each piece firmly into the mastic, twisting the tile slightly to get the best coverage with the mastic.
  • Because our tile has built-in spacers, we butt them tight to each other to get an 1/8” gap between each tile.
  • Remove any excess mastic from the joints so you’ll have room for grout.
  • Where the mastic is hard to properly apply on the wall -- at corners and edges and around outlets and fixtures -- use the trowel, or your fingers, to evenly spread mastic on the back of the tile.

Cutting Ceramic Tile

To start the second row, we need a half tile. A tile cutter works well for quick, straight-line cuts. You simply, mark the tile, score it, and push down to snap it cleanly. A little sandpaper works to soften the sharp edges, if necessary.

For more complicated cuts and notches, such as around outlets and window sills, use a wet saw. A wet saw has a water-cooled, diamond-tipped blade, and you can rent one for your project at most home improvement stores. With the tile marked for your cut, slide the tile or rip guide slowly toward the blade. Let the saw do the work and do not force the tile. Wear safety glasses and ear protection at a minimum and keep fingers and hands away from the spinning blade.

Finishing Touches

Most tile backsplashes will require some sort of transition to a different wall finish surface. Many choices are available for this transition; we are using bullnose tiles along the open edges. With a rounded edge, these pieces make for a smoother transition to the wall surface. For the bullnose corner, cut two bullnose tiles with a 45-degree angle.

Once the tile is set, it is a good idea to double-check the joints to be sure they are clean enough for the grouting process. Typically, letting the tile set overnight gives the tile enough time to achieve proper adhesion to the wall.

How to Grout a Ceramic Tile Backsplash

Necessary Tools and Materials

  • Paper (to protect our countertop)
  • Painter’s tape
  • Grout mix (unsanded for wall tile)
  • Grout float Sponge (heavy duty)
  • Bucket for water
  • Grout scrubber
  • Caulking (to match grout color)
  • Caulking gun
  • Damp rag

Prepping for Grout

Once the wall tiles have been set and allowed to dry overnight to achieve the proper adhesion to the wall, the tile is ready to be grouted. The grouting process fills the joints between the tiles to prevent dirt and dust from collecting in the gaps and moisture from penetrating beneath the tile and deteriorating the adhesion to the wall.

Grout is available in two main types, unsanded and sanded, both of which are available in a broad range of colors. Unsanded grout is a mixture of fine granular Portland cement and is more suitable for tighter joints, less than 1/8”, and for use with polished or glazed tile that is susceptible to scratching. With sanded grout, the sand in the mixture acts to reinforce and increase the strength of the grout, making it more suitable for larger joints, typically more than 1/8”.

Grout color can be chosen to complement or contrast with the tile. Pigment added to the Portland cement mixture results in a wide variety of standard colors and even the ability to customize colors. For our project, we are using white unsanded grout in the tight joints to match the white subway tile.


Mixing the Grout

Grout typically comes in a powdered form and needs to be mixed with water for proper use.

  • Start by pouring enough grout for your project, or as much as can be used before hardening, into a bucket.
  • Stir the powdered mixture to ensure that all of the dry components are properly mixed before adding water.
  • Add water at the rate specified in the manufacturer’s instructions, typically about 5 or 6 ounces for every pound of dry material.
  • Begin mixing with a sturdy mixing stick or low-speed mixer attached to a drill.
  • Add small amounts of grout or water as necessary and be sure to break up any lumps.
  • Stir the mixture for 3 to 5 minutes or until you achieve a homogeneous consistency, similar to peanut butter.
  • Next, it is important to let the mixture sit, or “slake” for about 10 minutes. The slaking process is a chemical reaction that fully hydrates the Portland cement and creates a strong bond between all of the components of the mixture.
  • After about 10 minutes, gently stir the mixture. Now it is ready to be applied.

Applying the Grout

Application of the grout is a pretty simple process. While the goal is to completely fill the gaps between the tiles, grout should be applied over the entire surface.

  • Before applying the grout, check the unfilled joints for excess mastic. Use a small screwdriver, putty knife, or nail to loosen and scrape out any overfilled joints.
  • Begin by using the grout float to grab a little bit of grout mixture from the bucket.
  • With some pressure, smear the grout over the tiles into the void spaces.
  • Work in all directions to make sure that the grout completely fills all the gaps and cracks. The smooth surface of the grout float not only forces the grout into the gaps but also allows you to wipe excess grout toward unfinished areas.
  • Continue with fresh grout from the bucket as necessary.
  • Do not grout joints along countertops or against cabinets and trim. These joints should be caulked at the end of the project.

Cleaning the Tile

It’s important to note that cleaning the grout off the tile is maybe the most important step in the process. If the grout dries onto the tile surface, it is almost impossible to completely remove. And it can result in having to remove and install new tile. If you are working by yourself, work in small sections; go back to clean off the excess grout every 10 or 15 minutes.

  • With a damp sponge and a bucket of clean water, work your way over the grouted tiles with the sponge to remove any excess grout from the tile surface.
  • Make sure the sponge isn’t too wet: if water is leaking out of your sponge as you work, it’s too wet.
  • Use the sponge to smooth out any imperfections in the grout lines, and take care not to remove grout from the joints as you work.
  • You will need to wipe down the tiles a couple of times to remove all of the excess grout.
  • Change the water often, since the dirty water will leave behind a grout “haze” on the tile.
  • After the grout has set up about an hour, return with a clean grout scrubber to buff away any remaining grout haze.

Finishing Touches

To complete the tile backsplash, use silicone caulking rather than the grout for the joints along the countertop or against any cabinets or trim. This allows for minor expansion and contraction of dissimilar materials and surfaces and minimizes the chances of the grout joints cracking. To apply, spread a consistent bead of caulking into the clean joint and smooth with your finger or a damp rag.

Some tile projects require that the grout joints be sealed or waterproofed. Because the grout is a Portland cement-based mixture, it can be susceptible to water absorption. For larger joints, especially in tiled floors, and in areas where water often washes the tile surface, like showers and bathrooms, waterproofing the grout joints will greatly increase the life of the tile assembly. Because our project is a kitchen backsplash with very small grout joints, we have elected to bypass this step.

Ryan Carpico

Ryan is a Registered Architect who earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Kentucky in 1998. His experience in a broad spectrum of architectural projects includes design and project management in multi-family residential, general commercial, and institutional projects. This architectural experience is balanced with a background in general contracting of residential and light commercial construction projects. Ryan’s knowledge and ability as both architect and builder enable him to address both the technical and practical sides of the comprehensive body of construction knowledge.

blog comments powered by Disqus