DIY Subway Tile Backsplash – Tips, tricks, and what to avoid!

img_4971There are a million and one tutorials on the web explaining exactly how to install a subway tile backsplash, and each one will tell you how easy it is. This post will not. Instead we will walk you through some of the things we learned during the process, and explain how you can avoid making the same mistakes that we did.

Ahhh subway tile. So beautiful, clean, and classic. Also hella affordable,  coming in at just under $1.50 a square foot: what’s not to love? Well, now that you mention it, I can think of a few things…

For one, it can be a real pain to make level, and laying each tile one by one can easily eat up an entire afternoon. There were more than a few times during this DIY that we wished we had gone with the mesh backed tile sheets. However, given that sheets were easily three times the price and unavailable for the classic size tile, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter. A heart wants what a heart wants, right?

For our backsplash, we used 3in. x 6 in ceramic modular wall tiles in bright white by Daltile. Here’s the link: https://www.homedepot.com/p/Daltile-Restore-Bright-White-3-in-x-6-in-Ceramic-Modular-Wall-Tile-12-5-sq-ft-case-RE1536MODHD1P4/302575146.

The next decision we had to make was how to lay the tile. There are hundreds to choose from, but here are a few of the more common that we considered:

styles

We looooved the herringbone pattern, but thought it would probably be too tricky for our first go at it. Isn’t it pretty though?

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herringbone

(Image credit: HGTV)

We ultimately decided against this pattern because we were worried that it might be too risky given the demographic of our neighbourhood (mostly retired folks). We thought it would be best to stick to something classic. We hate making decisions based on resale, but where this isn’t our forever home, the thought enters our minds with every single renovation.

So then we considered the various ways to do a classic offset. We argued over this for a few days, as Tom really liked the 1/3 step, where as I found it — well — a little overwhelming in a regular 3*6 tile. However, I loved it in the longer 12* 3 tiles:

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Since we were sticking to 3*6 though, we chose not to use this pattern. Instead we went with the classic half step offset tile design:

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For me, it is the most pleasing on the eyes, and allows the tiles to be the star rather than the way we’ve laid them. Plus, it is easy to line up!

Once we had the design down, it was time to choose a grout colour. Easy, right? Not so much. The colour can really change the entire feel of a space, so we had to think long and hard about what we wanted.

Dark grey grout was really nice, and made a big statement, but we were pretty sure it would be very hard to get perfect. Here is an example of what perfect looks like – for the record – taken from Emily Henderson’s blog:

Emily-Henderson_Grout-Colors_Options_White_Gray_Black_Brown_1

Ughhh AMAZING, right?!?! But also impossible for a first time DIY, since the darkness of the grout would really highlight any mistakes.

So then we thought, white!? Clean, easy, and minimalist.

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@ Dougelissa shows the power of white in her clean and crisp kitchen. This honestly would have been amazing too, but we were a little afraid of all of the white on white on white possibly clashing, so finally we decided to compromise with a light grey. It still gave enough of a contrast to make a statement, but was a little easier to work with.

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So here is what we learned along the way:

When removing old tile, don’t worry too much about it. Just use a putty knife and a hammer to tap each one out. You can always fill in any holes when you’re finished. Some people opt to completely replace the cement backing behind the old tiles, but this isn’t necessary unless you’re installing glass tile – which will show any and all imperfections in your back board.

Next, when you’re ready to lay your tiles, make sure to check to see if all of your counters are level with one another. We missed this step and so our tiles had an ever so slight slant to them leading from the right hand cupboards to the left. You would never notice it, but it’s something to be aware of because it can lead to a difference in the gap between the counter and the tiles on one side.

Use a scrap piece of wood for the section behind the stove to give the tiles something to rest on.

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Use high quality spacers with built in levels. They are about twice the price of regular spacers, but they will help ensure that everything is perfectly spaced and leveld. Also, are less likely to fall out or move around when you’re placing tiles. So much easier.

Start at the bottom and work your way up. You only want a very small gap between the counter and the tiles, maybe 1/16 or less, to ensure that you end up with a manageable caulk line. Also, when it’s time to caulk, use coloured caulk to match your grout lines to make everything more uniform.

Start on your smallest section to give yourself some time to catch on to the process of laying tiles. If you horribly fail, at least you will only have to re-do a small section. You won’t fail though – it’s super easy. Better safe than sorry though, right?

Use a pre-mixed grout. We did not, and it was a disaster. We started with the small patch of wall above, and thought that we would be okay to mix the whole bag and move on to the next section with time to spare. It was dry within the 20 minutes we took to do this one little part though, so we had to throw out the bucket and mix up another bag. Our only other bag,  by the way.

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We thought it must have been a fluke that the first bag dried so quickly, but we kept some water on hand to add to the mixture if it started to crumble. And crumble it did. We were barely through half of the next wall when it started to firm up. Panicked, we tried to work as quickly as possible, since it was after 9pm and the stores were all closed. Ah working with two littles in the house… everything is done at nap time or bed time.

By the end of the process, we were shoving the grout into the spaces with such vigour that our hands started to cramp. We didn’t even have time to wipe off the excess, since we were concentrating on just getting the grout into the joints before it was too late. This meant that by the time we were finished, the grout had completely cemented  itself to our tiles. F**asf!!

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So, we pulled out a chisel and abrasive sponge, and it worked better than we would have thought!! We were able to get all of the excess grout off and clean up the grout lines at the same time. Phew, dodged a bullet there. We were sure we had ruined it, but in the end it turned out great –  soo much better than we had anticipated for our first time laying tile.

That was the biggest lesson learned: just buy the premixed. It not only saves time, but takes the ticking clock out of the equation because you don’t have to worry about the grout setting before you’re finished. We used a premixed grout for all of the bathroom tiles, and it was a dream to work with.

While you’re working, make sure to wipe down your tiles within five minutes of placing the grout, or follow the directions on the bag. It helps to have two buckets with a sponge in each one to do your rinsing. The first pass can be with bucket one, which will end up dirtier, and the second with the other. That way you will reduce the risk of just wiping more grout onto your tiles. Also, make sure that you use as little water as possible, as water can weaken your grout and cause cracks/bubbles. After two passes, it should look like this:

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Sponges with scrubbing pads are helpful for removing stubborn grout. And magic erasers can be used 24 hours later to remove any remaining grout haze.
And there you have it – a diyed backsplash! We were so afraid of this task for so long. We wanted to put a backsplash into our first house, but chickened out. I am so glad we were confident enough to give this one a go though, because it really adds so much to the space.
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