White Subway Tile Back Splash Tutorial


Okay now for the fun part, I’ve told you about the grimmy part and the LONG race to, well, nothing part, well I guess that long race ends right here, when we decided to make some last minute changes before the move!

I told you that we couldn’t paint our cabinets under strict instructions from our Realtor (yes, we hired a rental agent to help us get our house rented, I don’t think they have them in every state, but it was worth it to us in our time crunch, I am happy we did it!)

So I had to decide what simple changes we could make to our kitchen, for the biggest impact fastest turn around and keep it super affordable.  I decided that I wanted to use white subway tile on the back splash.  But can I admit something?  I HATE, HATE ,HATE IT when a kitchen has the short 4 inch back splash(counter material) then another material back splash above it.  It is just a personal pet peeve, I wouldn’t judge someone for having that, but I prefer a full back splash   So, if you are doing a back splash, it should be the same material from counter to cabinet  if at all possible.

How to Install a Subway Tile Back splash Tutorial remodelaholic

white subway tile backsplash feature image

Before white subway tile

Here is the starting point (above).  You can see that we have the annoying 4″ back splash(above).  But since our counters are not factory made, the back splash piece and the counter piece are separate, and just caulked in between, and secured with adhesive to the drywall.  I decided to rip them off!

1. Carefully remove the existing back splash I started by taking an exacto knife and scoring all the caulk around the edges of the back splash.  Then with the help of a crowbar (or two), I gently pried off the back splash.  Be careful not to break the drywall when prying it off.

2. Repair damage to drywall.  I patched the wall with joint compound.  Since some of the drywall paper tore off with the back splash this was a necessary step before I could install the tile.  Allow the patch to dry then sand lightly.  Once the wall was dry I also threw on a quick coat of leftover paint to help with the adhesion of the tile setting mats I chose to use instead of mortar (see below).

white subway tile backsplash (1)

3. Fill gaps with caulk Once the small back splash was removed, there were some rather large gaps between the wall and the counter.  To be safe and keep water from traveling behind my cabinets(and creating a mold problem), I filled those all up with a good amount of caulk.

white subway tile backsplash (3) white subway tile backsplash (2)

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***One note about our particular kitchen…. Because of the old bar and the way we built the columns I didn’t want to remove the back splash directly behind our sink.  Since I was using the tile setting sheets instead of mortar this was fine.  So I just cut off the back splash in line with the edge of the column and everything worked out perfectly, but I wouldn’t always do this!!!

4.  Install the Tile Setting Mat Since time was of the essence, I decided to try out a product from Home Depot for installing tile, a tile setting mat (instead of mortar)  This saved a ton of time (not money FYI)!  It helped because I wasn’t in a hurry to get the tile up before the mortar dried.  In fact I hung the mat, and tiled over the next couples days as I had the time and I needed no additional help from my hubby, so he was free to work on other things!

All you need to install the mat is a measuring tape, some scissors  and a grout float (explained below).  Be sure the surface you are adhering the mat to is free from any grease, or dust.  (which I why I cleaned, patched and painted my back splash walls prior to installing.)  Measure and cut your mat to the proper size (save any scraps until you are done with the project  they came in handy for me several times!) Place the mat where you want it, be sure to do this right, it doesn’t move once it is in place!!!   With your grout float, on top of the plastic protective sheet,  press the mat into the wall surface to ensure a good adhesion, smoothing toward the edges.  Do not remove the top plastic sheet until it is time to tile.   I even taped the seams of the separate top sheets together since it took me a day or two to install the tile and we had a lot of construction dust around.

Tile setting mat for installing backsplash

Here I am installing the tile mats in my trashy, nasty home improvement pj’s glory (remember we only had four weeks to finish the house, we were working on the house like 18 hours a day, I wasn’t thinking about glamour shots, or showers) Luckily our niece came and lived with us for those four weeks to help with the kiddos!    But I will admit, even with the help it was hard mentally to be so distanced from my kids.  I can’t believe how little Lydia was!  Cute baby!

white subway tile backsplash (5)

HINT:  In order to avoid really intricate cuts on the tile saw.  I cut the molding from our column off to the thickness of the tile using my Porter cable multi tool.    I took a piece of wood the same thickness of the tile and used it a a fence of sorts for setting the height of my cut, then just cut through the moldings easy as that.   (Best choice ever, after the tile was all said and done, that lines looked nice, clean and professional)

white subway tile backsplash (6) white subway tile backsplash (7)

This is the piece that came off of the crown molding so you have an idea of what you are looking to cut:

You can see how easy the tile slid underneath the newly cut molding.   Even without grout it looks great!
white subway tile backsplash (10)
5. Prep for and begin installing tile  The tile we purchased for this project was a great deal from Home Depot.  The Daltile 2″ x 4″ subway tile 12″ sheets about $2.50 per square foot, and I really like the scale of the tile.
I like to set up my tile saw just outside, near the place I am working, so it is close (but outdoors).  With an extra pitcher of water and few rags and wax pencils.   And because they unavoidably travel I usually have three or so measuring tapes.
After removing  a section of the plastic covering at a time, I began tiling.  I started with a very visible line, the column, which I knew to be both level and a focal point.  I didn’t want to end with a bunch of strange cuts in a prominent place.  Instead I had the seam in the corner.
After I adhered each tile sheet, I pressed it firmly in place with my grout float again running the grout float diagonally long the tile as I pressed them all in place.   I used a LOT of spacers!  And because I was nervous about any movement of the set tile, since I hadn’t used this mat product before, I didn’t remove the spacers until I was grouting!
white subway tile backsplash (8) white subway tile backsplash (9)

When it was getting late (and I didn’t want the neighbors cursing my name for cutting tile at 11:00 at night outside) , I asked for a tiny bit of help to get the last few pieces up!)  So yes, I guess for 3 square feet I had help.  But I did the rest!

white subway tile backsplash (12) white subway tile backsplash (13)
 TIP: I found that when it came to making end cuts on subway tile mats that you can make the cut and use the cut off piece to fill the gap as shown below!!  Save your little scraps until you are done!  They come in handy!
IMG_5787 IMG_5788 (1024x681)

So over the next day I worked my way around the kitchen!  Installing, measuring and cutting tile!   One section down, and few more to go:

white subway tile backsplash (14)

6. Grout! Once all the tile was in place I chose a non-sanded Charcoal colored grout. Read the package instructions at lest twice all the way through before you mix, so you know the timeline.  I always mix in batches, not all at once.  The grout should be the consistency of a creamy peanut butter, not runny, but not crumbly either.  You need to work the grout into the cracks by running the grout float diagonally across the grout lines.  Be sure to work your way across each line several times.   After the time if says on the package use a sponge to remove excess.

Black grout may not be the norm right now, but I had to share a few great inspiration shots that convinced me to go with black grout!  ( and I am mourning the fact that my cabinets couldn’t be white… but I love my tile so lets keep looking at the bright side, right?)

white subway tile with black grout kitchen1

From Elle Decor this great inspiration shot above.white subway tile with black grout kitchen3

This great kitchen featured on Houzz.white subway tile with black grout kitchen6

From HGTV this back splash looks great too (love that Brass light!)white subway tile with black grout

This image above was the one I loved the most, I found it via Pinterest, sorry it wasn’t pinned properly, so i don’t know the true source!

white subway tile backsplash (17)

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TIP: When the grout has set for the time allotted on grout the package, take cheese cloth (IT IS LIKE A LITTLE MIRACLE)  and rub the excess grout right off the tile!  It comes off like a magic eraser (check out the image above, you can see the sponge side and the cheese cloth side!  Do not wait or get to far ahead of your self with grout, you need to follow the packages directions or you will have really ugly grout lines.  You do not want that.

white subway tile backsplash (16)

TIP:  After grouting I found out that a tile in the MIDDLE of my wall was chipped and all of a sudden it was VERY noticeable.  What I heard from a tile contractor is that you can take just a little bit of white nail polish to cover that nick and no one will ever notice!  Ta Da fixed!

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white subway tile backsplash feature image

Okay so the kitchen is getting better, but we have one more little update for ya tomorrow.  See ya there!

Meet the Author: Justin

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  1. says

    I love how it turned out, that’s a biggie for me, not sure I could pull that one off but I’ll probably give a try one day. Won’t know until I try right? Have a good one!

    • says

      Yay! I am so glad you are liking it, I know it is a little underwhelming compared to some kitchen remodels, but it is real life and I love how it turned out!

  2. says

    This, I found quite by accident and it’s so timely for me. That’s when I think it’s a God thing. Anyway, I am getting ready to tile my backsplash with the same exact tile…only with white grout and a black pencil tile piece two rows up from the bottom. I so appreciate the time to took in making this tutorial…that’s why your blog is always so informative and helpful. Thanks so much. Oh, by the way, I have white cabinets and I just painted my walls grey from red. It’s so much more peaceful now. The backsplash will shine like a necklace on a cute outfit!

    • says

      It sounds wonderful! I wish we could have painted these cabinets, but alas, it wasn’t in the card for this house! (maybe when the renters move out, if we decide to sell, we can paint them!)

  3. Michelle says

    Looks fabulous!! The bar you redid is beautiful too. You are very good with the woodworking. :) We tiled our back splash I want to say about 4.5 yrs ago. I love it. We are slowly going back and adding under cabinet lighting as well. DH works for an elec. wholesaler… comes in handy. :)

    • says

      Yes that would be super handy and under cabinet lighting is such a bonus! I would almost say an absolutely necessary thing! YOu will love it when it is all installed!

  4. says

    Wowza – I can’t believe what a big difference the new backspash and cabinet hardware made! You managed to make what isn’t my favorite style of cabinets look like something I would like in my own kitchen. I’m also bookmarking your tiling tips because this is something I hope to tackle in 2013!

    • says

      YAY! Comment of the day here!! I am SO happy to hear that, What you said was exactly my goal! Come back tomorrow, because we will be doing even more to update the cheap cabinets and make them look less builder grade!!!

  5. Jake's a Girl says

    Wow! Wow! Wow!

    Love the tile up the wall and that pass through trim. Best thing ever!
    What a difference.
    I love subway tile. Don’t know why I don’t have any here in the house.

    • says

      I actually explained it in yesterday’s post, but basically the short answer is that wood hides wear better than paint. When paint get’s nicked you see the surface under it is a different color, when wood gets nicked, there is still wood beneath. Hope that makes sense!

  6. Crystal says

    It turned out great. We just put in red subway tiles with black grout as our kitchen backsplash and it turned out awesome.

  7. says

    I love the subway tile and thank you for all the great tips on the install! We are in the midst of designing/renovating our kitchen right now (on paper). Also can you believe brass is back! I’ve been seeing it everywhere! I’m seriously reconsidering keeping the brass in our 1948 kitchen (which had a run with a in bad 1970s update) Also are you going to try being a DIY landlord or hire a property management company? Again thanks for the fabulous post!

  8. says

    Cassity, Just now googling a bunch of tutorials on installing a subway backsplash. Your tutorial popped up near the top and I can see why. Excellent tutorial, thanks so much for spelling everything out. I love the cheesecloth tip, got to grab some of that!

    • says

      Brittany! I CANNOT wait to see your beautiful back splash, you picked the tiles that I have in my dreams!!! Your kitchen is (is going to be even more) fabulous!

  9. Jesse says

    I have a couple of questions on removing the backsplash (because I have one of the icky three/four inch backsplash pieces in my kitchen). My husband says we won’t be able to take it out because he thinks the counter underneath doesn’t extend to the wall. How did you decide how to remove it and how did you decide what removal method you would use? Did you use any glue removing solvent? Did you have to saw the backsplash when you were taking it off? Thanks! I just wanted to pick your brain =)

    • says

      Jesse, I was able to cut the caulking on the wall and the counter and just gently pry it off with a crow bar. I would test it in a spot with the smallest portion of back splash and the least important place. Be very gentle!! That way if you need to replace it you can! if you have a big gap, you could consider putting in a concrete backing and using a regular thin set application (as that will add a bit of bulk to the wall)

  10. Kelly says

    Your tile looks great! You said the color of the grout is charcoal. Is it lighter than black? I can see the contrast between the tile and grout in the photos but it doesn’t look too stark. I’d like to do something similar in my kitchen but I want something softer that a true black. Any advise?

  11. Susan says

    I would love to remove our backsplash but am not sure it’s possible without removing the entire countertop since our backsplash and countertop is all one piece. Is there any way to remove the backsplash without removing the entire countertop? I absolutely love your blog! It is one of the few I read everyday. You are such an accomplished DIYer and the best at including specifics in your tutorials.

    • Cass says

      Hi Susan,
      You can see above how we removed the short backsplash part of our countertop before installing the backsplash — they were actually two separate pieces for us (and are in most laminate countertops like ours). If your countertops and that backsplash piece are one solid piece, you’d definitely need to consult a professional about removing just the backsplash part. Thanks!

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