Posted by Ash
This post may contain affiliate links to products we personally use and love.
In our previous home, we hired a contractor to install subway tile backsplash and replace the laminate countertops. Both made a huge difference in the kitchen; however, it was the tile backsplash that pulled the whole kitchen together nicely. Accordingly, we were looking to do something similar in our new kitchen. We had already gel stained the kitchen cabinets, taking them from an old oak to a modern-looking walnut, and the next phrase of our kitchen overhaul was installing tile backsplash. This time around, however, we did not need a contractor because I made sure to watch our previous guy as he was installing the tiles, asking a lot of questions and trying to learn everything I could (Iuckily he was a real sport about it). Therefore, I was confident I could tackle this backsplash project.
Here's a before and after picture of our kitchen. The after picture has the gel stained cabinets and the tile backsplash. Such a big difference, right?
The first step of this project was deciding on a tile. Eileen handled all of this. She wanted to find something that would bring together the granite countertop and chocolate cabinets, something that was modern-looking, and it couldn’t be “too matchy-matchy” (Eileen’s words). It also couldn’t be too busy of a design because the countertops were already very elaborate. After looking up tiles and prices online, Eileen decided Lowe’s had the best selection of tiles for our kitchen, so she went to the store and took pictures of a few of the ones she liked. Then, I superimposed the sample tiles to create virtual showrooms, so we could visualize our kitchen with each of the choice. Eventually we settled on a natural stone tile. It was sold on sheets of 15 tiles each, so we calculated how many sheets we would need based on the approximate surface area of the wall. We made sure to pad this number by at least two, to account for any waste factors.
Here's Eileen holding a sheet of the tiles we chose.
The next decision to make was selecting a grout color. The grout is the filler material that goes in between the tiles. Grout comes in two types - sanded and unsanded. When your tile spacing is less than ⅛”, you need unsanded grout. Our stone tiles used ⅛” spacing so regular sanded grout was needed. Selecting a grout color was actually the hardest part of the whole project because we kept changing our minds. You don't realize it but grout plays a big role in a tiled area, as one grout color can completely change the look of the area. Once again we relied on our virtual showrooms of superimposed tiles to guide us on this decision. We initially went with a dark-colored sanded grout, thinking it would match the cabinets; however, we changed our mind when we started using it because it was way too dark once mixed. We ended up going with a grayish colored grout in the end.
Next, I needed a way to cut the tiles. I remembered from discussions with our contractor friend that there were several ways of accomplishing this task. I could use a hacksaw with a tungsten carbide blade. Although the cheapest solution, it seemed like a lot of work. I could use a manual tile cutter. It scores and breaks the tile for you. That sounded like a simple option. Then, there is a wet tile saw, which is basically a mini-table saw with a water reservoir to keep the blade wet and the tile dust to a minimum. Coincidentally, Home Depot was having a Black Friday sale on wet tile saws, so it was hard to turn down the deal. Admittedly, I would rarely use the saw in the future (how often am I installing tile backsplashes), but it was selling at half price and would greatly expedite progress on this project. Pictured below is the wet tile saw ready for action.
Now, that we had our tile and grout selected (and a brand-new wet tile saw), it was just a matter of getting a mortar mix to bond the tile to the wall. We bought a bag of thinset, which is just a quick drying cement used for tiling. It comes in powder form, and you just have to mix it with the right amount of water. The water/powder ratio is the trick to getting good workable thinset. Too much water and the thinset is too runny and the tiles do not stick well to the wall during the drying period. Too little water and the thinset gets too thick and causes difficulties spreading on the wall. So I started with a few scoops of the powder and added in a very small amount of water. I used a paddle mixer attachment for my drill and a large bucket to stir the solution well. My trick to getting the perfect thinset consistency was to slowly add in more and more water until I was comfortable with the result. Once I got the right thickness, I let the thinset sit for 15 minutes. This wait time (called slaking) was an important step because it gave the thinset ingredients time to activate. After the slaking period, I gave the mix one more stir, and it was ready to use. It was time to start tiling.
Prior to tiling, I removed the small patch of red, pizza-kitchen tiles above the oven (pictured above) with a hammer and chisel. Although they came off fairly easily and quickly, I had to be careful not to cause too much damage to the drywall beneath (the new tiles will need a sturdy and flush surface to adhere to). Then, I prepped the area by removing all the faceplates from any electrical outlets/switches and covered the countertop with plastic. Then using a notched trowel that I purchased specifically for this occasion, I started spreading the thinset onto the drywall. Remembering a tip from my contractor, I worked in small batches. I only put on enough thinset to adhere one sheet of tiles at a time to the wall. To apply the thinset, I scooped some onto a flat (non-notched) side of the trowel and spread it on the wall. Once the thinset was spread evenly over a patch, I switched to the notched side of the trowel and ran it across the thinset, leaving behind evenly spaced grooves. The grooves are important to help the tiles stick to the wall. I placed a sheet of tiles on the wall and pressed each tile into the thinset.
Here is where I made an incorrect assumption about tiling. I thought that because the tiles were already spaced on a sheet, I did not need tile spacers (little plastic wedges that help you keep your tiles evenly spaced). However, once I adhered the sheet to the wall, shortly afterwards some of the tiles started to slide down. Luckily, I had some plastic washers that were ⅛” thick, so I wedged those in between the drooping tiles to maintain the spacing. I ran out later that day to get some actual tile spacers for the rest of the project. I also had an issue of drooping tiles, especially over areas with no countertop (like across the back of the stove). They just kept sliding downwards. To solve this problem, I put temporary finishing nails below some of the tiles on the bottom row to give them a ledge to rest on. However, the tiles above the countertop drooped too, and I could not have the tiles resting directly on the countertop, as I needed to have a ⅛” spacing. Instead of using finishing nails there, I used some paint stirring sticks, which happened to be the right thickness. At the time I thought it was a great idea, but what a big mistake it turned out to be. The next day when the thinset was dry, I tried to remove the stirring sticks, and they would not budge. They were embedded in the dry thinset, just like the tiles above it. I had to use a chisel and a hammer to remove it, and even that did not do a great job. I ended up having to use a special grout removal bit on my Dremel to grind out the wood/mortar mix in the groove between the tile and the countertop. So note for future tiling projects - always use proper plastic spacers rather than improvisation.
Here’s a picture of one area of the wall, just after I applied the tiles to the thinset:
By now, my newly purchased wet tile saw was really starting to pay off. Cutting the tiles was a breeze, and all my cuts were very accurate. Just like a table saw, I set the fence on the tile saw to the right distance, and slowly slid the tiles through the blade to cut them, guided by the fence. There was practically no dust in the air, and it was fairly quiet. I could work in the garage at night and not have to worry about disturbing anyone with the noise.
Here's a picture of me getting ready to cut one of the stones with the tile saw:
Most tiles just required one cut to fit a narrow gap. However, several tiles required two perpendicular cuts, leaving behind an L-shaped tile. These pieces mostly wrapped around an electrical outlet or the corner of a cabinet. To cut these, I just held the tile up to where it was supposed to fit, and penciled in some notches on the surface to remember where to cut it. The only problem I had with the tile saw was where the 2 perpendicular cuts met each other. Since the blade was round, it was a little difficult to get the cut lines to fully intersect without over-cutting slightly on one side of the tile (the side facing down on the saw table). I just dealt with this by making sure the back surface of the tile faced downward when cutting. The over-cut lines would not be visible once the tiles were stuck to the wall. It would have helped to have a tile snipper too. I probably could have eliminated the over-cut problem by getting close enough with the wet tile saw, breaking off the waste part, and then using a tile snipper to clean up the remaining piece. Something to keep in mind for my next tile project, invest in a cheap tile snipper to work alongside the tile saw.
I started on the area off-set by the fridge. It was a small area, and when I was happy with that, I continued along the perimeter of the kitchen. I finished installing the tiles in about 2 hours. I was eager to start grouting, but I had to wait for the mortar to properly set, which meant letting it dry overnight. The next evening, I started the grouting process. I mixed the grout very similar to how I did the thinset. I added the grout powder to the bucket, and slowly added in more and more water (mixing with the paddle) until I got the consistency I liked. Afterwards, I let the mixture rest for 15 minutes to slake.
It was now time to apply the grout. I really just used 3 tools for this process - a grout float, a sponge and a bucket of water. I used the grout float to scoop the grout out of the bucket, and fill in between the tiles. I made sure not to get any grout into the spacing between the tiles and the countertop. That area actually requires caulking. It would technically look fine if grout was packed in there, but there's a good chance that grout would crack after some time. I used a sanded caulk that was the same color as the grout. After the grout was packed into the grooves, I let the grout sit for 15 minutes. The wall will actually look like a big mess at this stage since grout is wiped all over the tiles. After the setting in period, I used a wet sponge to wipe off all the excess grout. I wiped a few tiles at a time, cleaned the sponge in a bucket of water, and repeated. I made sure the sponge was saturated with water, but not enough so that water was dripping down the wall. The wet sponge is what really made the difference. After wiping down the tiles, glimpses of what the final backsplash looked like started to reveal itself. Next, I gave the tiles another sponge cleaning 3 hours later. This time though, the sponge is completely wrung out before each wipe, so its just barely damp when wiping the tiles. Also, its important to perform the wipes in one continuous motion, and not backtrack over already wiped tiles. This last cleaning process is important to help reduce the amount of grout haze the next day when everything is completely dry. The next day, I used a dry towel to dust off the tiles and remove any remaining haze. from the grout.
Here's a close-up of the finished backsplash:
With the grout applied to the tiles, the backsplash was pretty much done. Since the natural stone tiles were porous, I waited a few days after grouting and wiped on a tile sealer to help keep water out and protect the stones from daily kitchen use.
All in all, it took two days to complete the backsplash, and even though I learned a few things the hard way, I successfully installed the tiles. Months later, the backsplash looks the same as the day it first went on, so we have been very pleased.
The next phase of the kitchen overhaul is painting the window trim lighter to match the newly modern feel of the kitchen, installing some pendent lighting, and converting the "desk area" to a cabinet. Check back for these projects, or check out our kitchen cabinet post. Thanks for reading!
Want to see more? Check out our similar projects.
Hi! We're Ash and Eileen, and we are sharing our home project stories with you. From crafty projects to home maintenance to more ambitious DIY endeavors, we hope our stories inspire you to check a few things off your project list! :)