Installing a Tile Backsplash

Kevin Bracchitta chose a stone mosaic tile for the backsplash in his Tarrytown, New York, renovated kitchen and added glazed ceramic leaves as an accent. Although the design is unusual, tile installer Maciek Salamon says you can use the same tools, materials and techniques for just about any ceramic- or stone-tile installation.

You can apply backsplash tile over a mortar bed, with thinset adhesive on cement backerboard or directly to drywall with a premixed adhesive called mastic. This last approach is not the best idea for shower stalls or tub surrounds where lots of water is splashed on the walls. But it's generally fine for a backsplash in the kitchen as long as you seal the seam between backsplash and counter.

If you are adding a new counter, put it in before the backsplash. That makes for a more watertight installation, and the backsplash hides the gap between the countertop and the wall.

Spread the mastic with a notched trowel. For standard ceramic tile, a trowel with notches 3/16 in. deep is a good choice. The stone mosaic tiles shown here are not perfectly flat, so Salamon also buttered the back of the tile with mastic to make sure there would be no voids. You do not have to butter standard tiles. Press the tiles into the mastic and rotate them slightly to spread the adhesive evenly. Although these tiles are butted tightly together, you typically will use plastic spacers between tiles so that the grout lines are even. In most cases, you will have to cut the top row of tiles to fit.

The counter will support the bottom row of tiles as they are set in place. When Salamon got to the area behind the range, the tile had nothing to rest on as the mastic cured. Usually this isn't a problem for standard ceramic tile—the mastic will keep them in place—but for heavier tile, additional support is a good idea. Here, a few small screws were enough to keep the tiles from sagging until the mastic grabbed. Alternately, a wood batten or length of aluminum angle will also work.

Cutting tile is inevitable. Snap cutters, which score and break ceramic tile along a straight line, are easy to use. For a smoother finish, try a wet saw, which uses water and a diamond blade (rent one from a tile store or home center). Wet saws are messy, but they don't chip brittle tile surfaces. Also, they can be used to make L-shaped and other stopped cuts and, with practice, contoured cuts. A snap cutter can't do that. Home centers and hardware stores also sell round tile-cutting carbide blades that fit in a hacksaw frame. They can be useful for cutting curved profiles in soft-bodied wall tile, or for cutting out receptacle holes in the middle of a field tile.

Apply grout after the mastic has had a day to cure; use sanded grout for gaps of 1/8 in. or more and unsanded grout for narrower gaps. For a more durable job, choose a grout that is fortified with polymers. The one spot where caulk, not grout, should be used is the seam between the countertop and the backsplash. The right material for that is a top-quality silicone caulk. The Tile Council of America suggests a 1/8-in.-wide caulk joint at the seam. Grout, like many types of stone, should be sealed to prevent stains and water infiltration.

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