Installing a Tile Backsplash
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How to Install a Tile Backsplash

A step-by-step guide to transforming a blank space into a ceramic focal point

Enter any attractive, well-designed kitchen and your attention - not surprisingly -will likely be drawn to the finely crafted wood cabinetry or gleaming appliances. You'll probably not even notice the kitchen's backsplash area, that innocuous sliver of wall running between the countertop and upper wall cabinets.

To help convert this boring wall space to an attention-grabber, we asked Jimmy Tiganella, owner of Classic Tile in Oakville, Connecticut, to show us how to install a glazed ceramic tile backsplash. For visual interest, this particular design uses tiles of various sizes, including decorative field tiles and fanciful border tiles. The result is an attractive, durable, easy-to-clean surface that greatly enhances the overall look and functionality of the kitchen.


Steps // How to Install a Tile Backsplash
1 ×

Tile Overview

 
Step One // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Tile Overview

tile backsplash
Illustration by Gregory Nemec

In the design of a kitchen, seldom is enough thought given to the narrow strip of wall that runs between the counter and upper cabinets. This highly visible space -the backsplash - is usually just painted a neutral color and forgotten about. And that's too bad, because it doesn't take much more than a few boxes of glazed tile and a free weekend to bring this seemingly dead space to life.

In the kitchen shown here, we transformed this blank space into a beautiful ceramic-tile focal point - one that will take many more years of cooking spatters and soapy scrubbings than the painted drywall that was there before. The backsplash features a tiled mural, measuring 20 by 28 inches, behind the cooktop. It was created by combining 6-by-6-inch field tiles, 6-by-6-inch decorative tiles, and narrow listello border tiles glued directly to the drywall. Cemen­titious backerboard is a superior substrate for tile and should be your first choice for new work (and the only choice for bathrooms), but it's not necessary here. The tiles are adhered to the wall with tile mastic, which is a specially formulated, ready-to-use adhesive that doesn't require mixing. It's stronger than tile-setting mortar (known as “thinset”) at holding tile to a vertical surface. However, before troweling the mastic onto the wall it's very important to lightly hand-sand the painted surface with 80-grit sandpaper, without sanding away the paint. This often-overlooked step roughens the surface, greatly increasing the bond of the mastic to the wall.

 
2 ×

Prepare the Wall

 
Step Two // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Prepare the Wall

Preparing the Wall for for a backsplash
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Remove all the switch plates and outlet covers from the backsplash. Hand-sand the wall with 80-grit sandpaper to roughen the painted surface, then wipe off the dust with a damp rag. Measure and mark the exact center of the room's visual focal point at the counter level (here, it's the range). Using a sharp pencil and a 2-foot level, draw a perfectly plumb starting line through the center mark.

Tip: Lay out (dry-fit) your tile pattern on the floor first, to make sure it will fit evenly on the wall.

 
3 ×

Apply Mastic

 
Step Three // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Apply Mastic

Apply mastic
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Scoop some tile mastic or thinset out of the bucket with the edge of the V-notched trowel. Holding the trowel at a slight angle to its long edge, use a sweeping motion to spread the mastic across the wall, covering only an area large enough for eight tiles. Look for any bare spots and fill them in with mastic.

Tip: Check with the tile dealer to make certain you're using a trowel with the correct-width notches for your mastic.

 
4 ×

Set the Feld Tile

 
Step Four // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Set the Feld Tile

Set the field tile
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Start setting the field tiles at the bottom of the vertical center line. Place the edge of the first tile right on the line and make sure the base of the tile is parallel with the edge of the counter (or existing 4-inch backsplash), leaving just enough room for a bead of caulk. Firmly press the tile into the mastic. Then continue setting tiles, working out in both directions from the center line. Continue with the next rows up until you reach the row against the cabinets or one requiring decorative tiles.

Tip: If a skin forms on the mastic surface, stop setting and scrape the wall clean. Then apply a fresh coat of mastic.

 
5 ×

Cut Tiles to Fit

 
Step Five // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Cut Tiles to Fit

Cut tiles to fit
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

When you get to a cabinet or pattern edge that requires you to trim a tile with a single straight cut, place a full tile in the space and mark it. Using a score-and-snap tile cutter, score the tile once (strongly) with the cutting wheel. Carefully snap the tile along the score line.

Tip: For convenience, keep a lightweight tile cutter next to you as you work. You can rent one for $10 to $20 a day, but if you have other projects, it could be cost-effective to buy one.

 
6 ×

Set the Decorative Tiles

 
Step Six // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Set the Decorative Tiles

Set the decorative tiles
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

With a geometric mural like the one shown here, it's important to dry-fit all the tiles to be sure you have all the pieces cut to the right size. Apply mastic to the mural area on the wall and set the tile into the mastic, using your original plumb line to center the design. If appropriate, establish the outline of the mural with listello border tiles, pressing them into the mastic along the edges of the design.

 
7 ×

Notch Tiles with a Wetsaw

 
Step Seven // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Notch Tiles with a Wetsaw

Notch tiles with a wetsaw
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Mark any tiles that need to be notched around a cabinet corner, switch box, or electrical receptacle. Lay the tile on the sliding table of a rented motorized wetsaw (easier for shaped cuts) and push it forward into the diamond-abrasive blade to cut one side. Pull back the table, rotate the tile, and make the second cut. Use tile nippers to remove any material in the notch. 

Finish tiling the backsplash. On inside corners, butt the edges of the tiles against the tiles on the adjoining wall, leaving room for caulk. Install bullnose tile at open ends of the backsplash and at the top if there are no upper cabinets for the tiles to butt against.

 
8 ×

Fill the Tile Joints with Grout

 
Step Eight // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Fill the Tile Joints with Grout

Fill the tile joints with grout
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

Allow mastic to dry overnight. The next day, mix a batch of unsanded tile grout (sanded if grout lines are wider than 1⁄8 inch) in a clean bucket, following the directions on the carton. Scoop some grout out of the bucket with a rubber grout float and smear it across the surface of the tile diagonally to the grout lines. Pack the grout deep into the joints, but don't get any into the seam between the tiles and the countertop or existing 4-inch backsplash.

 
9 ×

Clean and Caulk

 
Step Nine // How to Install a Tile Backsplash

Clean and Caulk

Clean and caulk
Photo by Shaffer Smith Photography

After grouting the entire backsplash, clean the surface with a soft sponge and clear water, rinsing the sponge often. Wipe diagonally to the grout lines so as not to pull any grout from the joints. Wait 30 to 45 minutes for the grout to set and for a hazy film to appear on the tiles, then buff off the haze with a clean, dry cloth until the tiles shine. Squeeze a thin bead of tub-and-tile caulk, the same color as the grout, into the joint at the very bottom of the backsplash, in the corners, and between the tiles and the cabinets. Smooth with a wet finger.

 
 
 

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