All About Ceramic Subway Tile
It's been a staple of kitchen and bath design for decades. Peruse the (huge!) range of available styles, and learn which colors and patterns suit your taste
It might just be the hardest-working wall covering in America. From the moment that ceramic subway tiles made their debut in New York City's subterranean train stations in the early 1900s, they captured the public's imagination and quickly moved into the bathrooms and kitchens of prewar houses for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Easy to clean, stain resistant, and light reflective, the 3-by-6-inch glazed white rectangles epitomized what those rooms could and should be: sanitary.
More than a century later, ceramic subway tile has endured as a perennial favorite for generations of homeowners. Purists seeking an authentic, original look might insist on using a traditional hue of warm bisque with a finish that's glossy and crackled (or "crazed," as it's sometimes called), but if that's not your cup of tea, never fear. Today's tiles come in a mind-boggling array of colors and finishes that partner well with just about any style of decor. And they've made the leap from kitchens and baths to other hardworking spaces that benefit from easy-care surfaces, such as laundry rooms and mudrooms, as well as spots like fireplace surrounds, where glazed tiles offer a colorful, decorative alternative to brick or stone, as well as excellent heat resistance.
Inevitably, the popularity of subway tile has expanded its working definition. Manufacturers often use the term now to describe any rectangular tile with a length twice its height, from 4-by-8-inch planks to 1-by-2 mosaics, and even some tiles (such as contemporary 2-by-8 strips) that don't share the original's proportions at all. Here, we'll stick with the old-school 3-by-6 format as we explore this material's charms and versatility.
Shown: Warm-white subway tile adds timeless appeal to a traditional kitchen.
Similar to shown: Cottage field tile in Devonshire Cream, $15 per square foot; waterworks.com
Opened in 1904 but no longer in use today, the ticket office at the former City Hall subway station in New York City featured ceramic subway tiles, hailed as durable and easy to maintain, on its walls. The arches and vaulted ceilings were covered with fanciful Guastavino tilework.
What do they cost?
Prices start around $2 per square foot for budget field tile and soar to $50 (or more) per square foot for handmade artisan tile.
DIY or hire a pro?
Many factory-made tiles have integral lug spacers that help DIYers keep grout lines consistent. Still, tiling is a messy job that takes practice and patience. Novices should start with a small area, such as a simple backsplash. Projects involving tricky angles, complex cuts, or pricey artisan tile requiring manual spacers are usually better left to a tile setter.
How long do they last?
Ceramic tiles are tough enough to take a beating for decades; the adhesives, grout, and caulk used to install them will likely need replacing long before the tiles do. Colors won't fade when exposed to light, but dark glazes are softer than light ones, so they might show scratches.
One square foot comprises eight 3-by-6-inch subway tiles. Measure your project space, round that number to the next highest square foot, then add 10 to 15 percent to cover waste, cuts, and breakage.
Consider deep blue for a backsplash—the color disguises spills and grime till you've got time to scrub them away.
Hand Painted tile in Azul Gloss, $14.40 per square foot; solistone.com
An eased bevel and a crackle finish give a basic white tile distinction at a good price.
Adex Hampton beveled tile in White Crackle, $5.50 per square foot; classictileny.com
A popular alternative to ceramic, it's a cinch to clean and comes in an ever-widening array of colors, from soft greens and blues to neon brights.
Lucian glass tile in Rain, $13.91 per square foot; annsacks.com
It needs regular sealing to stay stain-free, but natural stone tile boasts one-of-a-kind beauty and can be surprisingly cost-competitive with mid-priced ceramic.
White Carrara marble tile, $9 per square foot; classictileny.com
This wood look-alike could make a lovely wainscot in, say, a dining room. It's rated for dry areas only, so keep it away from sinks and showers.
Bamboo subway tile in Chestnut, $25 per square foot; anchorbaytile.com
The gleaming finish would add polish to a backsplash. Wipe it down often to keep water and grease spatters from spotting it.
Metal-over-porcelain tile in Alloy Copper, $21.95 per square foot; homedepot.com
Tiles with traditional edges can be butted together tightly with the pencil-thin joints that were typical of original installations.
Bright White Gloss tile, $24 per square foot; restorationtile.com
Also called eased edges, a slight radius softens and updates the look of these tiles.
Modulus tile in Lily White Satin Crackle, $16.50 per square foot; trikeenan.com
Visit manufacturer websites to search for tile you like, but always order samples before buying, as colors and finishes look different in person. Some stores let you borrow samples overnight for free, or you can buy them online for a nominal fee. Prop samples against the wall you plan to cover to see how the tile looks with your decor and lighting.
Some tile makers sell directly to consumers via their websites or dedicated showrooms. Others will refer you to kitchen and bath showrooms or third-party online sites, such as southcypress.com. Home centers sell some tile at stores but put many more of their offerings online.
Made-to-order tile, especially pricey lines, can take weeks to arrive. So make your selections well in advance if the tile's installation is time-sensitive.
The backing is stable, rigid, and clean
The backing, or substrate, might be concrete, plywood, drywall, or cementitious backer board. No matter the material, it must be flat and solid; any warps, bumps, or springiness can cause tiles to crack. The surface must be free of oil, grease, dirt, paint, and old grout or adhesives.
The pattern avoids awkward cuts
Measure the number of tiles needed, horizontally and vertically, to reach the ends of the walls, keeping joints uniform. Shift the pattern left, right, up, or down so that there are no thin slivers or small pieces of tile in highly visible areas. Use corner trim or tile with bullnose edges to avoid exposed edges at the ends of runs.
The tiles sit straight and flat
Lay tiles using a horizontal level line and a vertical plumb line as guides. No individual tiles or corners should protrude from the surface. The field should be finished with mold-inhibiting caulk wherever tile meets adjacent surfaces, such as walls, tubs, counters, or cabinets.
The finished walls get regular upkeep
Most glazed ceramic tile needs little more than cleaning with a mild, nonabrasive soap. But some crackle finishes and most unglazed ceramic tile, such as terra-cotta, need sealing to keep out water and dirt, as do cement-based grouts. Follow the manufacturer's directions for recommended sealers and frequency of application. Replace caulk when it starts looking moldy or grubby.
In small spaces, such as a powder room, tiles installed on end draw the eye upward and make the ceiling appear higher.
Ann Sacks Collection tile in Tropic Gloss and Ice Cube, $24.96 per square foot; annsacks.com
Zigzag angles accentuate the material, turning a simple white-tile backsplash into a handsome focal point.
U.S. Ceramic tile in Bright Snow White, $1.76 per square foot; homedepot.com
Tiles are laid end to end, with joints that land in the middle of the tiles in adjacent rows. This popular pattern can feel either traditional or contemporary, depending on the surroundings. Added bonus: Staggered joints are forgiving of slightly out-of-square walls.
Classic tile in Mess Hall Gloss, $18.50 per square foot; missiontilewest.com
Lining up tiles horizontally in parallel columns creates a polished, contemporary look.
Similar to shown: Rittenhouse Square tile in Matte Black, $1.70 per square foot; daltile.com
In bathrooms, a field of brightly colored or glossy white subway tile, finished with a black base and a chair-rail or bullnose cap, was a popular prewar wall finish—and one that's still widely replicated today. Cove base tile provides an easy-to-clean transition between a tiled wall and floor.
Add multiple accent strips to make an installation distinctive. Here, a liner—a thin border piece traditionally used with subways—sits level with the sink top to continue this visual reference point around the room. Above it, a double band of 1-by-2-inch mosaics echoes the field's pattern on a smaller scale, and white cap molding finishes it off.