All About Ceramic Subway Tile
Add visual interest in your bathroom or kitchen with this versatile household staple
As a staple of kitchen and bath design, the ubiquitous ceramic subway tile has been around since it was introduced in New York City's subway stations in the early 1900s. The easy-to-clean, stain-resistant, light-reflective, 3-by-6-inch glazed white rectangles captured the public's imagination back then and quickly moved into the bathrooms and kitchens of prewar houses for practical and aesthetic reasons.
More than a century later, ceramic subway tile still endures as a perennial favorite for homeowners. 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, mudrooms, and fireplace surrounds.
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.
They’re tough enough to take a beating for decades—in fact, the adhesive, grout, and caulk used to install them will likely need replacing long before the tiles do.
Prices for ceramic subway tile start around $2 per square foot for budget field tile and soar to $50 (or more) per square foot for handmade artisan tile. One square foot comprises eight 3-by-6-inch subway tiles. To make sure you have enough tile to cover your entire project, 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.
Colors, Edges, and Finishes
The color choices for ceramic subway tile is as limitless as the rainbow. After selecting a shade that appeals to you, the most important thing to consider is how it will influence the overall attitude of the room. Add energy and intrigue to your decor by picking a color that contrasts with the surrounding elements, including the wall paint and flooring shade. Or keep the ambience tranquil with a tile color that matches its setting.
Ceramic subway tiles traditionally come with a square edge, but other options present a different look. Rounded edges (or “shoulders”) feature sides that are slightly softened, while beveled edges, where the sides slope away from the face, give each tile a sculptural quality.
As if the dizzying array of colors isn’t enough, ceramic subway tiles also come in many types of finishes. Hand-applied glaze produces subtle tonal variations that can animate a finished wall. Glazing can be applied to highlight beveled edges. An eased bevel and a crackle finish make basic tile appear distinctive. And tile ends can be subtly contoured to create a unique grout line.
Then there are the tile finishes that evoke a distinct mood. Varying the kiln's temperature creates a natural, stone-like finish. An unexpected, luster-free glaze makes black tile feel up to date. Glaze can be mixed with factory leftovers to create a recycled look. A distressed finish mimics a metal appearance, and a speckled finish adds subtle character to the design.
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 ceramic subway tiles are laid out determines the overall effect of their presentation. In the classic running bond style, the 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. In contrast, a stacked presentation lines up tiles horizontally, in parallel columns, to create a neat, polished look.
Herringbone is a stylish pattern in which tiles are laid in zigzagging angles. This presentation accentuates the versatility, turning even a simple, white backsplash into a handsome focal point. An unexpected application of ceramic subway tiles involves laying them in a running bond style, but vertically. In small spaces, such as powder rooms, tiles stacked on end draw the eye upward to make the ceiling appear higher.
Ceramic subway tiles are admired for their simple beauty, and this clean, neutral appearance can be highlighted by incorporating a finishing touch. In the kitchen, for example, you can create a framed focal point above the sink or cooktop by using border pieces to set off a smaller field of different tiles. Another trick is to pop in the occasional piece of ornamental tile to give the room texture and color.
In bathrooms, it’s a popular option to finish a design of brightly colored or glossy white subway tiles with a contrasting black base and a chair rail or bullnose cap. Or consider adding a thin accent strip of a different color that travels around the perimeter of the room and pops against the subway tiles.