If installing a traditional tile backsplash feels a little out of your DIY league, putting up one made from a single sheet of solid surface material may just be your saving grace. As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows here, shaping, cutting, and gluing up this inexpensive stock material—available from companies such as Swanstone, which makes the beadboard backsplash shown here, in a variety of colors and patterns—is a weekend project most amateurs can conquer with confidence. And when you have your sleek backsplash in place, you'll think it such a stylish protector from splashes and splatters you'll wonder why you ever considered tile in the first place.
Building a Solid-Surface Backsplash Overview
Solid surfacing is a nonporous synthetic material, made to look like stone, that is commonly used for shower and tub surrounds and for countertops. It's a natural fit for a backsplash because it's easy to clean. For such an application, however, it's important to use 1/4-inch-thick material, which is comparable to the thickness of tile. Anything thicker would be hard to cut and would look too bulky once installed. The panel style you choose should complement the design of your kitchen: beadboard for a country kitchen or a pebbled pattern for a rustic look, for example. Avoid options with deep crevices where grease and dirt can settle or a pattern that is difficult to match up at the seam. Cutting the material is slow going; fit your jigsaw with a metal-cutting blade and your circular saw with a diamond blade for the best results.
The best way to make an accurately fitted panel—one that accounts for any changes in height or cuts around a window or outlet—is to make a plywood template of the area first, then trace around it onto the solid surface. You don't need to use a single piece of plywood for this; strips glued together to indicate the outline of the various parts works well and is easy to put together. To create the illusion of a seamless solid surface, minimize joints by installing the backsplash in one piece, if possible. A backsplash should be at least 4 inches high, but it can also fill the entire space between countertop and upper cabinets. Keep in mind, however, that varying the height of the backsplash can be distracting, so if the walls above your counters transition from cabinets to open space, you'll want to just continue the backsplash beyond the cabinets at the same height, then finish the raw edge with some trim detail. The one exception to the consistent-height rule is the area behind a range, between the countertop and a vent hood, when you would want the backsplash to fill the entire area.
Clean the Wall
Using an all-purpose cleaner and a rag, wipe down the entire surface that will be covered by the backsplash to remove grease and dirt. If you are replacing a backsplash, smooth any rough areas where there is leftover adhesive (use a fine-grit sanding sponge if necessary).
Create a Level Reference Line
Measure the distance between the countertop and the lowest edge of the upper cabinets. Mark this height on the wall in any areas where the counters continue but there are no upper cabinets. Using a level, draw a level line at this height on the wall.
Build a Template
Using a circular saw, cut 3-inch strips of 1/4-inch plywood. Using painter's tape, secure them to the wall to form an outline of the area where the backsplash will go. Be sure to push the plywood tight to the counter and the cabinets.
Position shorter strips between the long pieces, using them to indicate the parameters of outlets and other fixtures on the wall. Wherever the counters continue past the upper cabinets, leave the template 1 inch shorter than the counters to account for the trim that will finish the raw edge of the panel (leaving a small reveal).
Using a hot glue gun, attach all the pieces together. Be sure to mark any that represent specific cutouts. Also indicate which end of the template is the top.
Transfer the Template Shape
Once the template is securely glued together at every intersection, turn it over and transfer your marks to the back. Then lay it facedown on the back of the solid surface. Trace around its outside edge, and inside the cutouts you indicated.
TIP: When marking the panel, make Xs through the areas meant to be cut away.
Cut the Backsplash
Lay the panel on a piece of plywood or 2x4s set on sawhorses for full support. Using a circular saw fitted with a diamond blade (set just beyond the depth of the material), cut the outline of the backsplash. Cut on the inside edge of your traced outline.
Using a drill/driver fitted with a 3/8-inch masonry bit, drill pilot holes inside the four corners of any cutouts. Using the jigsaw with a metal-cutting blade, slot the blade into the holes and cut out the piece. Use the pilot holes to turn the blade.
TIP: If you're working with a patterned material, cut the panel faceup to be sure your cuts fall in easy-to-match-up areas. Just make sure to cover the shoes of your saws with tape to keep them from scratching the backsplash.
Dry Fit and Shim the Backsplash
Tip the panel into place and check the fit. Using a level on the face, check that the piece is plumb. If not, tap shims behind the edges where necessary. Also check that seams between two panels match up flush and shim them as necessary.
With the panel perfectly plumb and the shims in place, mark the shims at the edge of the panel. Using a utility knife, cut the shims to length. Run a bead of construction adhesive on the back of the shims and stick them in place directly to the wall.
Apply the Adhesive
Wipe the back side of the panel with a tack cloth to remove all dust and residue.
Apply heavy-duty double-stick tape 1 inch away from the outer edge of the panel and around each cutout.
Using a caulk gun, squeeze a bead of adhesive caulk in a 6- to 8-inch zigzag along the entire back of the panel.
Set the Backsplash
Remove the backing on the tape.
Align the bottom edge of the panel along the countertop, keeping it tilted away from the wall. With it in position, tip the sheet in place and press firmly across the entire surface.
Attach the Trim
Cut a strip of lattice to fit against the vertical edge of the panel left exposed. Apply a bead of adhesive caulk to the edge and stick the strip in place, laid flat. Face-nail the lattice strip to the wall with a 1½-inch finish nail.
Cut a strip of 1x3-inch pine to the length, plus 1/4 inch, of the top edge of the surface to be capped—including the side trim.
Lay a bead of adhesive caulk across the top edge of the solid backsplash surface. Stick the strip in place and face-nail it to the wall with finish nails.
Finally, cut a strip of lattice to the length of the 1x3 strip, plus 1/4 inch. Position the lattice on edge, above the 1x3 strip. Nail it in place with finish nails angled through the top of the lattice into the 1x3.
Set the nails below the surface of the wood. Prime and paint the trim to match the backsplash.