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Subway Tile Style: Find the Right One For You

Are subway tiles going out of style? The answer: No. Choose from a wide range of colors, patterns and accents to give your bathroom or kitchen a fresh makeover.

Subway Tile In Traditional Kitchen Photo by Tim St. Porter

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 4x8-inch planks to 1x2 mosaics, and even some tiles (such as contemporary 2x8 strips) that don't share the original's proportions at all. Here, we'll stick with the old-school 3x6 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

History of Subway Tiles

Subway Tile In City Hall Subway Station In New York City Photo by Library of Congress

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.

Subway Tile Colors

Warm Orange

Warm Orange Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

The pumpkin color adds spice to any room.

Hand Painted tile in Tangerine Gloss, $14.40 per square foot; solistone.com

Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

This marine-blue pick would make a lively shower surround.

Subway Ceramics tile in Lagoon Blue Crackle Gloss, $19.30 per square foot; heritagetile.com

Not Your Average Neutral

Neutral Color Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

For a neutral space, gray is a fresh alternative to white.

Northeastern tile in Yukon Silver Grey Matte, $2.62 per square foot

Nature's Influence

Green-Bronze Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

A green-and-bronze finish feels both organic and opulent.

Basics tile in Sheiling Forest, $31.50 per square foot; trikeenan.com

Ice Blue, Baby

Ice Blue Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

Ice-blue tile can give a master bath a soothing, spa-like vibe.

Capriccio tile in Sky Blue Gloss, $12 per square foot; annsacks.com

Tropical Yellow

Tropical Yellow Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

Banana-yellow tile can perk up a powder room.

Hand Painted tile in Sol Gloss, $14.40 per square foot; solistone.com

Multitasking Blue

Dark Blue Azul Gloss Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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

Bold, Classic Teal

Classic Teal Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

Inspired by Art Deco tile, this teal option feels timeless.

Classic tile in Nancy Greene Gloss, $18.50 per square foot; missiontilewest.com

Deep Red

Deep Red Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

This rich red pairs well with glass and other sleek finishes.

Subway Ceramics tile in Garnet Crackle Gloss, $19.30 per square foot; heritagetile.com

Go-To White

White Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

White tile remains a can't-fail classic.

Savoy tile in White Gloss, $10.80 per square foot; crossvilleinc.com

Finish

Subtle Variety

Artisan Tile In Sable Gloss Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

Hand-applied glaze offers subtle tonal variation that animates a finished wall.

Artisan tile in Sable Gloss, from $13.50 per square foot; sonomatilemakers.com

Seeing Spots

Matador Red Gloss Subway Tile Speckled Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

A speckled finish results from the firing process.

Subway tile in Matador Red Gloss, $65 per square foot; mercurymosaics.com

To The Edge

Teal Crackle Subway Tile Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

The glazing is applied to highlight the handsome beveled edges.

V15 Metro beveled field tile in Teal Crackle, $19.57 per square foot; urbanarchaeology.com

Faux Stone

Blue Mist Matte Subway Tile Stone Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

Varying the kiln's temperature creates this stone-like finish.

Stoneware Elements tile in Blue Mist Matte, $29.92 per square foot; annsacks.com

Modern Matte

Modern Matte Subway Tile Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

An unexpected luster-free glaze makes black tile feel up-to-date.

Profiles tile in Black Matte, $4.15 per square foot; americanolean.com

Not Your Basic Bevel

Beveled Subway Tile In White Crackle Photo by Lisa Shin

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; fastfloors.com

Recycled Texture

Recycled Texture Subway Tile Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

The glaze is mixed from recycled factory leftovers.

Reclamation tile in Pollywog, $22 per square foot; trikeenan.com

Under the Sea

Unique Grout Line Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

This tile's ends are subtly contoured to create a unique grout line.

Dom tile in Sea, $64.80 per square foot; mod-craft.com

Industrial, Metal Look

Industrial Metal Finish Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

A distressed finish that mimics metal looks at home next to concrete and textured surfaces.

Subway tile in Antique Pewter Gloss, $65 per square foot; mercurymosaics.com

Aged Look

Beveled Edge Matte Subway Tile Finish Photo by Lisa Shin

Beveled edges and a matte finish add dimension to the neutral color.

Ceramic Alhambra tile in Adobe Matte, $7.52 per square foot; walkerzanger.com

Other Tile Materials

Glass

Glass Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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

Stone

Stone Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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; stonecenteronline.com

Bamboo

Bamboo Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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; kitchens.com

Metal

Metal Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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

Edge Treatments

Rectified or Square

Square Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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

Rounded Shoulders

Rounded Shoulder Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

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

Beveled

Beveled Subway Tile Photo by Lisa Shin

The edges slope away from the face, giving each tile a sculptural quality.

Elements beveled tile in Bright White Gloss, $34.96 per square foot; annsacks.com

Shopping Tips

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.

What Makes Subway Tile Last?

Blue Subway Tile In Kitchen Photo by Eric Roth

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.

Subway Tile Patterns

Vertical

Vertical Subway Tile Pattern Photo by Michael Casey

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

Herringbone

Herringbone Subway Tile Pattern Photo by Julian Wass

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

Running Bond

Running Bond Subway Tile Pattern Photo by Michael Casey

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

Stacked

Stacked Subway Tile Pattern Photo by Kate Kunz/Corbis

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

Select a Grout

Off White

Off White Subway Tile Grout Photo by Simon Whitmore/IPC Images

Neutral lines of off-white grout harmonize with wood counters and shelves.

Similar to shown: Horus Art tile in Broadway Pistachio, $10.32 per square foot

Black

Black Subway Tile Grout Photo by Winfried Heinze/IPC Images

Black grout with white tile adds drama to a floor-to-ceiling installation.

Similar to shown: Classica tile in White Gloss, $5.40 per square foot; emser.com

Gray

Gray Subway Tile Grout Photo by Claudia Dulak/IPC Images

Gray grout masks grime and splash marks in a high-use area.

Similar to shown: Metro wall tile in Bone, $3.50 per square foot; nemotile.com

Light Blue

Light Blue Subway Tile Grout Photo by Bob Smith/IPC Images

Light-blue grout matches the wall color for a monochromatic look.

Similar to shown: Festiva tile in Aquarius, $2.14 per square foot; daltile.com

Finishing Touches

Framed Focal Point

Diamond Pattern Border Backsplash Accent Against All-White Subway Tiles In Kitchen Photo by Eric Roth

Above a sink or a cooktop, use border pieces to set off a smaller field of different tile. For this all-white subway-tile backsplash, a floral border surrounds square tile laid in a diamond pattern, helping draw the eye to the sink's period-style fixtures.

Contrasting Base and Cap

Contrasting Base And Cap Subway Tile In Bathroom Photo by Patrick Barta/Cornerhouse Stock

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.

Scattered Accents

Ornamental Tile Photo by Eric Roth

Ornamental tile can be pricey, and with so many styles to choose from, who can pick just one? Place a few favorites within a wall of neutral subways to give it texture and color without breaking the bank.

Mixed Borders and Cap

Mixed Borders And Cap Subway Tile Accent Photo by Megan Chaffin

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.

Built-Up Base

Multilayered Base Tile Photo by Eric Roth

Instead of choosing a single type of base tile, use a few. Here, a row of subways is sandwiched between shoe-molding trim below and a knife-edge liner above. The wraparound installation ties the tub to the rest of the bath and matches the floor tile.

Wall Panels

Wall Paneled Trim Subway Tile Photo by Megan Chaffin

Half-round trim pieces form wainscot-like wall frames for a subtle decorative effect; tiles within the frames are laid in a slightly different pattern to help them stand out. Using colored trim and tile here would have a bolder impact.