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.
How Much Is Subway Tile Per Square Foot?
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.
Layout and Pattern Options
How ceramic subway tiles are laid out determines the overall effect of their presentation. Here are four main patterns and styles.
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.
Ann Sacks Collection tile in Tropic Gloss and Ice Cube, $24.96 per square foot; annsacks.com
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.
U.S. Ceramic tile in Bright Snow White, $1.76 per square foot; homedepot.com
3. Running Bond
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. 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
In contrast to the bond style, a stacked presentation lines up tiles horizontally, in parallel columns, to create a neat, polished look.
Similar to shown: Rittenhouse Square tile in Matte Black, $1.70 per square foot; daltile.com
Select a Grout
You’ll also want to consider how grout will impact the final look and feel of your subway tile. Here are 4 grout colors to consider:
1. Off White
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 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 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
4. Light Blue
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
Create a Modern Finish with Subway Tile
Ceramic subway tiles are admired for their simple beauty, and this clean, neutral appearance can be highlighted by incorporating a finishing touch. Here are 6 ways to do create a modern finish:
1. Framed Focal Point
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. 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.
2. Contrasting Base and Cap
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. Cove base tile provides an easy-to-clean transition between a tiled wall and floor.
3. Scattered Accents
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.
4. Mixed Borders and Cap
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.
5. Built-Up Base
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.
6. Wall Panels
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.
What Makes Subway Tile Last?
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.
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.