Unlike large areas like shower surrounds, a kitchen backsplash is a great tiling project for beginners. That said, depending on the complexity of the design, the type of tile, and whether or not there are obstructions like outlets and electrical switches, it can start to get complicated. So before you decide to tile a backsplash yourself, keep the following things in mind.
- If this is your first time, choose a tile that’s easy to install. Remember that square or interlocking mosaic sheets will be easier and less time consuming than individual subway tiles. And something with a mesh back is quickest and easiest.
- Depending on the size and design of the tile, you may need to do some cutting. A manual snap cutter is easy to use if you need to cut straight lines on ceramic or porcelain tiles. For glass, other natural stones, or large tiles you’ll need to use a wet saw, which requires a certain amount of DIY comfort. If you have any doubts about your ability to use a wet saw, consider hiring a professional.
- Certain ceramic and porcelain tiles have built in spacers that will help keep your grout lines even. Natural stones tend to be slightly imperfect and using plastic spacers between tiles will likely be necessary. When you purchase the tile check with the salesperson to see what you need.
How to Tile a Backsplash
- Wall tile
- Thin-set Mortar
Measure the Space
- Measure the area to be tiled.
- Purchase extra tiles in case of mistakes (an extra 10% or so should be enough).
- Make sure to purchase tiles from the same lot number in case you run short or make mistakes.
Prepare the Space
- Start by making sure all the walls are clean and in good shape.
- If the area is painted, rough up the walls with a light sanding so it’s easier for the mortar to adhere.
- Shut off the power to the area and remove all the switch plates and outlet covers from the area to be tiled.
- Clear the area and protect surfaces – tape cardboard down over the working surface and use painter’s tape on cabinets abutting the tiles.
- Lay the tile out on the counter in order to see how it will look, and to determine where you’ll have to cut tiles to fit.
- Find the center of the wall. This is where you’ll begin tiling.
Apply the Mortar
- Use a thin-set mortar mix or tile adhesive according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Apply it to the wall at a 45 degree angle using a notched trowel.
- Spread the mortar in a thin layer in small sections -approximately 3’ x 3’ in size. Anything bigger and you run the risk of the mortar drying before the tile is in place.
Lay the Tile
- Set the first tile in place. Always start at the bottom so any cuts that have to be made will be on the tiles that get largely hidden by the cabinets. And always start in the center and work out so that you’re ensured balanced cuts at each end.
- In many cases you’ll want to use spacers between the counter and the bottom of the tile to leave room for caulk.
- Gently tap the tile into place using a grout float and check to make sure it’s level.
- Put the next tile in place and repeat, using spacers if necessary. Wipe off any excess adhesive as you go.
- Every few tiles stop and make sure everything is still aligned and level.
Grout the Tile
- Wait until the mortar has had time to set. In many cases 24 hours should be enough, but check with the manufacturer to be sure.
- If you’re using a porous natural stone such as marble or slate you’ll want to seal the tile first. If you don’t, the grout may seep into the tiles and ruin them. Porcelain, ceramic and glass do not require sealing.
- Choose either a sanded or unsanded grout. Sanded grout is best for wider grout lines while unsanded is best for very thin grout lines (less than 1/8” wide). But again, consult with the tile manufacturer to be certain.
- Prepare the grout according to manufacturer instructions.
- If you used spacers between tiles, remove them before applying grout.
- Wipe down the tiles with a sponge to make sure they’re free of dust, and then start applying grout.
- Using a grout float, smear some grout across the tile in a direction that’s diagonal to the grout lines.
- Hold the float at a 45 degree angle and work the grout into all the seams (except for the seam between the bottom tile and the counter. Caulk will be used here instead).
- Use the float to wipe away any excess grout on the surface of the tiles.
- Let the grout set for about 10 minutes (from when you started, not from when you finished) and wipe with a lightly damp sponge. Rinse the sponge often and make sure you’re not adding any excess water to the grout, and not pulling away any grout from the seams.
- Once finished allow the grout to dry completely (approximately 2 days) and then apply a grout sealer. Then apply a seam of caulk (make sure the color matches the grout) around all the edges to finish it off.
#ScottTip – Since this is a beginner “how-to” I’ve suggested using caulk to finish the edges, but for a professional looking job I highly recommend using an edge profile. Profiles help to protect the tiles and create an easier transition between the tile and the adjacent wall. For more info about edge profiles check out this video on finishing tile installations.
Photos courtesy of iStockphoto.com