How to Install a Tile Backsplash
(Good News: It’s Easier Than You Might Think!)

Before installing the backsplash in our kitchen I had never in my life tiled a single thing. But how hard can it be? I reasoned. I mean, people have been tiling for thousands of years! And all of those people couldn’t have been geniuses. But then as I watched YouTube videos and read how-to posts with all their steps and warnings of pitfalls, I grew increasingly worried that tiling was a job best left to professionals. No! my inner adventurer called out. And so my can-do, DIY spirit kicked in and I decided to tackle the job on my own. And you know what? It’s not as hard as you might think! Now that I’ve mastered the art of tiling (because, you know, I’ve done it once so now I’m an expert), I’m going to share the process with you.

HOW TO INSTALL A TILE BACKSPLASH

First and foremost, gather your supplies. There are a number of tools that are specific to tiling that you probably won’t have in your toolbox. Unless you have a handy friend or relative who is willing to lend you their tools, this will likely require a trip to the hardware store.

Here are the tools you’ll need:

  • tile-cutting hand tools and/or wet saw – I used a manual 14″ tile cutter on the subway tiles for our backsplash. A wet saw probably would have given me more accurate cuts but I wasn’t quite ready to plunk down that kind of money for a tool I may never use again.
  • level – I have this Stanley level that includes a measuring scale. I’ve found the measuring tool to be really handy
  • notched trowel – You may already have a regular trowel in your toolbox but it really does need to be notched trowel for tiling.
  • grout float – It’s like a trowel but with rubber along the bottom surface.
  • grouting sponge (I got away with using a standard kitchen sponge)
  • tile spacers – We used 1/8″ spacers for our subway tile. You may need larger spacers for your tile project.

In addition to the tools, you’ll also need your tiling materials:

  • tiles (duh)
  • tile adhesive
  • grout
  • grout release agent (Our backsplash tiles have a glossy finish so they didn’t really require the grout release. But if you’re installing a matte finish tile, I can see how grout release would be really handy.)
  • grout sealant
  • garbage bags (You’re going to want to protect surfaces because working with mortar and grout can get messy real quick.)

Gather all your tools and supplies and then prepare the walls to be tiled. The surface should be clean and free of debris. You can’t tile over existing tile or anything else. We were fortunate that the walls in our kitchen were painted but never tiled.

First, measure the area that you’re tiling, find the vertical center of the wall and mark it. After you’ve marked the vertical center of the wall, it’s also a good idea to draw level horizontal lines to act as a guide. I held up a sheet of our tile, used a level to make sure it was straight and then marked a line along the top tiles. Then I used my level and a quilting ruler to draw a straight line across the entire wall. Lining up the sheets to this line made installation super easy.

Now that the measuring and marking are out of the way (by far the most boring – yet crucial – part of any project), it’s time for the real fun! Spread mortar on the surface and then, holding the trowel at a 45 degree angle, smooth the mortar into an even layer. Mortar dries very quickly so don’t get carried away with it. Spread mortar only over an area that will accommodate a sheet or two of tile.

Apply the first sheet of tiles to the mortar. Press the tiles gently into the mortar, keeping them straight and level.

Continue working around the room, checking to make sure that you’re keeping your tiles level and using spacers to ensure even distance. I found that it was easiest to work with the sheets of tile first and leave the small areas around outlets and in corners that would require cutting for the later.

The most important part of tiling is making sure you’re keeping everything straight and even. Measuring and marking may seem boring and you might be tempted to just wing it by sight, but don’t do it!

With all the sheets installed, you can go back and make cuts to tiles and fill in any small spaces that you skipped. I found that applying the mortar directly to the back of the tile and placing it on the wall was very effective in these tight spaces. The process of spreading gray goopy mortar to the dark brown backs of the tiles reminded me of building a gingerbread house. And that made me hungry for cookies. So, you know, be prepared with snacks while you tile.

After all the tile has been installed, allow it to cure for 24-36 hours.

Then comes the really messy part of tiling: spreading grout. For this you’ll need the grout of your choosing, a grout sponge, a regular sponge and a lot of elbow grease.

Use the grout sponge to spread the grout across the surface of the tiles and into the spaces between them. It’ll look like a muddy mess but don’t worry, it cleans up pretty easily. A few minutes after you’ve spread the grout, go back over it with a damp sponge to clean up a bit.

Because the grout dries quickly, you’ll want to work in small sections, spreading grout and then cleaning up as you go. I grouted the entire length of one wall and then when went back to clean it was quite a challenge to scrape the grout off the tiles.

Also, word to the wise: make sure you cover surfaces with garbage bags before grouting. You’re basically working with a gloopy sand mixture so things are going to get messy. Lining the countertops with garbage bags made cleanup much easier.

You’ll have some areas – such as corners and around outlets – where the grout float won’t work  I found that a small scraper tool was perfect for spreading mortar in these tight spaces.

Once all the grout is in place and the tile has been cleaned, you’re good to go! Installing tile may take time and patience, but it doesn’t really take a lot of skill. Measure, measure and measure again is the best advice I can give. Beyond that, it’s really just a matter of spreading goop, placing tiles and cleaning up. Now, go forth and tile the world!

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