Kitchen Chronicles: A DIY Subway Tile Backsplash, Part 1

Happy St Paddy’s Day! We celebrated this weekend with a new backsplash…

Well, almost. It’s not done yet, but the hardest part (hopefully) is over.
If you’ve been following along for a while, you’ll remember that subway tile wasn’t my first choice. I wanted a natural stone look, and I found it at Lowe’s:
But after the cabinets went in, I was worried it was just too much gray. So I set my sights on something similar, but in white, like this…

Only problem is… this stuff isn’t cheap. We even made a trip to the city where we spent all day at 14 different tile shops, and everything similar was around $20/sf. Because we wanted to cover the entire back wall, we needed around 80 sf. $1600 for tile is not happening. Nor is $1000. I didn’t even want to spend $500. So it was back to the drawing board…

Classic white subway was always in the back of my mind as an option. Half of the kitchens I’ve been drooling over on Pinterest have it…


But that’s the thing, I didn’t want to look like every other kitchen. But then you realize that Pinterest =/= real life, and white subway tile probably won’t ever go out of style, and it’s a very economical option. So I went for it.

Instead of the individual standard 3×6 tiles, we opted for the smaller 2×4’s that come on a sheet—because I thought the smaller scale would add more interest, and they seemed easier to install.

We originally got bids for the labor (tile has always been something we’ve hired out because we’ve never trusted ourselves to do it right)—but the quotes all came back at over $1000, which we did not expect at all. I guess labor is cheaper in Florida? Anyway, with all that we’ve accomplished since owning this house, I was feeling confident and told Brad I thought we should go for it. My dad said he’d help out on the first day so that sealed the deal.

Here’s what we bought from Lowe’s to get the job done:

Tile (80 sf)
Type 1 Mastic (a 3.5 gallon bucket, and we used maybe 2/3 of it)
Grout (Mapei in Warm Gray)
Colored caulk to match the grout
Grout sealer
A 1/4″ notched trowel to spread the mastic
A grout float trowel
A sponge

Our family friend let us borrow his wet saw which was a huge lifesaver. We were concerned that we’d need a scoring knife or tile cutter for smaller cuts but it wasn’t necessary at all.

The total for the tile came in at $299 (we have two sheets leftover so we can return them for $7, woohoo) and it was about $110 for materials.

I spent some time researching (thanks everyone for the advice in my last post!) and here are a few helpful tutorials I found:


Armed and ready, we began our journey Saturday morning…

We got a system going—Brad and my dad cut the tiles while I spread the mastic and installed them.

I was so relieved after the first few tiles went in. We could actually do this!

I was also relieved we bought the smaller tiles on sheets. I think it would have taken forever to set them individually. These had built in spacers which was nice too.
The great thing about these tiles is that you can easily remove individual pieces to work around obstacles.
Whenever there was an obstacle, we’d remove the tiles that were in the way, make our cuts, and set them back in. Easy peasy.
My dad had this special crayon for marking tile. It was so useful because it was waterproof, but it wipes right off.
Once we got the hang of the saw, it was pretty easy.
The trick to get the smaller notched cuts? lift the tile up at an angle so the saw would cut all the way through the back without cutting too far forward.
It was a messy job, so I had a wet cloth nearby to wipe the extra mastic off each section as I went.

To make sure they properly adhered to the wall and were all level, I nudged each tile in with a rubber mallet.

If there was too much mastic, it would seep through the cracks so I swiped it up with a small screwdriver.

In less than an hour, our first wall was done!
Oh—it’s important you do a dry fit first to make sure you don’t end up with any slivers in obvious places. The wall above was an inch larger than our four rows of tile, so I opted to have the 1″ pieces on the left side (which is more inconspicuous) instead of the right.
My favorite part was actually the details. I liked working with individual pieces after they had been cut. It’s hard to get the mastic around smaller areas (especially when there’s already tile in place around it) so for these I’d “butter” the back of it and set them in place.
Also, around the narrower areas with less room to work, I used a smaller putty knife instead of the trowel to get into all of the nooks and crannies. Then I’d come back with a trowel to smooth it out.

We were so lucky here… the area above the sink fit four rows of tiles perfectly so we didn’t have to make any cuts.

But of course it evened out in other areas, like this one, where there were some small pieces against the window. We also had to leave a gap next to the door, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to open all the way (bad design).

Here’s the other side of the window:

When stacking sheets of tile vertically, it’s important to use your spacers! Even when they go in perfectly if you don’t think you need them—they tend to shift. Often times I would step back and find tiles from earlier that had moved and I had to go back and shove spacers in before the glue dried. Fortunately, mastic gives you a pretty generous window (~30 minutes) for making adjustments. But my advice is don’t skimp on the spacers, they’re good insurance.

At around 4pm on Saturday (after 5.5 hours), we called it a day.

The next morning we were setting up and realized we’d forgot to wipe the mastic off of our starting point, which meant we had to scrape it off so the wall was even and the next sheet of tile would be level.

Don’t forget to clean the mastic off first if you are going to take a long break!

On the second day I got smarter and wore latex gloves. SO much better than having mastic stuck all over your hands and having to scrub it off.

Really, the most difficult part of the whole job is just the physical energy it requires. Cutting and measuring is the easy part—spreading mastic for 5+ hours gets tiring. I’m still slightly sore.

But watching it all come together is oh so worth it.

Finally, we made our way underneath the window and back around to the end.

Actually, the end was the hardest part. Since we made a big loop around the window, the tiles had to meet back up at some point. Making sure the right side matched the left side so that they were perfectly interlocking when they lined back up was a challenge.

We actually didn’t even think about it until it was too late, so the gaps were a little larger than they should have been.

It’s important to note that tiling is an imperfect process. Even from the factory, some gaps were closer to 1/16″ and others were over 1/8″, so I wasn’t going for perfection here.

And when you look at the big picture it’s not really noticeable…

There will be pillows there which should help, and I also have a backup plan if it ends up bugging me (hint: white nail polish).

Walking into the kitchen is like a breath of fresh air now…

It really adds so much.

Oh, and we’ll be trimming out the top and the right edge where it meets the planks with quarter round.

This afternoon I’ll start grouting. The matching caulk was special order and won’t be here for 1-2 more weeks, but we have plenty more to do this week (like build the second bench seat and tile our bar wall!)

More to come in a few days…

40 thoughts on “Kitchen Chronicles: A DIY Subway Tile Backsplash, Part 1

  1. Thanks Amy! Do you mean the mastic on the tiles? I just used a cloth and water to wipe it down as I went. Once the mastic dries it needs to be scraped off, I just used a flathead screwdriver since these tiles don't scratch easily.

  2. Please, please, please… wear goggles – Brad too. And your dad. And anyone else who might help. It's too awful to contemplate all the work you couldn't see and enjoy if some piece/particle/dusty stuff, etc. ends up in an eye. Don't want to be preachy, but sometimes we don't get do-overs.

    And on a lighter note… how's the new kitty and Susie getting along?

  3. I've been watching you kitchen take shape and it really does look wonderful – the subway tile really compliments it. Tiling is time consuming (especially when it covers an entire wall!) but so worth it in the end.

  4. Wow, that looks like so much work! But it looks fantastic! I've never had a tiled backsplash/wall (or tile anything) before. Can anyone tell me, is tile easy to keep clean? (I'm a neat freak!) 🙂

  5. Yes! It has been for us—especially tile that isn't porous. You can just wipe off any spills. I'd probably stay away from white grout if you want to be safe though.

  6. I know, we didn't even think about it! Thanks for the reminder.

    Biscuit has totally warmed up to Susie, she even tries to play with her, but unfortunately Susie is still really defensive and nervous around her. Hopefully she'll come around!

  7. Thanks! Good to know for whenever my husband and I finally buy a house! (We still rent…almost 11 years.) I'm trying to save up all my DIY knowledge for that day… 🙂

  8. This space is coming together beautifully. Forget Pinterest. I'm just coming back here when we are ready to tackle our kitchen remodel. Love everything you have done!

  9. You are such an incredibly hard worker! Seeing you work on the tile reminds me of my own experience installing our kitchen backsplash a couple of months ago. It was a lot of work. Sealing and cleaning the grout took WAY longer than expected. I spent so many hours on that project, but the end result just MAKES the kitchen. Congratulations for all you have accomplished at the new house! -Sara

  10. Thanks Mercedes! We just work on it a little each night and most weekends. Now that the end is near, I have a schedule so we stay on track. It helps to have flexible work schedules and no kids 😉

  11. This is something that I want to do for my wife. She's been talking about getting new tile in our kitchen and around the house in different places. I'm hoping to surprise her with it when she gets back from visiting her family. Have you ever heard of Tile Warehouse? I've been looking at them to possibly get tile from. Here's a link if you want to check them out, I just don't really know what all to get to do this project, so any advice helps.

  12. I love this tile and kitchen! I want to put the tile in my remodeled kitchen. The difference in my remodel and your kitchen is my ceiling is slanted (the ceiling trusses are an 8 x 12 pitch). Do you have any suggestions on where to end the tile? Should I go to the ceiling or do something else? Thanks for your help on this.

  13. Love, love, love this kitchen! I admired it so much I copied it and made my own version. I ended up going darker on the floor color and used a faux marble laminate on the counters. This also inspired me to do exposed beams for this first time. I will be doing those again in my next remodel. Love your work!

  14. I love your kitchen and your advice – I’ll be doing the same to one of my kitchen walls next month… I hope it comes out as good as yours! One thing – what type of wood did you use on your ceiling and walls? I was leaning towards beadboard, but I like the look of your horizontal planks. Thanks!

  15. What color are your cabinets? It is so hard picking a grey…. some are too blue some are muddy some are just not right! I feel like goldilocks!

  16. Hi! I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the great job!

  17. Hi. I’ve been a long-time follower, but this is the first time I’m commenting. I admire your courage and bravery in sharing your personal journey with us. I’ve been following you since the Florida house and absolutely love your style. I currently have subway tile as a backsplash that goes to the upper cabinets. This summer I plan to remove my upper cabinets and tile all the way up to the ceiling. I love the gray grout you used. I went to click on the link in the Kitchen Chronicles: Subway Tile Part 2, but it brings me to your ‘E-Design’ link/announcement. Do you still have the information or has that link been removed permanently? Just curious as I was looking forward to following your direction. Thanks in advance. You are an inspiration. Looking forward to continuing to follow you as you transition into your next season of life. Best wishes.

  18. I’m in love. I’m so glad I’m reading this two years later because that means the project is completely (hopefully). I’m going to tryn this with my husband in our new house. I feel super inspired.

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