Guess how many subway tiles I broke/screwed up during my first backsplash tiling job? 40.
The good news is that only totals up to $6 since the subway tile (you can find similar tile at Home Depot) we used for our backsplash was so cheap, but it’s still a lot of times to fail. So, I want to share my failures to save you tons of time. I present to you: The do’s and don’ts of installing a DIY subway tile backsplash!
Luckily, I learned as I went along and got much better. I consider myself a pretty competent DIYer, but everybody has their Achilles heel.
I guess mine is subway tile (and drywall, but who’s counting?). But why suffer through inexperience and lack of knowledge like I did?
So here’s my do’s and don’ts for a DIY subway tile backsplash install.
1. Measure, think, then cut.
There’s a certain kind of rage that develops when you’ve cut something wrong multiple times. You’re mad at yourself because you messed it up AGAIN, you aren’t feeling great about wasting materials, and you are clueless as to why EVEN THOUGH you did EVERYTHING RIGHT somehow it’s STILL WRONG.
I can’t tell you how many subway tiles I could have saved if I would have taken a step back to think before I cut when installing our backsplash. Measuring twice is only part of the equation – talk through it with yourself or your tiling buddy, sometimes just saying what you’re about to do out loud can help you realize what you might be doing wrong.
If you and your tiling buddy can’t figure it out, take a break. Have dinner. Enjoy an episode of your favorite show on Netflix. When you come back, you’ll be thinking much more clearly.
2. Don’t cheap out on your tools.
I bought a score and snap tile saw for this project, just to see if it would be enough for my needs. I definitely think if I had chosen a simpler pattern (not herringbone), it would have been absolutely fine. But if I could do it again? “Yes, please, Mr. Salesman, sir, I will take the $100 wet tile saw too. Nope, I’m not at all concerned about my ballooning budget.”
But seriously, just buy it. I spent more hours with tile snips trying to make the tiles around the outlet work than I want to admit (WAY TOO MANY). My time is worth more than that, and I will definitely be investing in a nicer tool for the other walls (we’ve still got nearly 3,000 subway tiles to put on our backsplash in our kitchen renovation!)
My subway tile tool picks for every budget:
Inexpensive Tile Snips
I used these for a lot of my project, but REALLY wish I hadn’t. But if you are on a serious budget, you can’t beat the price!
Wet Tile Saw
This is what I really should have been using the whole time. The wet tile saw that I purchased isn’t available anymore, but here is another great and inexpensive option.
3. Adhesive the tile, not the wall.
You know those sexy contractors with the glistening pectorals on HGTV? How you swooned over how they applied tile adhesive to the wall just so…effortlessly? How you just wanted to fall into their big, sweaty arms? Yep, that’s not gonna be you. You’ll probably have more adhesive on the floor and in your hair than on the wall, and that’s ok.
All jokes aside, if you are struggling to get the adhesive on the wall cleanly, try applying it directly to the back of the subway tile. I found MUCH more success that way, and I swear I was just a little bit hotter.
Also, a little bonus tip to this one – clean your notched trowel (Amazon, Home Depot) frequently. The key to getting subway tile to stick to the wall is those little notches. If they get gummed up (and they will), you’ll get sub-par adhesion. Just take a little spatula or putty knife and knock out the gunk in each notch, and you’ll be good to go again.
4. Plan for the edge.
I generally plan. A lot. Like too much. I was the kid that LIKED writing in their planner in school, and scheduling things is fun for me. But sometimes, even the best planners mess up. I forgot to figure out how I was going to finish off the cut edge of where my subway tile stopped, which means the ceramic underneath the glaze (the not so pretty part) is showing.
You can see it in the photo above. It’s not that big of a deal to me, and I’ve got a plan to fix it (DIY glazing, here I come!). But if I could do it over again? I would do it differently.
The other thing to be aware of here is that the glaze is the strong part of the subway tile – the ceramic underneath is actually pretty weak. If you’ve ever drilled into tile before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The glaze is hard to get through, but once you get that out of the way, the rest kind of just disintegrates.
5. Ditch the pencil, and embrace the magic marker.
I’m a pencil person. It’s just something that happens to classical musicians (I taught high school choir for a while). I know some people are die-hard-pens-forever-don’t-give-me-your-pencil-trash people, but they’re wrong (just kidding, if that’s you, I still love you).
But guys, I let my love blind me. For about two hours, I tried to mark on the tiles with a pencil and it was not going well. So I went out to the garage to grab a marker (I just used an old Crayola one we had lying around) and never looked back. You can actually even use a Sharpie, but why?
Embrace your inner child and break out the art supplies you’ve been neglecting (or just go steal some from your kid’s stash).
And don’t worry about the marker staining the subway tile and ruining your backsplash. I used a green one, and while at
6. Do plan ahead. Don’t drill on the edge tiles.
Just taking the picture above breaks my heart. Imagine this: it was the eleventh hour. We had spent ALL weekend tiling, and it was finally time to hang some shelves on top of our gorgeous new DIY subway tile backsplash and get some more usable counter space (kitchen reno life, am I right?).
The pilot holes (read this to learn more about them) were perfectly drilled, but somehow when we screwed the lag bolts into the studs behind the subway tile, cracks appeared. (This is probably the biggest mistake of this whole do’s and don’ts of installing a DIY subway tile backsplash list). Small at first – giving me hope. But with each turn they got larger. Thankfully, it was only on one side of the shelves – the tiles in the last row before the end of the wall.
If you are thinking about hanging shelves on top of your subway tile backsplash, I would consider spacing out the brackets away from the end of your tile more than I did.
I think if the tiles we were screwing into had their brothers in arms around them, we would have seen fewer cracks (if any). Oh well, lesson learned.
The good news is, it’s definitely the edge subway tiles that had this problem – out of the 12 holes we had to screw the lag bolts into, only 5 of them cracked (all on the edge tiles). I have much higher hopes for the shelves we’ll be installing on the other walls (stay tuned!).
7. Build out your outlets before you tile.
You thought tiling was all about pretty patterns and carefully measured cuts, right? Well, if you have an outlet in the wall you’re tiling, there’s a little bit more to it than that. You’ll need tile spacers, or some other way to keep the outlets level with the subway tile’s finished depth. When you’re picking up your tiling supplies, just grab a few spacers for your outlets, too.
Unfortunately for us, it was late and the home improvement store was closed, so we had to improvise.
(If only I had read an article like this that listed do’s and don’ts when installing a DIY subway tile backsplash before we got started!)
I just used the actual tile as a spacer, which made for some harder cuts, but it got the job done just the same.
I don’t recommend it (do as I say, not as I do!) as the first course of action, but it’s working just fine – I used the snap-off tabs on each outlet to hold it out from the wall, which is essentially doing the same thing that the spacers would.
Also, I have a special place in my heart for outlet covers now. They are like a good pair of Spanx. They smooth out all the imperfections and make it look like you actually know what you’re doing. I don’t want to show you what it looks like behind this outlet, but let’s just say it’s akin to what I looked like in my mesh underwear after giving birth.
(You’re welcome for that visual, by the way)
You know what though? It gets the job done, and that’s all that matters.
XL Outlet Covers To Hide Your Subway Tile Installation Mistakes:
8. If you’re a first-timer, choose an easy subway tile pattern (or just practice!).
I LOVE the herringbone pattern we chose. A lot. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But for my very first tiling job? Probably not the best choice. Subway tiles are made perfectly to fit between a countertop a standard height upper cabinet without having to rip them. But if you choose a herringbone pattern?
Well, now you’re dealing with much more difficult cuts and angles. If you’re intimidated by tiling but want to go for that harder pattern, maybe go pick up some super cheap clearance subway tile from your local home improvement store and practice before you do the real thing. I bet you’ll learn a lot (I wish I had!).
The biggest thing to remember if you’re doing herringbone is that you’ll need something with a 45-degree angle to measure with. I have an adjustable square that I used during this project, and it would have been impossible without it.
9. My last tip for how to tile a subway tile backsplash? Spacers.
There are all kinds of grout widths to choose from, and lots of spacers to go with them. But there are also different kinds of spacers, and the ones that I bought were for a four-tile corner…which doesn’t exist in a herringbone pattern.
We ended up just eyeballing the spacing (and honestly just putting them right next to each other, because that ended up being almost 1/16” which is what I wanted in the first place), and it turned out fine. It would have been so much easier and MUCH more consistent if I had the right spacers on hand.
I’ll save you the research – if you are doing a regular tile job, you need these (you can find a similar option at Home Depot). If you are doing a more complicated pattern like herringbone, you should really invest in a set of these (these and these are similar and from Home Depot, you’ll need both!). They even help with getting the tiles level height-wise!
Bonus Tip: Do Your Research
Also, do your research and don’t trust the tile guys at the store blindly. They’ve probably got 10,000 things on their minds and as much as they want to give you their undivided attention, it’s not likely. Double-check the tools they recommend are what you actually need. For example, if we had looked closer, the tile spacers he recommended were wrong.
So there you have it, 9 do’s and don’ts when you’re doing your first DIY subway tile backsplash or another tiling job. PLEASE! Learn from my mistakes.
Take time to think, don’t cheap out on tools, slap that adhesive on the back, figure out how to finish the edge before you start, steal your kid’s craft supplies, don’t drill into a lonely edge tile, build up those outlets, choose an easier pattern (or get the right tool!), and make sure you’ve got the right kind of spacers. If you even do half of those things, I guarantee you your first tiling experience will be light years better than mine.