Ever wondered if you could DIY your own a kitchen backsplash? Turns out it’s not only easy, but can also be pretty cheap too. Here’s how we added this subway tile backsplash in our aunt’s kitchen using affordable tile sheets. It took us just two half-days to complete, and rung in right at $200.

white subway tile kitchen backsplash detail with lemons and pitcher

Why Add A Kitchen Backsplash?

One regret Sherry and I have about our first house is not doing a tile backsplash as part of our kitchen makeover. Best I can remember, we wanted an easily changeable “pop of color” in the form of good ol’ fashioned paint instead (and we spent a lot on that makeover, so it was a cost saving measure as well). If only we had known how cheap and easy a backsplash could be if you install it yourself! Now having several tiling projects under our belts – including the backsplashes in our current kitchen and our last kitchen – it feels like a no-brainer.

white subway tile backsplash with black cabinets

My Aunt Liz (also known as Great Liz to our kids) moved to Richmond a few years ago, but didn’t have a backsplash put in when her new home was built. Luckily, she had chosen some nice black cabinets and a gray & back granite counter that was well suited for the addition of some classic white subway tile down the line, which she has always loved and pictured in there. These iPhone pictures aren’t doing the space much justice, but they give you a sense of where we started. And yes, when it comes to adding a backsplash, you can put it right over the drywall (even if it’s painted!) and use ready-mixed adhesive and grout to make it even easier. So let’s break down how we got it done.

before photos of kitchen without a tile backsplash

Preparing Your Wall For Tile

Liz had already cleared off her kitchen counters when we arrived the first morning, so we jumped right into protecting everything using painter’s tape and red rosin-paper (this is a more waterproof version of your standard brown paper, both of which you can get at the home improvement store). We also removed all of the switch and outlet covers (and later, with the power off, we loosened any switches or outlets from their junction boxes). Note: if you have old tile to remove first, here’s how we’ve done that in the past. 

kitchen prepared for tiling with outlet covers removed and counters protected

Since a kitchen backsplash isn’t a heavy-duty super-wet tile scenario (like a shower wall or bathroom floor) you really can apply the tile directly to your painted drywall without having to tear anything down and install cement board. All it takes is just roughing up your paint job with a high-grit sanding block or sandpaper (we used 80-grit).

Hat-related side note: in taking all of these photos, Sherry failed to notice that the back of my hat was TOTALLY JACKED UP the whole time. Who has TWO tags sticking out of their hat ever, let alone for an entire series of photos and a video?? I’d encourage you to avert your eyes, but you’d miss all the pertinent visuals in this post – so just avoid staring directly at the hat if you can help it. 

John sanding backsplash wall in preparation for tile installation

Planning Your Tile Sheet Placement

Once our sanding was done, we started planning the placement of our pattern. Rather than a standard 3 x 6″ subway tile, the three of us decided this smaller 2 x 4″ tile that came in a sheet was a better scale for the space (if you’re not near a Lowe’s, Wayfair’s got the same look for almost half the price). We also picked up some white bullnose tile for the ends that wouldn’t terminate into a wall. Laying everything out beforehand helped us ensure we weren’t leaving slivers on either end, and that the pattern would look centered on the wall. I’ll show you in a minute how this all turned out.

white subway tile sheets laid out on counter to finalize placement

We had measured Liz’s backsplash area on a previous visit and then purchased enough square footage PLUS about 10-15% extra just in case. It’s always important to have that around to account for breakage, miscuts, and other hiccups.

Hanging The Subway Tile Sheets

For the next parts of this process, we made a quick video so you can see the basic steps in action. But you can keep reading below if you’re not in a place where you can watch it at the moment (or if you really hate jamming out to dope beats. Yup, I said it). Note: If you’re viewing this post from a feed reader, you may have to click through to the post to see the video. 

To hang the tile, we used a premixed mastic to adhere it to the wall. I used a small trowel to apply it to the wall in small sections at a time (I found the small trowel easier to maneuver in the tight space under the cabinets). Here are some screen grabs from the video. Again, try not to only stare at my hat issues.

John spreading mastic adhesive on backsplash wall in kitchen

Once we had a thin layer of mastic applied, we used a V-notched trowel to scrape off the excess – holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle the whole time. This not only removes extra mastic, but also creates grooves that will help the tile adhere to the wall better. Sherry and I are highly competitive about who makes the best grooves.

John scraping mastic with v-notch trowel on backsplash wall

Once you get your groove on (ha!) you can apply your tile. The area shown here was large enough for full sheets, and as you saw in the video, we used some 1/8″ tile spacers to help keep the lines of the pattern straight and even. You’ll have several minutes of literal wiggle room before the mastic sets, but we never try to work too far in advance without taking a step back to see if anything has slipped or isn’t straight.

John placing white subway tile sheet onto mastic to set backsplash

Cutting The Tile Sheets

Laying the subway tile is super easy. The only place it gets slightly complicated is when cutting is involved, so I’ll give you a few examples of the tools and tricks you might need to have up your sleeve. For instance, when a partial sheet was needed –  like when these walls called for an extra row on top of each sheet – Sherry discovered that some pruning sheers worked great for snipping the glue dots that held our sheets together (the same would work on mesh tile sheets – as would a normal kitchen scissors). We just cut a few full sheets into rows so we had them at the ready.

Sherry using scissors to cut tiles off subway tile sheet

When a partial tile is in order (like when you bump into a light switch, outlet, or the end of the wall) we relied on a wet saw. For simple tiles like subway you can also use a ceramic tile cutter, but it will only cut along one line – so it wouldn’t work in cases like the one shown below, where I had to make that puppy look like Oklahoma. I used a pencil to mark the notch I’d need to cut out, and then took it outside to my wet saw to trim. For any first timers, a wet saw is faaar less scary than it looks. It’s actually one of my favorite saws to use because you can cut very slowly and be pretty precise.

John placing cut subway tile around outlet on kitchen backsplash

Don’t worry about making it crazy perfect around an outlet because the outlet cover will hide a lot. In fact, if you scroll back to the top pic in this post you’ll see that the outlet cover goes all the way to the grout crack, so all of that special cutting is hidden under it anyway.

The wet saw was also helpful for cutting full sheets faster, like when we got to the end of a wall. And unlike some experiences I’ve had with cutting tile sheets on a wet saw, these were super fast and easy to do.

Ridgid wet saw cutting a sheet of small white subway tiles

My saw came with an adjustable guide that also made cutting angles really easy. This would be super important if you were installing subway in a herringbone pattern, for example, and needed to cut the edge pieces (believe me, we’ve done it without one!). But in this case, we just needed it for the bullnose border pieces that we used whenever the tile didn’t terminate into a wall corner.

wet saw being used to cut a 45 degree angle on single subway tile

Installing Ends & Borders

Speaking of those bullnose pieces, you do have to think about where and how your backsplash is going to end. If you’re lucky, it will just run right into a corner like Liz’s did on the stove side of her kitchen, in which case there’s no border necessary (since the unfinished sides of the tile aren’t visible thanks to them butting up against the side wall).

kitchen backsplash with subway tile hung but not grouted

Speaking of that side wall, we could’ve opted to turn the tile and continue it along the side wall but there wasn’t a natural stopping point (the counters stick out much further than the upper cabinets, so it could look awkward to stop at one but not the other). Just going wall-to-wall along the back always makes for a nice clean look.

On the opposite wall, however, we didn’t have any walls to terminate into – which is where that bullnose edge detail came into play. You can see how we used a 45-degree angled cut at the top corners to make sure each exposed edge had a finished bullnose (as opposed to seeing the unfinished side of a regular tile).

ungrouted white subway tile backsplash with bullnose edges

Along this stretch of wall, we chose to install the tile wherever the existing granite backsplash ran, which seemed to look the most intentional (like they had always been there, installed together at the same time). In the past we have removed that short piece of granite so the tile can go right to the counter, but in this case they worked so well together that it felt better to leave it there – especially since it wasn’t worth the risk of damaging someone else’s granite counters in an attempt to get it off.

Grouting & Caulking Your Backsplash

We finished all of the tile cutting and installing the tile sheets in about 5 hours (it was mostly all of the outlets and switches on that one wall that ate up a lot of our time). We let the mastic set overnight and came back the next morning to remove our spacers, lay down fresh paper, and begin grouting. We used premixed grout (for the first time!) in a light gray for the slightest bit of contrast… and I’m undecided on it. Maybe I’ve just been mixing my grout too watery all of these years, but I found this to be a little on the dry side, which made it harder to spread quickly and without it crumbling off the wall and falling onto the counter. But it certainly was nice to skip the mixing step, so I’d happily give it another try to get more practice.

box of premixed grout in Silverado color

You can see grouting in action in the video, but it basically involves using the float to smoosh it (technical term, I promise) into all of the gaps between tiles. It takes a bit of pressure and some back-and-forth, up-and-down motions to make sure it catches in every seam – but it’s a relatively easy, albeit tedious process. Once you’ve got it in every seam, drag your float over the tile at a sharp angle to wipe off excess from the tile surfaces.

After you’ve let your grout set for around ten minutes or so, use a barely damp sponge to wipe along the surface of the tile. This will help remove any leftover grout on the tiles and also smooth the grout within the seams. It doesn’t take much pressure or water at all. You may find you want to go back for a second pass a little while later, once it’s set even more within the seams (this helps to take the haze off the tile itself).

Sherry wiping grout smooth on kitchen backsplash using a damp sponge

You’ll also want to caulk the edges where the tile meets your counter, your cabinets, and/or the walls. We bought a caulk that’s color-matched to the light gray grout we used (both were “Silverado”), so it wouldn’t stick out like a big white border. We like to tape off the areas that are about to be caulked, leaving just a thin gap for where the caulk will go. Then just squeeze a small line of caulk along the seam, and use a wet finger (dipped in a cup of warm water) to smooth it. Be sure to pull your tape off as soon as you’ve got it smoothed to your liking. Do NOT wait for the caulk to fully dry before removing your tape. Note: this caulk went on lighter than the grout and scared us for a second, but it darkened to be a perfect match when it dried. 

Sherry spreading caulk with finger along edges of installed backsplash

Completing Your Installation

Often the finishing touches are buffing and sealing. You may find a grout haze appearing on your tile over the next 24 hours. Once the grout has had a full day or so to set, use a non-shedding cloth (like microfiber or cheesecloth) to buff the surface of the tile. It may take some elbow grease in certain places, just be carefull not to press into any grout lines – especially if they show any signs of not being fully cured. Some tiles or grouts may require sealing also, but neither of ours did in this case. You can read more about that in this post if yours do.

bright white subway tile backsplash in kitchen with gray granite counters

After that – you’re ready to enjoy your new backsplash! Which, without tooting our own horns too much, Liz was very excited to do. She’s been in this house for about three years and has always known the kitchen needed something like this. So it was fun to be able to help her make it happen… and for just $200! Note: we did three walls of Liz’s kitchen, so for anyone who might just need one or two areas of tile, it should be even cheaper – especially if you order the Wayfair tile we later found, which is almost half the price. 

white subway tile sheet backsplash with black cabinetry

The only downside to this project is that we may have opened up a can of worms for Liz (we all agreed that extending the Revere Pewter wall color from her nearby living room would look awesome in here). But that’s a project for another day! And maybe another nephew? Just kidding. Well, maybe not. Love you, Liz!

Other Kitchen Backsplash Tile We’re Loving

And if this is just the nudge you needed to do what we should’ve done in our first kitchen (#backsplashregrets), here are some tile options we hunted down that would work really well for a backsplash update:

1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 10

mood board of kitchen backsplash tile sheets for an easy upgrade

More Tiling Projects and Installation How-Tos

If you guys want more info, tutorials, and photos of other tile projects in our house – here are some other installs we’ve documented:

Speaking of installing tile, we’re bound to have a lot more of it coming up in our beach house soon. I can’t tell if I’m excited or intimidated. Three showers, three bathroom floors, a kitchen backsplash… *gulp*

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This post was originally published in May 2017