Setting the Backsplash

Our tile backsplash is in place! We had about 50 square feet to complete, and our goal was to set the tile on Saturday and enjoy a day of nothing-ness on Sunday – and we did it! We still need to finish the job with grout, caulk and sealer (one night this week, if all goes well), but for now, we’re happy to bask in our almost completed backsplash.

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With a handful of tutorials readily available on the web, we want to share which ones worked for us, but perhaps most importantly, how things go down when nothing in your home is level. Or when your floors are crooked! And when your walls are a nightmare! Despite patches of new drywall and intense cabinet and counter leveling from the pros, we ultimately ran into a roadblock or two, but in the end, I’ll say that we’re really satisfied with the work we put in and how far we’ve come.

We referenced these guidelines from Houzz and This Old House the most, and we were able to get by with a small shopping list and a lot of tools we had on hand. Although we tiled our entryway flooring last year, I convinced myself the backsplash would be incredibly hard (it really wasn’t) and take forever (it sort of did). Sure, a floor requires leveling, but a backsplash has outlets and switches and peaks and valleys and, well, you know. As novice tilers, the entire job of setting took us a solid 8 hour day, but again I say, we did it!

SETTING TILE: SUPPLIES USED
3″ x 6″ matte white subway tile
1/16″ spacers
Pre-mixed mastic (1 gal/50 sq ft)

SETTING TILE: TOOLS USED
Rosin paper
Painter’s tape
Level
Pencil
1/4″ v-notch trowel
tape measure and/or small ruler
Wet saw
Plastic sheeting

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WHAT WE DID: First and foremost, setting tile is a messy job. We took a good 30 minutes to set up our work space, laying and taping rosin paper to our counters, draping plastic over the hutch and creating a zone with additional plastic for the wet saw. I laid out all of our tools, stacked tile within reach and scattered piles of spacers.

With everything in order, we started by drawing a level plumb line behind our focal point (the sink) on the wet wall. Using our trowel, we spread enough pre-mixed mastic to cover about a square foot of tile to start, and we placed our first tile to the left of the plumb line. We then worked out from that starting point, making our way left, then right, spreading mastic as needed and applying our 1/16″ spacers for consistency.

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Over time, we learned that a little mastic goes a long way! Too much would ooze between the tiles, and it would cause them to slip about (even with the spacers). Tip: For extra tight spaces, you can purchase a smaller v-notch trowel. Because we didn’t have one, we found that using a small putty knife to apply the mastic worked just as well! Once the mastic was applied, we dragged the short end of our large trowel to create the grooves that are necessary for suction.

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As we placed each tile, we’d give it a little push up and down until settling it into place. When moving on to the next row, a small ruler helped to ensure the simple pattern stayed on track.

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We fell into a rhythm where I’d spread the mastic and set the tile, and Scott would follow behind with end cuts and the more intricate measurements around the outlets. For all of his intricate cuts, he used the wet saw exclusively. We also purchased tile nippers and a (score-and-snap) tile cutter, both of which we personally found were unnecessary. Scott found that working with the wet saw gave him the most accurate cuts, and he was the most comfortable sticking with that. Our wet saw is a small tabletop version, but keep in mind that they can be rented, too.

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As we completed each row, we were mindful to take a moment and make sure we were staying level, which, on the wet wall, we were! Although the wet wall required the most time, we were in the zone and it was, surprisingly, smooth sailing.

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That is, until we moved onto the stove side! Our cabinets and counters, while independently level, were off by a very small amount with each other. Our floor does slope, causing the cabinet on the left to be slightly (and I mean slightly) lower than that on the right. We started by screwing in a dummy board below the surface of the counters taking into account this seemingly minor difference, which would help to give our tiles a place to sit and stack upon each other:

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As our tiles continued to grow towards the upper cabinets, that insignificant difference in level magnified more than we would have liked, but you know what? We’re going to go ahead and call that one Old House Charm. No amount of fussing or pulling off tiles and reapplying tiles seemed to better the situation. Simply put, there were too many differences competing with each other – the downhill floor! The imperfect drywall! – but once the tile is grouted, the itty bitty curvature of the pattern will be (almost) non-existent.

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Looking back at these photos now, I’m realizing that we may have gotten a bit too caught up in the details (me? No way!). All in all, we’re pretty thrilled with our DIY job! Our favorite part may be where the tile meets our pocket door, which was trimmed with the same molding we’ve been using throughout the home. We brought the tile up to the same height as the nook above the sink, capped it with a bullnose, and we continued it down to the baseboard:

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We ended the tile at the corner, which feels clean and uncomplicated (hi, CC!):

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And the matte finish? It’s so subtle! So pretty!

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Remember when we were planning on using charcoal grout? That idea has been nixed completely, and instead, we’re moving forward with Whisper Grey. (Thank you for your input on that, by the way!) In the end, we felt that the soft color would feel more casual and lend a home-y vibe; I mean, that makes sense, yes? From there, all the edges will get caulked, and we’ll check tile! off the to-do!

See how we grouted, sealed and caulked right here!

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  • Katya - March 11, 2015 - 6:57 AM

    Great job, guys, it looks so great!ReplyCancel

  • Brittany - March 11, 2015 - 8:33 AM

    Looks SO good! I love how high you took the subway tile. It’s really more of a feature than just a backsplash. We’re getting ready to install white subway tiles in our kitchen, but we have only a small area to cover, so we’re using the sheets of smaller tiles. Can you share where you found the light above your sink? I’ve been searching for a small flush mount, and the one I want at CB2 is out of stock until May. Finding attractive, affordable flush/semi-flush mount lighting is a task in itself! Anyway, great progress! Can’t wait to see when the hardware gets added!ReplyCancel

  • susan - March 11, 2015 - 8:57 AM

    this looks fabulous! i really like how you tiled past the counter top to the pocket door carrying the tile down to the baseboard and up to match the height by the sink. it must not have used that much more tile, but looks oh so classy.

    you could even continue that look by tiling the skinny part on the other side of the pocket door to match and make it look like a tiled wall…

    very, very nice work guys!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - March 11, 2015 - 10:14 AM

      You know, we considered that! It might be neat to not only carry it to the other side of the pocket door, but also flanking the back door wall once that’s installed, ending at the same height. But, ugh, just not sure if that might be overboard? We do love that look in photos, but we’ll have to play it by ear!ReplyCancel

      • susan - March 11, 2015 - 10:25 AM

        well, i was going to suggest that too, but didn’t want to pile onto your 5%!!

        but depending on how much actual wall shows after the door is finished, it may not be too much tile. you can try photoshopping to test drive the look… i love it!ReplyCancel

        • Kim - March 11, 2015 - 10:29 AM

          Haha, thank you! Aah, that pesky 5%.ReplyCancel

  • andee - March 11, 2015 - 9:09 AM

    It really looks amazing! I cannot wait to see everything finished!ReplyCancel

  • Emily R - March 11, 2015 - 9:33 AM

    I recently renovated the kitchen in my 150 year old townhouse. I count my lucky stars that my very very anal cabinet installer perfectly leveled my cabinets. My floor slope about two inches in a little over 5′! It made counter install and back splash install a breeze!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - March 11, 2015 - 9:40 AM

      Where can I find your cabinet installer?! Kidding. The counters/cabinets are perfectly level, but from each side of the stove, one was higher than the other by about 1/8″… but as the tiles build up, that difference seemed to get bigger. We were super frustrated, but I’m realizing that it’s not noticeable as all – in my head it seemed a lot worse!ReplyCancel

  • Debra - March 11, 2015 - 9:35 AM

    That looks so lovely and I adore the super small grout lines. So clean! So fresh!ReplyCancel

  • Heather - March 11, 2015 - 9:53 AM

    Looks great. Y’all are almost there! Great looking light, too!ReplyCancel

  • Adrienne J - March 11, 2015 - 10:02 AM

    Aw, love that little light over the sink! Also, I want to pet that tile. I think that’s a creative thing. :)ReplyCancel

  • Julia [Chris Loves Julia] - March 11, 2015 - 10:12 AM

    So crisp. So clean. I can’t wait to see it grouted! And hardware on the cabinets! So close!ReplyCancel

  • Heather {AFirePoleintheDiningRoom} - March 11, 2015 - 11:28 AM

    Looks great! I also love the treatment by the pocket door!ReplyCancel

  • Clever Girl Reviews - March 11, 2015 - 11:42 AM

    It looks great! I like the smaller grout lines!ReplyCancel

  • Alexandria - March 11, 2015 - 12:40 PM

    Who doesn’t like white backsplash? It’s beautiful and gives the room a clean an open feel! The day I finally stop traveling and settle down somewhere, I can’t wait to customize my kitchen and bathrooms with this stuff!ReplyCancel

  • Joy - March 11, 2015 - 1:37 PM

    great job–loving the light above the sink!ReplyCancel

  • Uncle Brain - March 11, 2015 - 4:14 PM

    I think I just cried a little due the the absolute beauty. It is just too much to take in all at once.ReplyCancel

  • Lucas - March 11, 2015 - 5:08 PM

    Are you planning on casing the opening between the kitchen and the dining room? I can’t remember if there is a full jamb or if the other side of the opening is the wall running through.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - March 11, 2015 - 5:12 PM

      We went back and forth on this for a while, but the problem is that the tiny wing wall isn’t wide enough for our usual door trim, so we’d have to cut it down width-wise. That wouldn’t be the END of the world, but it does seem ridiculous for such a prominent doorway that connects the main space to the kitchen. So, we decided to leave that opening trim-free, and we’re sort of only trimming the doorways that have actual doors. :)ReplyCancel

  • Lucas - March 11, 2015 - 5:09 PM

    PS: Everything looks fantastic! I have been working on my 5% for about 3 months now and you have definitely inspired me to push and FINISH!ReplyCancel

  • Danielle M - March 11, 2015 - 7:00 PM

    This looks beautiful! I’m at the tail end of my own kitchen renovation in a 100 year old house and dealing with “charming” slopes, plaster walls- etc. I know you understand! I actually looked at the tile you ended up using but I was worried it was too “white” for my slightly off white cabinets and honed marble counter tops. I ended up ordering their “white” tile but it doesn’t come in matte. Curious, do you think it’s more important for the shade of white to be perfect or the finish? Ahh. I go round and round and round on this decision! Can’t wait to see the big reveal :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - March 12, 2015 - 8:51 AM

      That’s really tough, because I don’t think everything has to match exactly – otherwise, how boring! You know what they say, it just has to “go” :)

      When we went tile shopping, we brought a sample of our countertop, a piece of board painted with our wall color and small sample of wood painted with our cabinet color. We checked The Tile Shop for their white matte subway tiles, but the color was a little too off-white for our cabinets, but the Daltile brand was a perfect balance. Perhaps you should check The Tile Shop?

      I think you should do whatever makes you the happiest. If the different shades of white bothered you at first, it might always bother you! Go with your gut, it’s rarely wrong.ReplyCancel

      • Danielle - March 12, 2015 - 6:48 PM

        I so agree- I think I’ve been over thinking it (I mean, it’s subway tile for goodness sake!) It’s my last decision to make in the kitchen and I think I’m having decision paralysis at this point. I’m pretty sure everyone who’s done a kitchen can relate :) Thanks for your encouragement!ReplyCancel

  • The Kentucky Gent - March 11, 2015 - 7:38 PM

    CAN’T go wrong with a white kitchen, and with a white backsplash it’s even more of a win, win.

    Best,
    Josh – The Kentucky Gent
    http://thekentuckygent.comReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth - March 11, 2015 - 9:23 PM

    Holy moley, does that look beautiful! What a difference!ReplyCancel

  • Trude - March 12, 2015 - 11:40 AM

    It looks absolutely beautiful. That matte finish! And that shot at the top of the post *swoon*.ReplyCancel

  • Hollie @ Fancykins - March 12, 2015 - 5:22 PM

    HOOOOOOLY cats, this tile looks so stinking good. I don’t envy your leveling woes, but I do envy the finished product :)ReplyCancel

  • Christin - March 15, 2015 - 6:49 PM

    Looking great! Can’t wait to see it all done. I just started my own blog. Feel free to check mine out. http://www.theauburnfox.blogspot.comReplyCancel

    • Kim - March 16, 2015 - 9:42 AM

      Congrats on starting your own blog! I’m hopping over to check it out!ReplyCancel

  • Christina Gutierrez on Home Plans - March 17, 2015 - 3:04 AM

    Very detailed – such a great instruction material. Thanks for sharing your knowledge – we will definitely keep this with our resource library. ^_^ReplyCancel

  • Amy Lloyd - September 27, 2016 - 1:16 PM

    Hey yall!

    I am kinda new to your site and looking to DIY a blacksplash of my own! Did yall remove tile that was already there and prep the walls or where they already ready to go? I have to removed the old blacksplash and hopefully the 4in granite backsplash to make the new tile flush. Any tips?

    Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 27, 2016 - 1:33 PM

      Hi Amy! We didn’t have to remove any tile, luckily. However, once you remove the tile you have, you’ll likely have to repair the drywall to the point where it’s nice and smooth. If the drywall hasn’t been patched properly, you run the risk of your new tile having dips and valleys. I recommend a lot of joint compound and sanding to get it looking its best, but if you’re uncomfortable doing that, it’s a relatively quick job for a contractor!ReplyCancel

  • Nicole - January 27, 2017 - 12:24 PM

    Kim, I love the look of your tile backsplash and would love to achieve a similar look in our own kitchen. We are set to start in 2 days and I just picked up our tile and realized the tiles have a tiny lug on them even though I thought they didn’t. Without spacers there is a little more than 1/32 inch gapping but with the spacers it jumps to 1.5/16 or just under 1/8. Of course that’s without grout which I suppose may make the gapping appear even more due to the tile having a slight rounded edge. I’m torn at what to do. Did your tiles have any lugs to them and do you know what the exact spacing ending up being? Would so appreciate your feedback!!!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - January 27, 2017 - 12:41 PM

      Hi Nicole, great question! To be honest, we later wished we hadn’t used the spacers. I’d say our grout line is a little less than 1/8″, which still looks great, BUT we would have preferred something smaller. I honestly can’t remember if these had a tiny lug, but I’m guessing they did.

      It sounds to me that you’re hoping for a small grout line, in which case, SKIP the spacers! I wrote a little more about it here, with help from our friend, Daniel: http://www.yellowbrickhome.com/2016/01/14/diy-subway-tile/

      That said, your grout line should be a nice line without the help of spacers, since the grout will not only sit on top of those tiny lugs, but it will also sit ever-so-slightly on top of the easement edges of your tile. Check out that link above for more info!

      Good luck!ReplyCancel

  • southern gal - January 28, 2017 - 3:41 PM

    started reading thru your blog from the first post of the new house… quick question re the wet wall .. just curious about the length of the cabinets and the pocket door opening… why the frame is not pushed over a few inches to butt up against the end of all the cabinets on that side?

    love all your posts and am learning lots reading from the beginning of this house – you have such dedication and discipline! and are such hard workers! looking forward to getting to 2017 and seeing how the house looks!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - January 28, 2017 - 4:30 PM

      Wow, that is dedication! Thank you for following along, we’re happy you’re here!

      The pocket door was placed in such a way that didn’t feel too smooshed against the cabinets while still allowing us to add MORE cabinets. In the end, we feel great about the way it turned out. There’s some breathing room, which allowed for us to highlight that space with tile.ReplyCancel

  • […] few of the tiles we looked at were matte instead of polished/glossy.  I first saw these used in Yellow Brick Home’s backsplash.  These were really beautiful because the finish gave them an understated iridescent quality. […]ReplyCancel

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