How to Install a Ceramic Tile Backsplash
Laura Dye Lang
Depending on the design and your space, installing a ceramic tile backsplash is easy to moderately challenging -- and the project can be completed in a weekend. Here's how:
To protect yourself and/or your home:
- Drop cloths and/or kraft paper
- Dust mask
- Safety glasses
- Disposable vinyl gloves
- Painter’s tape - For installation:
- For installation:
- 80-grit sandpaper
- Sponges and rags
- Measuring tape
- Tile cutter
- Tile snips
- Putty knives
- Tile spacers
- Grout float
- Phosphate-free wall cleaner
- Premixed mastic (a type of construction adhesive) for wall tile
- Wall tiles
- Premixed liquid grout
- Grout sealant (if specified by grout-maker)
- Caulk (color matched to grout)
You may also need:
Screwdriver (to remove/replace covers on light switches and electrical covers)
Drywall repair supplies (to fill holes and other imperfections in the wall before tiling)
- Putty knife
- Fine-grit sandpaper (150 to 200)
- Scissors (for tiles with mesh backing)
- Wet saw (to make a lot of clean or complicated cuts)
- Undercut trim saw (to trim behind woodwork)
- Small sponge brush or similar applicator (to apply grout sealant)
- Longer screws (to secure light switches and electrical covers over the tile)
Step No. 1: Prep the backsplash
Step No. 1: Prep the backsplash
a. To determine how much tile you'll need, multiply the width of the wall you'll tile by its height. For a finished look, plan to end exposed edges (the ones that don't abut walls or cabinets) with bullnose (rounded trim) or other edge tile.
b. Start with a primed or painted wall that's smooth, clean (grease-free) and dry. Protect the area with a drop cloth, and wear a dust mask and safety glasses. Lightly hand-sand the surface with 80-grit sandpaper. Remove dust with a clean, damp rag.
c. Measure and mark the exact center of the area being tiled. Use a pencil and a level to draw a plumb (vertical) line through the center point. Step No. 2: Preview the tile backsplash design
a. Arrange tiles on a covered horizontal surface that’s the same size as the backsplash. Mesh-backed tiles have built-in space for grout joints. To maintain a constant look and make room for grout, insert tile spacers between the sheets and between loose tiles. Allow for a 1/8-inch caulk line where the tile meets the countertop, the cabinets and the walls.
b. Rework the layout to minimize cuts and produce attractive cuts (not too thin) on the top and sides of the backsplash.
Step No. 3: Install the backsplash tile.
a. Work from the left or right from the plumb line and up from a level countertop. If your countertop is not level (very likely), use the lowest point and the plumb line as references to draw a level horizontal line on the wall at a point that's slightly less than the height of the bottom row of tiles. Measure and mark the bottom row of tiles and trim the bottom edges with a tile cutter so that the top edges align with the level horizontal line. Remember to allow 1/8 inch for caulk between the countertop and bottom row of tiles.
b. Wear vinyl gloves to protect your hands. Use a putty knife to load the trowel with enough mastic to cover a 1- to 2-foot square area.
c. Spread a generous amount of mastic on the wall using the straight edge of the trowel. Comb the notched edge of the trowel through the mastic to score it and create a consistent depth of adhesive.
d. Press the tiles into the scored mastic. Install spacers, measure, trim and snip tiles as needed, and use the level to check the alignment as you go.
e. Follow the mastic manufacturer’s recommendations for drying time. Remove spacers before it dries completely. Allow the adhesive to cure completely before grouting.
Step No. 4: Grout the tile backsplash
a. Use a putty knife to load grout onto the float. Work in an area (about 2 feet by 2 feet) that you can complete in about 10 minutes. Hold the float at a 30-degree angle, spread the grout across the tile and work it into the grout lines. Do not grout where you will caulk.
b. Use the float to scrape off excess grout and your finger to pop air bubbles. Remove any remaining grout from the face of the tile using clean water and a damp sponge. Check that all the grout joints are filled and that the tile is clean.
c. After the grout is set (follow manufacturer's recommendations), use a clean, dry sponge to remove any residue from the face of the tile
Step No. 5: Finish the tile backsplash.
a. Follow the grout manufacturer's recommendations for sealing the joints. In general, epoxy grouts will not require sealing.
b. Apply a thin line of caulk where the tile meets the countertop, the cabinets, and the walls. Smooth the line by running a wet fingertip over the caulk. Allow caulk to dry according to manufacturer's directions.
Follow manufacturer directions for all tools and products.
Wear a dust mask when sanding.
Wear disposable vinyl gloves when working with tile mastic and grout.
- Take your time and cut the tiles as needed to fit as you go. Check alignment frequently. Use a pencil, rather than ink, to lightly mark the back of the tile where you'll cut.
- There's nothing like a wet saw for making quick, clean cuts and deftly trimming tile to fit into tight corners and around curves. Whether you buy one (about $150 for a small tabletop model) or rent it (for about $50 a day) will depend on your budget, the size of your tile and how frequently you'll use the machine. Either way, drape the cutting workspace in plastic sheeting or set up the saw in a covered outdoor area. After all, it is called a wet saw.
- The larger the tile, the larger the notches on your trowel. Grab a 3/16-inch V-notch trowel to install mosaics. A 1/4-inch V-notch is great for 2- to 4-inch wall tile. Move up to a 1/4-inch square-notch trowel for 6- to 8-inch tile. Pick up a 1/2-inch square-notch or U-notch tool for 12-inch tile.
- Avoid an awkward (too skinny) cut to place a tile next to a windowsill or similar protrusion by using an undercut saw to trim the woodwork so you can slip a full tile (back-buttered with mastic) behind it.
- Use grout for wall tile that matches the water resistance required by your backsplash. Choose a sanded grout if the joints will be larger than 1/8 inch. Otherwise, use a non-sanded grout.
- Before starting the project, wash the wall with a phosphate-free cleaner and fill any holes.
- Protect countertops, appliances and cabinets with plastic sheeting or kraft paper (the kind used for paper grocery bags). Cover floors with drop cloths.
- Purchase a bit more tile than you think you'll need to optimize placement and allow for cutting mistakes and breakage.
- If you'll use a lot of the same tile, open the boxes and mix the contents between the containers to disperse slight, common variations in appearance.
- If practical, move appliances and apply tile to the wall behind them. If the appliance can't be moved, slip uncut tiles (back-buttered with mastic) behind the equipment. Install enough tiles to avoid unsightly gaps.
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