At Home with Christiana: Back-splash Low Down

Installing a tile back-splash is one of the first projects we took on early into our reno days, and I think it’s a great place for beginners to start. It’s fairly quick, fairly simple, and provides almost instant gratification. WIN! This post may seem long at first glance, but don’t be intimidated – EVERYONE can do this in ONE. WEEKEND. This post contains a complete shopping list of all the materials you need to get started, along with step-by-instructions to get you a back-splash-beautiful kitchen in just two days.  

**Recommendations and opinions are all my own, no sponsors.**
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Our first DIY backsplash in progress. If we can do it- you can!

Before you get started, A couple of things to note:

  1. The budget and difficulty of this project can vary greatly based on the type of tile that you select. 
  2. Soapbox moment: a back-splash is best when it complements without overpowering the kitchen. From my real estate experience, if a buyer leaves a house and all they talk about is the back-splash, it’s always for the wrong reasons. Please no tile ocean motifs, unless you plan on never moving, like ever.

STEP ONE: SELECT YOUR MATERIAL

If you’ve already picked your tile, great! Measure twice three times to make sure you buy enough material, then add at least 10% to account for mistakes or faulty tiles and skip to STEP TWO!

If you’re still on the fence about what to use, allow me to introduce some of my back-splash favorites, ranked in order from the easiest to most time consuming material. All of these looks are equally timeless and beautiful… the hard part is choosing which one you like best.

(1) White subway tile: Beginners rejoice! White subway tile is a classic beauty that installs with ease. No patterns to match, super durable, easy to clean, and a look that never goes out of style. Need I say more? Well, I will, because it gets better. You can install this tile without using tile grout spacers, since the tiles have nifty ridges built into the side which will give you 1/16 grout lines without any extra work. Boom! This tile is also great for beginners to work with because it can be easily cut with a manual snap tile-cutter as opposed to the pricier and more complicated wet saw required for larger tile and natural stone projects. I have an indiscreet obsession with white subway tile that has earned it a place in many of our renovated spaces.  

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Our white subway tile-clad kitchen.

Subway tile also comes in a variety of styles like the cool, modern bevel; and sizes such as the popular mini subway sheet mosaic. Trim pieces, such as bullnose tiles, are available to use if you will have exposed ends of your backsplash to give it that “finished” look.

Best for: Beginners, budget, classic style, messy cooks (like me)

(2) Encaustic or ceramic imitation: Equally stunning and costly, genuine encaustic or hand panted cement tile, is famous for it’s bold and beautiful patterns.  Lucky for us, there are some great ceramic encaustic-style look-alikes on the market these days. These tiles are popping up ALL OVER design sites right now, but with roots pre-dating the 16th century, this historical look is anything but a trend.

 

minton encaustic tiles US Capitol
Minton encaustic tiles, US Capitol, installed in 1856!

While ceramic encaustic-style tiles are not quite a hand painted piece of history, they are pretty, budget-friendly and easy to work with. I’ve ranked these as more complicated than subway tiles for two reasons. First, the tiles are generally larger in size and thus require a wet saw.  Second, these tiles ALWAYS, ALWAYS require a design plan. Patterned tiles must be arranged thoughtfully to achieve the desired pattern and overall effect. Even if you want your tiles to appear ‘random’ you need to make sure you don’t group tiles of one type together. Also if the spacing or alignment is off AT ALL at any point, it will be very noticeable because the patterns will not line up correctly.  In short, layout your project before you begin, use tile spacers and check your level lines and you’ll LOVE the result. I have personally installed the extremely affordable black vintage Merola tiles and the Faventia ceramic blue shown below, and I love the look, price, and durability they provide without sacrificing style!

Best for: Beginners, statement look, global style

(3) Marble: There really is nothing like the natural beauty of marble, which is available in several varieties, colors, and price-points. And don’t believe the “you can’t have marble if you have kids” nonsense! I have now maintained beautifully resilient marble in two heavily used kitchens and two constantly used bathrooms (including bathroom floors with potty-training boys… if you know what I’m getting at). And LOOK AT IT. So. pretty.

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Carrara marble mosaic. 

If marble is prepped and handled correctly it will weather your kitchen for longer than you can live in it. I promise. Let’s not forget there are actual buildings made out of marble that have been sitting there looking gorgeous for centuries. When installing marble, I suggest three additional steps for function and aesthetic.

  1. First, it is critical to inspect and sort the tiles to remove any chipped, cracked, or discolored pieces before you get started. When working with any natural material, some tiles will crack. Natural stone is much more prone to chip and crack than man-made materials such as porcelain or ceramic. Color and movement can (and likely will) vary greatly between natural stone tiles, and marble is no exception. Be familiar with the return policy of your retailer as you will likely have a number of tiles you won’t want to use.  
  2. Second, seal the marble according to directions on your marble/tile sealant of choice BEFORE you install it. Grout and adhesive can stain porous stone if it is not sealed correctly. Allow tile to rest for the prescribed time before proceeding with your project.
  3. Third, arrange the marble tiles to achieve your desired color and movement in a template BEFORE you begin to install any of them. This holds true for sheet mosaics as well as individual tiles. (TIP: Use painters tape to attach guides on each corner of your layout such as Top L, Top R, Bottom L, Bottom R. Particularly if you’re not working alone, orientation can be easily confused. You’ll be glad you did, just trust me on this one). At this point, you’ve already taken the time to seal your pretty stone, so don’t fung it up by installing all the dark tiles together in one “blob” under your cabinet!  DON’T DO IT. This step can be time consuming but is so worth it, and is often the difference between a professional or amateur looking result.

Best for: Patient beginners or experienced DIYers, adding luxury to a space, natural beauty

STEP TWO: GATHER YOUR SUPPLIES

Once you’ve selected your tile, there are a few more supplies you need to purchase before you get started.

(1) Tile saw: You can use a manual snap cutter for most small ceramic or porcelain tiles. (like pretty white subway tiles! Woot!) For larger tiles or natural stone, you’ll need a wet tile saw. Wet saws range in price anywhere from $100 for a basic saw to $1000 and up for contractor grade standing wet saws. Depending on the complexity and frequency of your projects, different tools will best suit your needs. We have used this pretty basic $189 Ridgid for several years now and it’s withstood all of our projects pretty well. You can also rent tools from hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowes if you’re not in the market to buy.

Mastic

(2) Adhesive: If you are installing a backsplash in your already finished kitchen, you are likely installing over drywall or plaster. (This makes for easy tiling, hooray!) My favorite adhesive for the job is this pre-mixed mastic. It comes off the shelf in a premixed, resealable tub so there is no messy mixing and no rush to finish the job if you have to take several breaks to say… pick up certain rascals from soccer practice. Available at most hardware stores. 

(3) Trowel: You will need a trowel to spread your adhesive, and for wall tiles up to 8″ you’re looking for a 1/4″ square notch like this one

trowel

grout
If you selected any of the recommended tiles, I’ve included my favorite coordinating grout colors here. For both subway tile and marble installs, I love this perfect not-too-light-not-too-dark Delorean Grey color. I advise against white in almost all situations, but particularly in one where you will be potentially splattering your red wine and bolognese in the vicinity of this grout. With blue encaustic-style tile install I love this Italian Stone color by Stainmaster, and this charcoal grout by Maipei is perfect with bold black patterned tiles.

(4) Grout: Grout comes in two varieties, sanded and unsanded, and is available in a mind-numbing selection of colors. Backsplashes are typically installed with narrow grout joints, meaning grout lines of 1/8 inch or less. In this case, unsanded grout will get the job done. (Sanded grout is required for flooring projects and wall installs with grout lines greater than 1/8 inch wide.) You can buy grout in a pre-mixed tub, or for a bit less money you can buy it as a powder and mix it yourself. Grout can be mixed by hand if you don’t mind putting some muscle into it, or a mixing attachment like this can be purchased for your drill, if you have one. The drill option saves time and sweat, which is always nice.

 

(TIP: Once you select the grout for your project, please please take a picture of the package in case it gets discarded by an unassuming spouse (not that this ever happens…) or gets too gunked up to be read clearly. Take my word for it, there are too many brands and too many colors at too many different stores to simply go back out for more of “that grey-ish” grout when and if you run out.) 

 

 

(5) Caulk & Caulk Gun – You’ll need caulk to seal up the seams between your counter and cabinets or shelves. It is available in colors to match grout, or clear is always a safe bet. A caulk gun is used to press the caulk out of the tube and apply it along thin seams. You won’t be able to use the caulk without one! Enjoy a reason to make lots of Caulk jokes. 

(6) Grout float: Buy more than one of these if you want someone to help you grout! 

(7) Grout sponge:– Same as above!

(8) Tile spacers: (if needed) As mentioned above in the case for subway tile, no spacers are required for subway tile install with 1/16” grout lines. However, almost EVERY OTHER project needs tile spacers. These little guys keep your tiles evenly spaced, and your grout lines straight. I suggest 1/8” for backsplash install. These come in a few styles, but my favorite is this plastic type with a stabilizing ring.

(9) Tile nippers (optional) – I would suggest these if you’re going to work with ceramic or porcelain as they can help you make a small notches in tile if required to accommodate an outlet or cabinet. Skip them for marble or natural tile, as they tend to crack natural material too easily.

(10) Bucket (optional): For rinsing  your grout sponge. If you’ve got an old bowl lying around you can use that too!

(11) Level: For drawing a reliable center line and sanity-checking those grout joints.

(12) Measuring Tape: You’ll need to measure tiles to cut and fit accurately along walls, around outlets, and under cabinets.

(13) Grout sealer (optional): If you don’t heed my warnings against white grout, help me help you, and seal it. Application is easy with something like this

STEP THREE: PREP!

Yep, the boring, but oh-so-important step everyone wants to skip. DON’T!!  I promise, backsplash prep is really not too involved, and it pays dividends.

(1)  Clean up! Ensure the wall for tile install is clean and flat. Bumps will make tile uneven and adhesive doesn’t stick well to dust and dirt. Wipe off that kitchen grease behind the stove! I see you! A simple multi-surface cleaner is fine. Dry the area before tiling. Remove any electrical outlet covers in your tiling area. Move your range forward and out of the way. Now is also the time to clean and/or seal your tile if necessary (Marble people, I’m looking at you.)

(2) Measure and Layout: Measure the wall area for install and, if desired, create your backsplash tile layout on a table or floor area nearby. (TIP: DO NOT do this on the counter. While it might seem convenient, it will be super annoying when you accidentally glop adhesive on it!) This step is especially critical if you selected a natural stone or patterned tile (see STEP ONE above).

(3) Select and mark your starting point. Depending on your kitchen layout and the surface to be tiled, your starting point may vary. However it’s important to note that the best place to start your backslpash is usually NOT along one wall or the other. If you have a focal point on your soon-to-be-backsplashed wall, use this as your guide. For instance, often the center of the cooktop, pot filler or vent hood is a good place to start. Mark the direct center of the focal point, and draw your center line using a level or straight edge starting at just above your countertop. This is where you will center your first tile. You will always complete the bottom row of tile first so tiles can rest on the counter, and then, each other.  Otherwise, tile will sag – gravity is a thingIf there is no counter surface behind your range for your first row of tile to rest on, you can either (a) screw a ledger board into the wall to support your backsplash tile. A ledger board can be any scrap piece of wood (as long as it’s straight!) screwed directly to the wall in line with your countertop height to maintain a level bottom tile line; OR (b) run your tile to the floor for easy wipe-down cleaning behind your range. Up to you!

(4) Set up your saw. For a manual snap cutter, this pretty much just involves getting it out of the garage (yay!). But a wet saw requires a power source (think extension cords) and cool water. Follow the instructions on your saw for proper set up, please! If you grabbed tile nippers, it’s good to have those on hand too. You don’t want to be searching for tools while your adhesive dries.

STEP FOUR: START TILING!!

Yes! The fun part!! You’re here!!! Pop open that adhesive like a bottle of bubbles and get this show on the road! 

(1) Spread your adhesive. Using your trowel, dip into that adhesive! Using the notched side of the trowel, spread your adhesive across the wall from your starting point to create a “striped” look across the wall surface. It doesn’t have to be thick, just enough to ensure full coverage of the tile. Make sure your center line is still visible before you get too carried away, and drumroll please… Press your first tile firmly into the adhesive, centered on your starting point, and place a tile spacer under the tile so it doesn’t rest directly on the counter. (You’ll caulk that space at the end of the job.)  YES! A tile is on your wall!! Do your happy dance and continue by applying more adhesive in small sections just large enough to apply a few tiles at a time so the adhesive doesn’t dry before you get the tile up. Place a tile spacer between each tile as needed, to ensure proper spacing.

(2) Cut tiles to fit. You’ll hopefully get through at least most of one row before you have to cut a tile to fit around an outlet, wall, or cabinet. When you reach the end of your first row, if you can’t fit a whole tile, simply measure the remaining space (accounting for your grout lines), measure and mark on your tile, and cut the tile to fit with your manual snapper or wet saw by following the tool’s instructions. (TIP: If adhesive starts to gunk up your trowel, you can use water to rinse with a sponge in a utility sink, bucket, or bowl.)

Keep at it until you’ve filled up every last inch of that backsplash! If you’re using trim pieces, don’t forget to place your bullnose tiles at the exposed edges. Now revel in your beautiful tile!!! (And go to bed.) Wait 24 hours before you move to STEP FIVE.

STEP FIVE: GROUT

Alright, by now you have a legit looking kitchen with a fancy tile backsplash. Time to fill in all the perfectly straight and evenly spaced (because you DID that! Woot!) tiny little joints with grout. Wait at least 24 hours after tiling before grouting your new beautiful backsplash. Get your grouting tools out: Float, sponge, bucket of water, and rags.

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Our freshly-installed DIY Carrara marble backsplash.

(1) Mix grout per instructions on the bag to a toothpaste or peanut butter consistency, or open your pre-mixed grout.

(2) Remove all of your tile spacers and bag them up for your next project! (TIP: Label the bag with the spacer width, so they don’t get mixed up with others as you take on more of these exciting tile projects. Yep, see what I did there?)

(3) Scoop grout with grout flout and apply over the tile at a 45 degree angle, working evenly into the grout lines between tiles.

(4) Fill your bucket or bowl with water and grab your sponge. Wait 10 minutes.

(5) Use a damp sponge to remove excess grout from your tiles. There will still be residue, called a “haze” left on your tiles. This is NORMAL. Don’t try to get it all of right now. (Wait 2 hours. See next step!)

(6) After your initial tile-wiping, wait 2 hours. Use a slightly damp, clean sponge or rag and wipe remaining haze from your tiles, and celebrate. YOU. DID. IT.

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STEP SIX: FINISHING TOUCHES

Let’s be real – you are pretty much done-zo. Hopefully you are loving your result and can get this baby over the finish line with a little caulk.

(1)  Wait until tile is completely dry and use caulk to seal in the gaps below the tile and above the countertop, as well anywhere cabinets meet your backsplash. Caulk gives flexibility for material expansion and won’t crack easily. 

(2) Wait 7 days after tiling and sponge on a grout sealer, if you like!

(3) Fill previously mentioned wine glass, have friends over and impress them with your swanky new backsplash. Your kitchen value just went up and so did your DIY street cred. BOOM!

CHEERS until next time!

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Published by

Real As A M*ther

Four girls became best friends in high school and have stayed together through a whole lot of life. We are now a doctor, a lawyer, a financial advisor and a badass doula slash massage therapist and homesteader and want to share what we've learned as wives, moms, women and in our careers with the world... and entertain you along the way!

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