Monday, March 6, 2017

9 Tile Backsplash Installation Tips & Tricks

First, thank you so much for the excitement over our laundry room update last week! I am really excited to see how it evolves as we finish up some final details, but even just getting back to using daily has been such a treat!

One of the biggest tasks in the room update was the counter-to-ceiling tile backsplash. We had tiled our lower level bathroom and our original kitchen many years ago with the help of my father-in-law. Unfortunately, we didn't take any notes or have a blog at the time, so we basically felt like we were back to square one with this project. We also did a really quick and small tiling project around our fireplace, but with that specific tile, we didn't have a need to go beyond the cutting and adhesive (no grout or sealer). We were excited to finally tackle a larger scale start to finish tiling project, and this time I made sure to take notes and photos and put together a list of some of the things we learned along the way.

My excitement over this project was not just about getting the room done, but also about getting my hands dirty and learning a new skill. We have a few other tile projects looming in the future and I figured that this was the best place to try and figure out best practices. And as always, this was our first stab at this alone so we may still not know all of the ins and outs and rights from wrongs, but that is where this amazing blog community comes in! Feel free to chime in with additional tips in the comments at the end of the post. #pleaseandthankyou

Knowing I was planning to bring in movement and color through the wallpaper, I wanted to keep the rest of the room simple. So I ordered a few white subway tile samples and ultimately liked the idea of doing a beveled tile to add some minor interest while still fitting the overall subtle wall goal. I took wall measurements and ultimately selected three boxes of this tile from Home Depot, totaling around $80 (the tiles can also be purchased individually here).

The project probably wouldn't have been all of that expensive had we had all of the necessary tools on hand, but we did invest in a few things since we do plan to tile a few more times down the road. Here is a list of all of the items we ended up grabbing for throughout the process from start to finish:

To get started, we decided to begin installing directly off of our counter because it had been recently installed and confirmed level. We found it really helpful to lay out our pattern on the counter prior to affixing it to the wall. This gave us an ability to plan our measurements, cuts, and overall design. I considered doing a variety of patterns but ultimately kept it basic with a horizontal running bond layout.

For the most part, we stuck to working on two rows of tile at a time as our evening schedule only permitted us to work in smaller pockets of time. The 6" joint knife worked great at scraping extra adhesive off of the wall at the end of any tiling session.

To actually affix the tiles to the wall, we used a tile adhesive paired with a notched trowel. The packaging for the adhesive gave advice as to which trowel type/notch size to go with based on the specifics of the tile. Our tiles are 6" x 3" and we used a small triangle notched trowel, which was part of a bigger kit we had purchased (the kit included multiple sized trowels and a rubber grout applicator float).

To apply the adhesive, it was easiest to use a small putty knife and add it either to the wall or the trowel first and then spread it out on the wall, again working in small sections.

We found we had about ten minutes to work with the adhesive before it would start to dry and harden. And see the spacers? A reader mentioned we were using them wrong (thank you!), but they absolutely would not hold with the beveled tiles if placed in the recommended fashion. So please ignore our spacers, we know they were incorrect, but we made them work and were careful with the piece sizes we were selecting.

In fact, we continuously matched the tile corner to corner and checked that they were remaining level as we progressed all of the way up the wall.

When it came time to make some cuts, as they always say, "Measure twice and cut once". It worked best to measure with our tape measure and mark the tile with a carpenter's square and a Sharpie marker.

Up until now, we always borrowed tile saws from our friends, but I found a great option during a Black Friday sale last year and we gifted it to ourselves for Christmas.

A Few Wet Saw Tips:

  • Always wear protective eye gear when running a wet tile saw.
  • There is a "fill" line inside, keep an eye on the water level as you go.
  • Be sure to clean the saw and blade immediately after each tiling session to prevent the blade from rusting.
  • We were able to set up a cutting station right on our laundry room floor, as we are in the middle of winter up here and it is too cold to do this project outside. We used beach towels under the saw to catch and splashing and kept the door closed to try and contain any dust.
  • It is best to begin with a fresh blade at the start of any new tiling project.

Another tip is to always dry fit your cut pieces prior to permanently affixing to the wall. And remain patient! 

We worked our way behind the sink and up to the ceiling over the course of a few days.

As you can see above that our project required us to cut a couple of tiles around the round sconce light box.

We hunted down a wall tile bit for our Dremel and found that it cut the tile pretty well. The packaging doesn't mention wetting the tile or the bit, but we did both just in case (although I really don't think it was necessary).

Once the curve is cut, the bit can be run back and forth on the tile like a small sanding tool until you achieve your desired shape and finish. Luckily, we didn't have to aim for perfection as the tile will always be covered by a decorative light plate.

After all of the tile was installed, we let it sit and cure for a couple of days before beginning the grouting process.

Oh, the grouting process! Another live and learn experience.

Prior to grouting, I highly recommend utilizing craft paper or plastic to tape off all exposed surfaces. Grouting is messy!

We purchased an unsanded grout; determining between unsanded and sanded is generally done based on the amount of space between the tiles. We kept our spaces around 1/8", so it is typically recommended to go with an unsanded grout. Small gaps = unsanded, larger gaps = sanded.

The grout we purchased required a large bucket and was activated by mixing the powder with water.

The box showed a character mixing the grout by hand, which is how we mixed our first batch as well. Being that we haven't grouted in ages, we didn't realize that the consistency we achieved was ALL WRONG. We attempted to apply this thick and pasty grout to the upper area and found ourselves working so ridiculously hard to get it down into all of the grooves and then getting it wiped up with water after. We knew something wasn't right.

We added a bit more water, mixed it the best we could and powered through but it took us almost three hours to work the entire upper half... applying the too-thick grout and then cleaning up the mess. Grout should be applied with a rubber float, however, we ended up using gloves and our fingers to run the grout down into all of the grooves and then a wet sponge to smooth everything over and clean all of the tiles and lines.

Luckily we still achieved a really clean effect (thanks to elbow grease), but this was not the correct way to mix and apply grout.

A few more tips:

  • It is nearly impossible to not get grout on everything; for the most part it will wipe off of glossy finishes easily, but you may also want to be prepared to touch up paint ceilings and adjoining walls.
  • Work small sections with the grout as well. It is generally a good idea to give the grout 10 minutes to settle in and cure before wiping down with a clean, wet sponge.
  • Because the upper section was a larger surface area, Bryan grouted while I cleaned up behind him. Yay teamwork!
  • My hands ended up so gross and dry and nasty, I wish I would have worn gloves during this part of the process.
  • I went through quite a bit of clean water to deal with the grout mess we created. If possible you should never dump that grout water down your drains. I transferred my smaller buckets of water to a large five-gallon bucket, let it settle and dumped it outside in an inconspicuous area.

For the bottom half of the wall we were determined to figure out what we did wrong. After a little research, we found that the grout should have been mixed to a consistency of peanut butter or toothpaste! Not molding clay? #oops.

Back to Home Depot we went to pick up a heavy duty mixing paddle and it made all of the difference in the process for us.

We attached the paddle to our cordless drill and followed the mixing instructions and this time... YES! Toothpaste!

The bottom half went so much quicker and was a breeze in comparison to the upper half, even with all of the funny cuts behind the sink and faucet.

The grout color we used was Bright White and I love that it cleaned up the slightly creamy tiles. Anything else probably would have felt pretty busy, but this ended up creating a lovely blank canvas and was also a brilliant way to bring the windowless area up a notch or ten.

Another mistake we made was that we did some of our caulking in before grouting when really it should all be done after.

Any area where the tile meets a wall, cabinet or counter, we caulked in with a non-sanded tile caulk that was made to match the grout we selected.

A couple more days went by and it was finally time to seal all of our hard work.

Prior to sealing the tile, I took a look at all of the grout lines and tiles and noticed a few spots where there were still specs of grout on a tile or a wonky/over-grouted line. I was able to quickly and easily clean all of those imperfections up by gently scraping it away with a putty knife. I was so happy with how forgiving this entire project was!

Sealing the grout/tile helps to protect it from stains and dirt and keeps it easy to clean. The directions mention to saturate a clean mop, sponge or rag and apply it directly to the tile. I found it easiest to spray the tiles and grout, use the clean rag to catch any drips, and after five minutes I went back and wiped it down clean (and repeated again a second time after the proper drying time).

Quick Tip: Get those safety glasses back out to protect from any overspray.

And that was the final step!

Unless you count grabbing a celebratory drink and toasting to a completed project another step! Because you are definitely going to want to do that!

Oh! Because the tile added a whole new thickness to the wall, it was important to add an electrical extension box to keep the receptacle flush with the tile.

I think that wraps up our process from start to finish on this lovely new wall in our laundry room. It is amazing the difference some tile makes in any space, and this was about as basic and inexpensive as it gets (in terms of tile). Although there were a few learning moments, after doing this project I would personally feel confident tackling smaller areas on my own in the future, and it really has me itching to do our tub and shower areas! #onedayatatime

Alrighty everyone! Feel free to chime in with your tiling lessons learned and additional helpful tips and tricks for us newbies. I would also love to know if any of you have favorite spacers or other tools that help make the process breezier. And if you have recently blogged about a tiling project you completed, please share those links in the comments below as well! I would love to see what you all have been up to!

Catch up on previous laundry room update posts below:

Lowering Hookups & Installing a Counter
Installing a Drop-in Sink
Adding a Decorative Toe Kick


  1. It looks a big project and lovely done!

  2. I love the way it came out! I really don't think anyone would notice imperfections unless they got really close. I don't see any! At least another tiling project would be easier to do since you got the tools now. Great job!
    unrelated to this project, I check your blog everyday for inspiration. When I feel like my home is getting messier, I search how you have handled organizing it, and I get to work.

  3. Goodness! That took a lot of resiliency and patience that I don't think I have! But it looks absolutely beautiful. Job very well done!

  4. Looks great!! We did our backsplash and tiled our guest shower. You have to seal your grout! I clean a few houses for extra money, and I can tell when they haven't sealed it. It's next to impossible to clean. Oh, and I love that they have matching caulk to the color grout you pick! It's awesome!

  5. It looks incredible! But what has left me really impressed is that it took so long and still you're motivated to do it again. I also work around the house in small chunks of time but I often feel frustrated. Do you have any tips on staying motivated during long tasks?

    1. My motivation is that I generally struggle working around bigger construction messes so it keeps us going to just get it finished so we can get back to a routine in the space. The blog always offers a little added motivational push too. ☺

  6. Big project and SO pretty! Very clean looking and bright :)

  7. Beautiful back splash :)

  8. I used to work at a tile store, so I thought I would share a little info I learned there. Your tile is porcelain (which is not porous), so it doesn't have to be sealed. The grout is porous, so that is really what needs to be sealed. It's hard to get it on the grout without also getting it on the tile, but when you reapply the sealer in a few years, just know you don't have to do the tile too.


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