DIY Weekend Special: Tile Backsplash

Tilebacksplash_5In this kitchen, the backsplash tile sets the tone. If your kitchen could be jazzed up with tile, installing a backsplash is a good DIY project.

I saw step-by-step instructions for this in a great book from The Taunton Press called 52 Weekend Makeovers, so I got permission from the editors to reprint their excellent instructions and photos for you.

This is a project you could actually do this weekend if you found some great tile. Here are some tile places that have been recommended by SoCal homeowners:

Mission Tile West, South Pasadena and Santa Monica
Tile Collection, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Canoga Park
Rhomboid Sax, West Hollywood
California Art Tile, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles
Walker Zanger, West Hollywood
Porcelanosa USA, Anaheim.

If you tile your backsplash, please e-mail me before and after photos so I can post them on this blog.

(Click below for the instructions)

Here’s a project that does triple duty in function, form, and ease of accomplishment. A tile backsplash not only protects your walls from water, grease, and grime, but it can also add visual punch to a ho-hum kitchen. What’s more, it’s one of the simplest tiling jobs you can take on, so it’s a great project for beginners. Just stroll the tile aisle of your local home center to browse the myriad colors, patterns, and textures available. Then use the detailed steps here to create a new accent for your kitchen that only looks difficult and expensive.

52wkndspg164toprightTools & Gear

There are three distinct types of tools you’ll need to install tile: tile-cutting tools, mortar tools, and grout tools. Which ones you’ll use will depend on the type of tile you’re installing and the obstacles you’ll need to work around.

Notched trowel. Use this tool to apply thin-set mortar. The evenly spaced notches on the edges range from 1/8 in. to 3/8 in. in size.

Grout float. This rubber-faced tool is similar to a notched trowel and is used to force grout into the spaces between the tiles. When held at an angle, it’s also useful for scraping off excess grout.

Sponge and rags. You’ll need a sponge to wipe off the grout after it’s dried to a haze and clean rags to buff the tiles clean after sponging.

Tile spacers. Cross-shaped plastic tile spacers can be inserted between each tile to ensure consistent spacing and even grout joints between the tiles. Spacers are available in different sizes to create varying-width joint lines.

Tile cutter. You can easily cut straight lines on smooth, glazed tiles with a tile cutter.

Tile nippers. These pliers-like tools remove tiny bits of tile by nipping away at the edges.

Rubber-faced mallet. This is the best tool for setting or “bedding” tile in thin-set mortar.

Stud finder and cordless drill/driver. Use a stud finder to locate the wall studs and a drill/driver to drive the special screws that secure the backer board to the studs.

Masking tape, mesh tape & drop cloth. Seal electrical receptacles with masking tape, and use mesh tape to hide seams in the backer board. A drop cloth will protect your counters.

Small brush. It’s easiest to apply grout sealer to thin grout lines with a small brush.


UPGRADE Specialty “decorator” tiles that are colorful, embossed, or made from small pieces (mosaics) can be very expensive. Instead of covering an entire backsplash with these, savvy homeowners sprinkle them throughout a backsplash as an inexpensive accent or to add a spark of color.

52wkndspg165topWhat to Buy

1. Backer board. Often referred to as cement board, backer board is a thin sheet of cement-like material that you attach to the wall to create a smooth surface for the tile. It also prevents the water in thin-set mortar from damaging your wall. Backer board comes in 1/4-in. and 1/2-in. thicknesses.

Quarter-inch board is much easier to work with because it can be cut by first scribing a line and then snapping it to length. The thicker 1/2-in. type must be cut with a power saw fitted with a masonry or diamond-coated blade.


2. Backer board fasteners. Backer board manufacturers recommend securing the board to your wall with corrosion-resistant screws or nails with a minimum length of 1 1/4 in. A good option is to use ribbed countersinking screws, which are designed to self-drill to the depth necessary for the screw to sit flush with the backer board.


3. Tile. Ceramic tile is the most common type of tile used in backsplashes. It cuts easily and is available in an array of colors, patterns, and textures. Porcelain is a special type of ceramic tile that is much harder and, therefore, harder to cut.

If you’re planning to install porcelain tile, plan also to buy or rent a motorized tile saw. As a general rule, wall tiles look best when they’re 4 in. square or smaller. Mosaic tiles—in which a web-like backing is adhered to the back of small tiles to ensure uniform spacing—also look great on a backsplash. When you purchase tile, make sure to select boxes of tiles that were made in the same batch.

Look for identical lot and shade numbers marked on the sides of each box of tiles to ensure uniform color and overall appearance. You’ll also need some bullnose tiles, which have one rounded, glazed side, for the edges and top of your backsplash.

4. Thin-set mortar. Thin-set mortar is the “glue” that bonds tile to a backer board or wall. You can buy it in dry form and mix it with water into an oatmeal-like consistency, or buy it premixed, in which case all you need to do is trowel it on. Premixed mortar tends to be stickier than mixed mortar and works especially well for wall tile. Its extra grip helps fight gravity.

5. Grout. You’ll find grout labeled as either sanded or unsanded. Use unsanded grout to fill fine gaps less than 1/16 in. wide. For wider gaps, use grout that has sand added to it to serve as filler. Grout colors are almost as varied as the tiles themselves.

6. Grout sealer. Grout is porous and will stain if not sealed. Consult the grout label for the recommended sealer.

Test, then Tile


1. Install backer board. To prepare your backsplash for tile, you’ll need to attach a layer of backer board. Start by locating and marking the wall studs with a stud finder. Next, using the screws recommended by the backer board manufacturer, attach the board to the wall studs.

If there are any seams, cover them with mesh tape. Apply a thin layer of thin-set mortar over the tape with a trowel. Draw reference lines on the backer board to mark your starting point.


2. Test the pattern. Regardless of the type of tile you’ve chosen for the backsplash, it’s always a good idea to make a test run “dry.” This means laying out the sheets of tile on your countertop or work surface to check how they’ll look. You’ll often find color, shading, or pattern differences that you’ll want to adjust.

This is an especially important step when you’re working with variegated tiles (like the mosaic tiles shown here), which you’ll want to mix and match to get the most pleasing pattern overall.


3. Apply mortar. When you’re happy with the tile pattern, use the notched trowel to spread the mortar onto the backer board. Most makers of thin-set mortar suggest a 1/4-in. notch for tiles 12 in. or less in length; others suggest a 3/16-in. notch—see the mortar and tile packaging for recommended size.

Spread the mortar over an area about 2-foot square. Avoid working the mortar excessively. What you’re looking for here is a consistent layer with no bare spots.


4. Position a row of tiles. Now you can begin to lay tiles. Start by positioning the first tile along your marked starting point or reference lines. Since the mortar will probably obscure these, use a level to make sure the first tiles are in alignment.

Press down slightly as you lay the tile to force it into the mortar. If you are using spacers, install one between each tile as you place the tiles on the wall.

Nip, Grout & Clean


5. Install partial & specialty tiles. Place a full tile in the leftover space at the end of a row and scribe a line on the tile where it needs to be cut. Use a tile cutter or motorized tile saw to cut any partial tiles in a straight line. Curved or notched tile can be cut using a tile nipper.

Exercise patience here: If you try to nip off too large a piece, you can end up snapping off much more than you wanted. Install partial tiles as you do full tiles. Finish off the sides or tops of the tiled area with bullnose or other specialty tiles.


6. Apply grout. Once the tile is in place, and you’ve waited the recommended time for the mortar to set (typically overnight), you can apply grout.


If you’ve used tile spacers, remove these first by prying them out with an awl or pulling them out with pliers. Mix grout if necessary and then spread it over the tiles with a grout float. Press down on the float to force the grout into the joints.


7. Squeegee off the excess. To remove the excess grout, hold the float at an angle so that the bottom edge acts like a squeegee. Skew the float diagonally as you wipe it across the tiles. This way, the edge of the float can safely span the joints without falling in and squeezing out the grout from the joint.

Continue working the area until most of the grout has been removed. Wipe down the float, then go over the area one more time with the float held nearly vertical to scrape off as much grout as possible.


8. Clean the tiles. Remove the remaining grout with a wet sponge. Have a large bucket on hand and refill it with clean water often. Just as you did with the float, wipe the sponge diagonally over the tiles. Wipe over each grout joint only once; repeated wiping can pull the grout right out of the joint.

After the grout has dried to a haze (which takes less than an hour), use a soft cloth to buff away the grout film.

Do it Right Between the backer board and the tile, tiling a backsplash will add 1/2 in. or more to the thickness of your wall. This means anything mounted in an electrical box needs to be extended in order to be flush with the tile. That’s where box extenders come in. These plastic rectangles are available in various thicknesses.

Plus . . .

Need a Hand? Gravity works against you when you’re tiling a wall. To fight gravity’s pull on the tiles, use strips of masking tape to help hold tiles in place until the mortar sets up.

Do it Now Wall tile is designed to be installed level and plumb. Don’t depend on your eye for this. Instead, mark vertical and horizontal reference lines on the backer board before tiling.

If you have a window above your sink, it’s best to draw a centerline on the sink or window as a starting point for the tile. This way you’ll end up with an equal amount of tiles on both sides.

Do it Fast Many wall tiles have built-in nibs on their sides that space the tiles apart for consistent grout lines. For tiles that don’t have these, you’ll need to use tile spacers. These plastic pieces let you quickly position tiles with uniform spacing.

Do it Now Grout is porous and can easily stain if not sealed. Wait the recommended time for the grout to dry (usually two weeks) and apply sealant to keep the grout pristine. Wipe up any excess sealer immediately with a clean, dry rag.

Cool Tool Yes, you can cut tile by hand, but why bother when you can rent a motorized tile saw? These wet saws use a diamond-coated blade cooled with water to quickly cut through almost any tile.

(Photos: Christopher Vendetta, (c) The Taunton Press)