18 In DIY/ Ikea Kitchen/ Kitchen Series/ Projects

Subway Tile Step-by-Step Tutorial: Part One

A backsplash is one of those elements that can take your kitchen to the next level. It instantly makes a kitchen stand out when it’s done right. Luckily, it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Check out our kitchen budget break-down here. It was one of the most affordable projects in our kitchen renovation, yet I think it’s the one thing that makes our kitchen shine the most.

I’m here to guide you through a two-part series on how we did this ourselves and saved hundreds.



Check out our complete kitchen reveal here.

Our first step was choosing tile. I immediately knew I wanted subway tile. For one, it’s classic. I figured I would never grow old of it, and it would stay “in-style” for years to come, which helps with resale. Second, it’s possibly the most affordable tile on the market. It was an easy choice for me.

Step One: Gather Your Supplies

As I was doing my research, I knew it was a project we could do ourselves, but I was having a difficult time finding a detailed, all-in-one supply list. I’ve broken it up to show  the specific tools and tiling supplies to hopefully help you when you prepare for this project. Though this is a two-day project, you absolutely don’t want to start this project without having every tool necessary to finish it.

These are the specific products we personally used, but they can be adjusted to fit your color and style preference.

Subway Tile / Bullnose Tile / Grout / Mortar / Sealer / Caulk

Links are affiliated to help with your shopping experience.

Wet Saw / Rubbing Stone / Trowel / Sponge / Spacers / Mixing Paddle / Grout Float

Not Pictured: Bucket / Paper Towels / Protective Tarp


Step Two: Prep Your Work Area

You will need to prep your space by adding a tarp or cardboard over your countertops to protect your surface. You’ll notice in pictures below that we ignorantly did not do this on our brand new $4,000 countertops. We were scraping little pieces of grout off our countertop for months!

Also, scrape, fill, and sand any uneven surfaces. This is a vital step to ensure that your tiles lay flat on your wall. Then wipe down your walls with a damp cloth to remove any residue.


Step Three: Make A Plan

If you search a “How-To” on subway tile backsplash, you will get one of two pieces of advice on where to begin: in the corner or at the ends of your cabinets. We had two different methods for each tiled wall.

Method 1 – Stove Wall
We figured that it would be best to leave the small, awkward cuts for the corner rather than at the beginning of our cabinets where everyone could see, so we started where the cabinets begin and worked our way in. This allowed us to have full pieces of tile on the large, more noticeable part of our wall. It left the smaller cuts to the corner where they’re more discreet.

Method 2 – Window Wall
Unlike the stove wall, this wall has a feature point: the window and sconce. We knew that the tiles needed to be centered on the sink and around the window in order to look well-done. We laid our first tile right behind the faucet and worked our way up and around the window to the ceiling. After that, we went to the left and right, and, luckily, the tiles ended up being fairly even at the end of the cabinets.

In conclusion, think about these two things when making your plan: (1) what is your feature point and (2) where is the best place to disguise smaller cuts? Each wall may take a different course of action.

Step Four: Lay Your Tiles

Now that you have an action plan you can start laying the tiles! It absolutely helps to have two people for this job. Patrick cut the tiles while I laid them. Even with two people we were up well past midnight finishing this step. It’s the most time-consuming, yet the most important part.

I used pre-mixed mortar since it wasn’t a huge project. It’s a little more costly than powdered mortar, but it’s definitely worth not having to add just enough water to find the perfect consistency. You will still need to give it a good mix with your mixing paddle attachment and drill before using.

To Start:

If starting at the end of your cabinets, you can use a bullnose tile for a finished look. This is optional, but I think it gives the cleanest look. On the stove wall, I started with drawing a straight line from the upper cabinet to the countertop. I applied mortar and laid a vertical line of bullnose tiles with my 1/8″ spacers in between to get me started.

Establishing the Pattern:

The classic subway tile pattern was intimidating to me, but it’s so simple. You’ll want to take several full tiles and simple cut the in half. At the point in which you start, lay a full tile then a half tile on top. Repeat that pattern on the first vertical row. This sets your pattern for the rest of the wall.

Applying Mortar:

Using your notched trowel, apply a layer of mortar to a small 1’x1′ area. (This doesn’t have to be exact. The point is to keep your working-area small.) Go back with the notched end and make rainbow-like shaped lines in your mortar without taking too much off. Lay the tiles from the bottom up, making sure your bottom row is level.

Apply your spacers on all sides of the tile, even at the bottom on your countertop, to insure uniformity. When your grout lines are uneven, it makes the finished product look more hand-made rather than sleek and uniform. You can remove these spacers once you move to the next area. They can be difficult to remove if you let the mortar set completely.

Press tiles into mortar snugly. Wipe off any excess mortar from your tiles with a damp sponge or towel. The mortar will be nearly impossible to remove if you let it set on the tiles.

For smaller tiles or tighter areas, you can apply the mortar directly to the back of the tile.

Step Five: Making the Cuts

This is where your wet saw and rubbing stone come in handy. When you get to an outlet, place the  tile in the area and roughly mark where the horizontal and/or vertical cuts need to be made. This doesn’t have to be exact since your outlet cover will be covering the edges, but you still need to try to get it as close as possible.

We did not have a tile marker, but it would be extremely handy while making the cuts. Patrick tried using regular markers and pencils, but the marks kept running off with the water from the wet saw. Luckily, we had a friend with a wet saw, and he graciously let us borrow it for our project. You can either rent or purchase one from about $80+.

Once you made your cut, smooth the edges with your rubbing stone. They are specifically made for ceramic tiles.

Disclaimer: A wet saw worked just fine for us, but you may find that a Rip Ceramic Tile Cutter may work best for you.


Calling It A Day

Once you have all your tiles in place, you need to let the mortar set completely before adding the grout. We let it set over night. Most directions call for at least 24 hours. Applying the grout can be a little rough on the tiles, so the mortar needs to be absolutely dry so that the tiles do not budge when applying the grout.


Part 2 will explain the grout and caulking process. I will also show you different grout color options and explain the process behind choosing the color I did. I will also be offering a free supply printable for your ease of shopping.
Make sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss the final part of this series. 

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  • Reply
    Maria from dapperhousedesigns.com
    February 13, 2017 at 11:06 am

    This looks amazing! I have been dying to this to my own kitchen, you made it look so easy. Can’t wait to try it!

  • Reply
    Erin | A Welder's Wife
    February 13, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Great post! I love Subway tile as a back splash! It looks clean, classy, and elegant. My favorite thing about it is that it works with all decor. So if you ever want to change it up, the Subway tile will still look perfect!

    • Reply
      February 13, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      I totally agree, Erin! I can change out the decor for the seasons or if my style ever changes I won’t be stuck with a wild color tile. It’s classic!

  • Reply
    February 13, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Pinned for later! I’m going to be putting in a new backsplash this spring – white subway tile in fact! This will be PERFECT when I start! Thanks so much ! ♥

    • Reply
      February 13, 2017 at 12:06 pm

      I hope this post and the next one helps you as you plan your project this spring! It’s definitely something you can do yourself and save a lot of money by not hiring a contractor. Save him for the tough stuff. Let me know if you have any questions along the way. Best of luck! 🙂

  • Reply
    February 13, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Your kitchen looks beautiful. I admire your hard work and dedication to this yourself. You really did save a whole lot of money. I also like to do things myself but not sure if I would have done this out of fright. You house looks so warm and welcoming. Great job!


    • Reply
      February 13, 2017 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks Shevy! That’s such a nice compliment. It’s definitely a goal our ours is to make our home welcoming. 🙂

  • Reply
    February 13, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Love that you mentioned the focal point at the window, so smart to center around that!

  • Reply
    Roli Edema
    February 13, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    This is cool. And really clever. Would be a fun project, thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Sarah Althouse
    February 14, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Yessss. I so ned this once my husband and I finally get a house!

    • Reply
      February 14, 2017 at 9:12 am

      Great! The final steps will be posted tomorrow with a printable shopping list. 🙂

  • Reply
    Marette Flora
    February 14, 2017 at 9:11 am

    I really want to do a light gray subway tile in our kitchen. I think it would look so good with our white cabinets!

  • Reply
    February 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    I desperately want to add a back splash to our kitchen, but haven’t yet considered subway tile. Thank you for a great step by step post! Hopefully it will come in handy for me in the near future!

  • Reply
    Stephanie Jeannot
    February 14, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    You are a very hard worker I see and you get things done in the fashion that you want it. What a cool thing to be able to say, I did that; especially when it comes out right.

  • Reply
    Molly Gibson Kirby
    February 14, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    It looks gorgeous!!

  • Reply
    Shann Eva
    February 14, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    Wow! You did an amazing job! I love how it looks, and your step-by-step instructions are awesome!

    • Reply
      February 14, 2017 at 11:13 pm

      Thanks so much, Shann!

  • Reply
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