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How to Install a Kitchen Backsplash

Installing a kitchen backsplash is a rewarding job. A tile backsplash adds character and style to a kitchen and will last for years. Better yet, anyone of any skill level can do it. All you need are the right tools, materials, and patience.

 

The installation of a kitchen backsplash is a methodical process. This guide will show you step-by-step how to do it. We’re also going to assume you’ve already removed the old backsplash or wallpaper if any was present.

 

A few notes:

- As tile must be installed one at a time, this is typically an individual effort.

- Plan on 2 to 4 days to complete the project.

- Tile can be installed over drywall or plaster. A kitchen sink is not like a shower so you do not need a special backer board for your backsplash.

 

Ready? Let’s get started!

Tools and Materials You’ll Need To Install a Kitchen Backsplash

First, make sure you have all the tools and materials ready to go. We can’t stress enough that there’s nothing worse than needing to run to the hardware store, especially when working on tiling projects. Before you start applying the tiles, it’s only inconvenient. Once you start putting the tile up, it can become a major headache.

 

Depending on your tile, you may or may not need all the tools or materials listed below. For example, if you’re using small glass tile on a mesh backing, you might be fine with only a utility knife and may not need a tile cutter. To guarantee you do have all the tools you’ll need, walk through each step of the project and the tools you’ll use and the materials you’ll need to have available.

 

Here’s a list of what you may need:

 

Tools:

• Tape measure
• Goggles
• Pencil
• Stud finder
• Level
• Latex gloves
• Hammer
• Level
• Utility knife or tile cutter, maybe both
• Tile nippers and/or tile saw
• Notched trowel
• Rubber grout float

 

Materials:

• Tiles
• Tile spacers
• Tile adhesive
• Grout
• Caulk
• Ledgerboard (1x2’ board)
• Nails

 

Step 1. Prep the area.

 

Clear the countertops. Move appliances away from the wall as needed. Turn off power to the kitchen and remove outlet covers and switchplates wherever you will be tiling. Put tape over the outlets. Tape cabinets and countertops just as you would if you were going to paint.

 

Check/smooth the wall. Most walls are flat, but if you notice any bulges or bumps, those will need to be smoothed first. Minor imperfections on a wall, especially if you removed a previous backsplash, shouldn’t be an issue, but unevenness, dents, or dips greater than 1/16” on the wall need to be filled or patched.

 

Use joint compound rather than spackle. Apply the compound, sand, and then prime. Unless you’re doing major surface repairs, you can dry joint compound with a fan relatively fast and most primers dry in 30 minutes or less. Take your time here—you need a flat, solid surface for the best result.

 

Attach the ledgerboard. If you are installing tile behind an appliance or where there is no counter, you’ll need to put a ledgerboard in place. This will support the tile when you put it up. Screw the 1x2” board into the studs where the bottom edge of the backsplash will be.

 

Step 2. Clean the walls.

 

Soap and water might be enough, but if it’s a glossy surface, you’ll want to use a liquid deglosser. Follow the instructions on the container. If you’re not sure, it won’t hurt to use the deglosser; it will only improve tile adhesion to the walls.

 

Step 3. Lay out the tile.

 

If your tile will have a specific focal point, such as over a stove or sink, you will first need to find the center point of it. A tile backsplash needs a 1/8” expansion gap around the perimeter, where the tile meets cabinets, the sink, or another wall. Mark it. Then, find the center of your focal point, measuring from the line of the 1/8” gap.

 

Lay the tiles on the countertop. The top of the design will be closer to the wall, the bottom closer to the edge of the counter. Use tile spacers as needed to keep tile in place and check the edges. If it looks like tiles will need to be cut too narrow, adjust the design to allow for wider pieces.

 

Step 4. Confirm the layout’s vertical measure.

 

For this step, first confirm whether you will need to cut any tiles along the countertop. Ideally, the only cut tiles will sit right beneath the cabinets so they aren’t visible. This is not always the case.

 

Check the level of the counter. If it’s not level, find the lowest spot on the countertop, adding in the 1/8” gap. Hold a tile in this spot. Mark a line at the top of the tile and then, using a level, extend it across the wall. Tiles below this line will need to be cut to fit.

 

For the top, take an extra piece of board (such as a 1x2) and lay it next to the tile. Mark lines representing both the top and bottom of each tile and including the 1/8” gap between them. If you’re using glass tile on mesh, note the top and bottom of each section of mesh, rather than each tile. (Think of each piece of mesh as a single tile.)

 

This board can then be held up to the wall to indicate how the tiles will fit. If the top looks like it will require narrow tile cuts, adjust the layout.

 

Step 5. Apply your thinset or tile adhesive.

 

Follow the manufacturer’s directions to prepare and mix the adhesive or thinset (also called mastic).

 

NOTE: Tile adhesive dries fast, so only cover an area equal to the amount of tile you can put up in 15 minutes. It’s best to start small, get comfortable with the process, and expand the area with each new application.

 

Using the flat edge of your trowel, spread the adhesive on the wall. Start at the middle of the area you will be working on. Spread upward toward the horizontal line you will be working to. Fill the entire area, but don’t over-apply.

 

Next, turn the trowel over. Holding the notched end at 45 degrees, rake the adhesive, creating ridges of the depth needed by the tile. It’s best to rake in sections, alternating horizontal and vertical rakes to ensure the best adhesion.

 

If you are using peel-and-stick tiles, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on application. Be careful when applying to ensure they lay level.

 

Step 6. Apply the tile.

 

Start at the bottom, along the countertop. Put the first piece of tile on the wall with a gentle twist. Use the rubber grout float with gentle pressure to set it into the adhesive. Make sure it still has the 1/8” gap.

 

DO NOT press it in so hard that adhesive comes over the edges.

 

Apply the remaining tiles for the area, keeping proper spacing. Use tile spacers as needed.

 

Step 7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for the remainder of the wall.

 

You’ll work in small sections and repeat the procedure. If you need to cut tiles, mark the tiles, use the tile cutter to score the face of the tile, then break along the line. For small cuts, use tile nippers.

 

If you’re using glass on mesh, a utility knife can be used to cut out tiles to fit to the space.

 

Step 8. Let the adhesive dry.

 

It will take 24 hours. Carefully remove tape. Celebrate the completion of a hard day’s work.

 

Step 9. Mix grout and apply.

 

Most wall applications require unsanded grout. If your tile spacing is greater than 1/8”, you should use sanded grout.

 

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for mixing for the best results. If you are using natural stone or terra cotta, check with the tile manufacturer to confirm whether you should apply a sealer prior to grouting; this would prevent the stone from staining.

 

To apply grout, use the rubber grout float. Hold it at a 45-degree angle to the wall and apply with gentle pressure diagonally to the direction of the tile, working the grout into the space between tiles. Do not grout along the countertop or around any expansion gaps.

 

Use the float to remove excess grout. Let it sit 10 minutes. Then, with a damp sponge, wipe off the excess. Rinse and repeat. If there is a haze, don’t worry: it can be cleaned once the grout has fully dried.

 

Step 10. Seal grout.

 

Once the grout has dried, apply a grout sealer. Follow instructions on the sealer to protect yourself and surfaces.

 

Step 11. Caulk.

 

Fill expansion gaps with caulk.

 

Step 12. Finishing.

 

If the wall did not previously have tile, you will likely need to add extenders to your outlet and switchboxes. Replace switchplates and outlet covers. Move appliances back into place. Step back and enjoy your new kitchen backsplash!