Modernize Your Kitchen With a Tile Backsplash

Lead Image for Modernize Your Kitchen With a Tile Backsplash
  • 5-10 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 100-1,000
What You'll Need
Mesh tape
Rubber float
Scoring cutter
Filler compound

Want to give your kitchen a "mid life kicker" of an upgrade? Adding a new tile backsplash can give your old kitchen a bright modern appearance - just be sure to choose the right color tiles. The nice thing about adding a new backsplash is that it isn't all that hard to do. If your existing backsplash is painted drywall, it's quite straightforward. Even if you have an old tile backsplash it's still not too hard to do - just a lot messier in the beginning.

Step 1 - Measure and Plan

Determine the length of your backsplash, and then measure the distance from the top of the counter to the bottom of the wall cabinet to calculate the area you need to cover with tiles. Now that you know how much space you have, figure out your tile pattern. Use graph paper and draw a scale outline. The most common tiles used for backsplashes are 4x4, 6x6 or 3x4 subway tiles. You could also use 1x1 tiles attached to a back mesh if you like the appearance better. Whichever you choose, be sure the tiles are glazed. Unglazed tiles will stain from moisture and grease, so they aren't a good choice. When you calculate your tile quantities, don't forget to add about 10 percent for cutting and wastage.

Step 2 - Prep the Area

Remove the stove and range hood and anything else that will be in your way when you are working on the backsplash. Shut off the power to any outlets or switches and remove the cover plates. If your existing backsplash is painted drywall, you can install your new tiles right on top. Just sand the area to rough up the surface and get ready to install. If you have an existing tile backsplash, your best bet is to remove it completely. This will involve actually cutting the existing backer (usually drywall) and getting rid of both it and the attached tiles.

Step 3 - Install Backerboard

You can install your new backer board directly onto the exposed studs. Some experts suggest you put in a new cement backer board, while others suggest regular drywall is just fine. As a compromise, you could use green (waterproof) drywall. Although not as efficient against moisture, it's cheaper than cement backer board as well as being lighter and easier to work with.

Install the backer board using galvanized drywall screws. Leave a 1/8 inch gap between the edges when installing the boards, then cover with mesh tape and filler compound. If your tiles are going to be running over any gaps (like where the range will be), install a temporary ledger board along the base of your tile line to help hold them in place during installation.

Step 4 - Measure and Mark the Area

Mark the visual focal point of your layout and use a level to draw a plumb starting line through it. You'll use this to line up your tiles vertically. Now, layout your tiles on the countertop or the kitchen floor so you can follow the pattern.

Step 5 - Install Tiles

Starting at the center, begin the bottom row by applying tile mastic (a ready-to-use tile adhesive) or thin-set mortar to a small section of the wall using a grooved trowel. Put the edge of the first tile on the vertical line, leaving a gap of about 1/8-inch on the bottom--this leaves space for a bead of caulk later in the process. Press and wiggle the first tile into place, then put in a temporary 1/8-inch spacer (vertically for easy removal when the mastic dries).

Install the second tile using the same process. Continue installing tiles working away from the centerline, wiggling them into place and putting spacers between each. Follow your pattern and install any decorative/highlight tiles as part of the field.

When you get to a place where you need to cut or trim a tile (under a countertop, end of a row, around an electrical outlet), cut the tile as part of the installation - don't leave an opening and plan on coming back.

Step 6 - Cut Tile to Fit

The easiest way to cut a tile is using a tool called a scoring cutter. You can rent one for $15 or $20 a day, or buy one for less than $50. Using one is a two step process. Mark the tile where you want to cut it, and place the tile in the tool and score a mark in the tile surface. Then, using a sharp motion of the tool handle, the cutter will break the tile along the scored line.

Cutting openings for an electrical outlet can be more challenging. Depending on where an electrical outlet fits into your pattern, you may be need to cut 2 tiles using the scoring cutter, and then use tile nippers to cut out the opening and put them on each side of the outlet. You will likely need to install box extenders (available at your home center) to your electrical outlets before you can reattach the cover plates.

Step 6 - Apply Grout

After the tiles are installed and the mastic has been allowed to set up overnight, it's time to grout. Use a sandless grout (to avoid scratching the tile surface) and mix it according to manufacturer's directions. Apply the grout with a rubber float. Push it well down into the gaps between the tiles, then holding the float at a 45 degree angle, remove the excess.

Step 7 - Finish Up

Allow the grout to set up for about an hour and then clean off the hazy surface on the tiles. Use wet sponges, rinsing them often in clean water to wipe away the film. Buff the tiles with a clean dry cloth to bring out their natural beauty.

Finally, apply a bead of tub and tile caulk (the same color as the grout) all along the bottom seam where the backsplash meets the countertop.

Tip: Grout can stain, and it's particularly vulnerable in the kitchen, so consider sealing it. Wait until the grout has totally cured (about a week) and then apply a silicone grout sealer. This will keep you new backsplash looking fresh for years.