Tile a Wall (Pt 2): Install a Patterned Backsplash

Today we’re bringing back an updated and improved version of our tutorial on how to install a patterned backsplash.

Before hubs worked his reno magic, our basement laundry room started with humble dungeon-like beginnings. It had a typical builder set-up of a double sink and connections for the washer and dryer. Who would ever want to do laundry there?

It’s so exciting once you get to the tiling stage; it brings the vision together to help complete the space!! But we were at odds on what tile to use. To help us decide, we picked up a few different tile samples and then I mocked-up our options in photoshop. We both agreed that the patterned backsplash knocked it out of the park!

With the tile decided, we were stumped on whether to keep the lower cabinets we ‘temporarily’ installed while we were finishing the rest of the basement.

To take that decision completely out of the equation, we removed the cabinets and used a ledger board to support the tile instead. If you are in the same boat, see our previous post on how to install a ledger board.

Working with a patterned backsplash requires extra planning because you don’t want to end up with two of the same – or similar – tile(s) right beside each other. This is the 6”x6” pattered porcelain tiles we chose for our laundry room:

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Patterned Porcelain Tiles (6″x6″)

The beauty of these particular tiles is that they came with ‘bump outs’ on the edges. If you can find tiles like this, they make installation a breeze because you don’t have to take precious time to insert tile spacers between each tile to leave a space for grout! If you can’t find them, you’ll need to purchase tile spacers to perform the same function.

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Notice the ‘bump outs’ on the edge of tile

The prep work is what takes the most time; it took hubs about 4 ½ hours to gather tools, set everything up and finalize the layout (it takes a lot of planning to make things look ‘random’ – lol). The actual installation of the tile – mixing the thinset and placing the tile – took about 2 hours; the total time commitment was 6 ½ hours from start to finish.

Thinset vs. Mastic

We were advised by the tile shop to use thinset instead of mastic. Thinset comes as a dry powder and has to be mixed with water, whereas mastic is more like a glue and comes premixed in a bucket – ready to use. The thinset sticks to porcelain better and is much more durable for a backsplash where water could penetrate the grout and possibly loosen the tiles over time.

The actual thinset we used is a polymer fortified adhesive that claims to provide superior vertical non-slag performance. The last thing you want is tiles sliding down the wall after you’ve spent so much time carefully placing them!

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Thinset need to be mixed with water

Prep Work:

Mark reference line(s) on the wall.

When tiling, you’ll get a professional looking job if you radiate the pattern out from the centre of the wall so you need to mark guide lines to follow.  Using a tape, measure the width of the wall where you’ll be placing the backsplash. Divide in half and mark the centre point on the wall with a pencil. Use the tape again to measure the distance from each end of the wall to the pencil mark to double check that you have the exact centre.

Use a level to draw a vertical line at the centre point. This will be the starting point for the tile.

We determined that we wanted four rows of tile so measured down from the underside of our cabinets and placed a level horizontal pencil line across the wall for our ledger board (if you have lower cabinets, you’ll be skipping this step and starting at counter height).

Gather tools.

Gather your tools in one accessible spot. Here, we’re using an old door as a work surface (which eventually became the counter top in my craft studio!).

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Gather all your tools and tiles in one area – we set up an old door on saw horses

Here’s a list of what we used, in no particular order:

  1. Tape measure
  2. Sharpened pencil
  3. T Square
  4. Level
  5. Sponge or rag
  6. Trowel (we used ¼” x ¼” notched trowel, but ask your tile store what they recommend for your particular tiles)
  7. Old towels and/or paper towels (to dry off cut tiles and wipe up thinset)
  8. Plastic, cardboard, newspaper and waterproof paper to protect floors and walls, and work surface.
  9. Mask, goggles
  10. Wet saw or snap tile cutter
  11. Green painters tape and masking tape
  12. Water and bucket to mix thinset
  13. Extra bucket of water for washing up tools and rinsing your hands
  14. Level
  15. Combination square for connecting marks on tile to cut for obstructions like wall outlets
  16. Marker – we used this to write number on the green tape and transfer them to the tiles so we wouldn’t get the order or direction of each tile mixed up
  17. Layout guide – if you draw one up on computer or by hand
  18. Thinset
  19. Tile
  20. Tile spacers (only needed if your tiles don’t have ‘bump-outs’)
  21. Workspace. It’s essential to have something to work on that’s not on the floor. We set up two saw horses and laid an old flush door across them for our flat surface. Because it was all beat up, we didn’t protect the surface, but you might want to put down some newspaper or plastic on your surface.
  22. Two plastic ‘measuring cups’ – (one for water and one for thinset). Something like a margarine or yoghurt container is ideal for measuring out the water and thinset, but make sure they’re the same size to keep the proportions consistent.
  23. Paint stick for initially mixing thinset
  24. Drill
  25. Cement mixer attachment for drill

Turn off the water and electrical.

After turning off water and electrical, remove outlet covers and flange around plumbing if you have one. We used making tape to seal up the electrical outlet to keep thinset off of it.

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Remove covers and turn off electrical

Protect walls, cabinets and floors.

We laid plastic on the floor and cardboard on top of that to initially arrange our tile layout on and to subsequently catch any thinset drips. Underneath the upper cabinets and on the sides of the walls we use green painters tape secure 12″ poly coated paper that’s water resistant. If you don’t have that, waxed paper or even brown paper would do.

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We first ran a line of painters tape on the side of the wall adjacent to where we’d be tiling to protect the wall and then added the paper on top of that so nothing would seep through onto the wall.  Be sure not to place the green tape right up against the corner – or you will not be able to lift it off once the tile is in place: leave a space that’s at least the depth of your tile!

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Close up of paper to protect sides of wall  (you can faintly see the strip of green tape we ran on the wall underneath the paper first)

If you are starting from scratch, as we did, with no counter tops in place, you MUST install a ledger board (shown above) to keep the tiles from sliding down the wall as they dry.  However, if you’re working on top of your counter, place a piece of plastic or thin cardboard across the entire surface to protect it. 

Randomize the Tile Layout

This step is important because you want to avoid placing the same tile side-by-side. Hubs removed all the tiles from the boxes and placed them on top of a piece of plastic on the floor so we could see the variety of patterns we had.

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Tiles removed from boxes and laid out

Then we started to mix them. Keep in mind that the patterns can be turned clockwise so they look completely different from other repetitions of the same tile in the field. We stepped back to view and finessed them until we were happy with the final look. From there, we took the first row of tiles to the ledger board (or counter top, if that’s what you’re working on) and did a dry fit.

Dry fit and cut the first row of tiles.

Doing a dry layout on the actual wall for the first row of patterned tile does two things: 1) it ensures that you really do like pattern mix of the starter row and 2) it allows you to pre-mark and then cut out obstructions like the electrical outlet and/or flange around plumbing (if you’re doing a laundry room like us).

We started the first row of tiles from the centre mark out to the edges of the wall to double check our measurements (use spacers between each tile if you don’t have bump-outs). We used green tape to keep the tiles from accidentally falling off the board (ignore the numbers on the tiles for now; they actually get added much later).

If the spacing isn’t equal when you’ve dry laid the tiles to each end, then your centre line is off and you’ll have to re-measure to get it symmetrical.

At this point, It’s helpful to make yourself a diagram of the layout showing the centre of the wall (blue line), the obstructions where cuts will be needed (black) and number the squares that represent each tile. (Note that the diagram below is our draft layout which actually got updated after the dry run).

Later, you’ll see how we transferred the numbers to the actual tile to ensure each one was placed on the wall in the correct order.

Here’s a close-up of one opening in the wall where we had to cut around the tiles:

With the first row established on the ledger board, now’s the time to transfer markings onto the tiles to cut the electrical and plumbing openings.

We used a combination square (pictured below) to line up the edges of the opening and transfer them onto the tile so it was ready for the wet saw.

Tools_6 inch combination square

Combination square

 

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Measurements transferred onto tile

For more information, here’s a great video for how to mark and tile around obstructions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKEz6x_X2Ng.

At either end of the first row, we measured the gap between the last tile and the wall so we could also pre-cut the two end tiles. We had an equal gap of 2 3/8”on each side so we cut the tile 1/8” less (2 1/4”) to leave some room for grout to finish the edge. If the ends of your walls are open, purchase metal or plastic tile edging to cap the edge so you don’t see the cut ends – or see if your tile store sells matching border tiles to finish off the exposed edges.

We also marked the respective tiles to fit around the plumbing flange in the second row too. Once all our pieces were marked, we took them outside to cut them on a wet saw we set up in the garage.

To cut into a 90 degree corner come down both lines with the right side of the tile facing up and stop short.

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Flip the tile over and then continue on the back side until piece falls away where the two lines intersect. Dry the pieces off with a towel and place them back onto the ledger board to ensure that they fit properly.

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Cut into the corner from the back side of the tile after completing starter cuts on the front

With some of the initial cuts done, prepare to number the tiles. We suggest cutting pieces of green tape then writing numbers onto them before transferring the tape to your tile; that way, the marker can’t bleed onto your beautiful tiles! Below you can see that we arranged all the numbers on a scrap piece of plastic first.

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Start by sticking on the numbers for the first row and any of the pieces pre-cut for the second row (refer back to your diagram).

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Number first row of tiles before transferring to cardboard on floor

Transfer the tiles from the ledger board back to the floor (at this point, we place them onto cardboard).

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Take one more look at the layout before rest of the numbers are added

As you can see above and below, the hole for the plumbing flange is completely cut and the electrical outlet is started on the first row. Some of the end pieces are also cut which we could do in advance because our walls were perfectly square. Just in case your walls are out of square, stick to only cutting the ends of the first row; the ends of rows 2 – 4 should be measured and cut as they are installed.

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Some openings in the field are cut and ready to go!

Step back and take a good look at the random placement of the tiles. If there’s something you don’t like, this is your last chance to make changes and adjust the order before you add the rest of the numbers! Using your diagram again, stick down the remaining green tape with corresponding numbers onto the tiles.

Organize and stack your tiles into two piles.

Set up a work surface that’s off the floor and close to the wall you will be tiling. This is where you’ll stack your tiles so you have quick and easy access to move them directly to the wall once the thinset is on.

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You’ll be working on only half the wall at one time. Divide the tiles down the centre so you end up with a left and right pile. Gather up each row of tile, making four stacks for each side of the wall as shown in the picture below. The first row is in the front because it goes onto the wall first with subsequent rows stacked up behind. You can leave the final layout of your plan in the middle for reference as shown below.

Can you spot the mistake below in the stacking order of the tiles? Look closely at the left side of the picture below. The top of the stack shows number 1, but should actually start with number 11. We had it stacked in the wrong order: since you will be starting at the centre of the wall and tiling toward each side, the first row of tiles on the left side should have been stacked in reverse.

Tiles for left side of wall and right side of wall stacked into two piles. First row is at the front with rows 2 – 4 lined up behind.

To explain better, here’s our diagram again. As you can see, 11 should be the first tile placed to the left of the centre line (faintly marked in blue) so it makes sense to stack your rows in the order in which they’ll be placed on the wall. We corrected the stacking order of this pile before we started to tile.

Mix thinset and let sit 5 minutes.

Here’s a good tip about the bucket you’ll be mixing the thinset in: try to find one that is shorter than the standard paint bucket. That way, you’ll be able to scoop the thinset out of the bucket without straining to get your arm into the bottom of the pail. Since hubs had recently finished drywalling our basement, he saved all the buckets from the drywall compound and they were the perfect size to mix the thinset in!

Prepare an extra bucket of clean water with a sponge in it to wipe up any spills, then move onto mixing the thinset.

Read your package directions and follow the instructions as each brand of thinset may be slightly different.

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Mixing bucket and drill ready to go

Attach a cement mixer bit to your drill to get it ready. Put on a mask and goggles to keep from breathing in the thinset and to protect your eyes – thinset is caustic so be sure to protect yourself!

Mix up only small batches at a time – enough for half of the wall. We weren’t sure about the proportions of water to powder so it took a little trial and error. We used a plastic cottage cheese container to measure – one part water to about 3 ½ parts of thinset.

Pour the water into your bucket first and then add the dry powdered thinset. I’ve watched so many videos where the thinset and water are immediately mixed together with the electric drill and the powder explodes up into the air in a puff! To prevent airborne particles, hubs stirs the water and thinset together with a paint stick just until it’s dampened, then he finishes mixing it thoroughly with the drill and cement mixer attachment.

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The thinset should be the consistency of thick peanut butter. My husband does two tests to check if it’s right:

1) the thinset on the trowel shouldn’t drip off, but can be shaken off. If it drips off the trowel when you scoop it from the bucket, it’s too loose and you’ll need to add some powder. Conversely, add a bit of water if it’s too thick.

2) when the notched edge of the trowel is scraped into the surface of the thinset in the bucket, it should hold the lines of the notches without slumping and smoothing out.

Per the package directions, we let it rest 5 minutes then remixed it again with the drill. It’s now ready to use!

We found it helpful to watch a few professional YouTube videos on how to use the trowel to apply and spread the adhesive; it helped us develop the technique. There’s a real knack to it and the videos showed how to scoop it from the bucket and get it onto the wall (you might end up with more thinset on the floor than the wall before you master it!).

Tackle one side at a time but learn from our trials and tribulations: when we started on the left side of the wall, hubs initially applied only enough thinset for the first two rows of tile. When he applied the rest of the thinset, as shown below, it was difficult to trowel it on without dripping it onto the lower tiles!

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Work on one half at a time. We started on the left side at the middle and worked out to the side.

Once Hubs got to the other side of the wall, we got it down to a science. We realized it’s better to apply thinset to the whole surface so you can tile the entire section at once. You just have to move fast in applying the tile before the thinset sets up – but that’s not a problem if you took the time to pre-stack the tiles as we showed you earlier. Taking the time to prep means things will move along fast in the installation!!

How to apply the tiles.

Dip the flat side of the trowel into the thinset so that you can lift out a dollop of the material on the bottom edge. The flat side of the trowel helps to get an even consistency. When you apply the thinset to the wall, spread it out at a 45-degree angle to get good coverage and achieve the proper thickness.

Start at the inside of the vertical centre line you marked on the wall and work the thinset out to the edges and up to the underside of the cabinets. Be sure not to go over the centre line as you apply the thinset; the line will help keep your work perfectly straight.

Once the thinset is fully spread, you can add a bit more in the same manner. Then flip over to the notched side of the trowel and comb grooves into thinset – again while holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle. You can see the notches started on the left side below.

We didn’t realize it before we tiled our laundry room, but there’s a right way and wrong way to notch thinset. Make sure that you don’t ‘swirl’ the thinset as you do the final comb through: the lines should all be straight and in the same direction to ensure the best bond. Straight parallel notches will spread out underneath the tile when it’s applied to the wall and bond it properly. There is a really interesting video from the National Tile Contractors Association that demonstrates how straight lines achieve the best bond vs. when you swirl the ridges. They use see-through glass to show you what’s happening underneath as the tile is pressed into the thinset! I wish we had seen this video before we did our wall, but now we’re all the wiser for next time – and we can pass this tip along to you!

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That’s better: thinset is applied to the entire right section of wall with smooth side of trowel – before notching!

Continue combing into the thinset with straight parallel lines until all the material is grooved. Then you can start to lay the tiles.

Starting at the centre line, rest the tile on the bottom of the ledger board at a slight angle. Slide it forward toward the wall until the bottom of the tile makes contact with the wall and then press the rest of tile upward to make full contact with the thinset. Press the tile into the adhesive firmly with your hands. You can also press it in with a grout float once a few tiles are in place to make sure there is even contact and each tile is level with its neighbour. Lay the next tile beside the first one in the same way but with the bump outs touching to form a consistent grout line between them. If you don’t have bump-outs on your tile, you’ll need to insert a tile spacer between each tile.

Carefully clean off any thinset you accidentally get on the tile face with a damp rag. After the first row is done, continue with the second row. On the second row, when you get near the end of the wall, measure the distance from the last tile to the wall. Take a measurement from both the top and bottom of the last tile – in case the wall is at an angle. Then transfer the measurement(s) to your tile, draw a line and cut. Stick the end piece in place, then continue along with the next row until all the tiles are installed.

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Notched thinset

If you run into a situation where there is no support under a tile (like we did around our plumbing flange) use pieces of green or blue tape to support the tile from sagging. Even though the fortified thinset is not supposed to sag, the force of gravity can still make it slump after you’ve finished and left the room, so why take a chance?

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When there’s no support underneath a tile, use green tape to keep tile from sagging downward

When we got to the top of the wall against the underside of the cabinets, everything was going smoothly until, for some reason, some of the tiles wouldn’t fit into place. As mentioned in our last post, if you use flat pack kitchen cabinets that you have to assemble yourself – such as those from Ikea, the cabinet box is going be slightly longer where the sides meet. We ended up having to ‘notch out’ a very slight amount with the wet saw where the tile came in contact with this part.

Below you can see the pieces that are missing where tiles had to be notched to fit against the underside of our Ikea cabinets.

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Once you get to the final piece, the sense of accomplishment will start to sink in!!

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Last piece of tile – 2 hours after mixing first batch of grout

Stand back, admire your work and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done!

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You need to wait 24-48 hours before you can apply the grout. Stayed tuned for the next post where we show you how to do that!

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After grouting the tile, we added textured glass into the upper cabinets then re-installed the lower cabinets and appliances.

Here’s how the tile looks once the lower cabinets are back in place. I’m glad we kept the cabinets because they compliment the colour of the tile.

With the tile done, we still had some work ahead of us to finish off the laundry room. As you can see below, Hubs really should have turned the sink 180 degrees so the faucet is on the opposite side!

We lived with it for a while but fixed the sink position when we installed a new counter top. We also added decorative glass into the uppers cabinets.

The glass didn’t obscure the contents enough for us so we ended up leaving the backer board in place too, which makes it look like the glass is back-painted (that’s because we painted the backer board the same colour as the walls).

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4 thoughts on “Tile a Wall (Pt 2): Install a Patterned Backsplash

  1. Sara you have got this down to a science. And the end result is so worth it! Beautiful work and the whole space is beautiful.

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