Today we’re going to take you through a step-by-step tutorial on how to lay a tile backsplash.
My husband and I are novices when it comes to laying tile but we learned a lot of things along the way that we’d like to pass along to you. We hope our how-to-tile guide is helpful if you decide to tackle backsplash too!
You may have seen our previous post where we mocked up two different tile options in Photoshop. Today’s post is about how to install the tiles we chose for the laundry room. To recap, we decided to install these 6”x6” porcelain tiles:
The beauty about these tiles is that they come with what I’ll call ‘bump outs.’ I’m not sure what the technical name is for these things is – all I know is that I LOVE them. They make installation a breeze because you don’t have to stop and insert spacers between each tile.
The prep work is what takes the most time; it took my husband about 4 ½ hours to gather tools, set everything up and plan the layout (we wanted a random mix of the pattern but didn’t want to end up with the same tile side-by-side). 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.
Since we were using porcelain tile, 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.
We had never used thinset before, so it was going to be a bit of an adventure! The actual product 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!
How we got started
When working with a patterned tile it’s easier to have a diagram to follow. You can skip this step, but we wanted to visualize how the tile would look before we even attempted to lay the real thing, so we used a graphic program (illustrator) to map out the tile placement. I drew an artboard to the size of the wall space and then placed each tile to see how the layout would look. We could determine how many actual tiles we would need (our tile shop sells partial boxes so we were able to order exactly the number we needed without having dozens left over). Keep in mind though when ordering your tile that the rule of thumb is to order 5 – 10% more than you need in case of breakage etc.. Your tile store can advise you on this, depending on the tile you choose.
To keep things manageable in illustrator, I sized the artboard and all the tiles to quarter scale (just divide all your measurements by 4). Specifically, the length and width of our wall was 101” x 23” so I divided that by 4 for the artboard (background) to get 25.25″ x 5.75″ and our ‘tile’ squares ended up being 1.5” x 1.5” instead of the actual 6” x 6” at full size.
Once the artboard was drawn, I placed a vertical line exactly in the middle as a guideline. I drew one square tile square and then duplicated it several times. Working out from the centre, I perfectly lined up each square tile. Once I had a row, I group it all together and then duplicated it again for each row. It took a bit of time, but for me it was well worth it because I was able to also draw in our obstructions to scale (an electrical outlet and flange for the washing machine plumbing connections) to see where we would have to make our cuts. I was also able to see how much we would have to cut our tile on each end. It’s always best to do your final measuring on-site and then cut; so although I had all these measurements, we did not pre-cut anything in case the actual walls might have been slightly askew.
I numbered each tile on the layout (87 of them!) so I could easily picture what I was working on. When we laid the actual tile, we did it in two sections doing the left half of the wall first and then finished the right half. It was helpful to have the numbered diagram because, in our case, we were working with a particular pattern and didn’t want to mix up the order. Labeling each tile with a corresponding number ensured that each one ended up exactly where we wanted it.
If you don’t go to the effort of doing a diagram on the computer, you can also just draw it out using graph paper.
Gather your tools in one accessible spot. Here, we’re using an old door as a work surface.
Here’s a list of what we used, in no particular order:
- Sponge or rag
- Trowel (we used ¼” x ¼” notched trowel, but ask your tile store what they recommend for your particular tiles)
- Old towels and/or paper towels (to dry off cut tiles and wipe up thinset)
- Plastic, cardboard, newspaper and waterproof paper to protect floors and walls, and work surface.
- Mask, goggles
- Sharpened pencils
- Wet saw or snap tile cutter
- Green painters tape and masking tape
- Water and bucket to mix thinset
- Extra bucket of water for washing up tools and rinsing your hands
- Combination square for connecting marks on tile to cut for obstructions like wall outlets
- 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
- Layout guide – if you draw one up on computer or by hand
- 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.
- 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.
- Paint stick for initially mixing thinset
- Cement mixer attachment for drill
- Metal square ruler
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.
Protect walls, cabinets and floors.
Warning: draw a faint line the width of your tiles against the side walls FIRST before placing your tape and paper. If you leave anything within the space that the grout will be going, the tape and paper will get permanently stuck on by the grout. You’ll end up with bits and pieces that you won’t be able to pull away when you’re done grouting (same goes for underneath the cabinet). If that happens, you’ll need to carefully cut these away from the wall with an exacto knife which will be a pain!
We laid down some plastic on the floor and cardboard on top of that to catch any thinset drips and to arrange our tile layout on. Underneath the upper cabinets and on the sides of the walls we use green painters tape to tape up 12″ poly coated paper that’s water resistant. If you don’t have that, waxed paper or even brown paper would do.
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)!
Mark studs to determine where ledger board can be screwed in.
Place some green tape on the wall and mark all your studs.
When my husband built the basement he made sure to secure pieces of metal on each stud where plumbing or electrical ran behind so we couldn’t accidentally drill into these services and spring a leak – or cause a fire. Thank goodness he took that precautionary step, because as we were screwing the ledger board in we did hit the metal pieces so we were able to move to another stud to finish screwing in the board.
Determine vertical placement of ledger board.
If you already have a counter in place where your backsplash will go, you’ll be starting your first row of tiling from the counter up to the underside of the cabinets. Since we don’t have our final countertop yet, we determined that four rows of tile should be sufficient for the height. We took the extra measure of lining up four tiles – keeping in mind that each tile has about 1/16” of space for grout – to see exactly how much the height would be. End to end, our tiles measured 23 ¼”. We added an extra 1/8” to that measurement to allow for caulking to finish off between the top of the tiles and underside of the cabinets. Our final measurement was 23 3/8”.
Note: Did you know that flat pack cabinets drop down lower than the rest of the box where the sides meet? Neither did we! Be sure to measure down from the lowest point of the cabinet when you place your ledger (* see Important Note near end of this post below).
Mark walls for the ledger board and centre start line.
Use some wood with a straight edge for your ledger board; we used a scrap piece of MDF. Measure the length of the wall to determine where the centre is and mark the centre point on the wall.
It can be difficult to get an accurate length between two walls because the tape measure must curve once it gets to the opposite end. The length of our wall was 102” so we placed a mark at 51”. To be certain we were exactly in the middle, we measured 51” in from each side and made a mark. If those marks don’t meet, all you have to do is make another mark in the middle of the two marks and you will be dead-on the centre of the wall.
Draw the line for the ledger board before you draw the vertical start line. Using the horizontal ledger line, you’ll be able to take a 90 degree square metal ruler and align it to the centre mark. Pencil in your start line perpendicular to the ledger line. Use your level to check that your pencil lines are both level and plumb.
We marked our ledger board to correspond to our studs and pre-drilled before screwing it onto the wall.
Screw the ledger board in place.
A ledger board prevents the tiles from sliding down and shifting as you lay them. We were able to disconnect the plumbing and pull our lower cabinets away from the wall. As I mentioned, if you can’t do this, you’ll be working on top of your countertop.
Since we had over 10 feet in length, we had to cut two pieces for the ledger to make up the full length. Try to cut the two pieces so the ends fall onto the middle of a stud. Screw the ledger pieces into the studs using your pre-drilled holes. In our case the edges of the boards did fall onto a stud but there was a metal plate protecting the plumbing beneath, so to stabilize it, my husband screwed on a small piece of MDF to bridge both pieces of the board to hold it all together.
Do a dry layout on top of the ledger board.
We dry laid the first row of tiles starting from the centre mark out to the edges of the wall to double check our measurements and also to plan out the first row of the pattern. We used green tape to keep the tiles from accidentally falling forward off the board.
If the spacing isn’t equal when you’ve dry laid the tiles tightly to each end, then your centre line is off and you’ll have to re-measure if you want it symmetrical. Once we got to the second last tile, we were measured the gap on each side so we could pre-cut the tile to size. 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 and/or caulk 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.
At this point, it seemed like a good time to take a break so we stopped to have brunch. Don’t forget to eat to keep your energy up; you’ll need it for the remainder of the day!
When we returned, we transferred our markings onto the tiles for the electrical and plumbing opening, then used a combination square (pictured below) to line up the markings on the tile so it was ready to cut on the wet saw. Here’s a good video for how to mark and tile around obstructions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKEz6x_X2Ng.
Take any pieces you have marked on your first row to the wet saw to cut. To cut into a corner come down both lines with the right side of the tile facing up and stop short. Flip the tile over and then continue on the back side until piece falls away where the two lines intersect.
Number the first row of tiles (staring with #1 on the left). After each tile on the starter row is numbered, transfer your first row of tiles to the cardboard laid out on the floor in front of the wall. (If you’re working on top of your counter, place a piece of cardboard across the surface so you’ll be able to lay tiles across the sink – or find another place close by that you’ll be able to work on your layout on the floor).
I suggest writing numbers on the green tape before cutting the tape and transferring it to your tile (that way, the market can’t bleed onto your beautiful tiles!) I arranged all the numbers on a piece of plastic first so I could add them after the first row was dry laid. I then put the rest of the numbers onto the corresponding tiles once everything was laid out on the cardboard and the pattern was finalized.
Once the first row of tiles was in place, we took a pencil and marked the tops and edges of the tiles . I even placed numbers on the wall corresponding to my paper layout. This step isn’t necessary since the thinset will just cover it all up anyway, but it helped me visualize the final placement.
Before starting the tile work, we also placed a strip of green tape along the entire top edge of the ledger board so if any thinset dropped onto it, we would still be able to remove the board after taking out the screws.
Layout your pattern.
My husband removed all the tiles from the boxes and placed them on the floor beside the cardboard so we could see the variety of patterns we had.
Once your starter row is on the cardboard, randomly put tiles into place for rows two to four until all tiles are used up. Keep in mind that some patterns can be turned clockwise so they look completely different from other repetitions of the same tile. Step back and take a good look at the random placement of the tiles. If there’s something you don’t like, now’s the time to make changes and adjust the ordering! Once you have it looking perfect, this is when you’ll be using the green tape numbers you previously made to lable the rest of the tiles.
Set up a clean area to work closer to the wall you will be tiling so you can stack your tiles and have quick and easy access to move them directly to the wall once the thinset is on. My husband moved the sawhorses and work surface right over to the side of the wall we were tiling.
Stack your tiles in two piles.
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 illustrated 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 layout of your plan in the middle for reference.
Can you spot the slight mistake below in the stacking of the tiles (on the left side of the picture below)? Since you will be starting at the centre of the wall and tiling toward the side, the first row of tiles on the left side should have been stacked in reverse order starting with number 11 on top down to one (I had it stacked from one to eleven). Eleven is the first number starting at the centre so it makes sense to stack your rows in the order in which they’ll be placed on the wall. We fixed the stacking order for the left side of the wall before we started to tile.
Mix thinset and let sit 5 minutes.
Read your package directions and follow the instruction as each brand of thinset may be slightly different.
Here’s a good tip about the bucket you’ll be mixing the thinset in. Try to find a bucket 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 my husband 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!
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!
Pour the water into your bucket first and then add the dry powder thinset. 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 container – one part water to about 3 ½ parts of thinset.
The thinset should be the consistency of thick peanut butter. My husband does two tests to check if it’s right:
1) if the thinset on the trowel doesn’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 add some powder. Conversely, add a bit of water if it’s too thick.
2) if you can scrape the notched edge of the trowel onto the surface of the thinset in the bucket and it holds the lines of the notches without slumping and smoothing out.
I’ve watched so many videos where the thinset and water are mixed together with the electric drill and thinset explodes up into the air in a puff of smoke! To prevent airborne particles, especially when you’re mixing indoors, my husband 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.
Per the package directions, we let it rest 5 minutes then remixed it again with the drill. It’s now ready to use!
Essentially, you’ll spread the thinset over the entire area with the flat side of the trowel first to get an even consistency. Then come back with the notched edge and scrape it through the adhesive to get your lines. When you press each tile into the thinset, these notches will spread out underneath the tile and bond it to the wall. If you can find a video on how to use the trowel to apply and spread the adhesive, it will help you develop the technique. There’s a real knack to it and a video will help you visualize how to scoop it from the bucket and get it onto the wall (you might end up with more thinset on the floor thank the wall before you master it!).
Learn from our trials and tribulations: it will go much smoother for you that way! We started on the left side. To test the waters, so to speak, my husband initially applied thinset to start the first two rows of tile, put them in place, then applied thinset to the rest of the wall and completed the left section. You’ll likely drip thinset onto the tiles below if you apply the thinset in two stages like he did.When he got to the other side, he got it down to a science. He applied thinset to the entire section of the wall and THEN start tiling.
Dip the flat side of a notched trowel into the mixed thinset so that you can lift out a dollop of the material on the bottom edge of the trowel. Start at the inside of the vertical line you marked on the wall and work the thinset out to the edges and up to the underside of the cabinets. When you apply it to the wall, spread it out at a 45-degree angle to get good coverage and achieve the proper thickness. Be sure not to cover up the centre line as you go; this is what will keep your work perfectly straight . Once the thinset is fully spread, you can flip over to the notched side of the trowel and comb grooves into thinset – again while holding the trowel at a 45-degree angle. Continue combing into the thinset until all the material is grooved.
If you give the back of each tile a light skim of thinset with the flat edge of the trowel (or wide putty knife) it will help bond them to the wall; this is called ‘back buttering’. Back buttering ensures there’s little chance of any tiles popping off at some point in the future. On our backsplash we didn’t add in that extra step, but if we were tiling a larger surface, such as a floor or shower wall, we would definitely take the time to back butter.
Starting at the centre line, rest the tile on the bottom of the ledger board at a slight angle, but don’t make contact yet with adhesive. 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 process, but be sure to bring the tile tightly up to the side of the first tile (the bump outs should be brought tightly together to form a consistent grout line between them). Clean off any thinset as you go with a damp rag. After the first row is done, continue with the second row. When you get to the end of the wall, measure the gap at the top and bottom (in case the wall is at an angle), then transfer the measurements to your tile and cut. Place the end piece in place, then continue along until all the tiles are in place.
If you run into a situation where there is no support under a tile (like we did around our plumbing flange) use some green or blue tape to support the tile from sagging. Even though the fortified thinset is not supposed to sag, why take a chance?
* Important Note:
When we got to the top of the wall against the underside of the cabinets, everything was going smoothly until, for some reason, the tile wouldn’t fit into place. As we soon found out, 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 (see diagram below). We ended up having to ‘notch out’ where that longer bits hit up against the top of the tile. If you have a wet saw, it’s easy enough to notch the piece out, but if you’re using a snap cutter it would be difficult, if not impossible. If you have Ikea cabinets, consider leaving a larger gap between the underside of the cabinets and tile to compensate for this glitch (i.e. make sure you’re measuring down from the lowest point of the cabinets when you set up your ledger board). You can fill the gap in with caulk; in most cases you don’t really see the underside of where the cabinet meets the top of the tile so leaving a slightly larger gap shouldn’t be a problem.
Stand back, admire your work and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done!
You need to wait 24-48 hours before you can apply the grout.
After grouting the tile, we added textured glass into the upper cabinets then installed the lower cabinets and appliances. Here’s the final reveal of the finished tile:
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