DIY Kitchen Backsplash (Part 4): Installing Backsplash Tiles

DIY kitchen backsplash: In part 4 of our "how to install your own tiled backsplash" series, we glue tiles to the wall using a bucket of mortar. Installing your own backsplash is easy - follow along!

A DIY kitchen backsplash is one of those projects where most of the work is in the planning and preparation.  The actual process of sticking the tiles to the wall took less than two hours.  Installing backsplash tiles can get tense – Will the tiles fit? Do we have enough of them? Hurry, the mortar is drying!  But thanks to our (my) careful (OCD level) planning, sticking tiles onto the wall was a success!

Catch up on our DIY kitchen backsplash series through these links: 

Drywall Surface Preparation

We degreased the painted drywall we’d be tiling over with a spray bottle of Bix TSP and a towel.  Just spray it on and wipe – super simple.

DIY kitchen backsplash: prepare your walls with a bit of BIX TSP and a rag.

Cutting the Tile Sheets

Note to self (and everyone else): cut your sheets to size and trim the excess along the edge before you mix your mortar.

DIY kitchen backsplash: cut tile sheets to the appropriate height. In our case, that height is 6".

Testing the Arrangement

A few days before our mortar party I cut up and laid out all the tiles on the living room floor (our hardly-furnished room comes in handy sometimes!).

DIY kitchen backsplash: test the tile layout before you mix up the mortar to be 100% sure you have enough tile.

Testing the tile layout on the living room floor.

Testing the arrangement was good for seeing and fixing unwanted patterns and ensuring there was enough tile (for the third time).

Masking Off the Work Area

If you thought you were ready to get to work, think again! Next up is masking off your work area with painter’s tape.  This was a good idea, don’t skip this step. Keeping your mortar contained to a nice little mortar playpen will save you a ton of tedious scraping and repainting later.

DIY kitchen backsplash: masking off the work area with painter's tape and printer paper.

Before you spread any mortar, mask off the work area with painter’s tape. This will make cleaning up your walls a lot easier.

Mixing the Mortar

Finally, a step that makes it look like we might actually put tiles on this wall!

The box of mortar promised 20 sq feet, so we guessed that we would need half of its contents for our 8 sq feet project.  We used our kitchen scale to weigh out 2.1 lbs of the mortar and halved the liquid measurement.  Everything went into our 2-gallon bucket for hand mixing with a metal scraper (the paint stick pictured was useless for stirring).

Mixing mortar got tiring, so I was glad to take turns with Jim.

DIY kitchen backsplash: follow the instructions on the box to mix your mortar.

Mixing mortar with a metal scraper in a big plastic bucket. (The paint stick was uselessly weak for this task.)

We let our tile batter sit 5-10 minutes as per the box’s instructions and then mixed it again.  Done!

The sheer amount of steps pictured on the box had me worried at first, but mixing mortar was butt simple, probably the easiest part of this whole project.  If you can make a brownies from a box mix, you can make mortar.  Tasy, tasty mortar.

installing backsplash tiles bucket of tile mortar mixed

Big bucket ‘o mortar, made as per the box’s instructions (just add water!)

Applying Mortar to Wall

Grab a glob and put it on the wall.  Repeat x 100.  Use the v-notched trowel to carve lines (and if you have time, dirty words or pictures) into your mortar.  Keep the mortar layer thick enough to fully cover the wall, but no thicker than that.

installing backsplash tiles spreading mortar on wall v notch trowel

Spreading mortar with a metal trowel.

The grooves will help the tiles adhere without a ton of excess oozing out when you press tiles into the mortar.

DIY kitchen backsplash: this is how mortar should look when applied to the wall. Quickly stick your tiles to it before it dries.

Mortar on the wall, waiting for sheets of tiles to get pressed onto it.

Where to Start Tiling?

The corner seemed like a good place to start because the interior corner is inherently trickier than anywhere else we’ll be tiling.  We wanted both sheets to touch in the corner but not overlap.  We had measured each wall independently, not realizing we were expecting both sets of tiles to go all the way to the edge – oops.

DIY kitchen backsplash in progress. Figuring out how to meet the tiles in the corner was a brief challenge, and we decided not to overlap them.

Our first few tile sections complete!

Here’s how the tiles fit together in the corner:

DIY kitchen backsplash: tiles meeting in the corner. We decided not to overlap them and plugged the gap with grout in the next step.

We decided not to overlap the tiles and plugged the gap with grout in the next step.

Tiling

Putting sheets on the wall was straightforward and quick from here.  We used the level to check our work as we went.  It’s ironic that the part of this project that most looks like actually tiling a backsplash was probably 10% of the total time spent.

Most of the time went into filling the little holes with “one off” tiles.

Filling Gaps

To fill the gaps that inevitably occured, we used the 1×1 squares and the 2×1 rectangles.  The gap-patching process was simple:

  1. Cut the “one off” tile free from the mesh and trim excess mesh around edge
  2. Butter the backside of a tile with a thin layer of mortar
  3. Plug the tile into the gap
  4. Mush it around until it’s level and evenly spaced from tiles around it
installing kitchen backsplash spare tiles for gaps

Our backsplash had a number of “holes” in it from too-long pieces having to be removed in order to fit to wall edges, corners, and the window ledge. 1×1 and 1×2 pieces were used to fill those gaps.

Tiling Behind the Range Oven

gecafeOur current range oven has a big built-in backsplash (with control panel), but we’d like to upgrade our range to a gas model with controls in front (the GE Cafe is our favorite pick right now).

The “controls in front” type of range typically lacks a built-in backsplash, so we continued our tiled backsplash behind our existing range, even though it won’t be seen until we upgrade.  We even tiled a couple inches below the top of the range to keep it looking seamless behind the appliance.

 

DIY kitchen backsplash: tiling behind the range in anticipation of a future range upgrade.

You should probably tile behind your range.

Letting it Dry

The easiest step of all.

DIY kitchen backsplash: the easiest step of all is letting it dry.

With all the tiles mortared to the wall, all we had to do was wait 24 hours before the grouting could begin.

We’ll be back in a day to grout and finish ‘er off!

DIY Kitchen Backsplash (Part 3): DIY Kitchen Backsplash Supply List

In Part 3 of our DIY kitchen backsplash series I’ll show you all the stuff I bought to make this project possible.

Catch up on our DIY kitchen backsplash series through these links: 

DIY kitchen backsplash supply list

With tiles in-hand, all that was left was to accessorize our them with stuff for the actual installation.  Turns out, buying the tiles was just the first 10% of the battle.  :D We needed so much more than just tiles.  To save you a bunch of separate trips to the store, here’s our all-inclusive DIY kitchen backsplash supply list: 

Tape Measure

Essential for planning your DIY kitchen backsplash… and picking a tile that will actually fit under your windowsill, and confirming that yes, you do indeed have enough tile…

diy kitchen backsplash supply list tape measure

This tape measure is indestructible.

Level

A level is essential for determining if the gap you just bridged over your range area is actually level, and for checking your tile work as you go. Uneven tiles are immediately noticeable, so check your work as you go with a small level.

diy kitchen backsplash supply list level

I use a small level like this one for tile work.

Backsplash Tiles

Read more about choosing the right tiles for your budget and kitchen.

diy kitchen backsplash supply list tiles

Without tiles, your backsplash is going to be pretty shitty. :P

Glass Tile Thin-Set Mortar

We used CustomLite Technology’s Glass Tile Thin-Set Mortar product (in white) which we purchased at The Home Depot.  We cut the mix formula in half (the box holds 4.2lbs, we used 2.1 lbs) and used every last drop for our 8 sq ft backsplash.

If you aren’t sure what kind of mortar you need for your tiles, ask Google or your friendly local tile store.  (FYI: Mortar is sometimes called “mastic”.)

diy kitchen backsplash supply list thin set mortar

Glass tile mortar for our glass tiles. Your mortar may vary.

Grout

Grout is the goop that goes in between your tiles to fill in the gaps. For our glass tiles, we chose non-sanded grout.  (The little bits of sand would likely scratch the tile faces.)

DIY kitchen backsplash non sanded grout polyblend

There are about as many grout color choices as there are people on the planet, but I always say you can’t go wrong with white.

Scissors

For cutting tile sheets in half and trimming excess mesh off the edges)

diy kitchen backsplash supply list scissors

Scissors were necessary for cutting sheets in half, trimming mesh edges, and filling gaps with one-off tiles.

White paper

We used it to protect the countertop underneath the tile edges

DIY kitchen backsplash paper to protect countertop

Paper used to protect the few inches of counter top adjacent to our work area.

Painter’s tape

We used Scotch blue painter’s tape to secure protective sheets of paper between the tile and the countertop.  We also used the tape to mask off the top of the mortar area to protect the painted wall above the backsplash.

diy kitchen backsplash supply list painter's tape

This stuff is completely worth it.

Terrycloth and Paper Towels

Used throughout the installation to wipe our fingers and clean up smudges.

Two Gallon Bucket

Used to mix our mortar.  Our 8 square feet worth of mortar hardly began to fill the bucket:

Don't use your prom bucket for mixing mortar, it's going to get messy and scratched.

Don’t use your prom bucket for mixing mortar, it’s going to get messy and scratched.

 

Metal Scraper

Our all-purpose metal scraper was used to mix the mortar in the bucket (it gets pretty stiff, a paint stick won’t cut it) and spread the mortar onto the wall.

metal_scraper

Get a tough one, you’ll use it in every other DIY project you do.

V-Notch Trowel

The v-notch trowel was essential for carving thin lines into the mortar once we’d applied the mortar to the wall.  The lines help the tiles squish onto the wall and adhere using a thin, even layer of mortar.

v notch edge trowel for DIY kitchen backsplash installers

Don’t skip this tool like I almost did, the little notches of the v-notch trowel make a HUGE difference in how nicely your tiles squish onto the wall.

 

Float Trowel

Your float trowel is for spreading grout over the delicate tile surfaces.  A float trowel is smooth and soft to protect your tiles from scratches.  We had two: a wide one and a narrow one (for fitting the short area under the window ledge).

float_trowel

Not to be confused with the metal scraper (which might scratch your tiles) or your v-notch trowel (which will definitely scratch your tiles).

Grout Sponge

Question: What’s the difference between a normal sponge and a grout sponge?
Answer: About $6.

Your grout sponge is for gently wiping grout off the face of your tiles as it cures. These cost somewhere between a buck and ten dollars. We used one that cost somewhere in the middle of that range and everything went fine.

cheap grout sponge

Amazon’s cheapest grout sponge – $2 for this bad boy

pro_plus_grout_sponge

A fancier grout sponge with built-in haze buffer.

Whether you splash out on a Cadillac sponge or get one from the dollar store, use a clean, new sponge.  You don’t want particles from your last sponge project getting into your nice grout or marring your pretty tiles.

Sealer

For sealing your tiles against stains and other unpleasantness.  Match the sealer type to your type of tiles.  Our tiles are some kind of stone (quartz, maybe?) and glass.

grout_and_tile_Sealer

We used a spray bottle of grout and tile sealer from Home Depot

Eye Protection & Breathing Mask

Mixing the mortar is dusty but unless you’re mixing a ton of it, it probably won’t be a problem.  Protection is up to you – I wore science class goggles and a cloth breathing mask, but my two helpers went without and everyone was pleased with their choices.

 To help you find the right products quickly, links on this page are Amazon affiliate links.  As always, LevelUpHouse and I encourage you to shop around, shop local, and shop wherever you like.  If you decide to shop at Amazon, your purchase through any of these links helps support LevelUpHouse! 

 

DIY Kitchen Backsplash (Part 2): How to Choose Kitchen Backsplash Tiles

Welcome to Part 2 of our completely modest, totally DIY kitchen backsplash project!  In this post, I’ll tell you what to think about when picking out tiles and how to choose kitchen backsplash tiles for your DIY kitchen remodel.

Catch up on our DIY kitchen backsplash series through these links: 

When I was researching kitchen backsplash ideas, I found that most of what I was reading assumed I had a sky-high budget and a kitchen straight out of Better Homes & Gardens.

high end kitchen

Gasp-inducing kitchen is lovely but so not in my budget! Photo credit: suturi.com

My kitchen’s from 1977, and it’s about what you’d expect from a single family standalone home built 30+ years ago.

level up house kitchen solid surface countertop mint color

My actual kitchen!

Contractors we discussed possibilities with wanted to tear out walls and completely change the layout of our downstairs to “modernize” it, but I can’t afford that.  So we’re facelifting this kitchen instead of gutting it, spreading the costs out, and doing as much as we can ourselves.

This DIY kitchen backsplash project’s goals are:

  • Simple design – like Legos!

  • Easy DIY installation

  • No tile cutting

  • No tools we don’t already own

  • Under $400 for the whole shebang (most of the cost is in the tiles themselves)

I don’t want (and can’t afford) those crazy counter-to-ceiling tiled walls with glittery tiles cut from slabs found in the enchanted quarry. :)

If yours is too, then read on for Part 2 of our DIY Kitchen Backsplash series: choosing the right backsplash tile!

Your Tile Budget

expensive tile

This diamond tile will set you back just $1 million per square meter

Your tiles will be the single largest expense of your DIY kitchen backsplash.  Tile is usually priced by the square foot, and most prices we found were between $18/sq foot and $90+ sq/foot (omg).

If you haven’t yet, take a minute to estimate how much square footage of tile you actually need.

Next, figure out how much you’re willing to spend.  The cheapest you’ll probably get away with is $250-$500 (USD) for a modest, short backsplash.

Divide your budget by how many square feet you’ll need.  If your budget is $300 and you need 15 square feet, your sheets should cost about $20/each. 

budgetformula

Figuring this out before you step into a tile store will save you a ton of time: you can just look at the price first, and if it’s too much, keep looking.  You won’t waste time on tile you can’t afford.

Where to Shop for Tiles

We’re in the Pacific Northwest, and our favorite places for tile are The Home Depot (which is where we got our bathroom tiles from) and Tile for Less (which is where we shopped for this project).  If Home Depot is the McDonalds of tiles, then Tile for Less is the Olive Garden.  Neither are particularly expensive, and both have enough variety for just about anyone, but it’s a lot easier to “splash out” and spend a fortune at Tile for Less.

There are two more reasons to visit Tile for Less.

Reason #1 – This awesome Tile for Less mosaic sign:

Tile for Less sign mosaic tiled

Reason #2 – This faux dinosaur fossil mosaic I pay homage to every time I visit Tile for Less:

tile_for_less_dinosaur

There are also tons of online tile stores.  I didn’t shop for tiles online; I just wanted to see the tiles in person and find something locally, but I would have ended up online if Tile for Less couldn’t deliver the goods.

What Kind of Tiles To Buy

There are about as many choices in tiles as there are people buying tiles, so a lot of this is up to personal preference.

This is my advice to anyone trying to choose tiles:

  • Neutral colors (white and grey in our case) because I hate experimenting with expensive things that get glued to the wall.  Bland colors for things that are permanent, that’s my motto. :)

  • Under $30/sq foot.  Just a simple budget preference. Some sheets we liked were $70+ per sq. ft which I think is just insane for a bunch of rocks you glue to a wall. Your mileage will vary here.

  • Must fit under our window sill which is 3 ¾” because I don’t want to turn a countertop project into a window project as well

  • Must include 1” tiles for filling in gaps because I don’t want to cut tiles if I can avoid it

  • Flat surfaces because I don’t want to scrub grime out of wavy tiles or sculpted designs

  • It’s hard to go wrong with subway tiles

So, with all that in mind, you’d probably be surprised to know those criteria didn’t severely limit our choices.

Our Tile Choice (and Runners-Up)

This is the tile I liked as soon as I stepped into the store.  Bellavita Boulder Series in “Snow” checks all our boxes. I love it.

bellavita_stone

But just to be sure, we wasted another 2 hours looking at more tiles to make sure it was The One (it was).

In the interest of sharing our decision-making process, here are some runners-up that didn’t make the cut. The one on the left was nice, and the 1″ tiles were perfect, but it was way more expensive.  The one in the middle was ultimtely too dark and also too many fiddly bits to deal with individually for the edges/corners.

runners_up

I super loved the look of this Meier tile but I didn’t super love its price, which if I recall was like $60 a square foot or something crazy.  But I did seriously consider it for a few minutes.

meir_tile

We also brought a sample home to look at it there, because I like to be super-duper sure before I spend $300 on a nonrefundable box of rocks.  Finally, we bought our 9 sheets and left satisfied with our decision.  Our grand total for 9 sheets+tax came to $320.

Since these tiles are stone, we’ll have to seal them as well.  (We’ll talk more about sealing when we get to the supply-buying and installation steps.)

The Tiles Arrive!

Tile for Less had our tile order ready for pickup in like, four days, so they arrived weeks ahead of our planned November installation. The tiles came in a square box and none of the sheets were broken or chipped.

Our box of rocks is home!

Stay tuned for Part 3, where we stick our box of rocks to the wall.

DIY Kitchen Backsplash (Part 1): Planning a Kitchen Backsplash

DIY kitchen backsplash tiling project

Welcome to Part 1 of our DIY tiled kitchen backsplash project! This first post is about planning a kitchen backsplash.

See the entire DIY kitchen backsplash series:

A year ago we replaced our kitchen’s old with a super nice Staron solid surface countertop from Home d’Pot and planned to tile our own backsplash. Now it’s time to finish the backsplash!

DIY kitchen backsplash planning a kitchen backsplash

To be frank, the idea of permanently gluing little bits of ceramic and glass to our kitchen walls is super intimidating.  We’ve only tiled one thing before (a stripe down our bathroom wall) and that was a messy and intense experience.  You just don’t get much room for messing up when you’re working with tile (but everything went fine in our bathroom tiling project).

our previous tiling experience in a bathroom

It took us some time (and a bunch of YouTube videos) to get the confidence that we could tile our own kitchen backsplash.

Kitchen Ambition

The best place to begin is to determine how ambitious (translation: expensive) the project will be.  This is true of virtually any kind of project you might plan, but it’s especially true when working with expensive materials that the store won’t let you return.

We decided to keep our kitchen backsplash project very modest.  Our backsplash will be 6” tall with varying width tiles, which should allow us flexibility to fill in gaps and avoid cutting tiles. Hopefully, simplicity will pay off in the end.

Why not tile the whole wall?  Well, for one, it’s a trend I just don’t like that much. I think a wall of tile is overwhelming, and it doesn’t let you repaint the kitchen walls (which is something I like doing :D).

Two, it’s expensive.  To tile our entire wall would require 66 square feet of materials, which would cost over $2000 in materials alone.  Our 6” backsplash materials came in around $320.

cost to tile entire kitchen wall is too expensive

Three, we probably couldn’t do a fully tiled wall ourselves.  We would have to remove and re-install the range hood over the tile, and cut the tiles to accommodate the electrical outlets.

So I’ll leave the fully-tiled-wall look to the pros and I’ll stick with what I can actually do myself.

6 inch backsplash is much more affordable

Figuring these things out before you begin is super important.  Knowing the scope of your project lets you estimate costs, which is usually why we DIY these things in the first place.  We got two professional quotes for the kitchen backsplash, and both came at around $650 and $800.  Yeah, thanks, but we’ll pass on that.  Doing it ourselves should come in under $400, for a savings of at least $250.  (I don’t know about you, but I think that stuff adds up.  That’s like, a quarter of the way to another trip to Disneyland!)

I also highly recommend figuring out what you want in terms of color and style before you go to a tile store where you’ll get overwhelmed by the possibilities.  Spend an hour on Google figuring out what you like and what you hate.  Virtually everything looks nice in the tile store, so make sure you know what looks right in your kitchen before you go there.

Determine Your Backsplash’s Height

This part’s easy: how high do you want your backsplash to be?   Some go halfway up the wall, some go to the ceiling, and some are a little more modest and stop about where we’re stopping ours.

We chose 6” because it would let us cut our 12”x12” tile sheets evenly in half and because 6” is slightly lower than our electrical outlets.  Not having to cut tiles to fit around outlets sounds like a good time to me.

6 inch tall backsplash avoids electrical outlets

Determine Your Backsplash’s Width

This part’s easy, too: measure the width of the area you’ll be tiling. In our case, the window wall is 113″ wide and the oven’s wall is 82″ wide.

Calculate the area

Multiply your width by your intended backsplash height to get the square inches you’ll need to fill with tile (in inches).  Divide it by 12 to convert the square inches into feet, and then divide by 12 again to convert into square feet.  (Unless you’re using metric, in which case you can probably do the math in your head…)

I bought one full extra sheet to be safe, so 10 sheets total. (At $30 a sheet, I didn’t want to go crazy buying extra sheets.)

planning a kitchen backsplash

Figure out what you want over the stove

We left the area above the stove empty – it will just be the painted wall it already is.  We chose this to save money (less tile to buy) and because I’m not convinced it needs a backsplash.  We’re daily cooks and I haven’t felt the need for an elaborate backsplash behind the stove yet, so we’ll leave that to the magazines.

If you do want something over your stove (something taller than the rest of your backsplash, perhaps), be sure to calculate its dimensions as well.  If you want it to use a variety of tiles (say, a border or a special design), also calculate the area of those special features.

Any special cases?

Our “special case” is the space between the counter and the window ledge.  The space is just a TEENY TINY BIT less than 4″, so we’re gonna try to make it work with 1″ tiles.

Ready to Shop for Tiles!

With our quantity and budget determined, we’re ready to go to the tile store and see what they’ve got!  I know we’ll be looking for tiles that can fit under the window ledge and match our countertop.

What to bring with to the tile store:

  • Measuring tape

  • Counter sample, if you have one, for comparisons (a painted sample of your wall color and a cabinet door wouldn’t hurt, either)

  • Kitchen measurements

Once the backsplash was planned, the next step was visiting a tile store and choosing tiles.

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