How to Tile a Backsplash (for beginners)
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
If you've never tiled anything before in your life and looking for some guidance then you're in the right place! I had never tiled anything before as well and was extremely intimidated going into tiling the backsplash for our laundry room makeover.
But after coming out the other side I can say that it was much easier than expected and I am 1000% ready to tackle tiling our fireplace now (that project is coming very soon- stay tuned). So newbie tilers buckle up because I'm going to take you through the entire process and give you all the tools and knowledge that you need to tackle your first tiling project.
I'm going to break this post up into two categories, the first being the prep and then we'll get to the actual tiling. A lot of the prep comes in figuring out what tile you want to use, gathering your supplies, and researching everything you will need to get the project done so I'm going to take you through what all I did to get me ready to lay my first tile.
1. Pick your tile
Before you start tiling you have to figure out what kind of tile you want to use and this is totally a personal preference thing.
I used this marble herringbone tile that I absolutely love, but there are definitely a few additional steps when working with a natural stone tile that I'll get into later. When thinking about what kind of tile you want to use it's also a good idea to think about what kind of edges you want. Will your tile terminate into a wall/edge or will there be a place where it just ends? In our case our tile was going to line up with the edge of our countertop and I knew it might look a little unfinished so I bought a few of these marble pencil tiles to use as edging for a more polished look.
Demoing out the tile backsplash that was already in place was another part of our prep, I was lucky that the guys that came to install our new countertop actually did this for us when they removed the old countertop.
Once the tiles were demo'd out I just sanded down the wall to make sure it was smooth. If you're tiling in a bathroom there will be a few additional steps here that you will need to research, but I actually tiled right over our wall so once my surface was sanded it was ready to go.
3. Purchase your supplies
A lot of my prep work involved researching what I needed to purchase. Once I had a list of supplies I took it to The Tile Shop and was able to talk to a tile pro (Frank is amazing for any Houston/Clear Lake locals) who helped me fill in the gaps a bit.
- your tile of choice (this is what I used)
- your edge tile if needed (this is what I used)
- wet saw- I rented this wet saw from Home Depot
- mortar- this is the stuff that is going to adhere your tiles to the wall
- trowel- to apply the mortar
- float- to apply the grout and push it in between the cracks
- grout- I used sanded grout in the color fresh lily
- grout release- only needed if you're tiling with a porous natural stone, this helped protect the marble from absorbing the grout so it could be cleaned off easier
- caulk- Frank at The Tile Shop was also able to recommend purchasing caulk that matched our grout (in the color fresh lily), this came in handy for seamless edges at the very end
- sealer- this was needed due to the fact that we were tiling with natural stone, this will be applied at the very end to protect the marble
- mixer drill attachment (optional, but so so helpful in my opinion)
- sponge- to wipe off grout haze
- paint brush- to apply grout release and marble sealer
- 2 buckets- 1 for the wet saw water pump and 1 for mixing up the mortar and caulk
- dry erase marker- to mark cuts
4. Plan your layout
The last thing I did right before tiling was to create a quick layout of where the tile would go. Our herringbone sheets didn't have straight edges to butt up against our wall and Frank was kind enough to tell us the easiest solution for that was to just trim off the edge so we could start with a clean edge.
This made for a nice straight line to line up with our wall. I recommend sketching up your layout with correct dimensions before you start so you don't end up with a bunch of weird/wonky cuts when you get to the end. We didn't plan quite as well as we could have and did have a bit of an issue, but I'll get into that in a minute.
1. Set up your wet saw
Once I had everything I needed the tiling part was actually pretty simple. I will interject here that ideally this is a two person job- one person to cut tile and another to spread mortar/apply the tiles to the wall. My husband Kris was in charge of cutting the tiles with our rented wet saw. The wet saw was relatively easy to set up. We plugged it in and then filled up a large bucket of water to place the water pump into, this automatically pumped water onto the blade as it cut.
It made cutting our marble tiles a breeze.
2. Cutting and placing the tiles
We started by cutting the edge off of all the tiles for the left side of our backsplash. Another huge tip Frank gave us was to cut our tiles on the cardboard backing to stabilize them. This was such a lifesaver, but will only apply if you're using tiles on a mesh sheet.
While Kris cut the tiles I mixed up the mortar. I used this drill attachment which made the mixing go so smoothly. Once we had the mortar mixed up I spread it onto the wall using a trowel. After a thick application went on I spread the trowel back through to create these textured lines.
Then Kris came in with the cut tile and I pressed it on.
Now while I'm sure the tile pros do this a bit differently we worked at a pace of one tile at a time. I spread the mortar for one tile and then we placed that tile. Kris then cut the next tile while I spread the mortar. This helped us ensure we were getting the exact right cuts since a misplaced cut could mean a wasted tile ($$).
I think the hardest part about tiling is just figuring out the cuts and then dealing with any weird angle cuts. In our top corners we had some of the cabinetry molding where we needed to make some additional cuts.
We found the easiest way to do this was to pop the smaller tiles off of the mesh sheet, then I marked them with a dry erase marker. I also put an X on the part that I wouldn't need so Kris would know which part was the piece of tile we would need to put back.
Then I put mortar directly on that piece of tile and pressed it back into place.
It was also nice knowing that any cuts that weren't exactly perfect would all be hidden by grout too. For example, when I mentioned above that we hadn't planned this backsplash out perfectly, it wasn't until we got to the right side of the wall that we even realized it. Kris cut our right side pieces to size and we were left with a few sheets that needed tiny little triangles to flesh out the design.
Tiny as in so small that they couldn't be cut to size. We did have a few scraps laying around that I started to place in, but I eventually realized they were looking too janky and filling those gaps with grout was going to be a much cleaner look. It really ended up looking ok in the end, but had we planned just a smidgen better we could have avoided that completely (and something a pro would have probably been able to avoid).
Once all of the tile was in place and secure, then it was time to let everything dry for 24 hours. This also meant that we were done with the tile saw and were able to return it to stay within our one day rental which saved us a lot of money.
3. Grout and grout prep
After everything was dry then it was time to grout, but first we had to... you guessed it, more prep! We used grout release to protect our natural stone from grout haze. I used a brush and applied it generously over all of the tile. If you're not using a porous natural stone then this step can be skipped.
After letting that dry for a few hours I mixed up the grout using my drill mixer attachment again. Then with my float I spread the grout into all the cracks and wiped it with the clean edge of the float to get off the excess. This definitely took a lot longer than I was imagining. I was expecting a quick 15 minute project, but it took about an hour and a half.
I found conflicting information online about when to wipe the grout off. I finally landed on doing my first pass after 30 minutes with water and a sponge. Then I waited another hour and a half to go in and wipe the tile a little better, then after 24 hours I did a full clean up of each tile.
At this point I ditched the sponge (since that seemed like it was just pushing the grout haze around) and used a wet clean cloth to wipe/shine up each tile.
Once my tile was clean and sparkly I touched up all the edges with the caulk that matched my grout. Again, I can't stress how much this caulk really finished everything off! My edges blend in with the tile seamlessly!
The last step was to brush on the marble sealer (I just used a regular paintbrush) and then I was done!! This step can be skipped if you're not working with natural stone.
This absolutely has to be one of my favorite projects I've ever done.
It looks SO beautiful and I know doing it myself only made me appreciate the finished product even more.
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Disclaimer: The tile I used for this makeover was gifted to me for my honest, unbiased review and all opinions, words and images are my own.