Canadian Woodworking

Make a splash

Author: Allan Britnell
Photos: Lead photo by Bialasiewicz |
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: August September 2017

A step-by-step guide on how to install a tile backsplash or shower surround.

One of the first things my wife and I did when we bought our first home together some 15 years ago was to gut the dated kitchen. Given our lean budget at the time, most of the work was done DIY or DIWHFF (do it with help from friends). We hired an electrician, plumber, and drywaller to handle those tasks, and a friend helped me install the cabinets we ordered from the local building centre. I installed the laminate flooring myself: it was a snap (pun fully intended). The last task was to install the tile backsplash along the wall between the countertop and the bottom of the cabinets.

I’d never worked with tile and readily admit to being intimidated by the task. In the end though, it went fairly smoothly. With some lessons learned along the way, I’ve comfortably tackled similar tiling projects a couple times since. If you think you might want to try your hand at tiling a backsplash, shower, or other wall, here’s what you need to know.

Be Patient
 As you apply adhesive to the wall with your trowel, be sure to not get ahead of yourself. Only apply as much adhesive as you can place tiles on top of before the adhesive starts to set.

Facing Outward
When using spacers, ensure they protrude outward from the face of the tiles, so they can be removed when the adhesive is dry.

Careful Cuts
 A tile saw is the quickest way to make the cuts required for most projects, but a manual tile cutter might work for you. They score the surface of the tile and allow you to snap off the waste portion.

Time for Grout
 With the adhesive dry, evenly work the grout into the gaps between the tiles. Medium pressure, as you move the grout float across the wall in all directions, helps force grout into the gaps.

Caulk, Don’t Grout
 Grout between the wall and the countertop tends to crack over time. Caulk remains flexible and provides durable protection in a high-use area.

Seal the Grout
 Once the grout is thoroughly dry, apply a grout sealer to the grout lines.

Tools and materials

There are a few tools you’ll need that you may not already have in your collection, including a notched trowel, grout float and something to cut the tiles. Manual tile cutters score the surface of the tile, then snap it apart along the line. They work reasonably well, but you may end up with some jagged edges along the cut line. They also can’t cut very narrow pieces, which can make it hard for finishing off a row.

The better option is to use a tile saw. If you anticipate doing this job more than once, you can buy a decent DIYer’s model starting at about $100. If this is a one-time project, or you’d rather not have an extra tool cluttering your space, you can rent a professionalgrade tile saw from most building centres for about $75 a day.

It’s also handy to have a pair of tile nippers ($10-$20) to cut off small pieces or help you shape the tile around electrical outlets or other protrusions.

You’ll also want to pick up a bag of tile spacers. These little X-shaped pieces of plastic come in a variety of thicknesses, from about 1/16″ to 3/8″. These help ensure even grout lines between each of the tiles.

Finally, you’ll need something to stick the tiles to the wall. You can mix up some thin-set mortar, but the easier option is to buy a container of readymade tile adhesive.

When it comes to choosing the tiles, there are virtually endless options in terms of style, size, and price. The cheapest option – and easiest to work with – is ceramic tile, which you can pick up for less than a dollar a square foot. Natural stone is a tougher material to cut, and can set you back $20 or more per square foot. For a modern look, you might even consider glass or steel tiles. For the size, options range from sheets of small mosaics, to large 1′ × 1′ squares. You can cover the entire wall with one type of tile – either staggered or overlapping evenly – or incorporate a mix of different tiles, such as a strip of mosaics set between rows of larger tile.

Once you’ve chosen the tile you’ll use, measure the area you’ll be covering, then order about 10 percent more than needed to account for damage and waste in offcuts. At the end of the job you’ll want to store a few leftovers in case you need to replace any damaged tiles down the road. A decade from now you may find it hard to find an exact match, particularly if you’ve chosen a unique style or pattern.

Step-by-step instructions

Tiling is a multi-stage job. On the first day you’ll install the tiles. A day or more later, after the adhesive is set, you’ll apply the grout and seal the job. Start off by preparing the work surface. You’ll need to remove any light switch and electrical outlet covers on the wall. Cover any outlets with tape so you don’t get mortar or adhesive on them.

Fill any dents or uneven areas with drywall compound, and then give the wall a wipe to remove any grime. If the wall was previously painted, you will want to give it a sanding (80-grit paper or so) so the adhesive can stick better.

Before you start tiling, put down a drop sheet to protect the floor or counter below your work area. Next, mark the centre line of your wall. From there, do a dry run with your tiles, accounting for your grout space, to see how the tiles will lay out. If you’ll end up with less than half a tile on both ends of your row, you’re better off adjusting things so that you start slightly off centre. Do the same to determine the vertical spacing from top to bottom. To make things easy for yourself, use a chalk line to mark a grid on the wall for you to follow while you work.

Read the instructions on the adhesive (or mortar) packaging to see how long it takes to set. Don’t apply more to the wall than you can cover before it skins up. Use your trowel to apply the adhesive to the wall, then set your first tile in place. Give it a little wiggle to make sure the adhesive evenly covers the back of the tile. Put a spacer or two in place and snug up the next tile against those. Note that you’ll want the spacers sticking out from the wall. While it may look tempting to lay flat on the corners, you’ll never get them out once the glue sets.

In most cases, you’ll use whole tiles, but at the end of a row, you’ll likely need to cut a tile to fit in the remaining gap. Measure the space (accounting for the grout line) and use a Sharpie marker to mark your cut line. Make sure the water reservoir in your tile saw – aka a wet saw – is filled, and set your tile in the saw table. Wearing goggles and ear protection (it gets loud) slowly guide the saw blade through the tile. The emphasis is on slow, particularly at the end of the cut where there’s a tendency to chip. There will be some rough edges along the cut edge. You can hide these under the lip of a piece of tile edging material that you can pick up wherever you buy your tiles, or cover afterwards with a bead of caulking.

For subsequent rows, you’ll also use spacers to keep the grout lines between the top of one tile and bottom of the one above it nice and even. If your top row leaves a gap of an inch or less, you can cover that with a piece of trim.

Time for grout

Once all your tiles are in place and the adhesive has had time to cure, remove the spacers so you can apply the grout. Mix it with water according to the directions on the package. Once you’ve got a batch ready, work it into the gaps between each of the tiles with your grout float.

Do not put grout in the line between the bottom row of tiles and the top of your counter or bathtub. Instead, use caulking the same colour as your grout to seal that gap. I made the mistake of grouting it the first time I did the job, and with the flexing of the countertop, over time the grout started to flake away. Once the grout has dried (again, read the package for suggested time to let it set), grab a sponge and a bucket to remove the excess grout. Rinse and repeat several times until the sponge comes away clean.

The final step is to apply a grout sealer to protect it from stains (think pasta sauce flying out of the pot and onto the tile behind the stove). Once the grout sealer is dry your backsplash will be ready for anything a busy family in the kitchen can throw at it.

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