Tiles provide a durable, easy-to-clean surface for one of the places in your kitchen that needs it most–your backsplash–the wall space behind your cooking and preparation areas and the kitchen sink. Cleaning a painted backsplash can be frustrating and repainting is a bother. An attractive tiled backsplash will improve the value of your kitchen, as well as save you time and effort. It’s a job that can be completed in a weekend or two, depending on the size of the area to be tiled.
Decide what kind of a backsplash you want. If you have a small space (or budget) it could be worth looking at alternative materials such as an acrylic kitchen splashback to cut down on costs. You may also want to design a plain backsplash with simple field or glass tile. If you have a larger space, you may want to include some decorative tile, design a detail for a large space (such as over a range or sink) or include edging. Draw up a plan, including all doors, cabinets and windows and assemble a color sampler of paint, wallpaper or curtains. Be sure to mark all measurements. Better still, draw your plan to scale, using one or one-half-inch-to-one-foot scale.
The tile person at your local floor or home store is your best guide in making the decision as to what kind and how much tile you need. Since your backsplash tile won’t be walked on, you can use fancy ceramic or rustic stone that wouldn’t hold up on the floor. Very porous tile, unless sealed may soak up grease and be difficult to clean. Recycled glass tiles are made in a rainbow of colors and sizes. They are becoming more available and make a handsome “green” alternative. In fact, you’ll be amazed at the variety of tile. Metal tiles are also available in panels (used for tin ceilings and wainscoting). The application is a bit simpler than ceramic tile, and the resulting back splash is much lighter and can be painted or antiqued to match your kitchen. They are a bit tricky to work with as they need to be handled gently to avoid flattening the pressed metal. Whatever type of tile you choose, have the professionals advise you in your choice and get the right number of field, detail and trim pieces for your project. Buy more tile than you’ll need to allow for cutting pieces to fit and breakage.
Read the labels. Buy the type and quantity of mastic, or adhesive, for the tile you’ve chosen. Decide what kind of grout you want to use. Grout that is close to the color of the tile tends to unify the wall, good for small spaces or in kitchens with lots of spaces or colors. Contrasting grout tends to make each tile stand out, drawing attention to the tile. This is a personal design decision.
The instructions on the mastic or adhesive will tell you what size notched trowel you will need, and the grout will have instructions as to whether you need a float or can apply it by smearing it on with rubber gloves. At any rate, you’ll need a large sponge to clean the excess grout so it doesn’t dry on the tile’s surface. You can (and should) rent, at the very minimum, a tile cutter and tile nippers. Tile saws, that cut corners, use a diamond blade and water to keep the chance of tiles cracking to a minimum. If your job is a large one or will involve a lot of cutting detail, renting one is cheaper than going back for another box of tile.
Now that you have all your supplies assembled, mask off your counters with newsprint or plastic (mastic sticks to anything that’s porous) and sand the surface to be covered with a medium grit sandpaper to smooth out any bumps and give the mastic a clean surface to adhere to. Mark the center of your back splash and draw a perpendicular line through it using a level to check plumb. The center will be in the largest or most noticeable area, generally above the cook top or stove or where a decorative pattern will be most noticeable.
Lay out your tiles on your counter to check your pattern and confirm that you have the right number of tiles for what you want to do. If you discover that you don’t like your design, it’s easier to change it now than it is when you’ve got all that mastic on the wall. Once you’re happy with your layout, it’s time to get started. Remove any plate covers and pull out any appliances that you’ll need to tile down behind.
Start in the center at your center line. If you’d like a horizontal guide, tack a piece of one by two scrap to mark the bottom of your first row of tile, using a level to put it at a ninety degree angle (or forty-five if you’re placing tile on a diagonal) to your center line. You can remove the board when you’ve got your first row level. Spread about four square feet of mastic or adhesive at a time by drawing your trowel across the wall at about a thirty degree angle in an overlapping pattern. This will leave notches (except for clear glass tile where you want the surface of the adhesive to be thin and flat) to allow the adhesive to fill in neatly and catch the underside of the tile.
Place your tiles and jiggle each into place with gentle pressure. Leave a little space between the tiles or use spacers to guarantee uniform spacing. Work quickly because the mastic dries fairly quickly. On large spaces, draw a line from one end of the space to the other using a level, chalk line or laser line and lay one complete row for a guide. Repeat, working out on one side of your center line and then on the other, four or five square feet at a time. Clean up any mastic or adhesive as you go with the recommended solvent.
Let the mastic or adhesive dry for the recommended time–preferably overnight–before grouting. Remove any spacers you’ve used. Spread the grout over the tile, pushing grout into the spaces between the tiles and squeegeeing as much grout as possible off the tiles as you go. When you’ve finished grouting, rinse a large sponge in a pail of clean water and wipe gently once over a section of tile. Turn your sponge over and do an adjacent section. Be careful to wipe diagonally across grout lines so you take only the grout sitting on the surface of the tile as you wipe. Rinse the sponge and repeat until you’ve wiped all the extra grout off the surface of the tiles.
Once your work is completely dry, wipe the surface of the tile with a soft cloth to remove any grout dust left behind. If the grout maker recommends sealer, wait about a week to apply according to directions. If you have no edges on your tile or you haven’t used edging or bull-nosed tile, you’ll need to protect any exposed edges from moisture by using matching caulking around the edge of your backsplash.