We tiled for the first time ever and lived to tell the tale.
Fixing up our home has taught us a lot about ourselves. It’s taught us that we’re pretty enterprising (like when we used outlet spacers to get a too-small desk drawer to fit on the sliding tracks). It taught us that it’s ok to hit ‘mute’ on our inner perfectionists (like when I ran out of wallpaper in our powder room, and had no choice but to hide the paperless gap behind where our mirror would hang). And this week, it taught us that we’re not great at tiling.
Like, really not great. (Functionally competent, maybe).
I’m sure there are some weird people out there that really enjoy and excel at tiling (probably the same people that chew birthday cake flavored gum or still have an AOL email address). We’re not those people.
Granted, this was our first tile experience ever. Before our backsplash, the closest we had gotten to tiling was when we installed groutable vinyl tile in our pantry. (FYI: that was 9000% easier than our backsplash. Yes, 9000%. Really.)
Since we were noobs, we decided to take baby steps and start with tiling the backsplash above our wine / coffee bar.
Step One: The Vision
We knew we wanted to go with subway tile (shocking, right?), and many an afternoon were spent perusing tile shops, weighing carrara marble tiles against sleek grey glass tiles, and scouring the archives of Pinterest and Houzz for possible combinations. Since we had white cabinets and white counters, we wanted to pick a backsplash that would add some character and color, and prevent our kitchen from looking too sterile or — R’s word — “soulless.”
We loaded my tote bag with tile samples and held them up to cabinets, paint swatches, and countertops.
In the end, we were holidaying over Christmas when the deciding dose of inspiration came from an unexpected place…
Is it normal to have an “a-ha!” moment about kitchen backsplash tile while riding the dirty Paris metro at night? Probably not. But underneath all that grit and grime, there was something so charming about the simple white tiles. I just knew.
The dose of character that our kitchen needed didn’t necessarily have to come from colorful tiles or more carrara. Instead, I started scheming about other Parisian elements I could bring to our kitchen (metal bistro chairs, a chalkboard menu wall, tons and tons of wine and cheese!)
Bonus: subway tiles are super economical!
Step Two: Prep
We got all of our supplies together, we watched some tutorial videos (this one keeps it short and sweet), and then we got started!
- Type 1 tile adhesive
- Approximately 5 billion 1/8″ tile spacers
- Way more Allen+Roth white subway tiles than we originally calculated
- Notched trowel (yes I had to Google that)
- Ryobi wet saw
- Rubber grout float
- Maypei grout in white
We watched all of our videos again, looked at each other intently, agreed that we’d still love each other no matter what happened, and then…
Step Three: We Got Started
We marked our center point and laid out our tiles to see how our formation would look and plan our cuts. There are a few different patterns for arranging subway tile, but we went with the classic running bond / brick pattern:
(Frankly, any other pattern would have made my eye twitch. I guess I’m just not very progressive about these sorts of things…)
The tutorials we watched all instructed us to leave a 1/8″ gap along the bottom of our backsplash, so we just threw down a bunch of our 1/8″ tile spacers to build our first row upon.
Next we scooped up a fat blob of tile adhesive and used the
groove maker notched trowel to spread it over the wall.
Up until this point we had remained somewhat optimistic about the feasibility of this task, but this was where things started getting sloppy. The guys in the videos make this look so easy… kind of fun, even! Not the case, we learned. It’s actually really challenging to smear, blob and groove (if there’s some secret I’m missing here, please enlighten me!)
With the wall gooped and our base spacers in place, we started positioning our tiles and pressing them into the wall with our rubber grout float.
Placing and spacing the tiles is actually pretty straightforward, but we hit a snag when we got to the edges. We thought we could muscle through with a manual tile cutter, but we quickly realized that this tool wouldn’t help us navigate tricky outlet cut-outs. After losing a few tiles to ridiculously ineffective device called a ’tile nipper,’ we decided to throw back a shot of #YOLO and invest in a wet saw (we chose this Ryobi).
I said a prayer over R’s fingers and didn’t breathe the entire time he used the wet saw, but I have to admit… this hoss glides through a tile was like a spork slides into soft serve ice cream (maybe slightly louder).
The wet saw was the MVP when it came to making tricky cuts around an outlet.
But cutting edge pieces and outlet holes wasn’t the only drama we ran into.
After completing your horizontal row of tiles, you graduate to the finished edge. You have a couple of options… you can get slim tiles to create a trim design around your backsplash, or you can use bullnosed tiles for your out-facing edges.
We chose Option Three: tile edging trim.
The long end of the L-shaped edging trim tucks underneath the edge of your backsplash, and the 3/8″ lip extends to create a ‘border’ concealing your unfinished edge tiles. We left our usual 1/8″ space between tile and trim, so that it could be grouted for a polished finished product.
As you can see, some of our cuts were less than impressive and we were dealing with a bit of rookie unevenness (user error? cheap wet saw? maybe both?) Using tile trim let us conceal these blunders pretty easily.
We got a pretty good groove going. R cut, I placed, we both complained.
Somehow, things got done.
And the next morning, I felt optimistic about the results. Pleased, even.
The next step was grouting. Calm before the storm:
Grouting is s0 messy but also so satisfying. This is when a tile project really comes to life.
After spreading the grout into the tile joints, I used a spray bottle and sponge to clear off the excess grout and haze. This is actually the most time-consuming part of grouting for me.
The final touch was caulking the 1/8″ gap between the countertop and tiles.
And there you have it!
It’s not perfect… and to be honest, it really bugs me that we didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. R thought it would look silly if we went all the way up, but now that we’re looking at the finished product, we think it looks sillier not going all the way up.
So, we may be getting the wet saw and quickset out again and adding a few more runs to finish this bad boy off.
But until then… it’s still freaking awesome compared to where we started from:
Next up: floating shelves!
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