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The Bluestone Cottage kitchen is barreling fast and furious toward completion! I’ve been imagining this space for so long that it feels especially surreal to actually be standing in it. I’m so pleased with how it’s turning out, and one of my favorite parts is that I finally had a chance to try out a tiling idea that’s been kicking around in my head for years!
Choosing materials and finishes for a house like this one is tricky! I want it to be beautiful, of course, but it would feel weird to get too fancy or glitzy…it’s such a modest house and it just can’t pull it off. When it comes to tile, this feels like a particular challenge with tile because there is SO MUCH GOOD TILE out in the world, and particularly at Lowe’s where I can get SO MUCH GOOD TILE that actually fits in my budget. Aside from the modesty factor, I also wanted the tile to feel consistent with the age of the home, which frankly doesn’t leave a ton of options! Subway tile—pretty much THE historically accurate option for old kitchens–is easy and inexpensive of course (and I’d argue pretty timeless, even though it gets referred to as a “trend”!), but I feel like I’ve been there, done that. So this time around, I wanted to attempt something with the same spirit as humble subway tile but different enough to feel fresh and interesting and a little extra-special. What’s the point of doing it if it’s not going to be a little extra-special??
Of course, cost is also a factor in any renovation decision I’ve ever made. Let’s remember that this room started from studs and subfloor, so it’s going to be expensive no matter what. Sure I can do the work myself and save on labor, but at the end of the day a kitchen still needs cabinetry, countertops, appliances, a sink, a faucet, windows, walls, light fixtures, outlets and switches, flooring, and on and on and on. I haven’t crunched my numbers yet, but I’m hoping to clock in around $15K…which to me feels like a ton of money, but in the world of brand new kitchens I still think is pretty damn good. So I think the key to success with a project/budget like this is to splurge in a couple areas that feel impactful (YES THAT IS A MARBLE COUNTERTOP!) and save in others. So let’s get this done nice and cheap!
For reasons I cannot recall, several years ago I was reading up on traditional brick-laying patterns, and it struck me that maybe I could translate those patterns into simple tile patterns by just mixing a couple of different formats. All I’d really need is a rectangular tile, and a coordinating tile that’s the same height but half the width of the rectangular tile. From there, there’s a whole world of options! For this backsplash, I went with a combination of the ever-humble basic white 4×4 and white 4×8 subway tiles, but you could go bigger or smaller depending on the scale of your project!
Care to take a look at some other cool patterns you could totally do? Why! Not!
Some good options, right? Now let’s put it into action! For this space, I thought the Flemish Bond was going to be the best-suited. Not too simple, not too complex!
Believe it or not, tiling is really not difficult. You can do it! There might be some variation in the process depending on the type of tile (ceramic vs. natural stone, for instance), the size of the tile, or existing conditions in the room, but the basic strokes are the same. Here we’re talking SPECIFICALLY about tiling a kitchen backsplash, but I’ll try to note where things differ for other applications. Let’s get into it!
Here are your basic tiling tools!
2. Small notched trowel—for back-buttering and tight spaces
3. Large notched trowel—for spreading mastic on the wall
4. Small and large grout floats
5. Drill with a mixing arm
6. Tape Measure
7. Marker, wax pen, and/or pencil
8. Wet Saw (not pictured)
Here are my materials!
1. White 4″x4″ tile
2. White 4″x8″ tile (I’m linking to the actual tiles I used, but I guess the 4×8 in this brand isn’t carried anymore? Not to worry—these American Olean tiles should be basically the same, except they’re self-spacing! Here is the 4×4 and here is the 4×8)
3. Mastic or Thinset mortar
4. Latex/Nitrile Gloves
5. Painter’s tape
6. 5 Gallon Bucket
7. Microfiber cloths
8. Spacers, if using.
10. Caulk, color-matched to grout
Now! Away we go!
Step 1: PLAN! I feel like this is the most frequently-skipped step, but calculate or lay out a run or two to make sure everything falls where you want it to. It’s best to avoid situations where you end up with a little sliver of tile either at the top of the wall or at the corners. You may need to make some adjustments so that doesn’t happen! Generally you can just work from the center outwards, but confirm before you start just putting stuff up!
Step 2: If your wall is brand new, you may need to tape the seams in your wallboard with fiberglass mesh tape. Moisture-resistant drywall (commonly green or purple) is suitable for a backsplash. However, in areas with direct water exposure like a shower, wall material should be cementboard. Just cover the seam with a length of fiberglass mesh tape (there is a bit of adhesive on the back to hold it in place while you work), and use your mastic or thinset mortar to cover the joint (as opposed to regular joint compound). It doesn’t need to be beautiful, it just needs to create a nice consistent surface for you to tile!
Step 3: With seams taped and dried, you may want to prime the drywall. There are different schools of thought on this, and ultimately both primed and unprimed drywall should hold tile just fine. Evidently, primed drywall will suck in less moisture than raw, meaning your working time with thinset may be extended.
Step 4: Draw a line down the center of your run of tiles—in this case, it’s actually not the center of the wall but the center of where the range sits.
Step 5: Begin with your first row! Think of your first row as the foundation you’ll build your house off of—you want it to be VERY level and even for subsequent rows to rest on. Even when tiling on a flat and level surface, be sure to check your level now and again as you lay the first row. If you need to shim a tile up slightly, a little scrap of cardboard works nicely! You can also use wood or plastic shims—you do you.
To adhere the first row to the wall, I like to back-butter the tiles—meaning you spread the thinset or mastic to the back of the tile with your small notched trowel vs. the wall. This decreases mess and the likelihood of the adhesive drying out before you get to that part of the wall. You’ll save A LOT of time down the road if you do your best to keep thinset or mastic out of the joints that will later be grouted. Slow and steady! Stay focused! If you need/want them, insert tile spacers as you go. I find it’s best to use two spacers per side of the tile to keep everything nice and level.
NOTE: There is a large difference between mastic and thinset. Thinset is basically a cement mortar, which you can buy powdered and mix yourself or pre-mixed. Pre-mixed is more expensive, but after doing this enough times, to me it’s worth it. Aside from saving on mess and time, pre-mixed thinsets afford you a longer working time so you don’t have to try to speed through tiling to avoid wasting the thinset. It also comes mixed to the ideal consistency, which can be tricky to achieve when you’re mixing it yourself. Thinset is suitable for nearly all tile applications and the more versatile option.
MASTIC, by contrast, is basically a glue (from the mastic tree, I just found out!), and has limited uses. Essentially you don’t want to use it in an area with a lot of water exposure, such as a shower—it’s best for dry locations, like this one! That being said, if you CAN use mastic for your application, it’s worlds easier to work with, less messy, no mixing, and sets faster than thinset.
With any of the above options, the packaging will tell you two important pieces of information! The first is what sizes of tile it can be used for. Large format tiles may require a different product than small tile. The second is which trowel to use—different products need different trowels!
In addition, use of spacers is both an aesthetic and functional choice. Often simple tile like this is designed to be self-spacing, meaning the sides of the tile have a small ridge that forces a consistent 1/16″ gap for grout to fill later. This particular Satori brand of tile from Lowe’s is not self-spacing, so I used 1/16″ spacers to achieve the same thing. As a general rule, except in very specific circumstances, I personally think grout lines should be as small as possible, but less than 1/16″ may compromise the performance/hold of your grout.
Step 5: Cut your tiles to accommodate the end of a run and/or to cut around outlets, switches, or other fixtures. The easiest method by far is a wet saw, which you can either buy or rent depending on what’s available in your area and how often you see yourself using it! Because I do a fair amount of tiling, I decided a little while ago it was worth it for me to buy one. For a tiling job like this, an inexpensive small wet saw should really be all you need! This one by Skil is totally sufficient, or this Kobalt one is a great step-up if you’re using larger tile or just feeling like treating yourself.
If you only need to make straight cuts, you can use a score-and-snap tool. It should reliably make straight cuts with ease.
If you need to make a compound cut (like removing the corner of a tile to go around an outlet) but don’t want to use a wet saw, you can use a small manual coping saw and tile nippers. It’ll be slow-going, but it’s an option! You can also get a diamond-grit jigsaw blade and give that a shot, just be sure to keep the blade wet with a spray bottle as you’re cutting. For ROUND cuts (such as around a plumbing pipe), a diamond-grit hole saw also works nicely as long as you keep it wet!
If the entire bottom part edge of the tile isn’t being supported by something below (like the countertop or another tile) because of a cut, use painter’s tape to secure it to stable surrounding tiles to keep it in place while the mastic sets. Once it’s dry (which may only be a couple hours, but I like to let it be overnight), just remove the tape.
Step 6: Continue up the wall! Once your more complex cuts like for outlets are out of the way, things should move a lot faster. Make sure every row or two that you’re staying level—slight variations in the wall or the tile itself can throw things slightly out of whack, so you just want to stay on top of it and make minor adjustments as-needed, which might include a little shimming (I like cardboard!) to keep everything just so!
Step 7: Once everything has had a chance to set (again, I like to wait at least overnight), you’ll need to remove the spacers and clean up the tile and the grout lines. A razor blade works nicely for cleaning any errant mastic or thinset off the face of the tile, and a grout remover works well for scraping dried mastic or thinset from the joints. This part of the process can be slow and tedious, but it’s important! This is why it behooves you to avoid allowing mastic or thinset to dry in the grout lines to begin with.
Step 8: Grout! Again, the packaging is your friend here—it will tell you the mixing and application instructions, so just follow them! Like thinset, you can get grout either in powder form or pre-mixed. Pre-mixed grout is typically an epoxy type and is more expensive, but easier to work with and shelf-stable over time. Powdered grout, by contrast, EXPIRES! The clock starts ticking when you open the bag, and if you don’t finish using it within a few months, toss it. Expired grout will go on just fine but quickly become weird and powdery and fall out of the joints.
There are sanded and unsanded grouts. Again, take your cue from the packaging. Essentially sanded grout is for larger grout lines and unsanded is for smaller grout lines, but the packing will detail what the minimum and maximum size grout line the grout is formulated for.
Grouting IS messy and looks like a total crisis while you’re doing it, particularly if you’re using dark grout. You may think you’ve ruined everything. You haven’t. Just follow the process—typically spread it on with your grout float, pressing it into the joints. After around 15 minutes (again, follow the package instructions!!), you’ll start to clean it off, and you kinda just repeat until you have nice clean lines!
One area I deviate from the instructions is the final clean-up pass, where I’ve found that microfiber cloths are the key to really crisp grout lines! Just cover your finger with a damp microfiber cloth and run it along each grout line—you’ll see the edges go from a little rough to nice and cleaaaan.
Some grouts need to be sealed and some don’t. This particular Mapei brand powdered grout says there are sealers built in, but it rarely hurts to add a little extra protection with grout sealer, especially if your grout is on the lighter side and more susceptible to staining. I thought a darker grout would work better here to emphasize my tile pattern, but black felt too stark so I went with two words I never thought I’d say in my life: BROWN GROUT. Yes he did and no he does not regret it. I think it works beautifully here. The color is called Bahama Beige which never fails to make me chuckle. 2020 is wild, man.
Step 9: Caulk! You’ve come this far, so take the time to make your caulk lines look pro!
All you have to do is run painter’s tape on either side of the caulk line…
Apply the caulk and smooth with your finger…
…and immediately remove the tape. The tape gives you nice crisp edges, and allows you to keep the caulk line nice and little. Nobody likes a big globby caulk line!
For interior corners with tile on both walls, it’s generally best to use a caulk that’s the same color as the grout. The whole line of Mapei grouts have coordinating caulks available, and they’re really nice! In other circumstances, like where the tile meets the ceiling, it may be better to choose caulk that coordinates with the paint color rather than the grout color. Case by case basis! In this case, I felt that a white caulk would look less conspicuous where my tile meets the wall and ceiling than a caulk color-matched to my grout.
Step 10: Since you may want to hang things on your tiled wall (like a range hood, a shelf, a hook, IDK it’s your life!), a tile bit and a rubber anchor is all you really need! I’ve watched people successfully use a masonry bit for this, but there are very different drill bits specifically for tile that are way easier and decreases the risk of cracking your brand new tile! Worth a few bucks to just buy a set.
Step 11: Step back and admire your work and general badassery for taking on your first tile job with such confidence and vigor! You’re amazing! Then you can set about bragging to your friends and family members and neighbors and vague acquaintances that you are, in fact, better than them. Which we knew all along.
I SO love the way this came out! This picture was taken before I did the caulk around the edges, but you get the idea—you’ll see the rest soon enough! To me it feels perfect for this space—modest and humble, but not boring, and hopefully will continue to look good for years and years to come. And you really can’t beat the cost—this entire wall was under $200 in materials, including the mastic and grout!
Onward! I can see the finish line!