Working with Tile

For a big-impact, low-investment kitchen upgrade, check out that small wall between the countertops and cabinets: It's jam-packed with design opportunities for any DIYer.

Like most home-improvement projects, tiling a backsplash can be surprisingly simple — or downright difficult. The difference lies in the materials you choose, the intricacy of the layout and the obstacles you need to work around. In most cases, careful choices can keep the project easy enough for a novice.

According to Eric Carlson, tile pro at Great Tile Co. in Minnetonka, Minnesota, the key to DIY-tiling success is to work at a comfortable pace and stay calm. Armed with basic advice and the right tools, you won't be a novice for long.

Design notes
Before you choose your tile, consider the countertop. Is it in good condition and do you like it? If it's due for replacement, do that before installing a backsplash.

Coordinating the tile with the countertop can help to narrow your options — otherwise the array of tile choices can be overwhelming. As a general rule, a natural-stone backsplash nicely complements a granite countertop, and glass tile works well with a manufactured work surface, such as concrete or stainless steel.

The limited space of a backsplash typically calls for smaller-scale tiles, though large ones (12-in. or bigger) can visually expand the space by creating the effect of a solid surface. When it comes to color, texture and layout, consider your home's architecture and overall flavor (contemporary, rustic, traditional, etc.). That — along with choosing something you love — will help you create a stylish look with lasting appeal.

Substrate requirements
Unlike high-moisture areas such as showers or tub surrounds, a kitchen backsplash does not require special substrate material; wallboard is fine, as long as nothing is loose or peeling. Wallpaper, however, must be removed — even if it is not loose or peeling. As with a previously painted surface, be sure to wash, rinse and dry the wall; then lightly rough the surface with sandpaper. New drywall, which is very porous, must be primed before you apply adhesive and tile.

Ideally, you should remove any existing tile or laminate from the walls, although it is possible to apply tile over them if you first install a cement backerboard. Just remember that the added thickness will require extensions on electrical boxes.

Tile types
Because a backsplash is not exposed to standing water or foot traffic, your material options are practically unlimited. In general, tiles fall into three categories: • Ceramic — This includes traditional ceramic tile as well as the increasingly popular porcelain tiles, which are also clay-based but fired to a greater hardness and not as easy to cut. • Natural stone — Colors and design choices abound, from refined marble, onyx and granite to rugged slate and earthy travertine. • Glass — A very popular, colorful and durable choice, glass tile typically requires special handling or specific adhesives and grout, depending on its transparency and finish.

Each type of tile has unique characteristics and requirements. For example, porous stones (A) need to be sealed before installation to protect them from stains. Glass tiles (B) call for unsanded grout to prevent damage to the finish. Ceramic (C) and porcelain (D) tiles are manufactured to suit certain applications, so consult a tile retailer before making your choice.

All of these materials are available in endless sizes, shapes and colors. For added interest, try a mix-andmatch combination.

Cutting methods
A score-and-snap cutter works well on most ceramic tiles, but for porcelain, glass or stone you'll need to use a wet saw equipped with a diamond cutting wheel. Tile stores offer rental saws, but if you have more than one tiling project in your future, consider buying your own.

Grout samples allow you to colormatch grout with the tiles you have chosen. For your first project, choose a color that blends with the tile to help hide any uneven spaces between tiles. When you become more skilled at cutting and setting tiles, try a contrasting grout to highlight tiles' shapes and hues. TIP: If you use white grout, be sure to buy white adhesive to prevent any bleeding of color.

Adhesive and grout
In the scope of this article, there's only one thing to say about the differences between mortar, mastic, thinset, thickset, epoxy and other adhesives: The differences do matter, so ask a specialty tile supplier which one is best for your application. A backsplash requires adhesive with more tack than one for a horizontal (floor) application, for example.

Using high-quality products and following the manufacturer's recommendations help in a big way to ensure success. That goes for grout too, which is applied after the tile has been set for at least 48 hours.

Essential tools
Tiling tools are fairly simple, but as with adhesive, the right ones are paramount to the success of your project. Be sure to use the correct trowel: The notch size determines the amount of adhesive that is applied, and some tiles require more adhesive than others. Working in the confined space of a backsplash, you may need to use a putty knife to spread adhesive directly onto the backs of tiles where the trowel cannot fit.

With only a little practice, a beginner can learn the right touch for making cuts with a traditional score-and-snap tool (shown). A wet saw outfitted with a diamond cutting wheel (essential for cutting most nonceramic materials) is also DIY-friendly.

Notched trowels deliver measured amounts of adhesive to the substrate. Typically, a 1/4-in. square-notch trowel is prescribed for 8- to 12-in. tiles, and a 1/4-in. V-notch works for smaller tiles. The angle at which you hold the trowel also affects the amount of adhesive applied. A 30-degree tilt is usually best.

When it comes to applying grout between tiles, a float is best because its rubber plate is firm yet forgiving. For wiping away the excess grout, a clean tile sponge is preferable to a household cleaning sponge, which is too soft and can leave residue behind. Once the grout has cured (in about three days), be sure to apply a sealer to keep kitchen spatters from staining your beautiful new backsplash.

From Personal Experience
To prepare for my first tile project (the floor of a small bathroom), I attended a free one-evening seminar at a nearby tile shop. I highly recommend this step to all beginners, if only to build confidence. Seeing the process in person can answer questions you didn't even know you had. Here are some important lessons that I remember now, some 20 years later:

  • Tiling is easy and fun, and not that different from the mosaic crafts I made in elementary school.
  • Using the appropriate adhesive, grout and tools ensures success. The wrong products will cause frustration and failure.
  • Buy about 10 percent more tile than your square footage requires so you have extras for practice cuts and mistakes.
  • Rent, borrow or buy the cutting tool that is recommended for the type of tile or stone you're installing. Then "test drive" the tool on extra tiles before you open the adhesive.