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Backsplash Magic

December 31 2009

Installing a custom ceramic tile backsplash in your kitchen is a wonderful way to add color and character to the room as a whole. It also protects the walls behind your stove, sink, and other high-activity areas while making routine clean up a snap. With some planning and preparation and plenty of elbow grease, it’s even a project you can tackle yourself – saving some money in the process.


Select Your Tiles and Plan Your Design

The first and perhaps most fun step in backsplash installation involves mapping out your design and selecting your tiles. You’ll want to measure the length of the wall you intend to tile and the distance from countertop to cabinet. Calculate the total area you plan to cover, and use graph paper to scale and draw your pattern. Then visit a tile supplier or home improvement store to consider your options for tile choices. You may be surprised by how much of a selection you find. A huge range of tiles in varying colors, designs, sizes, and materials awaits you. In general, you’ll want to stick with glazed tiles, because unglazed tiles are more susceptible to stains from moisture and grease. But otherwise, just let your budget and personal taste be your guide. As you calculate how many tiles you will need, it’s a good idea to add about 10 percent, which will provide for any cutting mistakes or breakage.

Prepare the Wall

With your design mapped out and your tiles selected, the next step is to prepare the wall. Remove the stove, range hood, outlet plates or anything else that will be in your way and shut off power to all outlets and switches along your workspace. Sand the entire area to rough it up, which will help the mastic – the adhesive you will use to attach your tiles – to bind. Find and mark the exact center of the backsplash with a straight vertical line. Lay out your tiles following your design on the floor or another flat surface so that you can follow the pattern.

Apply Mastic and Set Field Tiles

Next, beginning at the center line, apply a thin layer of mastic for the bottom row of tiles using a grooved trowel. One by one, place the tiles that will form the bottom row of your backsplash, beginning from the center and working out to each side. Leave an 1/8”-gap along the bottom and between each of the tiles using temporary spacers, which you’ll remove later before applying grout or caulk. Continue in this fashion until the field tiles along the bottom of the backsplash wall are all installed.

Cut and Set Decorative Tiles

Depending on your design and any outlets or other wall features you need to incorporate, you will need to cut tiles to fit as you move up the wall toward the underside of the cabinets. The easiest means of cutting tile is to use a scoring cutter, which you can rent for between $15 and $20 a day or buy for around $50. First, you’ll mark the tile where you want to cut it. Then you’ll place the tile in the scoring cutter and score a mark on its surface. Finally, using the scoring cutter’s handle, you’ll break the tile along the scored line. Be sure to cut tiles as you reach the places where you need them rather than leaving a hole and going back. 

Grout, Clean, and Caulk

Once you’ve installed all of your tiles, removed your temporary spacers, and allowed the mastic to set up overnight, it’s time to grout. Select a sandless grout, which will prevent any scratches on the tiles you’ve just worked so hard to place. Mix the grout according to the manufacturer’s instructions and apply it using a rubber float. Push the grout well down into the spaces between the tiles and scrape any excess off of the tile surfaces. After the grout has had a chance to set up for about an hour, use a sponge and clean water to wipe away any film from the surface of your tiles. Finally, add a line of caulk in the same color as your grout along the bottom row of tiles where they meet the countertop.