Choosing the Best Tile for your Backsplash

Hi friends! I hope you enjoyed some of the quick and easy projects from the last week, because today we’re diving right into the project I was most afraid of: the backsplash. Since it’s another project that requires some planning, like the kitchen cabinets, I’m going to break it down into a few posts. Today I’m going to talk about choosing the best tile for your backsplash.

A Little Background on my Fear of Tiling

I’ve always considered myself at least a little handy (perks of growing up in a DIY household). I felt pretty comfortable with painting and, after owning a home for the last two years, using a drill and an impact driver. So, while the kitchen cabinets were a huge undertaking, there weren’t any skills that I didn’t feel comfortable doing.

Tiling is a completely different story. I’d watched my parents tile a bathroom floor and backsplash growing up (and listened to their frustration and cursing while doing so). I watched them break tiles they were trying to cut over and over again and have to pry a tile up after placing it in the mortar because it wasn’t setting right. They’ve both told me on many occasions that tiling was not an easy undertaking. So, I’ve always shied away from it. My condo’s kitchen didn’t have a backsplash, and the old bathroom floor needed replacing. But, neither project happened in the 9 years I’ve owned it because I was afraid to tackle them myself and didn’t want to spend the money to pay someone to do either project.

Poor Condo Kitchen with No Backsplash

But now that we’re tackling our whole kitchen, I decided I needed to face my fears. A backsplash really completes a kitchen, so I definitely wanted to install one here. I looked at the peel and stick tile options (believe me, I was totally ready to give that a try to avoid tiling), but they didn’t have any colors that worked with our countertop. And, once the kitchen cabinets were painted, there were no more excuses for putting it off.

So, here we go . . .

Disclosure: The links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I earn a small commission if you click the link and purchase the item. I’ve only linked items I’ve used in the past and would use again (unless otherwise noted). 

Step 1: Spend Hours Agonizing Over the Right Tile and Grout

If you’re anything like me, this ends up being the longest and most painful step–choosing the best tile for your backsplash. We have granite countertops that I don’t love (but it’s granite and super pricey, so I won’t be replacing it). It’s a black-ish color with red and brown underones, and I struggled to find something that I thought coordinated well with it. I tried beiges and ivories and tans and grays and I hated them all. By ‘tried’, I would go to Home Depot or Floor and Decor, buy a few samples, bring them home, and lay them up against the wall.

You should ask my husband about the time when I was convinced we had green countertops. . . obviously I was wrong

After two months of doing this, I finally decided that, as boring as it was, a white or near white would be the best option, since nothing seemed to truly match the granite. I was sad I wasn’t going to get a fun accent for the kitchen, but white just seemed to work best.

So after deciding on white, I went back to Floor and Decor, having chosen my favorite white at Home Depot to make sure I wasn’t missing anything amazing. Of course, I came back with 3 more white options–this time with unique shapes. (Because if I can’t have a fun color or pattern, why not have fun shapes?) After ‘trying’ them, this one was my favorite. We lived with it propped up against the wall for a week and still liked it, so I thought we’d found a winner!

Yay! Finally time to move on to the next step (this was definitely Steve talking here!)

Step 2: (2 months later. . . ) Purchase Your Tile, Grout & All the Other Supplies

I had just finished the cabinets and we happened to have a free weekend coming up (if you know us, this NEVER happens). So, Steve and I went to Floor & Decor on a Tuesday night to purchase our prized tile and the rest of the supplies. Before we do that, Steve decides to ‘look around one last time’ before committing to the tile we had already chosen. Famous last words, right?

We then spend over an hour agonizing about all the other choices, the pencil options (the thin pieces of border tile that are crazy expensive), accent options. It was ridiculous.

And then, on a whim I walked down an aisle and saw these. I showed them to Steve, we both loved them, and piled them on to our cart. After months of agonizing it took 30 seconds to pick once we found them.

I think we both loved them because they were just a smidge off white, we liked the larger subway tile shape, and we both loved that each one was slightly imperfect. We thought it would give the backsplash a little character since we were going with white in our already-white kitchen. And, best part, it would hide any little mistakes in our installation (all of these things ended up being true once they were installed).

A word on purchasing the tile: make sure you purchase enough for your square footage, plus plenty for cutting, breaking, and for when you miscalculated the square footage. (Not that any of those things ever happened to me. . . )

Next up: Supplies

Ok, our cart’s now filled with our chosen tile and we head off to the other side of Floor & Decor to pick up our supplies. Luckily we found a very helpful employee who helped us pick all the tools and the right grout and mortar for us.

Before buying your supplies, make sure you know if you have ceramic, porcelain, glass, or stone tiles. These will change what supplies you need. My supply list is based on using porcelain tiles.

Grout vs. Mortar

Mortar (or thinset) is the first thing you put on the wall (or whatever surface you are tiling). This is the stuff that makes your tile stick to the wall. It’s really important to get the right mortar for your project, so ask someone who knows more about it than I do 🙂 All we had to do is tell our friend that we were tiling a backsplash on drywall and show him our tiles (porcelain, not glass or stone). This is the mortar we used, and it was super easy to use and all our tiles have stuck, so it gets an A+ from me.

Grout is what you put on to fill the gaps between the tiles–it’s what’s visible between your tiles. This goes on on the second day of your project. Again, make sure you choose the right one for your type of tile. And, here’s where you get to stress a little more and pick the right color for your tiles.

We wanted some contrast with our grout, since our tiles were white and our cabinets were white, so we went with Cobblestone Gray. We were debating between a lighter color and a darker one, so compromised on Cobblestone, which was right in the middle. We used this one from Mapei and loved it–also easy to use, our tiles are still on the wall, no sealer required, and the color was pretty dead on the sample color.

Premixed grout vs. Regular grout

I was all about the premixed grout (one less messy step of mixing it on your own). Steve, who actually researched it, was against it as he said some reviews said it was “less sticky” for large projects. I wasn’t super worried about that as we were doing a small backsplash. Our Floor & Decor friend solved our debate for us. He said premixed grout tends to be a lot more expensive, but for a backsplash, performance-wise there wasn’t a huge difference. We went with the regular grout to save money, and I promise, once you’ve mixed the mortar, you know exactly what consistency to mix the grout, so it doesn’t take you that long. And, there’s not any more mess than you already have from the mortar mixing.

Other Supplies you may not have thought about (I hadn’t)

Here are a few more things you need to pick up to complete your project (again, luckily our Floor & Decor friend (and Steve) reminded me of all these things):

  • Large sponges
  • 3-4 buckets (you can go 2 if you want to clean the buckets during the project, but we threw out our mortar bucket since the mortar hardened before we remembered to clean it, and we let our grout bucket settle for a day before cleaning it, so we needed an additional 2 to clean the grout on the second day)
  • Tile cutter for porcelain tiles (you may need a wet saw for glass or stone tiles. We didn’t use this, so I can’t offer any advice on them.)
  • Grout float (didn’t use this one but they’re all pretty much the same)
  • Mortar trowel (We bought a big and small one, but the big one was way too big for me to use easily, and the small one was too small–a real goldilocks situation here. I ended up using the small one to back butter (more on that in the next post) the tiles instead of applying the mortar straight to the wall because I could never get the angles right.)
  • Tile spacers (There are different sizes of tile spacers. The size determines how much grout is visible–the bigger the size, the bigger the grout lines. The most commonly used size (and the size we used) is 3/16″).
  • Painter’s tape (We used this to protect our countertops, cabinets, and adjoining painted walls from the grout)
  • Trash bags (or anything else you’d like to use to protect your counter tops from dropped grout or mortar)
  • Tile Nippers (these cut small or rounded holes in your tile)
  • Mortar mixer (to attach to your drill. If you don’t have a drill and don’t want to buy one, then buy a lot of painter stirrers and get ready for a solid arm workout. I’m not sure if you will get the right consistency without one, though.)
  • Caulk (I like the caulk I can use without a caulk gun. It’s easier for me to control with my small hands. It’s a little more expensive, but worth it for me.)
  • Level, or laser level
  • 1″ x 4″ board, cut to length if you need to apply your backsplash on an area that doesn’t have a counter top to support its weight while the mortar is drying (i.e. behind your stove). If you don’t have a saw, Home Depot will cut the board for free for you, so just bring your measurements with you when you buy it
  • Grout Sealant if needed. (We used a porcelain tile and a grout that didn’t require sealing, so I can’t offer any advice here. But, if you are using a stone tile or a different grout that requires sealing, please talk to your friends at your hardware store for options).

Things you’ll need that I already had at home: screwdriver, sanding block, and a drill.

Got all these things? Great! It took us over an hour and two stores to pick up all this stuff (Floor & Decor had everything, except the lumber). (Insert grumpy and exhausted Lauren here).

Worth every penny of the $30 we spent on it and so easy to use!

Tip: You can definitely do this whole project in one weekend, but if you’re anything like Steve and me, I’d definitely recommend getting your tiles and supplies beforehand. If we had tried to do that Saturday morning and install the backsplash Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, we would not have completed everything in one weekend. And then, we would have been miserable and fighting about finishing it all week.

I think this is more than enough to start. We’ll take a break until the next post to start talking about the next steps–prepping your space and planning out the install. See you Tuesday!
~Lauren

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