Install a Kitchen Backsplash: Day 1

Happy Friday, friends! Do you need a project for the weekend that will transform your kitchen? Install a kitchen backsplash! Tuesday’s post talked about all the supplies you need, including picking your tile and grout, so start there if you missed it. Once you’ve picked up (or ordered from Amazon Prime) your supplies and set aside a weekend (or two evenings after work) to do this, let’s dive into the first day of installing your backsplash.

A Note on Timing: I’ve mentioned you should set aside a weekend for this. I should clarify–it’s NOT going to take the WHOLE weekend. Rather, you need a few hours over two consecutive days to get this done. We did plenty of other things that weekend (like watch plenty of Netflix, order Mexican takeout, play with Sadie).

The first day is definitely the longest (it took us about 2-3 hours to get all these steps done). And, the second day took us about 1-2 hours. Oh, and don’t forget the caulking after all of the install is done and replacing your outlet covers. You have to do that at least 24 hours after the grout dries, so save an hour on a third day to finish things up.

Remember, Step 1 & 2 are in Tuesday’s post, so we’re continuing on from there.

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 3: Plan Out the Tiling

Before gluing the tile to the wall, you need to plan out where you’re going to put the tile. This helps so your pattern (if you have one) doesn’t look weird when you already have your mortar applied and you panic and can’t fix it.

We probably spent too much time planning it out (almost an hour). We didn’t have the space to lay the tiles out on our counter, so we taped off the measurements of the backsplash with painter’s tape and laid the tile out on our living room floor.

In the end, we didn’t even end up following that plan. But, it was super helpful to at least know where we were going to run into tiles that needed to be cut.

Step 4: Prepare your Space

A little bit of preparation will save you a lot of hassle during this project.

Protect your Space

Make sure you cover your countertops–I used contractor trash bags–for when you inevitably spill grout or mortar. I also used painter’s tape to protect my newly painted cabinets and walls. But, learn from my mistake, and remove it as soon as you place your tile or you’ll get tape stuck in your mortar and grout like I did. It’s no fun to try and scrape the tape out with a razor blade, I promise you.

Prepare your Wall

Make sure the wall you are going to apply the tiles to is clean (I used a sponge with soap and water) and dry. Then using your sanding block, sand the wall lightly. This will help the mortar stick better when it’s applied.

If your cabinets or countertop aren’t level, you’ll also want to draw a level line on the wall to make sure your tile line ends up straight and not angled one way or another. The easiest way to do this is to use a laser level and trace the level line directly on the wall, starting at the bottom corner of where you’re going to apply the tile.

We drew a level line, and found the top of our countertops sloped a little less than half an inch between one corner and the other. We then promptly covered the level line with mortar before realizing we needed to use that to place our tiles. So, in the end we just kind of used extra tile spacers to guesstimate the level line and the final product looks just fine.

If you have an appliance backed up to the wall you’re going to install your backsplash, make sure you pull the appliance out so you can hang your ledger board and reach behind the appliance to tile everything. We had to pull ours out about a foot to reach behind it.

Hanging a Ledger Board

I know–what’s a ledger board? I had no idea it was a thing until I watched a YouTube video. A ledger board is a board you screw into the wall temporarily to provide support for your tiles and mortar as they’re drying. You’ll need this if you have a stove in the middle of your countertop like we do. We just bought a 1″x4″ board at Home Depot and had them cut it to 29.5″ (the length of the gap between our countertops). Then you just screw it in to two studs in your wall at the lowest point you plan on tiling. Once you’re done tiling and grouting and everything’s dried, you can just unscrew it and save the wood for another project down the road. When you push your stove back into place, no one will ever know you had that board there.

Step 5: Precut any Tiles you Can

Once you decide what size you’re going to start on (we decided on the wall behind our sink), you can precut a few tiles so you’re ready to go when you apply the mortar. This is important because the mortar dries fast (30 minutes or so), so any time you can save by being ready with your tiles beforehand helps.

To start our pattern (we did a subway pattern), we precut 2 tiles that were half the length of the whole tile. We could only precut those two tiles, but it definitely helped. And, it was good to get a few cuts under our belt with the tile cutter before we needed to make more complicated cuts around outlets.

Tip: Even if your box says your tile is 12″ long, it may not be exact. Don’t just assume you should cut your tile in half at 6 inches like we did, and then have 2 unequal parts. Our tiles ended up being 11 5/8″ long, so we had to do some math to find the halfway point.

How to Cut Tile Using the Tile Cutter

To cut the tile, break out your fancy new tile cutter and place it on a flat workspace (we used our countertop). Then follow these steps:

  1. Using a dry erase marker (if you’re using porcelain tile), mark your tile where it needs to be cut. The best part of using the dry erase marker is you can just wipe it off after the cut is made. (Just remember to do that before you place the tile on the wall. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to wipe green marker off your white tile that’s all the way up under your microwave. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. . . )
  2. Line your mark up on the tile with the blade on the tile cutter.
  3. Lower the handle until the blade is in contact with the tile and run the blade over the tile to score it.
  4. Then, pull the handle back slightly, so the bumpers are resting on the tile, and press down on the handle gently but firmly. This will force the tile to break (Hopefully right along your score mark).

When we were cutting the tile in half or 1/3s, we had no problem with the tile breaking cleanly. But, some of our weirder cuts (to fit a tile under a cabinet, or to cut around an outlet) wouldn’t break cleanly, so we had to try a few times with new tiles. This is why it’s super important to have extra tile on hand. And best/worst case scenario, if you cut the tile perfectly every time, then you can return your pieces and get some money back!

Step 6: Mix your Mortar

Ok, now that everything’s ready, it’s time to begin! (I know you’re saying in your head, “Finally, Lauren!” But all the prep makes things so much easier once you get started).

Messy messy!

Take one of your buckets and your mortar and add bunch of it in. This is super messy, so wear your eye covers and a facemask if you have one. And if you have the option, do this outside. The powder will go everywhere. Then start adding water a little at a time as you mix it with your fancy mortar mixer and drill.

In terms of the amount of powder we used, we just eye-balled it and used half the bag. We had way more than we needed in the end, but we didn’t want to mix any more in the middle of the job. I’m sure you can take your time and measure out a quantity if you’d like, but we were impatient, and in the end, the ratio of powder to water doesn’t matter–it’s the consistency.

Peanut Butter Consistency

You will read this over and over on tiling instructions and hear this over and over from your friends at your home store. The mortar should be the consistency of peanut butter when it’s ready to be applied. The goal is that it’s still a little wet, so you can place your tiles on it and move them if needed, but solid enough that it won’t just slide off the walls.

So, you keep adding water a little at a time until you get there. Or, if it’s too wet, add more mortar mix. If you think it’s ready, put the mortar on your trowel and hold it vertically over your bucket–it shouldn’t fall right off and it will indeed look like peanut butter.

Step 7: Apply Mortar

Once you have your mortar all ready to go, it’s time to put it on the wall and get to tiling! Using your trowel you want to apply the mortar to your wall in a diagonal way–this provides more surface tension with the wall and helps prevent it from sliding off.

Just like painting, you’ll want to work in smaller sections (I did about 2-3 feet at a time). You don’t want to apply mortar to the whole space and have it start to dry before you even start putting your tiles on.

Once you have the mortar on the wall, you need to use the edges of your trowel and score the mortar in a diagonal pattern (or an upside down backwards J), again to provide more surface tension for the tiles to stick to.

Backbuttering the Tile

You’ll read a lot about backbuttering the tile in some posts. This basically just means spreading the mortar directly on the tile, just like you would peanut butter on toast. You want to spread a nice even coat, not too little that it won’t stick to the wall and not too much that it glops off. And, once you apply it, score the back just like you would if you apply the mortar to the wall.

I ended up backbuttering most of my tiles because it was too hard for me to work in the tight spaces I had with the size trowels I had. And, I used a larger tile (3″x12″) so it was easy to apply the mortar directly to the tile. But, for the larger open spaces (the space behind the sink and behind the stove) I applied the mortar directly to the wall.

I would definitely recommend doing this for individual tiles in tight spaces, but otherwise give both a try and see what works best for you.

Step 8: Place your Tiles & Spacers

Now’s the biggest moment–placing your tile! Start in your chosen spot and you’re going to want to start at the bottom corner. Leave about a spacer’s height of space between the countertop and the tile (you’ll cover this later with caulk). Press the tile into the wall and then in and up (like you’re drawing a horizontal J with your fingertips). This will help the tile stick. We started with a full size tile, so the next tile on top was a half size tile to keep our subway pattern. We applied a half-size tile, then a full size, and repeat until we got to the top of our space.

You can see the upside down J strokes in the mortar.

Then apply your tile spacers between the tiles. You want to press them between the tiles enough to keep the space between the tiles but not enough to stick to the mortar if you can. You’re going to apply tile spacers in between every edge of the tile where it’s going to touch another tile or the counter top. If you do this right away, you’ll still be able to move the tiles a little bit so that you can even out the space between them all.

Why are Spacers so Important?

Spacers are important for two reasons.

  1. Spacers help you get your tiles lined up properly, so they all have equal amounts of space between them. This makes your backsplash visually pleasing (look at that fancy phrase I used there). Imagine if you placed your tiles haphazardly, and some tiles had 1/2″ gap between them and others had none. It would look super weird.
  2. Spacers provide room for a grout line. The grout line isn’t just for pretty contrast. It provides support for the tiles in case the wall or house moves or shifts (not just talking earthquakes here, but dropping something heavy, hammering a nail in the wall can all cause the wall to move). If the wall moves, it could loosen the mortar. The grout helps support the tiles, so even if that does happen, things won’t just start falling off your walls. Now, if you have a big earthquake or you’re lifting your house, I make no promises that the grout will hold for all that.

And, Does Size Matter? (I’m sure you all already have opinions on that, but we’re talking tile spacers here, people!)

The size of the tile spacers does not matter in terms of providing support. But, it does matter in terms of how your finished product will look and how much work you will be doing. Smaller spacers means you won’t see the grout lines as much, but you’ll be doing more work to get grout into all the nooks and crannies. Larger spacers means less work but much more visible grout lines. We used 3/16″ spacers–right in the middle size–because we wanted our grout visible since we were using a contrasting color. I definitely wouldn’t go much bigger than that for our sized tiles because as you can see, you get plenty of visible grout with these.

Uh Oh. . . I Need to Cut a Piece of Tile

No worries! You remember how to do this from your practice precutting a few pieces. Mark on the tile where you need to make the cut, line it up with your scoring wheel, run the wheel across the line you want it to break along, and press down. Then place the piece where it needs to go.

If you don’t have a straight cut to make, and instead need to make a small cut (like for an outlet screw), or a rounded cut, this is when you want to use your tile nippers (I didn’t use these but they look almost identical to mine). You can just take the tile nippers and “nip” out small pieces of tile until the part you want to remove is gone. This also takes a little practice (if you cut too big of pieces, the tile can break). But, you bought extra pieces, so it’s ok if it does–just pick up the next one and go from there!

It was super helpful to have Steve to help for this project. As I was applying the mortar and the tiles, he would cut the pieces we needed. You don’t need a second person, but things will move a little more seamlessly if you have a friend.

Once you have all your tile and spacers placed, strong work! You’re almost done for the day!

Step 9: Remove Tile Spacers

About 30 minutes after you place your spacers, make sure you remember to remove them! Their purpose is to support the tile and the grout line while the mortar sets, so once it hardens, you can remove them.

And, you don’t want to wait too long! The spacers will get stuck in the mortar and you’ll have to pry them out. We found that by the time we finished the whole project, it was time to start removing the ones at the start. It’ll take 10 minutes to take them all out. And, feel free to save them for your next project!


Step 10: Clean Up & Let Dry

You made it! We’re done with all the hard work for the day. Remove your painter’s tape if you used it. Clean off your tools. Throw away your garbage bags protecting your countertops.

For the mortar, to be honest, we forgot to clean it up, so we ended up throwing the whole bucket away after it hardened overnight. The bucket was only $3, so I almost feel like this is an excellent solution to avoid the mess even if we hadn’t forgotten. But, if you do decide to clean it up, make sure you throw away the mortar in the trash–DO NOT PUT IT DOWN YOUR DRAIN. It’ll harden in your drain pipes and then you’ll need to replace your pipes.

This is exactly where you should be at the end of Day 1!

Now, go pour yourself a glass of wine, order some takeout, and relax! You have to let the mortar dry for 24 hours (so you have an excuse not to do anything for the rest of the night). The hardest part is definitely done, and by this time tomorrow, you’ll have a beautiful new backsplash!

~Lauren

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