Installing a backsplash: how to do it yourself and eight important lessons to remember on the way

Kitchen backsplash installed by Parker Schaffel

This past weekend, I installed a new tile backsplash in my kitchen, overlaying it on the white, painted drywall which the builder installed. Overall, the project went very well, and I encountered no significant problems…I have no holes in my wall, nothing broke, I didn’t lose a finger, etc. The backsplash is up, grouted, caulked, and sealed. Installing a backsplash is a low-risk home improvement task that anyone can do, so I wanted to try it out myself and save some money on a contractor.

Before I started, I watched a few videos from the DIY Network, Home Depot, and “Do It Yourself Bri.” I compiled notes from all of them and made a list of the supplies I would need. Here is my Backsplash Plan, which you can use as a guide. I purchased all of the supplies and tools from Home Depot (costing about $500 with my military discount), laid the tile on Friday, grouted on Saturday, and sealed and caulked on Monday.

Along the way, I learned several lessons that I wanted to share with you:

1) The more planning you can do in advance, the better off you’ll be. Be sure to do the following things in advance of starting:

  • Buy all of your supplies at least a week in advance to allow for the best planning;
  • Lay out all of the tile on the wall and draw lines for the edges to give yourself the closest possible layout so you can know exactly how much tile you will need and where;
  • Cut out holes in the tile for outlets; and
  • Use a wet saw or tile cutter to cut half pieces of tile where your tile will meet the wall. Most mesh-backed tile sheets will have tile pieces offset, but if you’re laying your own tile (like subway tiles) make sure to offset them to provide a better visual appeal.

Doing all of these steps in advance reduces the amount of time you need between laying each tile sheet on the wall, ensuring that your thinset will not harden over.

2) Speaking of thinset, you only need a little water when mixing thinset (and grout). Mix a little at a time. I recommend adding the powder to your bucket first then adding water. If you add too much water first, you’ll have to had the respective amount of powder and you could end up with way too much thinset/grout.

3) Depending on the size of your tile, you probably need more grout than you think. While you really want to be careful with the amount of thinset you use (because using too much can push through the grout lines and come to the surface of your tile), you want to be liberal in applying grout to the tile, ensuring that you really pack in the grout to every gap in the tiles, because not doing so will leave holes that are prone to liquids or contaminants. And because you need to apply a lot of grout, remember that the smaller the tile, the more grout you’ll need. Larger tiles mean less grout lines. Smaller tiles mean more grout lines. (I was lucky in that one box of unsanded grout was just enough to fill all of my grout lines. I used a small glass/metal tile sheet, and had about 16 square feet to cover).

4) Wet saws can be easy…or difficult…to use. If you have glass or metal tile, you must use a wet saw to cut tile pieces to go in those unruly areas (corners, wall joints, etc.). If you use porcelain tile, you can use a tile cutter. Home Depot has wet saws available for rental on a first-come, first-served basis for about $30 – $50 per day. While the mechanics of the wet saw I used worked fine (meaning the blade spun, the water pump pulled in water, etc.), the saw’s platform, on which you put the tile to be cut, became stuck the longer I used it. I eventually fixed the problem by liberally applying WD-40 to the rolling system, but my frustration had already taken over. Also remember that the plastic pan which pools the water can be removed by sliding it out. You don’t have to pick up the entire saw to empty the pan.

5) The most expensive thing you’ll buy is the tile; the tools are quite inexpensive. Out of the $500 or so I spent on the supplies, the tiles cost about $350, which included about 18 square feet. I had 16 square feet to cover, and it’s always a best practice to buy at least 10 percent more than you need in case of any issues. The next most expensive items were the wet saw rental ($50), thinset ($30), and grout ($20). The other tools, including a 3/16-inch trowel (for applying the thinset), rubber grout float (for applying the grout), sealer, caulk, sponges, protective paper, painters tape, and protective gloves were all under $20, many less than $10.

Here are some links to these products on Amazon:

6) Don’t sweat the little things, but pay attention to them. One thing that none of the videos I watched explained to me was how to handle issues like:

  • What do I do if I inadvertently get grout between the bottom of my tile and the top of the counter (you need that space to apply the grout)? It’s ok, just wipe it or chip it away.
  • What if I have a 1/4-inch gap between the top of my tile and the bottom of the cabinets? It’s ok, you can just caulk it.
  • What happens if I didn’t wipe away all of the grout from the face of my tile pieces? It’s ok, just careful chip it off (it’s annoying, but it can be done).
  • What do I do about those really tiny areas between my under-cabinet-mounted light and where my tile ended (where I didn’t have enough room for more tile but now it looks like there is a gap)? It’s ok, you can caulk that, too.
  • What happens if I get caulk or thinset on my cabinets or floors? It’s ok because, as long as you have a little bit of water, thinset and grout should wipe away when rubbed with a damp cloth.

7) The process takes a long time, so make sure you have the time you need. Each step of the process takes different amounts of time. It took me about five hours to prepare, apply thinset, and lay all the tile, and that included needing to use the wet saw a few times to cut half pieces. If I had done even more planning in the beginning (or had more experience), I would have better known the pieces I needed to cut and not had to go back to the wet saw several times. It took me about two-to-three hours to mix the grout, let it set, and apply it to the wall. Remember that you only had about 20 minutes to use it once it’s been mixed, so you have to ensure that you only mix what you can apply in that time. After I let the grout set and dry, I had to take more time to wipe down the tile, removing the haze and any grout left on the face of the tile.

8) Installing a backsplash is back-breaking work. Seriously, it is not easy. Imagine yourself bending over your counters and under your cabinets for a few hours each day, using your muscles to mix thinset and grout, lift a wet saw, and press tile into the wall. I’m definitely sore, so give yourself a break once you’ve completed your project.

Here are some pictures of the final product:

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