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Install backsplash tile? Go ahead

This two-part decorative backsplash tile just needs grout before it makes its debut.

Tribune Media Services

This two-part decorative backsplash tile just needs grout before it makes its debut.

Q: I want to spice up my bathroom with backsplash tile. I've seen a kitchen tile backsplash and loved it. Are backsplash tiles different from other tiles? Can you help me with tile ideas as well as dos and don'ts? I'm especially interested in subway tile.

A: Two years ago I installed some unique backsplash tile as part of a major kitchen renovation. A decorative band of tile rested on the granite countertops. Above the band, larger tiles that simulated basket weaving filled the gap up to the wall cabinets. Visitors always remark how stunning the backsplash is.

Tile for a backsplash is not much different from regular ceramic tile. What's important, in my opinion, is that it have a durable glaze, especially in areas where it will get wet and soiled. You don't want to stain the tile with any chemicals that might be used in your bathroom. Accidents happen, but a good glaze can prevent permanent damage.

Backsplash tiles come in all sorts of designs. Go to a specialty tile store and you'll get a feel for the hundreds, if not thousands, of tiles available. On one end of the spectrum there's standard tile with regular bullnose finishing tile; on the other are custom-made tiles. In between these two extremes are endless possibilities.

It's interesting that you mentioned subway tile. My wife just selected a subway tile that has beveled edges to use as a wainscot tile in our master bathroom. The tile we chose came with accessory tiles that we used as a backsplash. It's a two-part backsplash tile with the bottom tile measuring 3 inches by 6 inches. This tile has a repeating pattern of concentric circles and leaves.

On top of this decorative tile, we placed a tile that mimics crown molding. This tile is only 1 1/4 inches high, but it's 6 inches long. It has a finished top edge that sticks out from the wall nearly 3/4 inch. It looks as if the tile were installed in the early 1900s.

There are more tips about tile than I can fit in this column. Suffice it to say that the wall surface needs to be clean, free of defects and very smooth or flat. The tile you select will determine the mastic you use to attach the tile to the wall. I had to use organic mastic for the decorative tile but cement thinset to permanently bond the crown-molding tile to the wall.

Be sure to think about how the tile will end. Most tiles do not have glazed edges. The tile manufacturers almost always make special accessory tiles to put at the ends so you don't see an unfinished edge. Talk about this with the sales representative. I recommend you take along some rough drawings of what you want to do, as well as photographs of your current room, to show the tile sales representative the challenges you face. You don't want to discover you can't get the look you want in the middle of a project.

To get a great bond, you can't leave organic mastic open to the air for a very long time. This is especially true in hot, dry climates. If the mastic starts to develop a skin, the tile will not bond well. You may discover it's best to apply the mastic to each tile separately rather than spread the mastic on the wall. If you spread the mastic on the wall, keep in mind it works best if you cover it with the tile within 10 minutes.

Cement-based thinset works the same way. Once mixed with water, you only have so many minutes to use it. You should only mix as much thinset as you can use in one hour or less.

Tim Carter is a licensed contractor. To view previous columns or tap into his archive of information and sources of building materials, go to You can write to Tim Carter at P.O. Box 36352, Cincinnati, OH 45236-0352.


Installing backsplash tile

• Once you have your tile affixed to the wall, wait one day before you grout. This wait time allows the mastic or thinset to harden. Some backsplash tile requires you to create spacing between each tile. You can buy plastic spacers that create uniform gaps, but coins can do the same thing. On my recent backsplash tile job, I used dimes to create the perfect grout line between a crown-molding tile and the decorative band of tile below it.

• When setting tile, if you put too much adhesive on the wall, the mastic or thinset might ooze between the tiles. When this happens, remove this adhesive from the joint immediately. If you don't get the adhesive out of the joint, the grout will not be able to penetrate between the tiles.

I use any number of tools to remove excess adhesive from between tiles: a razor blade, toothpicks, a thin screwdriver. If using metal, work slowly so you don't mark the tile. A damp sponge removes mastic or thinset residue from the face of the tile.

Tim Carter

Install backsplash tile? Go ahead 08/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 4:30am]
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