The Subway Tile Conspiracy

We embarked on a subway tile revamp in our kitchen. It wasn’t because of the trendy nature of using a classic look to brighten up an outdated kitchen; it stemmed from our need for a properly vented kitchen rather than using the homes current microwave / air recirculation unit. We never use a microwave and the type of cuisine I cook requires an exhaust to keep the house from smelling like curry paste or spaghetti sauce at 3am. It’s 900 cfm or bust!

The stainless steel backsplash that came with the original design seemed workable, but upon removing the cabinets in order to paint properly, we realized the undercabinet lights were hard-wired and then externally routed  behind the backsplash. One thing led to another and my husband had ripped out all the backsplash. Patching and sealing ensued, but then we had to devise a plan for a new backsplash before installing a range hood. That’s where this story begins.

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Here is the kitchen.

We primed and painted the entire house with bright white pa

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int.

I like white. It’s bright and clean.

Subway tile chain of events:
Budget!
Do you have a few hundred to spend? Can you afford to spend twice that? If you live with a mason or in a town or community where you can borrow or buy second-hand, it could be inexpensive, but I guesstimate I spent at least $500 on my project on tools, materials and gas to get to the supply store.

Plan to prep & clean kitchen:
Imagine and plan for 3 or 4 days without a kitchen and displaced household items (if you work full time like I do and don’t have a 3 day holiday you feel like sacrificing for a project, after work, you have homework!) You need to clean so you’re building on a good even surface. We just painted, but still had to rewire and partch because our new hood needed to have a dedicated outlet and straight access to the ceiling. (I laid tile directly on drying spackle.. that’s not a good thing and should be av

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oided!)

Everything prepped and cleaned for painting was doubled for tile work. Sure is messy!

Measure and design your pattern, transitions and finished edges. Do this by researching and getting inspired by beautiful finished projects and choosing a layout similar to your own kitchen. I found a few shower installation YouTube videos that helped me understand what to do when transitioning to a painted surface. Most DIY subway tile projects are enclosed by kitchen cabinetry, so I needed more shower installs to research how mine could work.

Research how to install (this I did over a period of 2 weeks, every day for an hour at least. Don’t look at Houzz, Google “fixing grout lines” or “butting up tile” or “help, fixing subway tile”
Figure out transitions: this includes top edges or sides of cabinet, where hood will end up being, corners, electrical outlets, where tile will be visible and where you transition from one surface to another.
You will learn that a rectangular subway tile is not the only tile you want to have. It’s like working with a Lego set with only one shape!

Figure out your main focus. I thought about the stove, but since we have concrete counters and no hood, I didn’t want to mess up and create a square JUST for the range or have to transition tile with so much hassle. I then thought the corner of the wall should be nice to look at and the end closest to where the lightswitch lives should be clean as well. At this point, refocus research to incorporate these details.

To be honest, I measured and laid everything out, then I changed my spacer size at the last minute. I didn’t bother recalculating the wall, so I was a little off at the end.

Buy tile and installation supplies. (This step may happen 2 or 3 times.)
Prep work area and protect counters, floors, tape-off areas that may get con

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taminated.

Remove electric outlet plate covers place blue tape on the openings. Either mask or leave an area around the screwed in flange so you can remove the fitting completely, install spacers “caterpillars” to offset the newly thickened space due to the mastic/ thinset / or whatever you’re using. I used about 5-6 accordian style spacers for each screw hole, so either that is 2 or 4 each depending on what style outlet you have. The Daltile subway tile (about 1/4″) + thinset brand adhesive I used was between 5 and 6 spacers thickness.

Grout sealant! Depending on what’s available to you (my store was Home Depot), I ended up buying a liquid style grout protector that I had to paint on (because I didn’t read the instructions to realized there was a special applicator that didn’t come with.) Also, it says to use outside. Hmm. Well, if a Home Depot recommended it, can’t I use it indoors? Let me just say, not everyone at HD knows what they are talking about! Lucky I have a respirator, but you may need to buy one of those, too!

So, the list of parts grows is what I’m saying. Subway tile has blunt square edges. If you transition to bare wall, you need a smooth bullnose. If you go right or left and end at a corner wall, you need a 6×6 bullnose tile to turn sideways and slice to 3 inch height. If you don’t want a sharp edge facing upward, you need to buy more 6×6 tile and only use the ones where the cut side doesn’t face up after installation. You can file the cut side smooth, but you don’t want to work the edge too much on Daltile because the glaze will chip and become jagged looking.

Plan your edges no matter what. Skinny tiles at corners just look hack. You can’t not stare at it, I swear. I also had a bad reaction to whole tile + exactly half tile vertical copies. It looked weird to my eye, though most people aim for this, the vertical pattern it created was too much of a focus for my eye. I had to force a different transition. (after knowing this, I then researched how to properly turn a corner and figure out if grout, or caulk, or neither on top of t

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ile was best!)

It helps to have a long level to get your initial tile lines even and to start, but it helps to have a small level to check wonky tiles as you set them. I literally checked each and every tile. I used spacers but at weird junctions and cuts, I couldn’t always use them and had to approximate the tile, pressing it on and then checking its straightness compared to the preceeding tile. I have to say, there is something satisfying to you to have your spacers plug in perfectly and not fall out. Daltile brand has some built in mm or so of spacing at the edges so you should be mindful of where you put your spacers so it’s not a false sense of security.

Do you have an area to practice where no one will see your shame? I’m serious. Thankfully, we have a fridge that ended up blocking the whole interior 1/4 of wall. Behind here was my slow and brutal grouting attempts, then epiphany, then fixed mistakes and underworked tile cleaning.

Have a capable helper who can either lay tile or clean your water cut complicated tiles with a wet saw (if you have electrical outlets, wall trim, window edges to go around). The person who tiles can do also do simple slices with a manual cutter. The wet tile saw needs to be outside unless you want water + ceramic spray, white footprints on floors to clean up. We had a screed door handle to clean but not much else. My husband and I take our shoes off in the house, so this reduced grimy clean up. The manual cutter was fine indoors. You also need a wax pencil or something to make marks on your tile to measure and cut. I saw a blogger using blue tape and tat seemed like a great solution. You can use a Sharpie pen only if you can draw on the back and edges without touching the glazed tile. You can clean the ink, but I tried to avoid it, though my husband used that the most. Maybe it was because he was cutting tile in the dark. At 10, we stopped using the tile cutter out of respect for our neighbors. It was Saturday night and

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we were exhausted.

The person tiling can also be the tile cleaner or if the other person is jobless, they ca

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n clean the hazing off the tile.

What I found was that the premixed thinset was time sensitive  (for the time of year and weather we were having) and needed to be installed rather instantly. It is summer and the fan was on high and the windows were all open. You couldn’t add more water to this, so it’s not forgiving in that sense. Once I started installing tile, I couldn’t really stop, because if I had a few inches of prepped wall, unless I wanted to scrape off drying thinset, which hardened pretty quickly in the dry heat, I had to butter tile to keep everything neat and even. Buttering tile is not unlike peanut buttering bread. You can’t just pile a bunch in the middle and smear the edges thinly, you will have a goey center and bready crust. The buttering needs to be even and you should trowel every tile. Otherwise, the tile won’t stick evenly or spooge and be on a different plane / lower or higher than the adjacent tile. I earned this AFTER installing half a wall and noticing some tiles sort of at different heights casting weird shadows from the ceiling light.

Clean often and don’t let your tools dry and cake up. Your notched trowel is your friend. You may want a putty knife , too, just to help scrape and not waste the precious goo. I had a bucket of just dirty water to rinse and clean off my tools. The other bucket was for rinsing my giant sponge which became my best friend during the grout phase.

Wait. Are you done yet? Of course not. You need 24 hours to dry and set! Wait, we haven’t even grouted yet. Are you grouting the transition to the counter or caulking it? Whichever it is should wait til your done with everything and let another 24 hours pass. In the meantime, clean up your mess as best as you can so you’re not working in a caked up crumbly environment with tools everywhere.

The best sponge I used was a really durable plastic mesh encased sponge that seemed impervious to the thinset’s gritty texture that shredded my Mr Clean sponge. You need to get this sponge before grouting because during grouting / cleaning as you go, you need to get excess grout off your glazed tile. It’s a heavy duty scrubber, but enclosed in a mesh plastic layer.

I found working with a calm mind and small patches worked best for me. Also,  moving sort of quickly worked better than being slow and careful. Slow and

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careful was tedious and inconsistent.

A little speed and using a damp sponge to wipe smooth the grout made sense. The premixed grout was dry and sandy feeling and dried hard in granular patches. Once dry, I needed a putty knife to dislodge the grout. This grout recommended moistening the tile with a damp sponge before applying grout. I didn’t get it, but the water adds a layer of slippery surface that helps smooth the grout between tiles. Placing a 1/4 cup of grout on a corner of the float (rectangular rubber, spatula, I called it) you swipe against the space between tiles at a 45 degree angle so it catches the tile edges and sticks, but isn’t forced into the deep openings and pulling away air as you finish the swipe. You want pancake, not waffle.

Big sponge is used to pre-wet clean tiles. Apply grout and clean excess off with float is much as possible. This is where I feel experience and technique come to play. Anyone can fill in a grout line, but it takes smoothness to do it quickly and without wasting energy. The water helps with this process, so taking the sponge long way vertical, swipe the tiles clean by wiping side to side and not pushing in too hard to squeeze out grout. You want the grout to remain as close to the surface of the tile as possible because it will be easier to clean and look more smooth when it dries. However, you want the grout to sit only slightly below the surface so the entire tile

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corner is exposed and not gloppy-edged.

The damp sponge will help smooth the grout and ease application. You will start getting the hang of it and feel better and apply grout faster. Test and practice in areas that will be hidden if possible. Technique comes with experience, not hope. 🙂

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We finished one wall at 10pm but had to wait to grout the next wall. I ended up semi grouting the corner just because I wanted to. The next morning, I stripped off all the rosin paper and vacuumed up with a shop vac. I then retaped and prepped everything again so I could work on a clean surface.

Since I am short, I tend to either lean over the counter or just sit or kneel on the counter, so it’s really uncomfortable to do so on sharp peices of dried grout.

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Really, that’s just a mountain of pain!

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Don’t know if you can see the electrical outlet on the left of the corner wall, but it isn’t large enough of a cut out to extend the outlet. We had to borrow a Dremel tool and buy special ceramic cutting bits to access the screw and pull out the plate. You know, when you think, “oh, we will just fix it later”, well it ends up taking another few hours and $$ so, do it right the first time! Nothing is more unnerving than Dremelling next to outlets with sparks and stink flying about.

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The “oh no!” moment when I removed the blue tape.

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The , “maybe no one will notice” and then, “scrap, it’s horrible” moment that ensues..

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Did I mention you need some flexy extender bits to stand-off the plates to sit flush with the new tile? Those are the bright yellow things. “catepillars”

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Done.. except for the 1 plug. So, the new outlet plates have gaps where the grout lines are. I ended up cosmetically added grout to some areas and filling in where we cut too much tile and you could see gaps. At this point, I taped a 1/4″ line along the counter and used my finger to apply a smooth grout between the base tiles and the counter. Pulling the tape off after 30 minutes or so, you can achieve a fairly professional looking clean line. At some spots, it was faded since I was inconsistent in finger pressure, so I just reapplied blue tape and tried again.

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This way, it never mattered if I oozed out at the base since it would all be fixed.

I bet it would’ve been easier if I didn’t want grout thickness to be so big. I realized the tiles had pre-spaced flanges, however, I did custom cut quite a bit and those would need something to space them.

I fudged the last line on the left of the sink, but thankfully, it’s not very visible. As long as you keep checking with a mini level, and make some vertical grout lines, it tends to not get too wonky.

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After letting the grout dry for a day, I used a paint-on sealant on the entire project. It was noxious smelling and had to put a fan on with all the windows open. That took me about 2 hours to apply, dry, and apply, dry again.

So, the next weekend, my final grand prize was installing this hood! It ended up taking a week because I had to grind the chimney at an angle with a Dremel tool.

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And I have to say.. it was worth it! It only took a month, which includes all weekend and after work every night to plan, buy and install both tile backsplash and a range hood.

Tiling:
1/8″ spacers
Putty knife
Notched rectangular trowel
(needed a smaller one for behind the sink, but I made due with the putty knife)
Float
2 gallons Pre-mixed thinset
1 gallon Non-sanded bright white premixed grout
1 tube, bright white caulk (same brand as grout)
Caulk gun (unless you want to dry out your finger)
1 small bottle of (noxious smelling) grout sealant
Nitrile or latex gloves
Paintbrush to apply solvent
Rag to clean solvent from tile
Tile nipper
Manual tile breaker
Wet saw
200+ 3×6 rectangular tiles (I bought 300, but returned the unused boxes to Home Depot)
50 2×6 bull nose tops
1 6×6 full bull nose for the top right corner
10 bullnoses because I didn’t use the 2″ heights on the wall with window. (see?) I just wanted it to be a smooth top, however.

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Extra electric plates
Longer machine screws (1.5″)
Plate extenders / caterpillars, about 3 packs.. each plug needed 5 spacers to make up the difference.
Blue tape
Rosin paper
Drop cloth
Bucket (for water)
Big sponge that is specific to grouting
Cleaning sponge – scrubber
Small level
Long 4 foot level
Pencil
Wax pencil or sharpie for tile cutting marks
Shop vac
Screws and straight wood (for any areas without counters like behind the stove or behind the fridge
Cleaning supplies (for the mess you want to clean when you pull out your stove and fridge)
Patience
Another person to help you
Take out food for 3 meals for at least 3 days, maybe 4…

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