Tiling a Backsplash – Part 2

The last time Monica, Heidi, and I worked at my house, we planned out and prepared all the tile. (see Ready to Tile – Part 1) Now on to Part 2 – Installing the tile backsplash:

We had all our supplies out and ready. I was referencing the notes from my Art Tile adviser and the iPad…again. All of a sudden Heidi (having a tiny bit of tiling experience under her belt) said, “Ah, let’s just do it.”  So we did.

Step 1– Mixing the Thinset   Thinset is a powder that you mix with water. It works like glue to adhere the tile to the wall. The mixing ratio directions on the thinset bag are clearly intended for big projects. This project is not huge so we slowly added water to the thinset powder and mostly aimed toward achieving a peanut butter-like consistency.

Step 2 – Spreading it on the Wall

Previously we had marked out pencil guidelines on the wall. We used a ¼ inch notched trowel. Art Tile suggested that I keep the trowel moving vertical and horizontal (rather than the curved sweeping pattern that you see in pictures) when applying the thinset. Keeping the trowel grooves vertical and horizontal will ensure the thinset moves into the spaces between the 1” tiles.  You don’t want to press too hard when placing the tile sheets up on the wall. Thinset shouldn’t squirt through the spaces between tiles. The goal is to apply just enough pressure to get a good hold. We applied a depth layer of thinset equal to that of the notches in the trowel. We also applied the thinset in sections as large as the tile sheets instead of spreading it over the entire area. Doing it that way made it more manageable since we didn’t have to rush getting the tile sheets positioned and up there before the thinset dried too much.

Step 3 – Getting the Tile on the Wall   The layout required one full sheet on the lowest part of the wall and only another ½ sheet above that. Pretty simple, huh? We installed the lower row first. Applying the thinset to a single sheet area at a time and so forth. After getting that handled we started installing the top row. Again, applying thinset to a single sheet area. We slid tile spacers in between the first and second rows, but the two sheets started to buckle where they met. After panicking a little, (there could have been a tiny bit of screaming), and using all 6 hands to press/hold the tile in place, we used some cloth-covered books as weights to prop up the buckling areas.

We think this slight setback was because the thinset was a little too thin of a mix and the glass tile was very heavy. I don’t have many pictures of us placing the tile sheets or what the slumping looked like because we were using all of our hands to hold the slumpers on the wall. The good news is that we adjusted our plan and it all worked out.

Step 4 – Selecting a Grout Color   Grout is the stuff that you’ll see between most installed tile. There is a wide range of colors available. The grout color really does influence the overall appearance of the tile. Be patient, look at several samples near the tile with the actual light. The first thing we did was to cut some paper strips from a magazine page and taped the strips in place on the tile just to get a general idea. Below is a dark version that we looked at.

Then I selected about 5 color options from Art Tile’s plastic grout color samples, took them home to see them in the actual light and narrowed it to two colors. I got actual grout color samples of those two (one happened to be sanded and one unsanded) from Art Tile to test out on some left over tile I had.

It was worth it for color testing, but also to practice applying it. I also learned that sanded grout is easier to handle and use. Even though the directions for the glass tile said to use unsanded grout, I got assurances from the Art Tile Installer that he always uses sanded grout because it is easier to work with. The risk is scratching the glass tile, but as long as you don’t press really hard when dragging the grout across the tile it shouldn’t be a problem.  And it wasn’t.

Step 5 – Applying the Grout   Before applying the grout we waited a couple of days for the thinset to dry hard and then carefully chipped off any thinset that had gotten too far into the spaces between tiles. Since the tile is glass/transparent you’d be able to see the thinset color through the edge of the tile so we wanted it out of there. We mixed the sanded grout according to the directions and again until we had a peanut butter-like consistency.

Then we scooped some out of the mixing bin with a grout float and began dragging it over the tile surface. We kept the float at a 70-80 degree angle and moved it over the surface in multiple directions, making sure to gently coax grout into all the spaces. Right after one of us applied the grout, another worked right behind with a large tiling sponge, wiping the excess grout off the tile. The sponge was wrung out thoroughly and we always kept a clean side of the sponge while wiping the grout. It is important that the sponge not be too wet. Use your muscle and wring that baby out!

There was a gray looking film over the entire surface of the tile that was a bit unsettling. 30 minutes after applying the grout we got to wipe it off with some clean cheesecloth. It was fun because we could really see the full effect as we wiped away the filmy residue.

Step 6 – Caulking    Caulk is available in many colors and is intended to protect against water and moisture around the edges and to provide a flexible transition between the tile and another surface (trim, countertop). Typically it is difficult to tell the difference between the caulk and grout. That is intended. I painted my wall first so the caulk would be placed over the paint rather than me trying to paint perfectly up to the caulk afterwards.

We taped the surfaces on the sides of where the caulk was to be laid down to keep off excess. We had one person laying down a bead of caulk and two people smoothing it out by dipping an index finger into a bowl of soapy water and running it along the surface. I’m sure that experts would laugh at the fact it took 3 of us to caulk, but may I just say that caulking is somewhat of an art. It takes patience and a steady hand, but is definitely do-able. A gap that was about 3/8” between the tile and the trim cracked a little, but I just applied some more caulk over the top after it set up a little, and it seemed to work fine.

Step 7 – Sealing   The final step after grouting is sealing it to protect against staining and mold due to moisture. This is the easiest step of all. 7-10 days after grouting, just apply with a sponge brush, let set for a bit (read the instructions) and then wipe it off with clean rags or sponges. It can be a little fussy or was that me?

Our supply list included:

  • ¼” spacers
  • ¼” Notched tiling trowel
  • Thinset & mixing bin big enough to fit the trowel
  • Lots of clean white rags
  • Disposable gloves
  • 2-3 large tiling sponges
  • Grout float
  • Grout & mixing bin big enough to fit the float
  • Cheesecloth
  • Grout Sealer
  • Caulk color to match grout color
  • 511 Impregnator Sealer
  • Sense of humor

What could go wrong? 

1. Uneven spacing between tiles. It’s critical to get this right. Bigger and smaller gaps will show up. Draw directly on the wall where each tile or tile sheet will go, including the spaces between them. Plastic spacers are really simple to use, available in different sizes and inexpensive.

2. Thinset too thinly mixed.  The tile can start to slide off the wall.  Our story with this is above. The simple solution is to take a breath and add a bit more thinset powder to the mix before moving on.

3. Breaking the curing bond. This didn’t happen to us, but apparently it is a big no-no to try to reposition the tiles after 15-25 minutes. Depending on how dry the thinset is it can break the curing bond and no longer be securely adhered to the wall. Bummer!

4. Having to stop and mix more thinset or grout. To avoid stopping at a critical time to mix more and risk uneven drying or different consistencies mix more than enough thinset or grout prior to starting each phase. My project was small so it was easy to mix more than enough for the whole project. If you had a big project that would be tough. I think then you would assign a designated “mixer”. I’m guessing experts have a system. Ours is to grab a friend to help out.

5. Cracking caulk. This sometimes happens if you are trying to caulk a wide gap. By that I mean 3/8″ or 1/4”. Don’t freak out. Just wait for it to dry and reapply. It’ll be fine.There are some other general overall caulking tips that we’ve learned through trial and error. But that is for another post. “Caulking tips for the DIYers” is coming soon ; )

What can go right!

1. Everything.  It’s worth it. We know you can do it! It’s rewarding.

2. Save some money. Really!

3. Teamwork. Grab a couple of friends and go for it. We know you can do it, too. I already said that, didn’t I?

Let us know how your project goes. We’d love to see what you’ve done!


6 thoughts on “Tiling a Backsplash – Part 2

  1. I wish I was brave enough to handle something like this. My kitchen so needs to be redone. Money is an issue and also, I have no friends that would even touch something like this even with a 10 foot pole. You guys (gals) did a fantastic job.


    • We do have an awesome posse! Ya never know until you ask a friend or two to step into the unknown with you. Perhaps you could do something very small together first. Growing bravery and courage little by little. It is way easier and a lot more fun to work on it with someone. And an awesome thing to say to your friend(s) is that you’ll help them with a project if they would help you. Have a go at it. The worst your friend could say is something like, “Are you kidding? Never talk to me again!” Unlikely, right? Keep us posted.


  2. I am getting ready to tile a back spash and also do 150 sq ft of kitchen floor. And, surely freaking out about it! But, after reading your blog and some others I think I can do this. Not to mention, the bid that I got for both projects was about $1,000 w/o tile. Which, isn’t in my budget. But, everyone has said, how simple tiling can be. Do you have any recomendations on tiling a floor?


    • Hi Angie, we’ve not tackled a floor before, but we’ve been discussing what we would do if we were. We always start by researching on the internet, learning the steps and lingo. Then we talk to live people locally at tile stores, maybe even 2-3 stores as opinions can vary so widely. Next we spend a lot of time mocking things up, which in your case would mean tiling a board for the backsplash maybe 12″ by 12″ and one for the floor (or just lay some out if the tiles are large). We do this to judge whether we like the colors and layout, plus we can test grout colors on it– grout can change the look tremendously. Next we draw directly on our surfaces exactly how we intend to lay out the tile so that we don’t end up with any awkward and small pieces. Plus older houses tend to settle and be out of square so we want to deal with those issues before we commit with thinset and grout which are a pain to undo if there’s a mistake. Talented and good–natured friends are a definite bonus! It’s so great to have company for a project like this. Please let us know how it’s going, and feel free to ask more questions. We’re not experts by any means, but we are happy to share what we found. Lots of luck and good for you for taking it on! Send us photos when you finish 🙂 Monica


  3. Pingback: Ready to Tile? – Part 1 | Hammer Like a Girl

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