Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Making a Splash with Backsplash

One of the rooms in our home that has been slowly morphing into a space we love is our kitchen. Since literally the first day we've lived here, we have been sanding, painting, and renovating it into a low-budget looker.

Part of the process has been realizing what is worth spending money on in a house we will not live in forever. The other part is realizing that certain high luxury items can really make the rest of the room pop (and also helps resale quite a bit). One of these items for us was the backsplash. Even though we had been able to use our original cabinets and some low cost pendants to really brighten the space, a nice tile backsplash was just what the room needed to bring it to the next level. Aside from looking nice, it would also lighten the room and be easier to clean than the painted walls (which were pretty gross).

Mom and I had been discussing the backsplash for a while. Mom has tiling experience, so between Pinterest, magazines, and my own ideas, I was able to work with her to come up with a low cost yet interesting design. I decided that straightforward subway tile was the way to go, leaving the interest to the pattern in which it was placed. I loved herringbone, but felt that the traditional angled style wasn't for me. We ended up using a pattern that would make it more horizontal and squared with the wall, keeping with our kitchen's clean modern theme. This would be slightly accentuated by the lightest gray grout we could find.

Fortunately, our friends Beth and David Over on Dover have just finished working on a bunch of tiling in their basement. They had a tile saw, tile cutter, and almost half a large bucket of mastic that they let us use. This kept our cost down quite a bit, leaving the budgeting to go directly towards the tile itself.

The standard sized white subway tile is about 6in x 3in and comes in boxes of 12.50 sq ft, but each tile is technically sold separately, so anything we didn't use, we could return. We got three boxes to cover our almost 30sq ft, leaving enough for "oops"es and "ah crap"s. After adding two tile sponges, 5 pieces of bullnose for the ends, and a bag of unsanded grout in the color "warm grey" to the cart, we were ready to go.

First, clear everything off of the counters (except for our green teapot which is floating around the pictures for some reason)

Dad took off all of the outlet covers (3) and the knife rack before we started. Like with painting, having these things out of the way early makes it a little easier to work around.

Mom and I knew that we would be working from the outsides in. We have two main walls in our kitchen, so the corner where those walls meet would also be where our tiling would meet. This would hide any inconsistency (because the corner is pretty dark) and make the more-noticeable ends look much better.

Mom also laid out a test pattern on the counter for us to glance at as we worked. This was especially helpful in the beginning because it allowed us to double check our tiles before cutting or placing them.

We began over the peninsula with the bullnose. Mom showed me how to place a layer of mastic, then align them with a line we had drawn with a level vertically showing the end of our cabinetry. After the two bullnose were up and wiggled into place, the actual pieces of subway tile could begin going in.

Since Mom had tiling experience, she was on the tile saw out in the garage. It's been cold here, so we just kept the door from the house open, the garage door shut, and had a small heater going in the corner. It really wasn't an uncomfortable working environment...well...except for maybe the wet saw outfit Mom ended up wearing.

She wore my raincoat and some safety goggles to keep from getting soaked and safe from shards. It actually worked pretty well and I think once we got into the groove, she didn't mind it too much.

If you've never used a tile saw before, allow me to describe it to you. It's very wet, but very awesome for cutting tile. It's a dull blade with a sandpaper-like texture all around it that grinds through the tile to make the actual cut. This means you need to allow for a kerf, or an amount of material taken out by the blade's width, when you are measuring or marking your tiles. We didn't get it perfect every time, but we always tried to allow for too much rather than too little when making cuts.

After a couple of hours (and a nasty session of cleaning behind the stove. There was an old, used Steak'n'Shake plate...gross...), we had finished the first wall. The cool part was how perfect the width was that we didn't have to make special cuts at the end!

There was some trimming that had to happen as we went due to the height of the cabinets from the counter top changing, but it was mostly straight cuts, which helped.

We then moved to the other end of the cabinets on the other wall (shown to the right in the picture above) and began the pattern there, moving back towards the corner. After the bullnose was placed (much like on the other wall), this meant adjusting our tile laying to recreate it backwards so that the pattern would flow correctly.

Above, you can see where I would place the mastic going from right to left, then place my tiles in the appropriate pattern. Thankfully, I still had this laying around to reference.

Once everything was massively mastic'd and totally tiled, we could step back and admire our work. It did look pretty awesome, if we do say so ourselves.

It took about 7 hours (with a lunch break) to get all the tile on the walls. It wouldn't have taken so long if I'd done a more traditional subway tile pattern, but I think the herringbone just adds a little extra lux to it.

We waited overnight, then we grouted.

This was the easiest part of the process. We made about a quarter of the bag of grout (after reading the directions and using the correct amounts of water plus a little) and I began using a float to smooth it into the cracks.

I used a crisscross pattern to make sure to cover all of the grout lines. Mom waited about five minutes after I started, then followed up behind with a sponge and some water to wipe down the excess.

While we grouted, Dad placed spacers behind the outlet screws to bring them into level with the additional tile width. These are sold at any Lowes or Home Depot and are very easy to use as they interlock. The hardware guy also suggest some extended screws, which we were glad we had purchased since one of our outlets was just a little further than the others.

Mom only had to do one wipe down of the tile. Any haze left after that was buffed out using a clean, dry cloth. Then the outlet covers were placed back on and everything started coming together. There was just one more thing that was bothering me.

After we had painted our cabinets (almost three years ago now), our friend Leah had pointed out the fact that I never painted under our cabinets. I never thought anyone would notice, so I didn't worry about it too much, but with the new backsplash, it's suddenly all I saw.

So this under cabinet painting is dedicated to Leah, the one who knew it all along!

And with that, we are practically finished! There is still some caulking to do around the edges where the tile meets the cabinets/counter tops, but that is not crucial and I think I might just let someone with more experience finish that one up for me.

So here is our current Hero Shot. What do you think?

I love it! It's amazing how much light reflects off of the surface of the tile and bounces around under the cabinets. It really lightens up the work area under there as well as the rest of the room. I like the grey grout a lot, too. It is just dark enough to hopefully hide stains, yet subtle and none intrusive to tile pattern.

Both of those are under the same light. It's amazing what it did to the space!

Do you like the look of tile or do you have another favorite backsplash that you're dying to try out? Let me know in the comments!

We have more big plans for this kitchen, some of which are happening in the near future, so keep checking back with us for more updates!


  1. Goodd job! Painting under the cabinets makes a big difference.

  2. Thank you for helping me, Mom!