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Master the Art of Subway Tile

Transform your bathroom in a couple weekends.

FH16OCT_572_50_206_hsp subway tile bathroomFamily Handyman
Adding tile wainscoting is a perfect DIY project. It doesn’t require a huge investment in tools, and the results are stunning. And tiling a wall is much easier than most other tile jobs. Unlike floors or showers, tile wainscoting doesn’t have to withstand foot traffic or daily soaking. So you can set the tile directly over your existing walls using premixed mastic adhesive—no backer board, waterproofing or hard-to-mix adhesive needed! For our bathroom, we chose glazed 4 x 8-in. subway tile with matching cap, pencil and base tiles. The walls were already painted, providing an adequate base for the tile.

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1 or 2 weekends
Beginner to intermediate
About $5 to $25 per sq. ft.

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Subway tile bathroom how to:

Shop for tile

You’ve finally decided to do a subway tile bathroom! First, measure your walls and draw a sketch of the room you plan to tile. Take the sketch to a home center or tile shop where the salesperson can help you order the right amount of tile and trim pieces. We chose to add the matching base (skirt), cap (cornice) and a long, thin piece called a “pencil.”

We also ordered bullnose tile for the outside corner tile, and special outside corner tile pieces for the base and cap. The field subway tile cost us about $6 per sq. ft., and the special trim pieces cost about $10 each. As you shop, you’ll discover that not all tile has matching trim pieces. If the tile you select doesn’t have trim pieces, you may be able to find a trim in a complementary color. Remember to choose a grout (including the color) while you’re shopping. We used sanded grout to fill the 1/8-in. grout spaces on this tile, but if your grout spaces are narrower, use unsanded grout. Look for polymer-fortified grout that you mix with water.

Getting started with a subway tile bathroom

Before doing any subway tile project, it’s important to check that the floor is level and the walls are flat. Use a level and straightedge to see if the floor is level. If the floor slopes, find the lowest point and mark it. Then hold the straightedge against the walls in the areas you plan to tile. If you find low areas, fill them with setting-type compound to flatten the walls before you start tiling.

Another thing to check at this stage of your subway tile bathroom project is how your cap tile will look when it butts into your window and door moldings. If the cap protrudes past the moldings, one fix is to add a strip of matching wood, deep enough to hide the end of the cap tile, around the moldings.

Subway tile bathroom project directions:

1. Plan the layout of your subway tile bathroom

036_FHM_OCTNOV17 plan the layout of subway tile

Planning the subway tile layout is critical to a great-looking subway tile bathroom tile job. The photo above shows how to get started. Arrange rows of tile and stack all the parts on the floor to determine the exact measurements you’ll need to plan the tile layout, including spacers. Shift the rows left or right to determine the width of the end spaces and the locations of the plumb lines. Check the height measurement against light switches and outlets on your walls. Add or subtract from the wainscot height to make sure switches and outlets land either above or below it.

2. Draw layout lines

036_FHM_OCTNOV17-1 draw layout lines subway tile

Next, you’ll need to draw vertical layout lines for starting the tile. For a running bond (brick joint) pattern like ours, you’ll need two vertical lines, half a tile width apart. Start by assuming the first line will be centered on the wall. Then draw a layout for two rows of tile, offsetting the joints by the half tile width.

Check to see what size the cut pieces on the ends of the two rows of tile will be. If any of the cuts are skinny, it will look better if you shift the layout a quarter tile width. For our 8-in.-wide tiles, we moved the starting line 2 in. off center, and then drew a second vertical line 4 in. from the first (as seen in photo above). Shifting the layout like this increased the width of the skinny cut by 2 in., creating a better-looking final result.

Go through this same routine on every wall, carefully planning how the end cuts will look. Plan outside corners, taking into account how the trim pieces and bullnose tiles line up. If you’re unsure, an easy way to do this is to draw each piece full scale on the wall to expose any potential problems.

3. Spread the Mastic

037_FHM_OCTNOV17 spread mastic for tile remodel

The easiest and most accurate way to make sure your tile installation is straight and level is to screw a level ledger board to the wall and stack your tile on top. Add the height of the base tile to the width of one grout joint. Then add 1/16 in. to this measurement for a little space under the base tile. Make a mark on the wall at this height, above the lowest point on the floor, and draw a level line around the room from this mark. Align the tops of your straight ledger boards with this line and screw them to the wall. If the floor isn’t level, you’ll have to trim some of the base tiles to fit.

Using a 1/4 x 1/4-in. notched trowel, spread only as much mastic as you can cover with tile in about 15 minutes—usually about 10 sq. ft. If you leave the adhesive uncovered too long, it will dry on the surface and become less effective. Hold the trowel at a steep angle to make the mastic ridges as high as possible.

We used premixed water-based tile mastic and spread it with a 1/4 x 1/4-in. notched trowel. When you purchase your tile, ask the salesperson what size trowel to use. Larger tiles require larger notches. Also, if you’re installing tile in a wet area, use thin-set adhesive instead.

4. Set the full tiles

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Line up the end of the first tile with one of the plumb lines and embed the tile in the mastic. Set the rest of the full tiles in the row, resting them on the ledger and separating them with spacers. Start the next row by aligning the end of a full tile with the second vertical line. Build a stair step, alternating the tile joints as shown.

5. Mark the end tiles

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Hold each end tile in place and mark it for cutting. Subtract the width of the grout joint when you make the mark. Install the tile with the cut end against the wall.

6. Cut the end subway tile

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Place the tile in the cutter with the edge against the fence. Line up the mark with the cutter. Push down gently on the cutter handle and slide the handle forward to score the tile. Then pull the handle back until the breaker is over the center of the tile and push down to break the tile along the scored line.

For glazed tile like ours, with a soft bisque core, a tile cutter like the one shown in the photo above is fast and convenient for making straight cuts. But if you’re using porcelain, stone or glass tile, you’ll have to cut it with a diamond wet saw instead. How­ever, you’ll still need a wet saw if you have trim pieces to miter or notches to cut. 

7. Smooth the cut end

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The cutter may leave the end of the tile a little rough. Use a rubbing stone to grind off the rough edge. Several back-and-forth strokes is all it takes.

8.  Miter the top cap

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The inside corners of the cap pieces must be cut at a 45-degree angle where they join in the corner. Make these cuts with a wet saw tilted to cut a 45-degree bevel. You can rent a wet saw for about $50 per day, or buy one for $100 and up. Remember to cut your miters short by one half of the grout joint width to allow for grout. 

9. Install the mitered cap

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Embed the mitered inside corner in mastic. Use spacers under the cap to create a grout joint.

10. Install the bullnose

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Finish the outside corner with bullnose tile. When you set the tiles on the side opposite the bullnose, make sure to cut them so they’re back from the corner the width of a spacer to allow room for a grout joint.

11. Add the corner cap tile

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Spread a small amount of tile mastic on the back edges of the corner piece and press it into place. If the piece feels loose, use masking tape to hold it in position until the mastic sets up. The base and cap style we chose was available in outside corner pieces, so we didn’t have to miter the outside corners. But we still had to miter the inside corners.

12. Mark the baseline

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After you’ve finished installing the wall subway tile, let the adhesive set up for a few hours before removing the ledger boards. Then install the base tile. The photo above shows how to mark a tile for cutting. Hold the base tile upside down and rest it on 1/16-in. spacers. Remember to subtract the width of the grout joint when you make the mark. 

13. Miter the base at the inside corners

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Cut 45-degree bevels on the baseboard pieces that meet at inside corners. Leave a grout space between the two mitered base pieces. Finish up by gluing in the outside corner piece subway tile. 

14. Grout the subway tile

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When you’re done setting tile, let the mastic dry overnight. Then mix your grout according to the instructions on the package. Mix only enough grout to cover about one wall at a time. Spread the grout with a grout float, making sure to pack the joints completely. Wipe off excess grout with the edge of the float, working diagonally to the tile. Avoid getting grout into the inside corner joint or the 1/16-in. gap at the floor.

Wait about 15 minutes, depending on the room temperature and humidity, for the grout to begin firming up. Pressing your fingertip into the grout should barely leave a mark. Then begin working the grout with a damp, not wet, sponge. Wring out the sponge frequently in clean water in a bucket (not a sink). When all of the grout is removed from the face of the subway tile, and the joints are consistent and smooth, let the grout set up for an hour before polishing the tile with a damp micro­fiber cloth.

Finish the project by filling the inside corners with caulk that matches the color of the grout. If you have a wood floor, don’t caulk the gap at the floor.