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How to lay out tile for backsplash

You've gathered your tools and setting materials and prepared your substrate. It might be tempting to roll up your sleeves and start installing backsplash tile. Here's a few things to know before you jump right into installing your backsplash.

Quick Tip

Smaller grout lines require less maintenance, and kitchen backsplashes are often subject to stains. Keep that in mind when spacing your tile.

A beautiful sink area with a green tile backsplash is the background image for the words “How to install a backsplash. 

When designing your tiled backsplash, keep the installer – yourself! – in mind. Strive for a layout that maximizes the number of whole tiles and the size of any cut tiles. Doing a dry – adhesive-free – layout will give you an idea of how well your design will work during the backsplash tile installation.


1. Divide the wall into quadrants

Two hands using a framing square to divide a wall into quadrants.First, divide the wall into quadrants. Snap a chalk line down the middle of the wall’s longest side and a second line down the middle of the wall’s shortest side, to form a perpendicular intersection. Check the intersection’s angles using a framing square.




2. Do a dry run

Tile cut around an outlet in a dry run of the backsplash tile installation process.You want to carefully lay out your backsplash tile design first without adhesive before you start your backsplash. This will save hours of headaches later. To begin, horizontally measure the area you plan to tile and find its exact center. Mark the center point on your counter. Using a pencil and a level, carefully draw a vertical line through the backsplash, from the center point. This line will be perpendicular to your counter. Make sure it's exactly straight because it will be an important guidelines when you begin the actual installation.A diagram indicating where to place the centerline and caulk during a backsplash tile installation.

Next, lay loose tile on the counter from the midpoint to each end of the backsplash. Remember to leave room for movement joints, which will be caulked later, and grout lines. Movement joints are 1/8 to ¼ inch spaces parallel to where the backsplash will meet adjacent walls or countertops, which allow tile to expand and contract – without cracking – as temperatures and moisture levels change. Grout lines are also important – so important that many small tiles are self-spacing, meaning that they have bumps on their sides that create consistent grout lines between tiles.


3. Use tile spacers

Grey tiles with spacers between them.If your tiles are not self-spacing, you’ll need to use spacers to create grout lines. You can buy tile spacers at Lowe's.






4. Adjust tile spacing

A diagram to show how to adjust tile spacing.

 If your layout leaves you with end tiles less than half a tile wide, simply adjust its spacing or vertical centerline. If the problem is unavoidable, arrange your layout so the tile fragments end up in an inconspicuous area.





5. Cut a tile "sandwich"

Two hands using a wet saw to cut tile.It is inevitable that you will need to cut some partial tiles to cover your entire backsplash area, including areas around outlets. To cut the tile, you may need a tile cutter and/or a wet saw. You may be able to rent a wet saw tile cutter at your local Lowe's. A "tile sandwhich" is tile that is correctly cut and positioned, and ready for mortar. Each tile you cut to fit your backsplash, should be measured and cut individually.




An illustration of step one of the how to cut tile process.Step 1:  To begin cutting your tile, place a loose tile atop the last laid-out full tile. Instead of positioning it directly on top of the tile, however, put it against the wall, corner or edge where the floor stops. Remember to leave room for a movement joint between the tile and wall.


An illustration of step two of the how to cut tile process.Step 2: Lay a second loose tile over the first. However, align this tile exactly with the last laid-out full tile, instead of placing it against a wall, corner or edge. The loose tile you placed previously should stick out – reaching the wall, corner, or edge – between this tile and the bottom tile. This “tile sandwich” will demonstrate the necessary size of the partial tile. The tile that is the “meat” of this tile sandwich will become the partial tile.

An illustration of step three of the how to cut tile process.

Step 3 Mark the cut line on the “meat” tile, using the second loose tile as a guide. For straight cuts, use a tile cutter. "Polish" the edges with a rubbing brick. Cut openings around pipes, faucet stems, etc. using a power drill with a hole cutter attachment.


Now that you understand how to cut tile and have completed a dry run of the backsplash layout, the next step is to begin applying backsplash mortar. Read on to the next step of our “How to Install A Backsplash Tile Guide” to learn how to do this.

Our diy Expert

Ron Sheldon

Ron Sheldon is a tile and floor installation guru. He has far too much knowledge on obscure topics like grout and floor leveling. A passionate tile contractor by trade, Ron’s spent the past decade dedicated to educating people about tiling, and has great advice on how to perfect your project.

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How to apply mortar to a tile backsplash