How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile

  • 01 of 14

    Installing Ceramic Wall Tile

    Completed kitchen ceramic subway tile
    Stuart Cox/ArcaidImages/Getty Images

    This tutorial will lead you through the steps involved in preparing for and installing ceramic wall tile in preparation for grouting. We will use a popular type of ceramic wall tile called subway tile which uses a brick running bond pattern. Subway tile gets its name for the style's use in New York subway stations and other metropolitan subways in the early 20th century.

    Installing wall tile is a project that rewards pre-planning and patience. It's not that it is particularly hard to do, it's just that it's easy to do poorly. So in this tutorial, we have used more photographs than usual to try to help explain the various tips and tricks you can use to complete a professional looking installation.

    This tutorial will address the planning, cutting and adhering of tile to the wall. Grouting the tile is a subject of a different tutorial.

    When you buy your tile, you will measure the area in square feet. We suggest you buy an additional 10% for waste and breakage plus some for attic stock (extra reserve material after the project is completed).

    You will also need a couple of specialized tools for cutting the tile including a tile cutter and a hand tool called a tile nipper. Both tools are fairly inexpensive, and entry-level versions of the tools can be purchased for less than about $40 ($10 for the nippers and $20-$30 for the tile cutter). If you are doing a project with thicker ceramic tile or porcelain tile, you will need a diamond blade wet saw. Entry level wet saws can cost between $90 to $300; pro versions go well above that. You can usually rent any of these tools from your big box hardware store or local tool rental store.

    Let's take a look at what you need to install ceramic wall tile:

    Needed Tools and Materials:

    • Ceramic subway tile
    • Acrylic water based ceramic tile adhesive
    • V-Notched trowel (3/16" x 5/32")
    • Tile cutter
    • Tile nippers
    • Eye protection (when cutting tiles)
    • Plastic tile spacers (1/16" to 1/8") depending on tile spacing
    • 1 Gallon plastic bucket
    • 2 to the 3-inch putty knife (metal or plastic)
    • Rosin paper and a plastic grocery bag (for countertop protection)
    • Painters tape
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  • 02 of 14

    Selecting the Correct Trowel and Adhesive

    A v-notched trowel

    The main tools you will need for installing the wall tile are the V-Notched trowel and the adhesive.

    The size of the V notch in the trowel depends on the size and thickness of the tile but for 2" x 4" ceramic subway tile you will want to use a 3/16" x 5/32" V-notch trowel which can be used for tile sizes less than 6" x 6".

    Two sides of the trowel will have V-notches, and two sides will be smooth. You use the smooth sides to apply the adhesive onto the wall and generally spread it out, then use the V-notch sides to create the full consistently sized valleys and peaks of adhesive. You can buy a trowel with a 4" x 9" hard, cold-rolled steel blade with a plastic handle for under $10.

    As for adhesive, use a water-based acrylic adhesive such as AcrylPro. It's very easy to apply, make sure to clean the adhesive off the face of the tile with a damp sponge once 

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  • 03 of 14

    Protect the Counter Top and Sink/Faucet

    Rosin paper used to protect countertop when tiling

    Tiling can be a little messy. Between all the adhesive and grout used, you will need to protect your kitchen's countertop, sink, and faucet from damage.

    • The easiest way to do this is to use a thick construction paper called rosin paper which you can buy at your nearest big box home improvement store. Once you have the rosin paper proceed as follows:
    • Place the rosin paper across the countertop from end to end leaving it about 1/2" from the walls.
    • Cut a slit in the paper to go around the kitchen faucet.
    • Use painter's tape to adhere the paper to the counter top placing the tape to cover the gap and cover any exposed counter top.
    • Cover the exposed faucet with a plastic grocery bag and tape it in place with painters tape. Doing this allows the rosin paper to be laid flat and the faucet to be protected.
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  • 04 of 14

    Layout: Critical to a Professional Looking Installation

    Marking the centerline of a tile field by hand

    Proper layout and pre-planning of the tile installation is essential for a great looking job. Done properly, the tile installation will look balanced, level and symmetrical. A job without proper attention paid to layout will look unbalanced with odd tile cuts and will be readily noticeable to the observer.

    Start by locating the center of the wall to be tiled or the center of the most dominant/visible portion of the wall. In this tutorial, we wanted to feature the open area above the sink, so we located the center of the opening between the two upper wall cabinets which is centered over the sink.

    • Locate the center of the tile field precisely and using a standard level or torpedo level, mark a vertical line in the center of the wall.
    • Determine if this center mark is for the center of a grout joint or center of a tile. We recommend using the mark to locate the center of a grout joint as it will be much more precise.
    • Check the vertical layout of the tiles and see how they work under the upper cabinets or another fixed element. In this tutorial we had about 1-1/2" left over between full tiles and the bottom of the upper cabinets. As a result, we chose to use a 3/4" x 6" trim tile at the top of the subway tile field which we will use to fill in most of the gap. Same issue at the top of the wall over the sink. We will use the same trim tile to cap off the top of the wall at a height that was just below the top of the wall cabinets.
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  • 05 of 14

    Apply Ceramic Tile Adhesive

    Tile adhesive being applied

    Once the layout is complete, and your horizontal and vertical reference lines have been established, you can begin to apply adhesive. You will need a 3/16" x 5/32" V-notched wall trowel (or as otherwise recommended for your tile size), a bucket with warm water and a sponge (for cleaning the trowel) and of course, tile adhesive.

    • Here are the steps needed to make the adhesive application go smoothly:
    • STEP 1: Starting at the center of your work point you will be applying tile from the bottom up. Apply the adhesive to the wall with the flat side of the trowel blade.
    • STEP 2: Spread the adhesive as a skim coat again using the flat side of the trowel blade. Do not over apply adhesive and only apply as much as you can cover with tile in 20-30 minutes.
    • STEP 3: Apply a little more adhesive to the trowel on the notched end and with the trowel held at a 45° angle to the wall, drag it along the adhesive "combing" it in a uniform direction. Make sure to cover the area to receive tile fully.
    • STEP 4: In preparation of installing the first row of tile above the countertop, place 1/8" spacers about 4" apart or so along the bottom of the wall at the counter.
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  • 06 of 14

    Press Anchor Tile Sheet Into Adhesive

    Pressing tile into adhesive

    Next, set the first or anchor tile sheet into position. It is referred to as an anchor tile sheet because the rest of the tile installation will grow from this point.

    Once the adhesive is applied to the wall, you have maybe 10 - 20 minutes to apply the tile for that area.

    • To set the tile in place proceed as follows:
    • Place the first tile sheet precisely in position. Make sure to align the center of the tile or grout joint with the marked layout center line on the wall.
    • Set the first row of tiles on the tile spacers installed when the adhesive was applied.
    • Check the tiles for level using a torpedo level.
    • Press each tile firmly into place flattening the peaks and valleys of the adhesive and creating a uniform bonding surface between the tile and the wall.
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  • 07 of 14

    Clean the Trowel Often

    Cleaning a trowel in a bucket of warm water

    As you proceed with the application of tile adhesive, you will find the trowel gets quickly "gunked up." Make a habit of cleaning the trowel often in a bucket with warm water. Have a sponge and paper towel ready to clean and dry the trowel.

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  • 08 of 14

    Continue Installation of Tiles

    Ceramic wall tile installation

    With the anchor tile sheet in place, you now continue installing tiles (in this tutorial they are mounted to tile sheets).

    • STEP 1: Apply tile adhesive with a V-notched trowel as described earlier.
    • STEP 2: Set the adjacent tile sheet into place making sure to place a tile, so you have equal spacing and aligned tile joints. Tile sheets will not always have exactly spaced tile joints. The tile sheet joint gaps on this subway tile tutorial ranged from 1/8" to 1/16", so when you place an adjacent tile sheet into position, the joints may not exactly line up. In those cases, use tile spacers as required to support a sagging tile or spread apart two tiles that are too close together.
    • STEP 3: Place tile spacers on the top of each row of tiles so the next sheet sets on top of these spacers. It is often best to place them, so the spacers touch the adhesive and that holds them in place.
    • STEP 4: Continue with installing each adjacent FULL TILE sheet. Stop when a sheet requires a cut tile. Do those sheets last.

    TIP: Scrape off any extra adhesive from the wall that extends beyond the tile or tile sheet being applied if you are not going to apply tile to the area immediately. You do not want to let adhesive harden unused on the wall.

    TIP: Make sure to keep the grout joints clear when setting the tile. Use a wooden stick or some other device to clear any adhesive that worked its way more than halfway to the tile surface between the tile joints.

    TIP: Use a damp sponge or cloth to wipe any adhesive from the face of the tile. The adhesive is very difficult to remove once dry and very simple to clean when wet. Make sure to be fastidious in keeping your work clean!

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  • 09 of 14

    Cut Tile Around Outlets and Switches

    Cutting a wall tile around outlets and switches

    As you apply more tile, you will soon find yourself faced with the requirement to cut and mount tiles around a switch or outlet, such as the GFCI outlet shown in the above photo. The trick to installing tile around electrical devices is to cut the tile close enough to the electrical device so that the edges will be covered with the switch cover plate, but not too close, so the tile obstructs mounting screws needed to fasten the devices to the electrical box.

    Cut the tile with a snap tile cutter (see the tutorial on how to cut ceramic tile for more information). The tile is placed into position in the tile cutter, and its surface is scored by firmly moving a tungsten carbide scoring wheel from bottom to top across the face of the tile surface. By then placing the pressure bar pad across the tile and applying firm and gently increasing pressure, the tile will snap across its scoreline. When cutting tile, you must make sure to use eye protection.

    You may also need to use tile nippers for small tile cuts or adjustments. For small tile pieces, you may need to back butter the tile with adhesive.

    If you are doing a project with thick ceramic tile (over 3/8") or porcelain tile, you will need to use a diamond blade wet saw which can often be rented from a big box home improvement store.

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  • 10 of 14

    Install Finish Trim Pieces

    Grout spacers applied to ceramic tile

    Install any trim pieces such as the nominal 1" x 6" cap tile shown in the photo above.

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  • 11 of 14

    Transfer Cut Dimensions

    Marking a tile for cutting

    With running bond brick pattern tile such as subway tile, the tile sheets interlock. This can make things a little tricky when trying to measure where to cut tile at an end wall situation.

    The easiest way is to flip the tile sheet upside down, hold it away from the wall the distance of the grout joint width and mark the tile where the cut should go, again allowing for a grout joint.

    Then take the tile sheet to the snap tile cutter or wet saw for trimming to the correct size.

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  • 12 of 14

    Maintain Tile Gap at End Wall

    Spacer maintaining gap at the end of a tile

    Maintain a grout joint width at the end wall joint. When placing the tile sheets, they will sometimes want to droop or push into the gap. In that case, use a shim or tile spacer to maintain a consistent gap at the end wall.

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  • 13 of 14

    Work Up the Wall to Completion

    Wall tile installation by hand

    Proceed to tile up the wall to a point where you will end the subway tile. Install any trim pieces and cut around any other devices such as the light fixture shown in this photo.

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  • 14 of 14

    Completed Tile Setting - Ready for Tile Grouting

    Tile set on wall and ready for grouting

    Once the tile is set in place, take a step back and appreciate your work. Your job is now done.

    Now let the tile adhesive dry for 24-72 hours before grabbing your tile grouting tools and grouting the tile.