How to Install Ceramic Wall Tile

Installing Ceramic Wall Tile

Completed kitchen ceramic subway tile
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Ceramic tile is a favorite material for floor installations, thanks to its durabilty and resistance to moisture and stains. The same qualities that make great for kitchen and bathroom floors make it a natural choice walls, as well. 

Installing ceramic wall tile is a project that rewards pre-planning and patience. It's not particularly hard to do, but it's easy to do poorly. Because you are attaching a relatively heavy material to vertical surfaces, it is somewhat trickier than installing ceramic floor tile, but with a bit of careful study and patience, any DIYer can readily install ceramic wall tile with good results. 

Wall Tiles vs. Floor Tiles

You actually have more choices when it comes to ceramic tile for walls than you do for bathrooms, since virtually all "floor tiles" can also be used on walls.  In fact, most floor tiles are rated for both floor and wall use. However, not all wall tiles are suitable for floors; flooring tiles need to be particularly thick and sturdy to hold up under foot traffic,

Layout Is Critical

Professionals are skilled at laying out a tile job so that grout lines are perfectly level and plumb, and so the trimmed portions of tiles are symmetrical from side to side. A good layout also avoids narrow rows of cut tiles on the top, bottom, and sides of the wall. 

The best way to achieve the best layout work is with carefully drawn layout lines. There are many ways to establish a layout, but the best way is to use the same method as with floors: Establish centered vertical and horizontal layout lines at the very center of the wall, then install the tiles beginning at the center and working outward in quadrants. In many cases, special accent tiles or border tiles are integrated into the project to help the layout work effectively. 

Special Considerations for Shower and Tub-Surround Walls

Although the installation of wall tiles is the same for shower or tub-surround walls as it is for standard walls, there are some special preparations required. This means that the base surface needs to have a waterproof underlayment. There are a number of ways this can be done, including installing a layer of sheet plastic, brushing on a waterproofing membrane over the cement board base, or using a special backer board with a build-in waterproof membrane, such as DenseSheild. Whatever method is used, waterproofing is critical since moisture seeping through ceramic tile can create serious structural damage. 

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Ceramic tile
  • Thin-set tile adhesive
  • V-notch trowel (size recommended by the tile manufacturer)
  • Builder's paper
  • Painter's tape
  • Utility knife
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Wood block
  • Rubber mallet
  • Tile cutter or diamond blade wet saw
  • Tile nippers
  • Eye protection (when cutting tiles)
  • Plastic tile spacers (1/16 inch or 1/8-inch, depending on tile spacing) 
  • Builder's paper
  • Painter's tape
  • Sponge and bucket

Large jobs are made much easier if you rent or purchase a wet saw fitted with a diamond cutting blade. An entry-level saw can be purchased for around $100, and it is a good investment if you have a large job or if you do tile work regularly. Or, you can rent the tool from a big box home improvement store or tool rental outlet. 

When you buy your tile, measure the area in square feet, and buy an additional 10% for waste and breakage, plus some leftover in case repairs are needed in the future. 


Our example will lead you through the steps involved in installing ceramic wall tile on a wall that has been properly prepared with installation of cement board underlayment, which is considered the best surface on which to install ceramic tile.  Our sample project stops short of grouting the tile—those instructions are found elsewhere.

We will use a popular type of ceramic wall tile called subway tile, which uses a running bond pattern, where the vertical joints are offset from row to row. Subway tile gets its name for the style's use in New York subway stations and other metropolitan subways in the early 20th century, and it is a very popular style for bathrooms and kitchens. A similar running bond pattern can be used for square tiles and other rectangular shapes, or for a simpler layout, the tiles can use straight vertical joints, called a straight grid pattern

Select the Correct Trowel and Adhesive

A v-notched trowel

The main tools you will need for installing the wall tile are a V-notch trowel and the proper adhesive. Most wall tiles are best installed with a mortar-based adhesive known as thin-set, made of cement, fine sand, and a water-retaining agent such cellulose. Thin-set usually has some latex additives that give it some flexibility to prevents the tile job from cracking. There are also older mastic adhesives available. They are applied in much the same way as thin-set, but don't work quite as well. 

The proper size of the V-shaped notches in the trowel depends on the size and thickness of the tile and on the recommendations from the tile manufacturer. In our sample project using 2 x 4-inch subway tile, the recommendation is for a trowel with 3/16 x 5/32-inch notches, which works well for most tiles less than 6 x 6 inches in size.

Two sides of the trowel have V-notches, and two sides are smooth. Use the smooth sides to apply the adhesive onto the wall and spread it out, then use the V-notch sides to create a  valleys-and-peaks pattern in the adhesive before pressing the tiles into place. 

Protect Surfaces

Rosin paper used to protect countertop when tiling

Tiling can be a little messy, so it's wise to protect floors, countertop surfaces, and fixtures against spills from tile adhesive and grout. The easiest way to do this is to use a thick rosin builder's paper, which you can buy at a big-box home improvement or painting supplies store. Cover the countertop and floor surfaces with the paper and secure it in place with painter's tape. Cut slits in the paper where sink faucets and other fixtures are located, the cover exposed surfaces of the fixtures with strips of painter's tape. 

Plan the Layout

Marking the centerline of a tile field by hand

Proper layout of the tile installation is essential for a great-looking job. Done poorly, the finished look will be unbalanced, with asymmetrical tile cuts. 

Start by choosing the most visible wall in the room, then locating the center of the wall. In a bathroom, this is often the center of the vanity wall above the sink. Measure to establish the horizontal and vertical center points on the walls, then use a standard level or torpedo level to establish a center point. From the center point,  mark vertical and horizontal lines from side to side and from ceiling to floor.

Working from these vertical and horizontal layout lines, determine if the center point is the appropriate place to start the tile installation. This is most easily done by measuring and marking the location of the tiles along the layout lines. Make sure to include the thickness of the grout lines as you mark tile locations on the lines.

The goal is to make sure that there won't be thin slices of cut tiles at the sides or at the top and bottom. If necessary, you can adjust the starting point to one side or the other, or up or down slightly, to make the layout most effective. Another option is to use trim tiles to fill in gaps.  In our example, we had about 1 1/2 inches leftover between full tiles and the bottom of the upper cabinets. Because of this, we used a 3/4 x 6-inch trim tile at the top of the tile field to fill in most of the gap. We used the same trim tile to cap off the wall just below the top of the wall cabinets.

Apply Thin-Set Adhesive

Tile adhesive being applied

Once you are satisfied with the layout of the vertical and horizontal lines, begin installing adhesive, starting at the center point and working on one quadrant of the overall wall.

First, spread adhesive onto the wall using the flat side of the trowel. Cover only as much of the wall as you can comfortably work in over 20 to 30 minutes. Immediately trowel back over the skim coat using the notched side of the trowel to create ridges and valleys in the wet adhesive. Hold the trowel at a 45-degree angle and "comb" the adhesive in one direction. Make sure the area you will cover with tile is completely covered with thin-set adhesive. 

As you prepare to press tiles into place, make sure you have plastic spacers at ready reach. 

Begin Installing Tile

Pressing tile into adhesive

Position the first tile (or sheet of mosaic tiles) into place on the wall at the center point of the layout. Align it carefully with the horizontal and vertical layout lines. Press it firmly into the adhesive; as you press, the adhesive will be flattened out.

Once the first tile or sheet is set in place, complete the first row along the horizontal layout line. Use plastic spacers to ensure the joints are uniform. When the first row is complete, check it for level using a level.

Continue Installation

Ceramic wall tile installation

With the first row of tiles (or tile sheets) in place, continue installing the subsequent rows, again using plastic spacers to maintain uniform joints between tiles. With the running-bond pattern we are using, it is critical that you get the offset correct so that the joints have the proper spacing from row to row. 

After each small section of wall is completed, use a short block of wood and rubber mallet to lightly rap over the surface of the tiles, which will "set" the tiles in the adhesive and flatten the surface. 

Complete installation of all full tiles (or tile sheets). Leave the tiles that need to be trimmed or cut until the end of the project. As you reach the last full tiles, scrape off any excess adhesive from the areas of the wall left exposed. This will prevent the adhesive from hardening as you trim the last tiles and prepare to finish the installation. 

As the adhesive hardens, inspect the grout lines and make sure they are free of excess adhesive. If necessary, scrape away the excess using a pointed stick or small screwdriver. The grout lines need to be open in order for grout to adhere when you reach the finishing stage. 

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. 

Trim the Tiles Around Outlets

Cutting a wall tile around outlets and switches

Where tiles need to be trimmed to fit around outlets, light switches, pipes, and other obstacles, use a tile cutter or tile nipper to trim them to fit the space. If filling in around outlets, make the tile doesn't cover over the opening of the electrical box.

When using a snap tile cutter, 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.

If you are doing a project with thick ceramic tile (over 3/8 inch thick) or porcelain tile, you will need to use a diamond blade wet saw rather than a snap tile cutter. 

As you install these final tile pieces, it is easiest to butter the backs of the tiles with adhesive. Press the trimmed into place, using spacers to maintain uniform grout lines. 

Install Trim Pieces

Grout spacers applied to ceramic tile

If your layout includes border tiles or other trim pieces, install them next. Our exampe uses 1 x 6-inch cap tiles. Butter the backs of the tiles and press them into place on the wall.

Measure, Mark, and Cut the Final Wall Tiles

Marking a tile for cutting

Whether using individual tiles or mosaic sheets, the final tiles or sheets will need to be marked and trimmed in order to fit the remaining spaces at the ends, top, and bottom of the wall. This can be done with careful measurement, or by positioning the final tiles upside in the proper location and marking cutting lines on the backs of the tiles. 

After marking, use a snap cutter or wet saw to cut the tiles to fit the spaces. 

Fill the Final Side Gaps

Spacer maintaining gap at the end of a tile

As you install the cut tiles into the remaining gaps, it's crucial that the joints in the corners match the thickness of the other grout lines. When placing the tile, 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.

Installation will be easiest if you butter the backs of the trimmed tiles with adhesive before pressing them into place. It can be hard to apply adhesive to the wall in these narrow spaces. 

Complete the Top and Bottom of the Wall

Wall tile installation by hand

Measure, mark, and trim any tiles to fill partial gaps at the top and bottom of the wall. Butter the tiles and press them into place. If there are any remaining trim or border pieces to install, complete the job by installing them now. 

Inspect the Grout Joints

Tile set on wall and ready for grouting

Make a final inspection of all grout lines, and clean out any excess adhesive. Make sure there is no adhesive clinging to the face of the tiles. 

Your tile installation is complete. Now let the tile adhesive dry for 24 to 72 hours before grouting the tile.