Backsplashes are an ideal canvas for making your dreams come alive with materials ranging from colorful ceramic tile to tiny glass mosaic tile to traditional subway tile. In contrast to kitchen projects that require technical expertise, this is one that can truly be called a do-it-yourself project.
Backsplashes have a high work-to-enjoyment ratio. Simple backsplash installations can be completed in only a few hours, with minimal tile cutting. Installing a backsplash typically is less messy than other tile projects since it uses less thinset mortar.
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What Is a Backsplash?
A backsplash is a vertical extension to a counter—typically a kitchen or a bathroom counter. A backsplash can extend a few inches high or it can go as high as the ceiling.
The purpose of a backsplash is primarily functional. It protects the wall behind the sink against water damage from inadvertent splashing.
In the kitchen, backsplashes cover other parts of the countertop beside the sink area. They also help protect the wall against grease splatter when cooking or food splatter during meal preparation.
Backsplashes are more than just functional, though. Built with care and an eye toward aesthetics, backsplashes can be a beautiful addition to your kitchen or bathroom—almost like a permanent picture on the wall.
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Is a Backsplash Necessary?
Due to the amount of water and abuse that kitchens get, it's highly recommended that you have a backsplash along the back of your kitchen countertop. Even if you can control the water, the walls may become damaged from items accidentally pushed up against them: knives, cutting boards, food, and more.
In bathrooms, a backsplash is still recommended, though it is possible to do without a backsplash in some situations. If you have a sink counter that does not butt up against the wall (a pedestal sink, for example), your need for a backsplash is only aesthetic.
For either applications, kitchen or bathroom, a backsplash is essentially your last line of defense before water, grease, food, or damaging items reach your wall. Even if you're not interested in building an elaborate, eye-catching backsplash, it's still a good idea to have some type of backsplash in place.
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How a Backsplash Is Installed
A great number of backsplashes are made from ceramic or porcelain tile. Tile is easy to work with and offers a wide range of designs. Tile is waterproof and it is simple to clean.
With tile, the first step is to apply thinset mortar to the wall. You can either apply the thinset directly to the wall or to a cement board backer. After that, press the tile into the wet thinset mortar. The trick is to start out with straight tile rows and to maintain those rows as the thinset cures.
One inexpensive item that helps: plastic spacers. Made in a T-shape, these spacers are fitted between the tiles. After the thinset has dried, the spacers are removed.
Pressing grout into the seams with a rubber float further strengthens the tile's overall structure.
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Types of Backsplash Materials
Ceramic or Porcelain Tile
Ceramic tile and porcelain are common backsplash materials. Vitreous (slick surfaced) ceramic tile or porcelain offer good wipe-down ability, no small thing when dealing with behind-stove grease splatter.
Ceramic is also cost-efficient. While it's possible to purchase expensive artisan tile, you'll find just as inexpensive or moderately priced ceramic tile.
Glass tile conveys a look of sleek urbanity. If a modern-style kitchen is what you have in mind, you may want to consider this material.
Glass is trickier to cut than ceramic or porcelain tile. Glass never goes out of style, but certain sizes and colors of glass do.
The default material offered by some countertop installers is the countertop material itself. If you have a solid surface countertop, installers may run a 4-inch high backsplash of the same material along the length of the counter. This helps to mask any gaps between the counter and the wall.
This is often considered an optional element, so speak to your installer ahead of time about whether a backsplash will be included.
Sheet Laminate or Glass
One of the newer, trendier materials is sheet glass. A great advantage of sheet glass backsplashes is that the backside of the glass can be painted—the side facing the wall. This paint layer is protected against wear and tear and is virtually impossible to scrape or scratch.
Backsplashes of this type are mainly found in kitchens and sometimes in bathrooms, directly behind sinks and usually stretching the entire length of the counter and up to the ceiling.
For a modern, almost industrial look, stainless steel is also a great alternative to standard backsplash materials, as it's easy to clean and durable. It is a more costly option, though, and you'll want to make sure it's installed by someone with plenty of experience working with the material.