Guys, I’m all heart-eyes over here. 😍 We’ve finished making-over our kitchen, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. For the first time, we truly felt like DIYers and we’re so proud of what we were able to accomplish. We painted the kitchen cabinets, removed the old backsplash tile, put up shiny white subway tile, and brought in all new appliances (that last one wasn’t planned until a year from now at least, but thanks to a broken fridge, we had to tackle this early). If we go even further back in time, we also ripped out the old flooring and had new laminate flooring installed more than a year ago as the first step!
If you want to look back at some of the progress, I’ve already posted about painting the kitchen cabinets, how we decided to tile our backsplash and went on the hunt for some white kitchen inspiration, and demoing the tile out (and made swiss cheese for walls in the process). Here, we’ll cover installing the new tile (and the embarrassing mistake that came with it) and the saga of getting new appliances, plus prettying up the place thanks to a trusty Target run.
About three months ago, I decided I’d rather jump head-first into the backsplash and rather than paint what we had, to rip it out and lay new tile. Once I saw how affordable white subway tile could be, it helped to make this an even easier decision. I had never tiled before, so I read through a ton of helpful articles to become more familiar with the process, especially the post from Young House Love:
Young House Love: Installing a Subway Tile Backsplash for $200
Toolbox Divas: How To Install a Kitchen Tile Backsplash The Easy Way
DIY Network: How to Install a Tile Backsplash
Lowe’s: How to Install a Tile Backsplash
This Old House: How to Install a Tile Backsplash
This seems like a lot to read through, but I gathered up a ton of different tips and approaches from reading this many how-to posts and was able to take the best of everything and apply it to my particular space. This project wasn’t without mistakes, though — I’ll get there. 😉
Here were the supplies we needed:
- Subway tile and thin border tile for the edges
- Pre-mixed thinset (mortar)
- V-notched trowel (1/4″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″)
- Unsanded grout
- Grout float
- Tile sponges
- Plastic buckets
- 1/8″ tile spacers
- Tape, rosin paper to cover the counters
- Eyeliner (to mark our tile cuts, but real people probably use a wax crayon or something, which we were not going back to the store to get this one thing. Ladies, in a pinch, eyeliner has many uses!)
- Tile saw (we rented)
How we tiled our backsplash:
Planning and Purchasing: Planning was pretty critical for this project, and I definitely didn’t want to wing it. We planned out our tile purchase in advance by measuring to find the square footage. We determined we needed about 300 total tiles when factoring in 20% more than needed due to bad cuts, breakage, etc. I also grabbed a box of about 30 border tiles but didn’t need quite that many. We did an online order through Lowe’s for in-store pick-up, which made things a little easier. Then, from Menard’s, we picked up the trowel, float, sponges, bucket, caulk, mortar, and grout. We picked TEC Skill “Silverado” for the grout and caulk, which was the same used in this Chris Loves Julia three-day kitchen makeover that totally inspired me, since it’s a super subtle light, warm gray that coupled great with our wall color (Benjamin Moore “Revere Pewter”).
Preparation: Our main prep was taping off all the edges of the counter (just like if we were going to paint the walls instead of tile) and taping down rosin paper to really protect the surface. I didn’t bother to tape the lower edge of the wall cabinets, figuring we could just carefully spread mortar underneath. The day we were tiling, a Saturday, we headed to Menard’s early to rent the tile saw.
Big Mistake: Here’s a quick aside into my major mistake: I bought the wrong mortar at first. In a stroke of overconfidence, I bought quick-setting powder mortar that’s mixed in a bucket. Against advice from trusted professionals, I didn’t mix it in batches, either — I read the package, which gave me the water:powder ratio, and did that (it was the whole box). The advice is typically to mix up small batches so it doesn’t dry out as you spread it onto the walls. Well, that’s the understatement of the year, because I was able to get about two square feet spread before I went to dip my trowel back into the bucket and hit a solid rock. It has fully hardened in the bucket — a gallon’s worth, at least! I had already laid down about 10 tiles and they were set, but luckily this was behind the stove. We were able to scrape off the hardened mortar beyond what was tiled, and start fresh once I picked up pre-mixed mortar (a God-send creation).
Tiling: Getting down to business. When deciding on our first tile placement, we decided to start with one centered tile on both main walls: the stove wall and window wall. This way, when you look at either one, the tile is centered. This meant our inner corner joining the two walls wasn’t centered, but this would have stuff placed in front of it to hide that. We found the center point on each wall and marked it with a pencil.
To start on the stove wall, we measured across the open space between the cabinets where the hood would go, and found out that one row of tiles would fit across with no cuts, so we could make half-cuts for the rows above and below and it would all perfectly center on that wall. We put this tile up and then spread out left and right to finish the wall.
We did the same on the window wall, laying the first tile under the windowsill dead-center, and then worked our way out left and right.
Most importantly, we put the spacers down along the countertop so there would be 1/8″ of space between the counter and tile. We also left a little space at the top where the tile met the underside of the cabinets, as well. And we applied mortar in sections about 2-3 feet long at a time to allow us time to lay the tile and make cuts before it dried. I think the miracle of pre-mixed mortar was how long it stayed wet on the wall — we had a section of mortar applied for about 45 minutes with no drying while we worked around a couple tricky electrical outlets, which was awesome.
Laying the tiles went pretty fast, even the cuts — Chris worked the saw while I spread mortar and laid tiles down. To really get the tiles on, you kind of push them into the mortar and smush them around a little (technical term), making sure they’re resting right up against the tiles next to them. These didn’t need spacers, but if yours do, that would include placing spacers in between. Smushing a tile was just a sort of wiggling motion left and right in the mortar and then pushing it into the tiles next to it. Also super important was not letting too much mortar get between the tiles or come through the seams — it will dry a different color and texture, and if it shows through the grout you’ll eventually apply, it’ll look bad. Like this, see those little dark sandy bits?
I wish I’d really scraped out the mortar that squeezed through, but luckily this isn’t highly noticeable unless you’re looking at it from a foot away.
Finally, after we applied all the tile, we let that dry overnight.
Grouting: The next day, we woke up and started grouting. This was the fun part, because we knew we’d be looking at the final result by that evening! I removed all the tape carefully and cleaned out the space between the counter and tile with a brush to get out all the mortar and crumbs. Then I used a clean bucket and added a bit of water (about a cup) and sprinkled in grout powder, then mixed. I won’t lie about this part, it took a lot of tinkering to get the right consistency — you’re aiming for something close to peanut butter. I had to add literal drops of water and salt bae dashes of powder to get the right consistency, because it’s pretty absorbent. In the end, I needed to do this about three times to have enough grout, but it was worth being careful, mixing the right amounts, and mixing only what I could use while wet. It probably was more like pancake batter, honestly, but it was really easily spreadable and still dried perfectly fine, so I’ll call it a #win.
One important instruction from the container: let the mixture sit in the bucket for 10 minutes to let the ingredients activate first, which will help the grout set more firmly once it dries.
To apply it, just dip the float into the bucket, scoop up a bunch of grout, and smear it on, working it into all the openings between the tile. Literally anyone can do it. Then, once you’ve covered the area you intend to cover, drag the long edge of the float at about 45 degrees across the surface to scoop off excess. Kind of like scraping a credit card across a wall decal, you’re getting the extra grout off the tile surface and creating more flat grout lines.
I let the grout dry out for about 20 minutes, and then started to wipe extra off with the grout sponge. The key here was lots of water that’s replaced frequently. When I would wet the sponge, I would wring it out until barely damp — just enough to be able to buff off the extra dried grout but not wash grout out of the joints. I just used a small circular pattern across the wall and it did the trick. Below, you can see the progression from wiping off the excess and joints drying at different rates until it had dried completely into it’s very light gray finish.
After that step, we waited another half hour or so for it to really dry, then took a dry microfiber towel and buffed the surface. Since we had glazed ceramic tile, we really didn’t have much grout haze to worry about. Just a quick pass in more circular motions across the surface took off the haze and shined them up good as new. You can really see the difference that made below! The top half is buffed, and the bottom is not.
Caulk: After all that, it was time to caulk the seams along the counter, wall, and windowsill! This was really simple, just going along the seams with a line of caulk and running a finger along this line to take off the extra. It takes a few passes to really get the hang of creating a smooth line, but with a tiny bit of practice, it’s super easy.
And we were done! Clean off your grout float, dude, because you just tiled a kitchen!
Getting new kitchen appliances:
Next up was installing appliances. Again, this was totally unplanned. I was really ready to live with the almond appliances for at least another year, and then a few days before tiling, the refrigerator stopped working. Huge bummer, because it was always our plan to transfer that fridge into the garage after we eventually got new appliances to store extra stuff. We ordered through Home Depot and got GE — a fridge, dishwasher, stove, and range hood.
No joke, it was a pretty difficult and convoluted process once we ordered, because delivery was all messed up and then calling in a couple weeks later (before delivery) for the Fourth of July discounts didn’t go as planned, which pushed us even further. Ultimately, we ordered on June 17 and received them July 7, so we went almost a full month living out of a mini-fridge. But, in the end, we got a great discount and they rock, so we’re incredibly happy!
It’s not really worth detailing all the installation, except the range hood, which was fairly straightforward. We had the delivery folks install the fridge and stove, and Chris installed the dishwasher with help from our awesome neighbor. For the hood, we removed our existing hood and the cabinets above it. Quick tip: look to see if your cabinets are screwed to each other in addition to the wall behind them. The screws that went between the cabinets were hidden behind the hinges of the cabinet doors, so we didn’t realize they were attached to each other. (Rookies.) We actually tried smashing them forward out of the space with a hammer, thinking they were at least glued to each other. Welp, we caused a little damage, until we stopped and looked for attachments between them and, lo and behold, there they were. The cabinet came out easily once we unscrewed it from the sides of its neighboring cabinets. Ugh.
Then we followed our range hood installation instructions, and Chris probably just had to make a few judgement calls along the way, as is typical with appliance installs. After all that, I stopped over at Target to grab a few things to display around the counters, and called this kitchen done! Stick a fork in it!