Jan 172013

There are tons of people who have DIYed tile. I am probably the most rookie tiler out there. But in subway tiling our shower surround I learned a few things that I want to jot down both for any others out there about to tackle their first tile project and for myself to look back at before I tile something in the future.

Don’t skimp on the prep work. Let’s be honest, prep work kind of sucks. It literally sucks up your time, but you don’t see any immediate benefit from it. But if you don’t take the time to prep right, you’ll spend lots of time making up for it somewhere down the line. So before busting out your thinset and trowel, here are some things to make sure you’ve taken care of.

  • Make sure the surface you’re putting the tile on is level vertically and square to the walls around it. If you’re installing backer-board behind your tile, use shims if needed to take care of this (like I did here). Once the backer-board is installed, tape off the seams and cover with a thin layer of thinset. If you’re not installing your own backer-board, you can make up for slight problems with an unlevel surface using extra thinset, but definitely look up more tips. I didn’t have to do this, so I am no kind of an expert.
  • Think through how the tile pattern will work around any windows or other obstacles to avoid cutting tiny slivers of tile. I had to work around a window, and before tiling I used Liquid Nails to install rot-free PVC all of the way around the window. I cut the top and sides to be even with the backer-board and kept the bottom piece uncut so that it stick out from the tile an inch. I also used a Sharpie to mark out the pattern of tile on the backer-board to make sure it would look good around the window. If you squint you can see it to the right of the window in the picture below…I had misplaced my black Sharpie so I used a neon green one for this part.main floor bathroom tile 6
  • Clean up the surfaces around where you’re tiling. For me this was the top edge of the bathtub. There was a lot of grimy residue, caulk, and soap scum to clean off, but it’s much easier to remove before tile and grout get in your way. If you’re tiling a kitchen backsplash, clean off the edge of the counter before tiling. Be careful, though, because you don’t want to gouge or scratch your bathtub or counter!
  • Use tape to protect surfaces around your tiling area. I taped off the PVC trim around the window in our shower to keep it safe from scratches and stains. I didn’t have to worry the whole time I was tiling that I was going to ruin it somehow! And when I finished grouting, I could just pull up the tape and didn’t have to clean at all.main floor bathroom tile 5

Once your prep work is all taken care of, watch a few youtube.com videos to get yourself psyched up and ready to go (here’s one I found helpful for the proper consistency of thinset and how to spread it, though I mixed my thinset a bit thicker since it was going on a wall instead of floor, and here’s another one with subway tile), and then it’s time to get your tile on!

Here are some tips I found helpful while I was tiling.

  • Make sure you start out with a level row. My bathtub was not level, so I drew a level line a couple of inches up and cut a small amount off the bottom of each subway tile so that the bottom was just a bit off the tub and the top was even with the line.main floor bath shower tile 2 The easiest way to mark what I needed to cut off was to flip the tile so the backside was facing out, mark on each side of the tile where the line on the wall met up with the tile, and connect the two dots. After the cut, just flip it right side out and find a perfect fit. After this tedious first row, I didn’t have to worry too much about the upper rows being level, though I did check every couple of rows with our two foot level just to make sure.
  • If you’re using subway tiles, there are built in spacers! I had a really hard time finding this written out anywhere online. But as long as you’re good with a 1/16th inch spacing, you can just slap them up so the back side of each tile is touching, and you’re good to go. This is a huge pro for subway tile, in my book.
  • Keep the scraps you cut off your tile, because most likely you’ll be able to make good use of it later on.
  • Use tape to support your tile, where needed. I used tape to support the bull nose tile around the window. Enough said.main floor bathroom tile 8
  • Know when to use a wet saw versus a tile cutter We have both and for the most part I used the tile cutter. It was quieter, cleaner, and more precise for straight cuts. However, to get a good cut on the tile cutter you have to be cutting off at least an inch or so of tile. I did make use of the wet saw when I was cutting rectangles out of tile to go around the window or circular pieces for around the pipes. I also used the wet saw when I needed to take off a sliver of tile.
  • Clean out the thinset between each tile before you get too far. I did this before I spread a new section with thinset. If the thinset gushed up between the tiles and you allow it to dry, you’ll spend a lot of time scraping it out before you grout.  It’s a lot easier to clean it out when it is still wet. I used wood shims because they were thin enough to fit between the rows of tile and I didn’t have to worry about scratching the tile.

And finally, my tips for grouting.

  • Allow enough time for the whole job. Remember that if you use a small tile (like mosaic or subway tile), you’ll have a lot of lines to grout, so it’ll take more time than you expect.
  • Only mix as much grout as you think you can apply and sponge off before it starts drying. I mixed enough for the whole shower and thought I’d have to waste half of it since it was taking longer than I thought, but Dylan jumped in to help me apply it so it didn’t dry out on me. When you apply grout, you mush it into each seam from a few different ways, then wipe off the majority of it with the grout float. Then you use a tile sponge to go back over it and clean up the seams and clean off the tiles.
  • Clean the grout lines up before the grout dries. You don’t want to wipe off too much grout with the sponge, but get the grout lines looking how you want while it’s still wet, or you’ll have a heck of a time getting it off when it’s dry. I’ve read you can use vinegar to help later on, but it’ll take a quarter of the time (or less) if you take care of it right away.
  • Make sure you’re using the right kind of grout for the spacing in your tile. Generally I believe the rule of thumb is to use non-sanded grout for spaces less than 1/8th of an inch and to use sanded grout for 1/8th of an inch or larger, but read on the packaging before you buy grout.
  • Don’t forget to seal your grout after it’s had sufficient drying time. The sealer I bought recommended letting the grout dry 48-72 hours before applying a sealer.

main floor bathroom tile 13


  13 Responses to “Tips and Tricks: Subway Tile”

  1. […] the shower surround (and some tiling tips and tricks I picked up along the […]

  2. […] I learned while tiling the shower with subway tile helped a bunch when it came time for the […]

  3. This is very helpful. We are in the midst of completely overhauling our bathroom. We’re doing subway tile and I was wondering whether we really needed a wet saw…apparently we do! And all your little tips are really going to help. Thank you!

  4. […] project (this only my third tile job, so I’m far from an expert…see my other tile jobs here and here). In this article it was said that you can use some thinset to level your […]

  5. You say “Subway tiles have built in spacers!” Implying that they ALL do but my order just came in and there are NONE on the 3×6 ones — only on the bullnose 2×6 ones! So maybe you have to be careful to ASK FOR subway tiles with built in spacers — so I’m returning mine — I don’t want the hassle of tiny spacers I have to put in manually! Hopefully finding ones like shown on other YouTube videos as well won’t be too hard…

    • I should have been more careful with my grammar, you’re right. I’m a home do-it-yourselfer with limited experience. While I’ve learned a lot, I certainly don’t know enough to make universal claims. I did think that most ceramic subway times had built in spacers…I guess that’s not the case. I plan to tile the backsplash in our kitchen with marble subway tile, which I know won’t have built in spacers. Unfortunately I’ll be using spacers there, but at least it’s not too large of a space. Sorry your tile didn’t work out. If it helps, I got my white ceramic subway time from Home Depot (Daltile brand). Good luck!

  6. […] Tips and Tricks: Subway Tile » Naptime DIY – […] the shower surround (and some tiling tips and tricks I picked up along the […] […]

  7. I’ve done a few dozen subway tile sets over the years. Some pretty good tips here, especially about planning your install around windows. You can also build up the inside edge sometimes to help a little, say with 1/4 in durock or something similar. Not too much because the more you do the more window you obscure.
    Have a better way to do bottom row though, and I think most tile setters do this as well. Install a ledger of some type at bottom above tub edge. With subway tile you would want to go somewhere around 2 1/2 inches up from tub, and then build up from there. Go back and do your bottom row after, and you can cut to tub edge as needed, there can be a variance up to 1/4 inch or more sometimes.
    I’ve been using drywall scraps lately to make a ledger. Always using the finished tapered edge facing up. Simple to cut to whatever size you need, and easier than trying to find a perfectly straight piece of 1×4. So you need 2 pieces around 28 to 30 inches and 1 piece around 5 ft long.

  8. Hi Ashley,
    Wondering what sealer you used on your tile? I bought TileLab’s sealer from Home Depot but after reading the negative reviews I’m looking to get something else.
    Also wondering if you finished your edges with schulter and any advice you have on doing so.

  9. OMG!!!!! Thank you so much! I have asked everywhere about an unloved tub. My tub was installed in 1949. I am not about to try and move it. I just wanted to update the tiles because the grout had fallen out of the old tile and started to leak into the kitchen. Once I removed them and replace everything with Hardibacker I checked for level and found out it was 3/8″ off along the long side of the tub. Needless to say I was panicking. Everybody said level your tub. Then I found you!!!!! Thank you Thank you Thank you. I’m going to do it just like you said. Yours is beautiful by the way.

    Thanks again….( I know I said that already but you have know idea how relieved I am)

  10. What kind of tile did you use?

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