INDIANAPOLIS – One of the best bangs for your buck for home renovating is fixing up your kitchen. 

If you don’t want to renovate the entire kitchen, you may want to consider a nice new tile backsplash.  It can really set off the cabinets, stove and sink.  I contacted contractor Monte Fields to show us how to do it like a professional.

Level with me

“The first thing you need to do when starting your tile backsplash, aside from picking your materials, is to make sure you have a level starting point.  I like to use a laser level.  I take a full tile and put that up on each end of the wall, where the backsplash will go.  If needed, use a piece of tape to hold them to the wall.  The laser, pointed at the top of the tile will tell me if the countertop is truly level, but in most situations, the counter won’t be,” said contractor Monte Fields.

Photo of one of Monte Fields’ projects

You can buy a variety of laser levels online or at a local store.  A variety of decent laser levels can be purchased for around $100. 

If you don’t want to buy a laser level like the one Monte uses, you can simply use a regular level and make a level line on the wall at the top of the tile.  The counter Fields was working on sloped downward to the left, so he marked and cut off the sliver of the tiles that stuck up too high on the first row.  He then flipped the cut tile upside down so the cut side is on the bottom near the counter top. 

“The reason for that is because there may be a rough edge to a cut tile, even if using a wet saw. If the cut edge is sitting on the counter, it will be hidden by the thin line of silicone. And now that the first row of tiles is perfectly level, the rest will follow,” said Monte.

Placement is everything

The next step is to determine the right to left placement of the tiles.  Don’t just start at one end of the wall and work your way to the other.  You may end up with a very thin last tile versus something that’s more symmetrical.

“You can do a couple of things.  The first step is to find the center line of the wall and mark it.  From there, you can see if you should use that center line to put up your tiles in each direction with the grout line in the dead center.  Or you can use the center wall mark to put one tile in the center of it and then move left and right with your tiling.  Either way, lay it out first on the wall without using mortar yet,” instructed Monte.

Mix, mix, mix!

Once you’ve figured out the best layout, you can mix your mortar or thin set.  Most tile manufacturers or tile sellers will recommend what kind of mix you should use for their tile.  Here is the specific mortar that Monte used. 

Be sure to fully read the instructions on the bag mix and start with less water than what is called for in the instructions.  You can always add water, but you can’t take it away. 

“I like to add just a little bit more water to get my mix ratio proper.  And the mixing buckets I use have lines on the inside, so I know how much water is in there.  Another thing to keep in mind is if you start mixing the mortar up, it will start to dry out on you. So if you’re just doing a small space and you know it’s going to take you a little bit of time, mix small batches.  It’s always easier to go back and mix more,” advised Monte.  

Applying the mortar

Before putting up tiles, many tiles come with glue grids on the back or very thin netting on the front that’s hard to see.  It’s put there by the manufacturers as a buffer to prevent scratching or breaking when tiles are packaged together.  Make sure you gently remove any glue or netting before you put the tile on the wall.  If there is material on the back side of the tile, they won’t stick as well to your wall.

How much mortar should you use?  Some people put the thin set or mortar mix right on the wall and on the tile.  Monte says he only puts the mortar on the back of the tile when they are smaller.

“Putting it on the wall is not necessary, and it will cause you to do more work.  If you put the mix on the wall, it will squeeze out between the tiles when you push the tile on.  Then you’ll just have to clean out the mix before it dries.  Save the hassle by simply applying it to the tile itself.  I also use the appropriate sized notched trowel to spread the right amount of mix onto the tile,” said Fields.

The trowels for smaller tiles generally have a ¼ inch notch.  Your tile manufacturer should specify which size of trowel to use.  After you apply the mortar to the tile, press the tiles onto the wall where you’ve marked to start.  From there, you’ll need to space your tiles to keep them consistent on the walls.  The smaller spacers that most home owners use work ok, but they are not what many professionals use.

“As you’re setting those tiles with the smaller spacers that fit into the 4 corners of the tiles, the mortar can start to deflect and start to move that tile a little bit.  Instead I use these thicker and bigger horseshoe shaped spacers.  It’s just a lot cleaner.  Just placing them in the center of the tile will give you two good contact points, depending on the length of the tile.  As you’re stacking the tile, it’s really crucial.  If you’re level on the bottom, then traditionally you’re going to be level vertically as well,” said Fields.

To make cuts, use wet saws, dry saws, or hand tools. Follow the instructions and wear safety glasses.  Generally an inexpensive wet saw is what you’ll need. I found a highly rated wet saw for about $85.

Not all spacers are created equal

And don’t forget the outlets and switches when tiling. If you just had a painted wall to begin with, the outlets will now be recessed because of the thickness of the tiles. In most cases, you’re not even going to get contact with your outlet screw holes when you put a cover plate on because it’s so far off. 

“So it is crucial to get outlet spacers. Many hardware stores sell them. They are little pieces of plastic that are very inexpensive. You can stack them, rip them off, one two three, whatever works for you to bring the outlet almost flush with your new tile,” said Monte.

If you use spacers, you will have to use different length screws than those that came with the outlet because they will likely be too short.  Most outlets will use the same 6/32” screws, regardless of length, so getting a variety pack of lengths is a good idea depending on the thickness of your tiles.

Don’t count out the grout

Finally, let’s talk about grouting.  Get the right kind and color for your tile and follow the instructions. Generally you wipe on and push in the grout with a tile float at an angle.

 “Using a grout float at a 45 degree angle gets the grout between the tiles, but the grout doesn’t get dragged back out.  About 15 minutes later, wipe the tiles off with a clean damp sponge and possibly a second time a bit later.  That way, no grout haze is left on the tile,” said Monte.