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Hello! I'm Suzannah, a serious DIYer. Follow along with my DIY fixer upper house renovations, sewing and crafty projects, real food recipes, and de-stressing goals. I'm a recovering former vegan and vegetarian, now healing with a nutrient-dense mostly Paleo diet, and love at-home CrossFit and yoga workouts. I'm also the author of DIY Wardrobe Makeovers!

New mom to baby Otto born April 2018!

Unique handmade look tile backsplash - fast DIY but pros and cons!

As I shared the other day, our countertops are in and our kitchen is mostly functional again! After countertops comes tile backsplash, which we installed ourselves.

Choosing the tile... I didn't commit early enough on our tile so made a last-minute decision and have had a roller coaster of feelings about it! But it's up--we installed our entire backsplash in about 7 hours total, less than half the time we took tiling at our last kitchen!! This type of tile went FAST, but had both pros and cons!

DIY tiling


Ah, tiling! The classic DIY-able project that anyone can do, but so many are intimidated by! I helped my mom with tiling a few times in my life before tackling our straight herringbone pattern subway tile backsplash at our last house--intimidating project that took 3x as long as I hoped it would--and then felt empowered!! I tiled three bathroom floors at that house (see them all linked here), then one at my friends' house, and now: our kitchen backsplash!

A couple things made this tiling project easier, as I will share in the post, but I had some serious mixed feelings about this tile!

Remember you can also check out other posts on this DIY kitchen reno:

Our large subway mosaic tile backsplash


Choosing tile


I fully admit I made a mistake with not preparing far enough ahead of this project. I knew I wanted pale, but not pure white rectangular or square tile, ideally in a handmade look tile with some variation in color from piece to piece and some nice texture that caught in the light. Going for a little bit more rustic look than a uniform white subway tile. Plus, I have had some version of subway tile in my last two kitchens, as it and so has everyone else, right? It is a great, cheap solution, but it’s everywhere and I like to do something a little bit different. I debated between a few rectangular tiles at various online retailers, but never took the time to nail one down and then, suddenly, our countertops were in and it was time to tile the upcoming weekend! And nothing to tile with!

So, I ordered a square tile that I saw randomly the day before online at Lowe’s, that my store had in stock. I really liked the idea of going square because it is definitely different than subway tile and more classic, more like what our house probably originally had. Unfortunately, when we picked up the tiles, they were iridescent shimmery, like mother of pearl, way more glam than I was hoping. So I went back online and ordered this tile, also sight unseen, that my local store had in stock. By the time we picked that one up, I was just ready to be done and get going. I also liked that this second option was a mosaic, meaning all of the tiles are mounted on a light weight mesh backing, so you install about 1 SF at a time rather than each individual tile. This works very well on small tiles, like 1" or 2" hexagons like we did at our last house, but I have never used it with such a large tile.

Tiling large tile on mosaic sheets


We got to tiling, and right away I noticed that the mosaic mesh mounting was not evenly spaced. Also, in general the spaces were very, very small. Hardly any room for grout later on! With a mosaic tile all you need to worry about is keeping the spacing consistent when you place the next sheet, or as you cut and add in individual tiles like around outlets and edges. The spacing we were trying to match on the mesh sheets was so small, we tore up pieces of cardboard and flattened them to be thin enough (just barely). Like, I have 1/8" spacers from previous projects, and they were way way too big.

Also, as I started tiling, I realized, well, I basically paid almost 10x what I would have for plain, regular subway tile, and this is just looking like white subway tile. Then I noticed some variation in the dye lots from box to box, which annoyed me at first and I wish I had space them out a little bit better, but in the end I’m happy with because it does give that variety I wanted.
I am a very messy tile-er. Also note the makeshift cardboard "spacers."

Enough complaint about the tile. Point is, there are pros and cons to mosaic sheets of tile--particularly on something like this tile that has some imperfections to the thickness, texture, and color anyway. I think it works fine here and gives me that sort of antique French countryside vibe that I am totally OK with, and wanted a little bit of an older feel to what is now a very light, clean, brand new-looking kitchen.

How to tile a backslash


As for the steps to tiling, here’s what we did.

  1. We mixed our mortar with a drill attachment stirring tool, in a small bucket. 
  2. We put cardboard sheets down to protect the countertops and actually ended up using them as a spacer for the bottom row of tile. 
  3. Spread the mortar, lay the first sheet, check for levelness. We have a laser level which I think we will use on our bathroom tiling project where we are going to tile up the walls in several feet, but on this kitchen backsplash it only took a couple sheets of mosaic plus some to fill in the gaps, so it stayed pretty level pretty easily. I just used this small level to spot check. It was always basically level. Except when the spacing was uneven from sheet to sheet!


Tiling tips


Like with most tile projects, I found that you really need to back-butter the tiles/sheets before laying them. Otherwise, you just can’t be sure that you were getting great contact with the mortar on all parts of the tiles. That’s with especially true here because we were covering up slightly uneven wall, because when we removed the old backsplash we couldn’t get all the glue off, so had built up and send it over it and definitely had some uneven areas.
Back-buttering

The hard part of tiling, I’m pretty sure, as always measuring and cutting the fill-in pieces. You can’t leave the mortar on the wall for too long, so you need to do those at the same time that you’re tiling the rest, so it really helps to have at least two people: one to measure and mark the tiles and another to go out to the wet tile saw and cut.

That’s another thing I learned: I don’t know how I did all that tiling at our last house with just a manual tile cutter, but for this project because we had to do some long, skinny cuts on these longer, narrow tiles, I just didn’t want to risk it. (The manual tile cutter is where are you score the surface/glaze of the tile really well and then use pressure to push on either side over a dividing line and breaking the tile. It’s kind of terrifying, and they often do crack not in the place you wanted.) So partway through this tiling effort, I realized (so also super at the last minute) that we really needed a wet tile saw. I didn’t have time to borrow one from a coworker or a friend who have them, so we picked one up at Home Depot tool rental for $23 at 9 AM the next morning. Small price to pay. We only had it for 4 hours, but we also had a small nap window plus a little babysitting help that morning, so we had to finish quickly anyway!

We tiled for about 3 hours Saturday night and got the stove wall and part of the sink wall done, without the long skinny cuts, and then tile for 4 hours on Sunday morning and finished! I couldn’t believe it! Thank goodness the baby took a long nap, and we were even able to clean up after and send Jason back to return the saw!

Next steps after laying tile


The tile needs to sit for about 24 hours before grouting, so the next day we mixed up the grout, same way it makes them order, and got to grouting. We used a powdered instead of premixed grout because there are more options. For these tiny gaps, I researched and found that we should use unsanded grout. I’ve always used sanded before, and it is gritty and messy just like the mortar when you are working with it. The sanded was also hard on my hands because of the chemicals, but was so much smoother and nicer to work with without that sand.

I chose the color "Snow White," but it definitely looked beige as we were laying it on. Grouting is an exciting step especially if you were going to a lighter grout, because it makes the tile look so different than it does with the dark shadows between pieces. I immediately liked it better with the light grout at it! I think with the dark lines it just looked like a more modern/eclectic look like a lot of people do with their subway tile, adding dark grout, which was not the look I was going for in this kitchen. The white grout shows off the variation in color, especially as you look across the room and the light catches and you can see that they are not really all uniform, just like I want to.

I was feeling so accomplished and awesome, and then I realized we made one stupid mistake in our rush to finish! Can you see it? 

We are planning on putting open shelves above the dishwasher on that blank wall next to that narrow cabinet, but the tile still needs to go all the way up to the bottom of the cabinet and the shelf will align with the bottom of the cabinet. You can see to the right of the sink, we cut narrow tiles and the tile goes up about 2 inches higher than it does to the left. So frustrating! We had already returned the tile saw the course. Thankfully I just borrowed one from my friends and we hope to get this little tiny bit of tiling done ASAP! Then we will add grout sealer to all the grout.

I am still just amazed at how quickly this tiling went and we were able to make our kitchen look so much more finish so quickly. Seven hours sounds like a long time, and most of that was 2 people, but I have seen it take so much longer.

Lessons learned


Lessons learned from this DIY tile project:


  1. Mosaic tile goes way faster, but mosaic handmade look tile has some funky spacing issues. 
  2. You should definitely order your tile before you start your kitchen demo project so that you can make sure you like it and see how it looks with everything else. 
  3. You should definitely use a wet tile saw if you were doing anything at all complicated or on larger tiles--plan ahead and rent or borrow one. 
  4. Tiling is at least a 2-person job: have one person in charge of the saw and send them out to cut more while you keep laying tiles! 
  5. It can be confusing to remember which tile nubs go where after they are cut (like around which outlet area if you were marking a bunch and having your cutter cut a bunch at once)… I think using a different color pen or putting them in baskets could help, so they don’t get mixed up from area to area. 
  6. If you have multiple boxes of tile with any variation/handmade look, open them all up and mix the tiles around before laying so you don’t have patches of one dye lot.


I hope this was helpful! Tiling is totally something you can learn and do yourself, just takes some prep, tool borrowing, patience, and practice!

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