The easiest way to tile a backsplash

April 01, 2021

Whew, I'm almost done with my latest room update! I'll share links to all of the projects I've completed in our laundry/mud room at the end of the post -- just in case you missed one. Can't have that. The tile project I'm sharing today is one of my favorites I've ever done -- first of all because it was SO easy (I'll share why in a minute) and because it is beautiful

I fell hard last year for the square, slightly shimmery tile called zellige. Turns out it was very trendy a couple of years usual I'm way behind on the trends. (And I'm fine with that.) It has a wavy texture that makes it look handmade...and usually it is! 

The real stuff is VERY expensive, but I really wanted to use it for the small backsplash in our laundry/mud room:
ceramic square shimmer tile

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You can install in a straight stacked look like this for a more modern look, or in a brick pattern for a more traditional look.

The thing is, authentic Zellige tile is handmade from clay and has an imperfect look that I don't always love. Also, it's usually installed very close with small grout lines (which adds to the imperfect look). I've always preferred the more uniform versions I've seen, with a bit of contrast with the grout. 

I did some research and found this ceramic version pictured above that still has the handmade look, but is very affordable! Plus each tile is uniform and the same size, but still has the pretty details that I loved about the real stuff. It went into my cart! I was even more pleased in person -- they were so lovely!

I had a couple hiccups in this tile process along the way (I told you this room has given me one problem after another), because I didn't order enough at first. I had to wait on backorders and then the second shipment was much shinier than the first. I was able to pick and choose out of the boxes to find some that matched better. (Buy all you need at one time so they are from the same lot!) But overall the install process was a breeze! I used a product that makes the tile installation SUPER quick and mess-free.

Before you start tiling, figure out the middle of the area you'll be working on. Since ours was the backsplash area, I marked the middle and centered a tile on that: 
Centering tile before install

I then lined up the tiles each direction to make sure I wasn't going to have any tiny slivers at the ends. 

When I was sure of my layout, I pulled out the item that made the process go so quickly. It's a tile setting mat that you use instead of mortar: 

Easy way to install tile no mortar

Funny thing is, I got these as a gift YEARS ago...I'm talking probably ten years back. I didn't have any need for them then, and tucked them away in the garage where they sat for years. I forgot about them till we moved. 

I wasn't sure if they'd even still work, but I kept them hoping to try one day. Thankfully they worked SO well and were crazy easy to use! They have a sticky back that you put on the wall, and then a sticky side that grips the tiles on the front: 
Using tile setting mat for installing tile

I used one and a half packages for the whole project. I'm really impressed with this product. 

Look to your tile details to find out what size spacers and grout you'll need to use. This one suggested 1/16" grout lines. I thought about not using spacers at all, but decided in the end to use the them for a more uniform look. 

My countertop was level, but I made sure to check the tile as I was going to make sure it was level as well: 
Checking tile for level

I wanted a more traditional look, so I did a brick pattern -- this is also a bit more forgiving in my opinion. You have to be pretty meticulous so the lines match up perfectly with a straight stack layout:  
Brick pattern square tile

If you have outlets to work around, you'll need to turn the power off at the breaker and take your outlet cover off to work around them:
Tile setting mat instead of mortar

Hold your tile mat up and trace where you'll need to cut before sticking it on the wall. 

The mat is VERY sticky, but you can remove tile and rearrange it at first if needed. I'm not sure how that would work after it's been stuck for awhile. 

I've always used a wet saw when cutting tile, but because these were so small (and it was COLD in the garage the day I was installing), I went with a tile cutter instead. 

It is SO easy to use! You just line up your tile where the cut needs to be: 
Cutting tile with tile cutter

Then you roll the diamond blade along the tile with some pressure to score it. Make sure your pressure is consistent from start to finish. 

Just push down and it snaps the tile in a clean line: 
How to use tile cutter

It works so well and super fast. You can use these for larger tiles too -- just make sure the cutter you get will work for your tile. 

The only issue I had was cutting smaller slivers of tile. I found that if I scored it with the same pressure from the bottom to top, I could get pretty small cuts. **Always order about 10 percent more tile than you'll need! 

My issue with not using the wet saw was cutting around outlets. With a tile saw you can tilt the tile toward the blade for complex cuts. There are other ways to do it too -- I was about to run out and buy a diamond blade for my Dremel tool when I noticed something as I was cutting with the tile cutter...

I realized the two pieces can be matched up perfectly again after being cut. I got an idea -- I measured where I needed to cut for the outlet, then used the tile cutter to make those.

Then I used some Gorilla Glue, matched them back up and clamped them together for at least an hour: 
cut tile around outlet with no saw

It worked! I wasn't sure it would hold and was pleasantly surprised. 

It even worked when I had to cut the tile into three parts to work around an outlet: 
How to cut tile around outlet without saw

I did baby them a bit as I installed -- making sure not to push to hard. But they look great and you would never be able to tell that I cut them apart! That may help you as well if you don't have access to a wet saw.

Another great thing about using the tile setting mats is you can grout immediately, unlike mortar. I used this premixed grout to finish up the wall: 
Pre mixed grout

Make sure to protect your surfaces before starting! I LOVE these pre-taped plastic sheets for projects like this -- you stick the painter's tape on and then pull the plastic out. It sticks to any surface easily: 
Shiny square wavy tile

Mortar and grout aren't the most fun to install on a vertical surface -- you'll lose a lot to the floor or counter.  

I didn't have a grout floater (mine was a mess and I had tossed it months ago) so I just used a plastic putty knife -- and I think it was even easier to use:
Grouting square tile

Grouting isn't really hard -- just smush it in there. Fifteen to 30 minutes after, use a large sponge and a bucket of water and start wiping it off of the tile. If there are any spots you missed with the grout, you can usually move it around and fill in with the sponge. 

You'll need to use clean water and wipe a few more times with the sponge to get any film off of the tile. Grout will lighten as it dries, so don't freak out if it doesn't look right at first! If you are tiling a floor or a backsplash where there will be food or drinks, you'll want to seal it afterwards so the grout doesn't stain.

Not too bad right? The install went pretty quickly! To finish up that part of the wall, I made some quick "floating" shelves to hang between the cabinets: 
Easy shelves between cabinets

I used scrap luan and wood and then nailed them in from inside the cabinets. A little piece of trim across the front finished them off: 
floating shelves between cabinets

This tile is SO pretty!! It comes in cream, white, blue, gray and black. All are beautiful. I went with cream for many reasons, but mostly because our upper cabinets are not pure white. I worried the white tile would look off against them. 

I love the warmth of the cream tile and the contrast with the dark blue paint on the cabinets
shimmery zellige tile for less

By the way, if you have an outlet in an odd spot -- take your tile down the wall! It flows so much better than ending it awkwardly on the wall around an outlet. 

I LOVE this room!:
Laundry room counter with cream tile blue cabinets

Now it's time to address the area above the cabinets. That's for another day because this post is already crazy long! :) 

Here's where I started with this area: 
Folding table before

And this is how it looked with everything up to this point!: 
Dark blue cabinets, wood counter, cream shiny tile

If you've missed any of the projects so far, you can catch up here:
Butcher block countertop and where to get it

Here are the items I used for this DIY tile project: 
Tile setting mat instead of mortar 

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  1. Fan-friggin'-tastic! My recent backsplash project used marble tiles which can't be cut with a tile cutter. That was a bummer. This looks great and makes me think my next project should use tiles that can be cut this way. The whole space came together beautifully!

  2. WOW! This is amazing. Easy to see why you love and are excited about it. You are sooooo talented!!!

  3. You shared many GAME CHANGERS in this post! Thank you!

  4. Looks great! You tiled down the left side of the cabinets. Did you tile to the top of the upper cabinets, too?
    By the way, where do you store your coats and jackets? - since your closet has cleaning and pet supplies. :)

  5. Wow! That's in your top 2% of best projects IMO, Sarah. Absolutely love it.

  6. That tile is stunning - reminds me of Mother of Pearl!

  7. It looks stunning! Love the tile against the blue.. hearts.
    I have the MOST amazing grout hack that I learned from my father. After the initial wipe and clean up, let the haze dry and then get BURLAP. Scub the tile with the burlap and it removes All haze and even polishes the tile. It is the single most brilliant hack I've learned over the years. Good Luck!! Hope you try it on your next tile project!


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