How to Install Subway Tile

I’m into Week 2 of the One Room Challenge and tackling subway wall tile for the first time in my life. Whaaaattt! At first, this task was soooo overwhelming! I spent hours upon hours reading tutorials and watching YouTube videos only to feel overwhelmed and confused by all of the new information I was trying to cram in my brain. I texted and called my brother (he’s done a ton of tile before) about a million times that day (and I know I was driving him crazy) until he finally said “Amanda STOP! Just put the damn tile on the wall…you’re thinking too much!” Yeah I have a tendency to do that…

My first attempt was a fail – I worked on 2 rows for 2 hours and got nowhere. I ended up pulling the tiles off the wall, scraping off the thinset, and calling it a night. I won’t lie…there was a lot of cussing and anger involved that first night. But I went back to the drawing board and instead of doing it the way one person said, I took all of the info I learned and combined what I thought would work for me. And you know what…IT DID!

Here’s what worked for me.

First, I laid out my tile pattern. I measured the wall and laid it all out to make sure I didn’t end with a piece of tile that was tiny. Tiny pieces are really hard to cut on a tile saw or tile cutter so try as hard as you can to avoid them! I learned that the hard way on the showerhead wall – I had to cut down 5/8″ pieces for the finished side. This is something I didn’t realize would happen when I was planning out the main wall.

Once you have your pattern figured out, its time for math. The kind of math that will probably make your brain hurt! It sure as hell made mine hurt! The type of tile I bought didn’t need spacers – they had a built in groove for a 1/16″ grout line so I just butt the tiles up against each other. This made the math SO MUCH EASIER for me. I didn’t want to have a sliver of a tile at the very top of the wall so I measured up to find out my height (I also had to take into account the height of my alcove). Once I figured out the height, I divided it by the height of my tile – this will tell you how many rows of tile you will have. When I divided, I ended up with 25 3/4 rows. Since I didn’t want a 3/4 tile at the top, I figured in having 7/8 of a tile at the bottom and 7/8 of a tile at the top – this way it looks symmetrical and it looks like 26 full tiles. Does that make sense?

Once I had my rows figured out, I marked on the wall where the first piece of tile should start for each staggering row. I chose a brick joint pattern – these tiles are 3×12 and a 1/3 offset pattern meant one row would start at 4″ and the next would start at 8″, but when I measured out my rows, doing these lengths hit weird when I reached the alcove (I was going to have a few rows where I would have to cut off 1/2″). And because I didn’t want that hassle, I added a 1/2″ to both of my pieces – so instead of cutting my starter pieces at 4″ and 8″, I cut them at 4.5″ and 8.5″. Problem solved! (Is your brain hurting yet? Cuz mine is just writing this LOL)

I took a 48″ level and marked on the wall my lines at 4.5″ and 8.5″. I did this because my walls aren’t square and I wanted to keep my pattern as straight as possible. The worst feeling in the world would be loving the tile up close and then stepping back and seeing how it looks off! Once I marked my vertical lines, I marked a level line at the bottom of the wall for the cleat- taking into account that I was only using 7/8s of a tile. My tiles were 3×12 so I measured up 2 3/4″ for my level line. I made this line around the entire shower (so all 3 sides). Its important to do this because your tub might not be perfectly level and you don’t want your rows getting off kilter – its back to that whole stepping back and thinking “well this looks like shit”.

There’s a lot of planning involved before you start laying the tile, but I promise all of the planning and brain hurting is worth it in the end. I will say my tile is far from perfect, but I love the way it turned out. I know it wouldn’t have turned out that way if I wouldn’t have done a few hours of planning and prepping.

Putting tile on the wall

I always had 2 buckets with me at all times – this is very important. 1 bucket is for thinset and the other is for water. You’ll want to have a water bucket so that you can clean as you go. I laid a few rows and then would come back and clean the thinset off of the tiles with the water and a tiling sponge. Also, since I was using tile that had a built in grout line, I used a toothbrush to clean out the thinset that would get stuck in that groove. Any cleanup you can do while the thinset is still wet/damp is a plus. It will make your life 10x easier I promise! Once thinset dries and sets, its the devil to clean up out of cracks. You want to get to it while its easy!

Screw your cleat into your Durock – this will be what the first row of tile sits on and how it stays level. I left the cleat in place overnight, until the thinset cured, and then I removed it.

You want the thinset to be a peanut butter consistency – the thinset I used I did 8 cups of mix and 3 1/2 cups of water. It doesn’t have to be perfect either – you can use any cup you want (it doesn’t have to be 1 cup like in cooking/baking). I used a disposable 9 oz cup so you can use anything, you just want equal parts. You don’t want super thick peanut butter consistency – just enough that it sticks to your paddle (I used a paddle bit to mix my thinset).

Once the main wall was finished, I prepped the 2 side walls. One wall has a small window so I framed out the window so I could butt the tile up against it. On both walls, I took my level and drew a line up the walls so I would have a guide for my bullnose tile.

This made it easy to see where my stopping point was as I tiled and to keep things level. I still used the level as I placed tile, just to make sure my bullnose tiles stayed straight and level.

When I got to the holes for the plumbing, I held up the tile – next to the plumbing where it would sit and marked my lines for the holes. I got a diamond hole saw bit and it cut through the tile like butter. I thought this part would be overwhelming and hard, but it was easy. And don’t worry about it being perfect – there were a couple of holes that weren’t exactly right and the tile wouldn’t fit in place. When that happened, I marked where I was off and used the hole saw to cut whatever spot of the hole I made too tight off. It take a little patience and time to do this, but I didn’t want to waste the tile and I was only off in a couple of spots (like 1/4 of the hole if that makes sense) by 1/8″ – so it wasn’t much. If I would have been off by a lot, I would have just made a new piece.

Isn’t it so pretty! Again its not perfect, but I’m ok with that. Thank you therapy…because a year ago Amanda would have been so disappointed in herself for not making it perfect. But now those imperfections give the shower character and when I stand back and look at the finished product, I pat myself on the shoulder for a job well done! I mean, this is the first time I’ve ever done tile…I can’t be too upset with myself right!!!

If you haven’t already, go check out the One Room Challenge to see what everybody else is doing. Pull up your comfy chair and grab yourself a cup of coffee – you’re gonna be looking for a while at all the amazing stuff everyone is doing!

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**Disclaimer: I’m sharing with you what I’ve learned on this DIY journey and what I know, but I’m no expert. Following tutorials, you’re doing so at your own risk. Always seek the advice of a professional if you are in doubt of the safety or validity of my claims.**

4 thoughts on “How to Install Subway Tile

  1. Wow!! just reading the calculations was difficult for me !! this looks impressive to have overcome this huge battle. I love watching our fellow ORC guest participants like myself.

    • Hahaha talking about the calculations definitely made my brain hurt. I had to take breaks and write things down when I was figuring it all out. Thanks!!☺️

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