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Ask the Builder: Installing a tile backsplash is not as hard as it seems

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While it may seem complex, installing a ceramic tile kitchen backsplash is a prime DIY task.

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Six months ago, my son bought a new house. He had been looking to move from his apartment for well over a year.

The hot real estate market made it hard to find a house in his price range. Each tired and worn-out house I toured with him needed quite a bit of work. I cautioned him that if he thought it was hard to buy a house, he was in for even more frustration when he needed to hire contractors to do renovation work.

Fortunately, out of nowhere, a brand-new house came on the market just a few miles from his apartment. It was built by an older builder who was on site each day, ensuring all the work was done perfectly. It was one of the best-built homes I have ever seen here in New Hampshire, and I advised my son to stretch and purchase it. He did, and six weeks later we were helping him move in.

However, as often happens in new spec-built homes, the builder left things undone. One of them was the kitchen backsplash. The kitchen has magnificent granite countertops with a 4-inch high granite backsplash, but that’s not what my son wanted. He wanted a full backsplash that extended from the granite to the underside of the wall cabinets.

I had told him the day we first looked at the house that installing a ceramic tile backsplash was a simple job. I told him I would guide him and was more than willing to help, but I wanted him to do most of the work for a number of reasons. He knew I had helped his older sister build her home in Maine. It’s always been a dream of mine to help my kids do projects on their homes, and now it was his turn.

Are you in the same situation? Do you want to jazz up your kitchen and make it easier to clean up around the sink and stove? Great! Let’s get started.

The first step is to select a tile that has trim pieces. In almost all situations, you need special pieces of tile that have finished edges. These pieces are required where the tile ends along a wall and doesn’t butt up against a cabinet or something else that would hide the unglazed edge of the tile.

If the tile you absolutely must have doesn’t have glazed trim pieces, you can hide the unglazed edge with a thin piece of painted wood trim, a fancy metal trim molding, or carefully formed grout that disguises the unglazed tile edge. There are hundreds of photos and images online that will inspire you and show you how to deal with this small conundrum.

You’ll need a few tools. The size of the tile determines the size and shape of the notches in the trowel that spreads the mastic that holds the tile to the wall. Most of the time you’ll discover a v-notched 1/4-inch x 1/4-inch trowel will do the job. The tile manufacturer may have written instructions calling out the size of the trowel notches. You can also get amazing guidance from the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation about all aspects of installing tile.

While a diamond wet saw is what I’d use to make many cuts, it’s not practical for you to buy one for this one project. You can use a tile snapper to make most straight cuts on normal tile. Harder porcelain tiles and glass tile can’t be cut with a snapper. You may want to buy an inexpensive 4-inch angle grinder and equip it with a dry-diamond cutting blade.

The last tool you’ll need is a rubber float to spread the tile grout. I’ve got a four-part video series at AsktheBuilder.com that shows you how to use this tool and how to install the grout so it never crumbles or cracks. I urge you to watch this video series.

You need to be careful and diligent when installing the tile around electrical outlets and switches. The tile must extend to all the edges of the electrical box that’s in the wall. This allows the small metal frame of the outlets and switches to rest on the surface of the tile after the tile is in place. Doing this ensures the faces of the outlets and switches is flush with the top surface of the cover plates. Be sure to turn off the circuit breakers before you unscrew the outlets and switches from the electrical boxes!

As you install the tile, don’t allow any of the mastic or thinset to ooze up into the spaces between the tile. If it does, remove it immediately using a toothpick or thin putty knife. This space must be kept open so grout can fill the spaces between the tiles.

If you want to ensure success, do a tiny test panel. Buy enough tile to cover a small piece of drywall that measures 18 by 24 inches. Hone your beginner skills by tiling and grouting this scrap piece of drywall. You’ll be stunned by how simple it is to get professional results.

What can I help you with? What issues around your home worry you? What do you want me to discuss in my upcoming columns? Go here and tell me. Be sure to type the word GO in the URL: https://GO.askthebuilder.com/helpmetim.

(Subscribe to Tim’s FREE newsletter at AsktheBuilder.com. Tim now does livestreaming video M-F at 4 PM Eastern Time at youtube.com/askthebuilder.)

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