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How to Tile a Backsplash

Mosaic tile backsplash provides a stunning, durable wall between countertop and cabinets.©GoodMood Photo / Shutterstock.com

Mosaic tile backsplash provides a stunning, durable wall between countertop and cabinets.

A tile backsplash is a relatively easy project for a do-it-yourselfer. As with most projects, preparation is key. Be sure to remove any existing tile and scrub the surface of the wall. You may need to fill in small holes and sand or scrape the area to make it level.

Retro checkerboard backsplash is made from black and white square tiles. Photo: American Olean

As for your choice of tile, glazed varieties work better for kitchen applications than unglazed tiles, which can absorb grease and moisture. You may need to rent a wet saw to cut the tiles; be sure to wear safety goggles when working with this tool.

When applying mastic to the wall, spread the mixture evenly and moderately. If you apply too little mastic, your tiles will not adhere properly. Too much mastic will mean your tiles will take a long time to set and could be uneven. Wear gloves when working with mastic, and follow label directions carefully.

1Plan your layout. Identify the center of your design using a tape measure or ruler. Use a level to mark a line at that spot, and then continue to draw a grid of one vertical column and one horizontal row intersecting at the central point of the backsplash.[GARD align=”left”]

2Apply mastic where the central tile will go, and adhere the tile to the wall.

3Lay out the tiles from the center for the first column and row, applying enough mastic to the wall to lay out two tiles at a time and using spacers between the tiles for uniformity. Press firmly on each tile to adhere it to the wall but not so hard that mastic oozes between the tiles. Wipe off any mastic that makes it onto the face of tiles.

4Continue to apply tiles to the wall. If you know you will need to cut tiles for the edges of your backsplash, do this before completing your final two columns and rows. You can mark where the tiles will need to be cut using a wax pencil and then use either a wet saw or a snap cutter to cut or break the tile.

Grout is applied after the tile has been attached to the wall.Rikard Stadler / Shutterstock.com

Grout is applied after the tile has been attached to the wall.

5Let the mastic dry according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. It will usually take about 24 hours for the mastic to set completely. Remove the spacers once the mastic has dried.

6Apply grout between the tiles with a blade float. After the grout sets (about 15 minutes), clean off any excess with a sponge. Let the grout dry for the amount of time recommended by the manufacturer.

7Once the grout has dried, apply a bead of caulk around the edges of the backsplash as well as to where it meets the countertop.

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Mix & Apply Thinset Mortar

Be sure to use thinset mortar that is latex- or polymer-fortified; otherwise, it is likely to crack, resulting in loose tiles. You can buy “polymer-fortified” thinset mortar that you mix with water, or you can buy less expensive, unfortified thinset and add liquid latex as directed.

Use gray thinset for ceramic and stone tiles that are dark in color. However, many types of marble, glass, and other kinds of tiles are slightly translucent, so a gray mortar would slightly muddy them. For these tiles, use white thinset, which costs only a bit more.

Mix the thinset mortar and allow it to rest the amount of time specified by the manufacturer. Slowly add a couple of inches of liquid to the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket and then pour in some powder (don’t add water too quickly). Mixing by hand can be somewhat strenuous work-a half-inch drill fitted with a mixing paddle makes the job much easier. Hold the bucket between your feet as you spin the paddle. Work slowly at first to avoid slopping mortar out of the bucket. Then run the paddle faster until the mortar is a smooth consistency. When you pick the paddle up, the mortar should remain stuck for a few seconds before sliding off. Keep mixing until you attain a consistency that holds its shape and is barely pourable.

Spread mortar with a notched trowel.

Starting in a corner, dump or scoop the mortar onto the surface. Use the flat slide of the trowel to spread the mortar over an area about 3 feet square. Using the notched side of the trowel, comb the mortar to produce an even surface. Use long strokes and hold the trowel at a consistent angle. If the mortar starts to harden while you work-either on the surface or in the bucket-discard it and mix a new batch.

Get a Pre-Screened Local Tile Countertop Installation Contractor

Mix & Apply Thinset Mortar

Be sure to use thinset mortar that is latex- or polymer-fortified; otherwise, it is likely to crack, resulting in loose tiles. You can buy “polymer-fortified” thinset mortar that you mix with water, or you can buy less expensive, unfortified thinset and add liquid latex as directed.

Use gray thinset for ceramic and stone tiles that are dark in color. However, many types of marble, glass, and other kinds of tiles are slightly translucent, so a gray mortar would slightly muddy them. For these tiles, use white thinset, which costs only a bit more.

Mix the thinset mortar and allow it to rest the amount of time specified by the manufacturer. Slowly add a couple of inches of liquid to the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket and then pour in some powder (don’t add water too quickly). Mixing by hand can be somewhat strenuous work-a half-inch drill fitted with a mixing paddle makes the job much easier. Hold the bucket between your feet as you spin the paddle. Work slowly at first to avoid slopping mortar out of the bucket. Then run the paddle faster until the mortar is a smooth consistency. When you pick the paddle up, the mortar should remain stuck for a few seconds before sliding off. Keep mixing until you attain a consistency that holds its shape and is barely pourable.

Spread mortar with a notched trowel.

Starting in a corner, dump or scoop the mortar onto the surface. Use the flat slide of the trowel to spread the mortar over an area about 3 feet square. Using the notched side of the trowel, comb the mortar to produce an even surface. Use long strokes and hold the trowel at a consistent angle. If the mortar starts to harden while you work-either on the surface or in the bucket-discard it and mix a new batch.

Get a Pre-Screened Local Tile Countertop Installation Contractor

Plan the Tile Layout

Before you prepare the mortar, clean the substrate of all dirt and oils. Place the tiles where they will go, with plastic spacers between them at the grout lines, and make adjustments as needed. Aim for a symmetrical look, with no narrow slivers of cut tiles.

If possible, plan to face tile cuts toward the countertop’s back edge, where they cuts will be covered by backsplash tiles. For a countertop that turns a corner, start the layout at the inside corner. If the layout ends with a very narrow sliver, slightly widening the grout lines may solve the problem. In cutting the tiles, take into account the width of the grout lines on either side.

Temporarily attach a guide strip for edge tiles.

If you’re using edging tiles, mark a line along the edge of the countertop to allow for the tiles plus a grout joint. Then place a guide strip along this line and temporarily attach it to the countertop with nails. Lay out the field tiles from the edge of the strip to the back of the countertop, using a straightedge to align them.

Repairing Stone Countertops

Stone countertops are beautiful and durable, but they can be stained by certain foods and chemicals and become scratched, etched, or even cracked and broken. Considering the expense and permanence of stone, it’s important to know how to handle these types of problems. The following tips will help:

Granite counterto   Photo: ?

Remove Stains from Stone

If you have a stain that is difficult to remove with ordinary surface cleaners, start by polishing it with a non-abrasive cream sold for this purpose.

All types of stone are porous, and some stains can become embedded in the surface. If polishing cream doesn’t get out the stain, there are non-solvent, non-toxic poultice powders sold for specific types of stains (rust, oil, ink, wine, etc.).

Poultices re-absorb the stain out of the stone. Their effectiveness often depends on the surface texture and the stone itself-marble, granite, limestone, slate, etc.

Food spots, water stains, and dull patches can be prevented in the future with an application of wax or a commercial sealer.

Repair Broken Stone Countertop

If a small section of stone countertop breaks off, you can use epoxy to glue it back in place. Many kinds of stone are variegated in color, and this helps to hide the repair. There are also clear and colored epoxies that might closely approximate the color of the stone.

If small chips are missing and you can’t get the repair to mate precisely, you can try using colored wax to fill the cut line after you epoxy the break.

Large pieces, or sections that have to support their own or other weight, are more difficult to glue successfully. Professionals sometimes drill into the fractured edges and insert metal pins to hold the pieces together. This takes skill to prevent making the damage worse, so consider your experience carefully before you attempt this repair yourself.

Repair Etched or Scratched Stone

Stone polishing cream can remove minor scratches from many types of stone, especially the softer marble, limestone, and terrazzo.Harder materials such as granite, slate, and stone agglomerates may require a more aggressive abrasive compound such as pumice, jeweler’s rouge, or “honing powder,” made especially for stone.

Any stone surface that has been etched by food acids or crystallization must be re-polished. Start with a more abrasive compound to smooth out the surface damage and then finish with a polishing cream to remove fine scratches. Finally, wax or seal the surface.

Find Local Pre-Screened Stone Countertop Repair Help

Repairing or Replacing Laminate Countertops

Because making clean, unnoticeable repairs to laminate countertops, it's often best to replace them entirely.Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock.com

Because it’s almost impossible to make clean, unnoticeable major repairs to laminate countertops, it’s usually best to replace them entirely—ideally, during a kitchen remodel.

Plastic laminate is popular for countertops because it offers a seamless, impervious surface. However, it can chip or break if something hits it hard enough, it can peel away from its substrate or base, and it will melt or scorch if you put something very hot on it. Repairing laminate is tricky, mostly because it is difficult to get a true match with the repair.

Repair Chips or Burns in Laminate

You can fill small chip-outs with epoxy glue, but the odds of matching a laminate color or pattern are slim to none.

Slight surface burns can sometimes be scrubbed away with a mild abrasive cleanser. Deeper burns usually can’t be removed because they char the thin laminate all the way through. Your only other-and it’s far from satisfactory-option is to try cutting away the damage and filling the void with epoxy.

Repair Peeling Laminate

If a laminate surface starts to peel or lift at an edge, it means that either the glue or the substrate below has failed.

If the substrate is in poor condition (damp or rotted, for example) you won’t be successful trying to glue the laminate back in place. If the substrate is sound, you can usually re-glue the laminate using contact cement.

Paint both the underside of the laminate and the substrate with a thin coat of contact cement, and then allow both to dry until tacky before mating the pieces (follow the contact cement manufacturer’s directions for application and set-up time).

It’s critical to get the contact cement all the way into the joint where the laminate meets the substrate and to bond them so that no air voids are trapped between the two materials. Contact cement is a strong and aggressive glue-once the cemented pieces touch, you won’t be able to pull them apart to realign them, so work carefully.

After the pieces are joined, place a weight on top of them until the glue dries.

Replace a Laminate Countertop

Because laminate as a material is difficult to repair, it’s often a better idea to simply replace it. If your countertops are the squared-off type and they’re sound, it is possible to have new laminate applied over the top.

If they are the rounded-over (post-form) type, or the laminate is not sound, you will need to replace the countertop entirely. This is not as difficult as it sounds-most counters are only attached with a few screws from below, and sometimes they are not fastened at all. Once you remove the screws (and the sink), most laminate counters come off in one piece.

Fabricators can make up any size and shape countertop to your dimensions. Costs are generally charged by the foot. Stock sizes can be found at most home centers.

Find Local Pre-Screened Laminate Countertop Repair Help