Name: Dan Bailey
Type of Project: Kitchen remodel
Location: East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
Type of building: 2nd Floor Condo in a Greek-Revival Row House
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I began tiling the kitchen backsplash at the end of this week. This was my first experience with tiling, and I can now say that it was some of the most satisfying renovation work I’ve done yet. Sure, tiling is tedious and messy, but tile goes up pretty quickly and makes a huge impact on the overall look of a room. As you place each tile, more and more of the finished wall emerges. It’s a strangely addictive process. So much so that I finished tiling more than half of the backsplash one day, only to realize that I’d been tiling for nearly seven hours and hadn’t eaten or used the bathroom all day.
Earlier in the week, my girlfriend, Mara, and I made a trip to Lowe’s to pick up tile. I wanted plain white subway tile, and luckily white subway tile is cheap. Really cheap. We chose American Olean 3x6-inch white subway tiles, which are available as individual tiles or in boxes of 100 at a cost of $0.22 per tile. We left with 250 tiles — enough to cover the entire backsplash plus 28 extras — for a grand total of $55, only a little more than the cost of a gallon of paint. I had always assumed that tile was fairly expensive, but basic tile used in moderation is surprisingly affordable.
My contractor, Gregg, came over one morning later in the week and gave Mara and me a crash course in tiling. He let us borrow his wet saw to cut tiles to fit around electrical outlets and cabinets and left us to it. We started tiling from the center point of the sink. The sink is the main focal point along the rear wall of the kitchen, so it made sense to have the tiles aligned directly behind the faucet. We worked outward from this center line, spreading thinset with a notched trowel a little bit at a time to avoid having the thinset dry before we could tile over it. We laid the tile one row at a time, always starting from the center line. The tiles are self-spacing, meaning we were able to butt one tile against the next without using spacers. The countertop, the cabinets, and the walls were flat and level, so the tiles went up quickly and evenly.
Things got a little trickier when we reached the bottom of the upper cabinets. We were left with a roughly one-inch gap between the last full row of tiles and the bottom of the cabinets. I used the wet saw to cut a bunch of one-inch tile strips while Mara spread thinset and squeezed each tile strip in under the cabinets and behind the under-cabinet lights. This final row of partial tiles ended up looking pretty good, even though it will be almost invisible once the under-cabinet light-rail trim is in place.
White subway tile is pretty trendy, but for good reason. It’s clean, understated, and practical in a kitchen setting. It’s also been used for more than 100 years, and I think it will fit in well with the architecture in the rest of the condo. The classic, staggered pattern that I used for the backsplash is reminiscent of the brick wall that lies behind the backsplash. And the white tile will contrast beautifully with the dark, soapstone countertops. Next week, we’ll finish tiling the backsplash behind the stove and grout the whole thing.
Estimated time for project: 30 weeks
Time remaining: 2 weeks
(Images and diary text: Dan Bailey)