Three weeks ago we kicked off this blog series on backsplash design in celebration of September, otherwise known as National Backsplash Month!

In part 2 we toured the different backsplash materials, including natural stone, glazed tile, and glass and metallic tile.  And in part 3 we explored backsplash design, including a monochromatic design, a monochromatic field tile with an accent tile, an accent frame at the cooktop and an all-mosaic design.

In this 4th and final installment in this series, we’ll talk about a few backsplash installation best practices.

A Tale of Three Methods

There are three primary ways to install a tile backsplash:

  • The thinset method
  • The mortar bed method (preferred)
  • The cement board method

Let’s take a look at each

The Thinset Method

What is it: The thinset method is when the tile setter installs the tile directly on the drywall or plaster at the backsplash, using a common tile adhesive called thinset.

Advantages: The thinset method is the fastest method, and therefor the most cost-effective.  It is also the preferred method when the tile used does not come with pre-fabricated edges (like a bullnose edge).  For example, kitchenCRATE sets our glass tile backsplashes using the thinset method because it’s nearly impossible to cleanly cut glass tiles and use them to terminate the edge of the tile.

Disadvantages: How straight and flat the installation turns out is highly dependent on how flat the drywall or plaster is prior to starting install.  If there is a concave portion of the drywall at the backsplash it will telegraph through to the finished product. The adhesion of the tile to the drywall or plaster is also not as strong as the other methods.

The Mortar Bed Method

What is it: Before sticking the tile to the backsplash, the tile setter uses mortar and lath (chicken wire-like product) to create a perfectly flat substrate upon which to mount the tile.  Once the mortar bed is installed and dries, the tile is adhered to the mortar bed using thinset.

Advantages: Installing a mortar bed gives the tile a completely flat surface upon which to be  mounted.  It also creates a “thickness” at the exposed edges of the backsplash that can give the tile a higher-end, more custom look.

Disadvantages:  The mortar bed process usually adds a day to the install and some minimal extra materials, and thus has a higher installation cost per square foot.

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Lath (chicken wire-like product) in place and ready for the mortar.

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Mortar bed being installed and leveled with a straight-edge.

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After the mortar bed has dried, the tiles are adhered to the bed using thinset.

The Cement Board Method

What is it:  The same as the mortar bed option, but instead of using a mortar bed as a substrate, the tile setter uses 1/4″ – 1/2″ cement board.

Advantages: Similar to the mortar bed option, it creates a flat surface.

Disadvantages: Because the cement board comes in sheets and is not installed like mortar, it is not as easy to work with.  Cement board is also fairly costly per square foot.

What Method Do I Use?

In general, we recommend the mortar bed option UNLESS the tile being used as the main backsplash tile does not offer a factory edge tile.  The mortar bed method provides a great finished product and in our opinion is worth the extra time and effort.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining us on a journey through backsplash materials, design and installation methods!

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Scott Monday is co-founder and CEO of kitchenCRATE and bathCRATE.  Follow him on FacebookGoogle+ or Linked-In.