Kitchen Subway Tile Backsplash: What to Know

By Amanda Lutz Updated April 17, 2024

If you want to customize your kitchen and increase the resale value of your home, a kitchen subway tile backsplash can help you achieve that balance. Subway tile backsplashes are versatile, low maintenance, and last for decades. In this guide, we’ll walk through the benefits and drawbacks of subway tile, help you choose the right wall tile backsplash for your home, and review the costs associated with subway tile installation.

What Are Subway Tile Backsplashes?

A subway tile backsplash is composed of subway tiles—minimalist tiles that get their name from those found in New York City subways. These ceramic or porcelain tiles are 6 inches across by 3 inches wide and have a glossy finish. Traditional subway tiles are white, but they also come in black, gray, and a variety of other colors.

Subway tiles were first installed in subway stations in the early 1900s, with subway tile backsplashes gaining popularity in homes between the 1920s and 1930s. Today, homeowners tend to install subway tiles as kitchen backsplashes, in fireplace surrounds, and on walls in laundry rooms and mudrooms.

These tiles are a popular choice for kitchen backsplashes because they provide a smooth and plain surface along the walls between your kitchen’s upper cabinets and countertops, as well as the wall behind your kitchen sink. They can also protect your walls from water and cooking stains.

Benefits of Subway Tile Backsplashes

Kitchen subway tile backsplashes create a timeless look in any home. Here are the main benefits of installing a subway tile backsplash in your kitchen:

Durable: When installed properly, subway tile backsplashes last for decades. They don’t peel away from the wall like adhesive backsplashes, and they don’t discolor or stain like natural stone. The tiles can also withstand high temperatures and humidity levels as you cook.

Easy to clean: Glazed ceramic subway tiles are smooth and nonporous, making them easy to clean with a damp paper towel. Even stuck-on stains can be scraped away with a mild cleaner.

Multiple customization options: Subway tiles come in hundreds of colors, from bright glossy whites to matte blacks. These tiles also come in various patterns. You can use a crosshatch pattern to create a rotating square look, stack the tiles horizontally or vertically in a grid, arrange the tiles in a herringbone or chevron layout, or have a diagonal offset pattern. You can experiment with contrasting grout colors to achieve a visually striking black-on-white style.

Low maintenance: Kitchen subway tile backsplashes require very little maintenance—they just need to be wiped with a damp paper towel after cooking to remove residue and food stains. If you have white or light-colored grout, you may need to seal the grout every couple of years.

Drawbacks of Subway Tile Backsplashes

While there are multiple benefits of subway tile backsplashes, knowing the potential disadvantages before you install them can help you decide if there’s another backsplash style you prefer. Consider these drawbacks before choosing subway tile for your kitchen:

Challenging installation: Installing subway tiles can be time-consuming as you align the tiles and ensure proper spacing between them. Also, choosing a complex tile pattern can make layering the tiles difficult and increase the installation cost. If you’re installing the tiles on your own, you can mitigate this drawback by selecting a standard pattern or purchasing sheets of subway tiles instead of individual pieces.

Generic style: While subway tiles are timeless, they can feel a bit overdone. You might want to explore other tile options, such as variegated tile or marble tile for a truly unique kitchen. Alternatively, consider nonstandard patterns or visually striking color combinations if you love subway tile but want something a bit more lively.

Inorganic aesthetic: Subway tiles don’t match every kitchen design aesthetic. If you have a more organic aesthetic, such as dark countertops with popping veins of color, rattan accessories, and natural wood, subway tiles may look out of place.

How to Choose a Subway Tile Backsplash for Your Kitchen

If you’ve decided that a subway tile backsplash is right for your kitchen, the next step is choosing the proper tiles. Follow these steps to help you choose a subway tile backsplash that’s right for your home:

  1. Measure the size of the backsplash: The standard height between kitchen countertops and upper cabinets is usually 18 inches, and the height of conventional kitchen sink backsplashes is typically 4 inches. However, the length of your backsplash is less standardized. Measure the space between your countertops and cabinets, in addition to the length of your wall, and record these dimensions. You can choose standard or oversized subway tiles for larger spaces and standard or miniature tiles for smaller spaces.
  2. Determine your kitchen color scheme: If you’re just updating the backsplash in your kitchen, identify the space’s main colors and accent colors. Experiment with these colors to see which tile and grout colors you love best. If you’re renovating your entire kitchen, flip the process: Create your color palette, and assign colors to all the different surfaces. If you’re unsure what colors work best, white tiles and light grout are a safe combination.
  3. Use sample tiles to lay out different patterns: Experiment with classic subway tiles to see which orientation works in your space. In general, vertically oriented tiles will make the space look taller and narrower, and horizontally oriented tiles can make the space appear wider and shorter.

Popular Subway Tile Backsplash Styles

The most popular style for a subway tile backsplash is a white-on-white, horizontal offset brick pattern. This style works well in most modern kitchens, providing a crisp, clean look that reflects a lot of light. However, many homeowners and interior designers are abandoning this standard design and considering other orientations.

Here are some of the most common subway tile backsplash styles:

In general, most subway tiles come in solid colors. The most common derivatives of the white-on-white offset pattern are to use black grout as a high-contrast design, change the pattern to a herringbone or chevron pattern, or choose subway tiles with a mostly white but faint stone print.

How to Clean and Maintain Subway Tile Backsplash

Thanks to their glazed ceramic surface, subway tiles are simple to clean and maintain. Remove wet stains on the tiles by wiping the surface with a dry cloth or paper towel. Eliminate dried-on residue with a damp cloth and a water, vinegar, and mild dish soap solution.

To maintain your subway tile, pay attention to the grout between the tiles. If the grout isn’t sealed, it can absorb food stains and become discolored. Reapply a penetrating sealer every year or two to protect the grout from stains and improve its appearance. If the grout becomes discolored, you can use a bleach pen or grout coloring tool to restore it to its original color.

Subway Tile Backsplash Cost

Subway tile is a relatively cost-effective choice for tile backsplashes. In general, subway tile backsplashes cost between $7 and $35 per square foot for materials and labor.*

Here are the factors that will influence the total price of your subway tile backsplash project:

We recommend getting quotes from three contractors to compare prices. Ask for detailed quotes outlining the cost of the complete project, including all of your specifications, so there are no surprise costs added during the work.

*All cost data in this section via HomeGuide.

Alternatives to Subway Tile Backsplashes

While subway tile backsplashes are popular, they aren’t the only kitchen backsplash option. Here are some popular alternatives to consider:

Each of these backsplash ideas can add an extra layer of beauty to your kitchen redesign while protecting the walls from heat, moisture, and stains.

Our Recommendation

Updating your kitchen backsplash during your next remodel can improve the appearance of your home and increase its resale value. Subway tile backsplashes are a classic, popular option, as their ceramic tile surface is easy to clean and maintain, they come in a variety of colors, styles, and patterns, and they last for years. While installing subway tile can be done on your own, you can also hire a contractor to perform the job for you. If you choose the professional route, we recommend getting quotes from a few reputable tile installation professionals in your area.

Kitchen Subway Tile Backsplash FAQ

Does white subway tile get dirty?

White subway tiles can get dirty, but their surface is easy to clean. To wipe away any messes, simply use a damp paper towel.

What color grout should be used with subway tiles?

You can use any color grout with subway tiles. The most popular grout color is white, which complements white and colored tiles. A popular alternative is black grout, which creates a high degree of visual contrast against white tiles.

Can I install a subway tile backsplash myself?

Yes, you can install a subway tile backsplash yourself. The main steps are applying mortar to the wall, carefully arranging the wall tiles with a level and spacers, and adding grout.

Are subway tile backsplashes going out of style?

While some may argue that subway tile backsplashes are going out of style, subway tiles have been a popular choice for homes and commercial spaces for more than 100 years and will continue to be a popular option for years to come due to their low-maintenance requirements and timeless look.