Mixing Thinset, Applying It With A Trowel, & Other Tiling Tips

Monday’s backsplash post kinda dove straight into the middle of the project, so we thought while we were back to share our progress we should rewind a smidge to explain a bit more about the process for anyone else out there who wants to tackle something similar. First we had to prep the room. So everything came off the counters.

Then down went the rosin paper (from Home Depot). It was recommended by our counter installation guy when we mentioned we were doing a backsplash. It’s basically like brown construction paper, but with an added moisture barrier that keeps any thinset drips from seeping through. We covered each of the counters with cardboard (for extra protection against sharp trowel corners) then taped rosin paper over it, with the painter’s tape going right up to the wall.

Finally we got to start planning our tile placement. We decided to start in the corner under the microwave because it felt like a nice fairly inconspicuous spot to learn the ropes. And it was basically three sheets wide in that area, so we took it as sign that it’d be an easy way to get our feet wet.

Not knowing how long it would take to make cuts, we didn’t want our whole batch of thinset to dry out while we fumbled with the nippers for an hour (which happened, as you know from Monday’s post). I’m glad we took it slow to start, but we later learned it’s MUCH faster to put up as many full sheets as you can and then just backfill with cut pieces along your edge (even if you have to use some freshly mixed thinset to place those).

The staggered pattern is to help disguise the seams by alternating where they lie. So instead of your eye catching one long horizontal seam, things are mixed up a little so there’s hopefully a more seamless effect once it all gets grouted.

Anyways, now that we were FINALLY ready to put some tile on the wall, I had to mix up the thinset (we got this kind from The Tile Shop). Not gonn lie. This step made us nervous because we ruined a whole bag of grout during our first house’s bathroom project by misreading the label and pouring in too much water. Oops. So we read the bag about ten times and then found this Ask The Builder video on YouTube. And we’re happy to report that we had no trouble getting our thinset to the right consistency.

As we’ve heard, the thickness is supposed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of toothpaste or pancake batter. It should hold together, but still be loose enough to spread – and fall slowly off your putty knife like so:

With the thinset mixed, we spread it on the wall using the flat side of theĀ 3/16″ notched trowel (from The Tile Shop). I also used the putty knife sometimes since it fit better in the tight space.

Once it was on and fairly even, we held the notched edge of the trowel at a 45-degree-ish angle and scraped along the thinset, creating little grooves to grab the tiles (we used a small 3/16″ trowel notch since we’ve got small tiles).

And at last, the first tile sheet was pressed into the wall. It was scary and awesome all at the same time.

Oh, and we used a veryveryvery thin piece of scrap wood as a spacer against the bottom so that we’d be sure to leave some room between the tile and the counter for caulk (you don’t want tile resting right on your counter, so a tiny smidge of space akin to the spacing between each tile is ideal). So our wood spacer was about as thick as a paint stick if that helps you picture it. Maybe even a little thinner.

These pieces were fairly easy to lay because there was a lot of stuff (counter & cabinets) to help keep things straight. So once we actually started tiling, it didn’t take us too long to get to the point that you saw on Monday (maybe an hour and a half?). We had just spent so much time prepping that we were too spent to continue on into the night…

… but the next day we had our mojo back and made our way along the sink wall with renewed energy. We even removed the piece of molding under the window so we wouldn’t have to do any tile cuts around it (we’d just place the molding on top of the finished tile for a seamless look).

This time we were a bit less type A and didn’t plan out all of our cuts ahead of time… we just removed the full tiles that would interfere with the disposal switch before mixing up thinset and back-filled the rest as we went (popping off half and full tiles and sticking them wherever we needed to fill those in).

So this whole part went pretty quickly, especially in comparison to the day before.

But Clara didn’t give us much of a nap, so we had to call it quits and clean up before we could move our tiling party onto the big back wall. Sigh. At least we got one side done! It’s the easy side, but still. Oh and see how the widow looks off center? Once we add the open shelving to the stove wall there will be 14″ of space on either side of the window so it’ll look nice and balanced again. Note: we’ll share how we’ll be “capping” those 14 inches of tile on either side of the window that won’t be under a cabinet or shelf as soon as we can snap pics to explain things better.

We’re hoping the back wall goes relatively quickly. On the one hand, it’s a huge space to tile. On the other, we’re sort of getting the hang of it now AND the wall is pretty much all full tiles (aka: fewer cuts).

Until then, we’re just enjoying the work we’ve already done. We’re pretty much obsessed with it actually. The weirdest thing is that our favorite thing to do is look at it in the dark. I can’t explain it, but it sort of gleams at night. Like it’s wet. We love that fancy shine. It definitely elevates things like our white Corian counter and our painted cabinets. Can’t wait to grout it and see the finished result. And replace that dishwasher with our stainless guy (just waiting to get the floor down so it runs under it).

What penny tile lacks in quick application points, it makes up for in looks-good ones. We read so many things online about folks having issues lining them up and hiding seams but ours seem to be pretty easy to slide around in the thinset until we like how it’s all lining up.

So we just stand there and keep noodling until we get nice even rows. So as tedious as it can be, the result is 100% worth the finished result in our humble opinion.

In writing this post I also realize we mentioned that we’d make another video and completely spaced on that. Next post for sure! We wanted to show you how we spread and scrape the thinset and set (and scooch around) the tile. Good thing we still have an entire wall to do. Haha.

But wait, you don’t think we stopped there, do ya? Late last night we got a chance to start some of the back wall. Slowly but surely is the name of the game here (we wish we could snap our fingers and be done, but… we tried and there was still a whole wall to tile). Our goal is to be completely finished by the end of this weekend. We’ll just inch along through the weekend and hopefully be back with some wide shots of a fully-tiled-monty post on Monday! Look how serious Sherry is about it. Hah.

Anyone else doing tile stuff? We went into this project not knowing if it would take us three weeks or three days, so I’d say that we’re pretty excited if we get to share a completed tile job around a week after starting it. Not too bad for just stealing evenings and the occasional nap time to chip away at it. So if you’re wondering if you can do it, penny tile can be slow going, but it’s definitely not the hardest thing we’ve tackled. It’s probably not even in the top ten actually. So… you can do it.

Comments

  1. Carrie says

    I much prefer individual tiles to sheet tile! It required me to be much more meticulous and felt like it took forever! Granted I was doing a floor and my back was killing me so that may have played a teensy part. :)
    I am loving the tile with the countertops! And I didn’t realize you had so much counter space on the left of your sink. I guess the busy granite made it hard to tell. Can’t wait to see the finished product!

    • says

      Oh yes, that used to be our only real prep space in the whole kitchen since the cabinets sort of encroached and made the other wall feel cramped. Now we have so much room over on the peninsula but also find ourselves using the space on the stove wall- and gravitating towards our original prep space sometimes… for old time’s sake! Haha.

      xo,
      s

  2. says

    Oh really great job, looks fantastic, wait until you grout. brave to do the ‘big’ wall. We have been ‘redoing’ our kitchen for about 8 mos…my daughter works with warm glass and made glass tiles for the back splash,random colors and sizes each had to be placed one at a time. We drew the footprint out on paper because the tiles could not be cut easily and made them to fit before they were fired. Very eclectic, colorful and I KNOW exactly what you mean by seeing them at night with light. Many evening we sat and marveled at the coolness of the whole thing.

    • says

      We’ll share those deets as we go! The recommendation is to tile first and hang things up afterwards (with a small drill bit meant to go through tile) sort of like how people hang towel hooks on wall of tile in a bathroom! Will keep ya posted!

      xo,
      s

  3. Ashley says

    Wow! It’s mesmerizing! I can picture you guys(Burger and Clara included) just standing there staring at it for hours. I really want to pet it.

  4. says

    Looking fantastic there, guys!!

    I have a question about your counters – how did you know that concrete counters would be too heavy? How much heavier would the cement have been versus the heavy granite that was there before?

    • says

      We learned in order to have the peninsula that we wanted (with a 12″ overhang on two sides) it would need to be double thick, so it would have been at least twice as heavy as the granite we had!

      xo,
      s

    • Ilana says

      How did you learn that? When you were scheming about the peninsula construction/counters, were the corian people the ones to tell you that?

    • says

      I called a few local concrete pros and asked how thick our counters would have to be to have a 12″ overhang and they all said standard was fine. But when I said “well, it’ll have a 12″ overhang on two sides” they both said “um, you need to go double thick for that, which usually means you need to reinforce your floors.” Hope it helps!

      xo,
      s

    • says

      Ah ha. That makes sense.

      We have the same peninsula arrangement in our kitchen. We’ve had a cement guy come out to measure and he didn’t say anything about weight being an issue…but I don’t think our cabs are especially great quality and our current counters are not that heavy (laminate) (ugh). Hmmm.

    • says

      Maybe they’ll be reinforcing it with rebar or something so it doesn’t have to be double thick? I’d imaging they’d tell you if it was going to be super thick!

      xo,
      s

  5. says

    Have you guys considered epoxy grout for this backsplash to help with easy cleanup? It is more expensive, but wipes down much easier and doesn’t stain. Unfortunately, it is about 10x the cost of regular sanded grout and nearly made me have a nervous breakdown when we were installing it.

    We can’t wait to be at a tile ordering (and putting up) point on our project. When we do, we’ll once again proudly walk into the Tile Shop that is near us and say “Young House Love sent us!”

    Lookin’ Good!

    • says

      We talked to the guy at The Tile Store about what grout they recommended and he actually sent us home with something that we can seal just like our first bathroom (we had so much luck with that grouting and sealing process that over a year of use = zero scrubbing). Seriously, when we were having open houses my instinct was to scrub the tub after a year of use but there wasn’t a thing to scrub! Here’s hoping we have the same luck here! We’ll report back to you for sure.

      xo,
      s

    • says

      We just decided to have one accent wall of tile to the ceiling, and because you see the stove wall from so many POVs (and only face the sink when you enter from the office) we decided to make that our accent wall!

      xo,
      s

  6. Jennifer says

    What have you done to prepare for hanging your shelving on a wall of tile? Have you made any notes/marks where the wall studs are behind the backer board? Just curious.

    • says

      Yup, we have measured where our studs are and made tiny marks on the ceiling (where they’ll be covered by crown) so we know where they are! We’ll share all the shelf hanging details when we get there for sure!

      xo,
      s

  7. Kristin says

    On the window wall, to the right, where the tile stops, do you just apply a thicker line of grout so that it looks intentional to stop there? Most kitchens don’t have that open space, because all the back splash usually runs right up to the cabinets on all walls. I was just wondering how you make it look seamless?

    • says

      We’re going to use something to “cap” those fourteen inches of tile on either side of the window! More details when we can snap pics (they’ll explain better than words can)!

      xo,
      s

    • Jessica says

      I was going to ask the same question! Our short sale apartment came with an updated kitchen but they did sloppy work on the backsplash, so its unfinished in a few areas where it just stops without anything on the edge. Can’t wait to see what you guys do, I need inspiration!

  8. Tina says

    This looks even neater than I expected it to. Srsly can’t wait to see the finished project. One question for you – and maybe you’ve already covered it else where and my ADD brain missed it- How are you going to finish the edge on the partial tile wall?

  9. says

    Eeek! It’s looking sooooo good!
    The process seriously makes my stomach hurt though. For real. Sweaty palms. You guys are brave. One day I’m going to own a house and have to (and want to) do stuff like this, but til then, I just think of how much I’d be stressing out!
    I’ll stick to paint. Yay paint!

    • says

      Haha, not to worry! It took us years to work up to this! We were yay paint folks for a while too! Slowly but surely we got braver… very slowly actually. Haha.

      xo,
      s

    • says

      It does make me feel better. Maybe this year I’ll branch out to gardening and sewing then slowly but surely make my way into being a real live grown up!