How To Install Penny Tile (And Lots Of It)

We did it. We tiled the entire back wall of our kitchen in a counter-to-ceiling backsplash move that we like to call Project Crazy, and we lived to tell the tale. We still have to grout, add a big ol’ industrial range hood and chunky open shelves (those will just be screwed right through the tile with a special drill bit) but when we squint we can almost picture it…

As for the top seam where the tile meets the ceiling, there’s crown molding that runs around the entire room (although we removed some of it on the window wall) so we’ll be adding that back around the whole room so the top of the tile will look nice and finished once we get to that step.

The black box next to the range hood is an outlet for our range hood, so that’ll be hidden once we install ours. We tiled a few inches behind the range hood duct, but didn’t remove it since once we install our industrial hood that area won’t be visible.

Once we add our floating shelves (which will be 12″ deep) along the oven wall, the space on either side of the window will be 14″ – so it’ll finally look balanced again! I mention this in every kitchen post because I. Can’t. Wait. For. That. Moment.

This entire backsplash process took us around 14 hours total. We tackled it mostly in 2-3 hour chunks in the evening after Clara went to bed or on weekends while she napped (so it’s a good indication of what anyone with a day job might be able to follow). That includes a few hours of figuring out how to cut the tile, which we summarized in this video for you (read a lot more on that process here).

We also shared an in-progress post about prepping the room for tiling, mixing and spreading thinset, and placing the penny tiles here. So that might come in handy if you’re at that stage of the project and could use some reassuring.

It’s really important to place penny tiles in a way that makes the line where each sheet meets less obvious, so we found that a staggered pattern was the best method for us to achieve a seamless result:

That way your eye doesn’t catch one seam and follow it all the way across the room (more on that here). We also played around with each sheet of tile after squishing them into the thinset, scooching them a bit to the left or the right or higher (since they were on a sheet of mesh it was pretty easy to manipulate them) until they looked evenly placed so the seams weren’t obvious.

Just wanted to recap that stuff for a second so anyone looking for an exhaustive post about installing penny tile would have those pics and links all in one place. Anyway, when we last left you, we were just beginning the back wall, which we knew would be tedious (but hoped wouldn’t make us rue the day that we picked penny tile). The good news: it didn’t. We made it all the way across that wall, baby! Without wanting to poke our eyes out with penny tile once (well, maybe once…).

Thankfully, there weren’t many cuts since we could slap a ton of full sheets up in that giant expanse of wall, so although we took our time placing them to keep seams from showing up, we did move faster than having to cut a bunch of tiles. It probably took us three days of 2-3 hour sessions each time. We found it helpful to use little glass dishes to divide full tiles, half tiles, more than half tiles, and less than half tiles. That way if we needed to quickly back-fill an area, like the edge of the wall, with half-tiles or slivers or almost full tiles we already had a little dish of them separated out that we could dig into quickly.

Here’s a video about spreading the thinset and placing the tiles, complete with how to back-fill any tiles that you need to add and how we slid them around and adjusted them to look more seamless. Oh and in the video when I describe it as a brick-layers pattern, I create a horizontal one with my hands, but it’s really a vertical one (two tiles on top of each other and one staggered in the middle of that next to it). Oops. Hope that makes sense when you see it!

And here are some pics of us making our way across the wall. John applied the thinset with a putty knife (and sometimes a trowel). We mixed enough thinset to set about four to six tiles at a time (so it didn’t dry out before we could set the tile). You can see John applying the thinset in the video above.

Then John scraped it with his trowel to make little ridges to help the thinset grab the tile and stick for good. Our trowel was a 3/16th notched trowel since penny tile is small, so we heard that smaller ridges were recommended (you can also see this in the video above).

Here I am placing the top tile on the left side of the wall. John got a kick out of the fact that I could comfortably stand on the counter without having to crouch (oh the perks of Team 5’2″). You can see how we worked from the bottom left corner and went up and out to create a staggered staircase effect. This allowed us to build things slowly without having much of a problem with keeping things level since each tile interlocked down the staircase on two ends to keep it from skewing.

Day by day, we inched our way across…

Here we are in the very last corner, finishing things up. You can see that we scooted the oven out while we were working (to gain more access to the wall and keep from getting thinset on it).

Since a few of you have asked for a shot of the corner to see how the tile meets, here ya go:

Let’s get a little closer…

Basically whatever would be placed next to the last tile on the wall where the wall ends just wraps around and gets placed on the new wall. It’s not 100% perfect but once it’s caulked/grouted we think it’ll look pretty darn good (we’ll snap another pic for you then).

Oh and some other folks asked how we’d be “capping” the 14″ of tile that will be exposed on each side of the window wall, so here’s a detail shot for ya:

We actually got some thin glass tiles that we thought we’d like, but they just looked too brown and sort of competed with the penny tile, so we decided some thin thin thin pieces of craft wood will make great simple and clean little borders that don’t compete for attention. They’re not hammered in completely yet, since we’ll be pulling them out and painting them white like the rest of the trim in the room after grouting (just to avoid getting paint on the grout).

Grellow note: the picture above is probably the most true to life shot of our wall color (in some of the far shots it looks darker/greener/brighter than it is). In real life it’s a soft avocado color (although it can read quite differently on different computer monitors). Here’s a link to it on BM’s site if that helps, since the bad lighting in our kitchen hardly does it any favors. We think once we tackle the new lighting and add the open shelving and some pretty colorful accessories up there (and on the counter) it’ll all tie together really sweetly. You know we’ll share those pics as we go!

Obviously we still have to spread all that grout, but we’re giving our arms a day of rest before picking up the trowel again (well, I guess in this case it’ll be the grout float). As for the specifics, we picked a soft creamy-gray grout that’s a smidge lighter than the tile. You can see it in this sample shot snapped at the store back when we chose our tile (more on that here):

Oh and see how you can kind of see the seam in the picture above (there’s a horizontal line of grout in the middle of the photo that seems a bit thicker/bolder). That’s why scooching things around and stepping back to see how it all looks before moving onto the next tile is so important! We were sticklers about it, but we’re so glad we took the time to keep everything as evenly placed as possible.

Now we just need to grout, get new lighting (and kill that haven’t-used-it-in-13-months fan), add crown molding and some sort of decorative treatment and baseboard to the back of the peninsula, lay our cork floors, install our new dishwasher, and add shoe molding around the room. And probably some other stuff that our tile-drunk minds are forgetting. So we’ll be back with grouting progress in the next few days or so- probably on Wednesday. We’re hoping we can knock it out pretty quickly, but you never know until you’re knee deep in grout… we’ll keep you posted!

What did you guys do this weekend? Do you all have off today in honor of MLK?

Psst- Oh yes there is a Clara vs. Santa wrestling match going on over on Young House Life


  1. Saleha says

    *knock* Penny! *knock* Penny! *knock* Penny!
    (Like Big Bang Theory, you know?)

    That’s been playing in my head since I saw the finished wall.
    Looks awesome!!

  2. Molly says

    Omigosh, how did you go all last summer without using a ceiling fan in your kitchen? Richmond gets HOT (I know, I live here) and kitchens get even hotter. Ceiling fans are such a great energy-saving tool!! Give it a chance next summer, turn your thermostat up a couple degrees and let the fan do its work. Your electricity bill will thank you.

    • says

      Haha we just never used it! Not a once! Our first house had one in the kitchen too and we never used that one either, so we switched it out for can lights and loved how much more open the room felt! Of course in both cases (this kitchen and the last) we widened doorways so there’s a lot more flow and the air circulates more easily – so maybe that’s why our kitchens never get too hot!


  3. says

    Looks great you guys!! I absolutely love it!! I picked a more simple project this weekend..finishing up the nursery! Woo hoo! I’ll reveal later this week! I can’t believe how fast you guys are moving through this kitchen….well, yes, I can!

  4. Chrissy Henry says

    It looks amazing! Like one of the most amazing things I have seen you guys do yet! Though I am sure it is not at the top of the difficulty list for projects you have accomplished… it sure looks like it! And made a HUGE difference already.

    Good choice on the gray penny tile it looks beautiful!

  5. Tracy says

    It looks awesome! Love it! So are you guys going to caulk the corner seam? We were told to do that since walls can shift, and you want flexibility there versus just regular grout because it might crack. Same principle as not grouting the line between the counter and the tile.

  6. Chloe says

    It looks amazing! Well done. Can’t wait to see the finished product. I was just wondering how true the yellow in the pictures is to real life?

    • says

      Colors really depend on your monitor. Do you mean the wall color? That’s actually a soft avocado color and we love it in person- but online it can look anything from yellow to lime green depending on your monitor! So weird!


  7. Saleha says

    And I’m just wondering: do you stand in the diningroom to look at your peninsula, white cabinets and tile wall all at the same time? Must be an awesome view. I’d be tempted to sleep in the kitchen just to wake up to that tile!

  8. says

    Wow! I tell ya what – wow! (100 points if you can name that movie.)

    Seriously, though, I LOVE it!!! It looks so luxurious and I love the texture that it adds to the room. Fantastic job! Can’t wait to see the finished product.

  9. Laura says

    Do you plan on repainting as well? It looks like the tile and wall color are clashing but maybe that is just my monitor?

    • says

      Nope, no plans to repaint- we love how the soft avocado walls look in person! Especially once we add floating shelves with some colorful accessories to tie it all together! Could definitely be your monitor if it looks like they clash though- gray goes with soft green really nicely in real life!


  10. Meghan says

    Beautiful!!! Do you guys love it?? Can’t wait to see the trim added, I bet the old owners would just die when they see how bright and airy it all looks!!

  11. Jaimie says

    Very painstaking tiling job, it looks extremely well done. I see that someone else already asked (and you already responded) about the wall colour. I admit that on screen I’m not crazy about the wall colour next to the tile, but I suspected that the room’s lighting/the affect of photography was making the colours look off. Glad to hear that in person the colour isn’t quite so lemon-lime!

    • says

      Oh no it’s a soft avocado color! That looks great with gray! It’s a nice mix in real life. Haha. We just thought white walls with white cabs and gray tile was kind of blah- so some soft color (that ties into the adjoined rooms like the dining room and living room) is just the ticket!


  12. says

    Um. The last picture. The new, gorgeous stove. The pretty white cabinets with shiny hardware. That tile! Yum! and….the white kettle. It’s perfection. That’s your money shot right there. …. I barely notice the hood isn’t in place.

    …scrolling back up to gawk.

  13. says

    It looks amazing! I have just one follow-up question: Do the prior owners know and follow your blog? If they do and are, I think you’re blowing their minds.

    • says

      Haha, we believe they do! We used to hear from them right after we move in (they’re so nice and seemed to love “watching us do all the work and share the pics” – haha).


  14. Momcat says

    Ah. May. Zing!!! It looks fantastic and even better than some professional jobs I’ve seen. Can’t wait to see it grouted. Oh and thanks for addressing that brown fan in your post. I was wondering if it was (er..) staying.

    And I’m still so hoping that you will go into the design business for OTHER PEOPLE (ahem!).

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