How to Lay Subway Tiles


Popularized by tiles used in the New York subway at the turn of the 20th Century, subway tiles were a stylish home decorating choice up until the 1930s. What's old is new again as subway tiles are now a trendy option for kitchens, baths and fireplace surrounds. These rectangular tiles are typically 3 x 6 inches, but nowadays you can find subway tiles in sizes ranging from 1 x 2 inches to 4 x 12 inches and in a multitude of color choices. Learning how to lay subway tiles is a simple do-it-yourself project with the proper preparation and patience.

Things You'll Need

  • Tiles
  • Mastic tile adhesive
  • Tile spacers (thickness based on grout line desired)
  • Notched trowel (size determined by type of tiles)
  • Rubber grout float
  • Tile cutter (rent from a home supply center)
  • Tile nippers
  • Grout
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Tile sealer
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Chalk line


  • Start with a smooth, clean surface. For walls, patch holes and defects. Shower and bath surrounds should have cement backer board installed. On floors, a wood sub-floor or a cement finish assures a better finished product.

  • Determine your tile pattern. The most common pattern for subway tiles is the running bond pattern, where grout lines are staggered. Another popular pattern is the jack-on-jack that lays out tiles in a columned fashion.

  • Plan your layout. Floor layouts start with tiles laid from the center point of the room and move out toward the walls. Wall layouts, including shower and tub surrounds, are centered on the back wall so a course of full tiles is laid at the top. Bottom tiles are cut to fit, as are side pieces.

Laying the Tile

  • Spread a thin layer of adhesive over the surface with the notched end of the trowel, holding it at a 45-degree angle. Make sure to work in small sections to avoid the adhesive from drying out.

  • Lay the first tile, sitting it in with a twisting motion. Put down the next tile, using spacers at the corners for even grout lines. Subway tiles with protruding side pieces, called lugs, do not need spacers. Continue laying down tiles in this manner, working one small area at a time.

  • Wipe off any excess adhesive from the tile surface with a damp rag. Use a small stick to scoop out excessive adhesive between the tiles. Periodically, check the level by laying the trowel across tiles. If a tile doesn't lie flat, pry it up, scrape off the adhesive and start over.

  • Use a tile saw to cut edge pieces and use nippers for trimming tiles around electrical outlets and plumbing fittings.

  • Let the tile adhesive dry and remove the spacers before grouting.

Grouting the Tile

  • Use premixed grout or mix dry grout following the manufacturer's directions. Holding the rubber float at a 45-degree angle, spread the grout over the tile in a diagonal direction. Make sure grout is packed between the tiles. Wipe off the extra grout with a damp sponge. Be sure not to pull the grout out during this step.

  • Allow the grout dry. Wipe off the haze left on the subway tiles by the grout with a clean cloth.

  • Finish with a sealer recommended by the manufacturer.

Tips & Warnings

  • Use a wood cleat to start the first row of tiles on a wall. This helps the tiles from slipping. Use masking tape to hold wall tiles special fittings, like soap dishes.
  • When working around electrical outlets, make sure to turn off the power.

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  • Photo Credit M.A. Koch
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