Subway tiles got their name because they were used in New York City subway stations when the system opened in 1904. The 3-by-6-inch, tightly grouted ceramic tiles -- with a glossy, white glaze and square sides -- were sanitary, durable and relatively inexpensive. Today, subway tiles are most often used in kitchens and bathrooms although they also are used in other parts of the house. You also can find them in public places, such as hospitals and cafeterias, because the tiles are easy to clean and keep sparkling.
Tiles were popular in home building between the 1870s and the mid-1930s, according to "This Old House." They were frequently used in middle-class homes, particularly bungalow styles, as well as in public buildings. Then, as now, tiles were popular due to their style, craftsmanship, durability and ability to be easily cleaned. Vintage tiles are coveted by homeowners who want their homes to be historically accurate. In addition to wainscoting, subway tiles are used for backsplashes, borders and door surrounds.
Originally, wainscoting was wood paneling applied to the lower half of a wall to protect plaster walls, which were easily damaged. Although wainscoting still protects walls, it often is used as a design element to add architectural interest to a room. Wainscoting is not always wood. The use of subway tile for wainscoting was particularly common in Arts and Crafts-style homes built in the early 20th century. Traditionally, wainscoting covers the lower 32 to 36 inches of a wall, according to ReliableRemodeler.com.
Choosing Subway Tile
Subway tile is available in a variety of sizes, glazes, prices and materials, including ceramic and glass. A range of colors beyond black and white also is available. Historically accurate tiles are 3/8-inch thick with a flat surface, a square edge and a glossy, white glaze and are set using pencil-thin grout lines, according to "This Old House."
Installing Subway Tile
You can install tiles yourself or hire a home remodeling professional. To install subway tiles yourself, measure walls and buy an additional 10 percent for breakage. You may also want to choose a molding or decorative border for the top. Mastic is used to attach the tiles to your wall. After designing a layout for the tile, sort and cut tile. For cuts around outlets and other wall fixtures, it might be easier to use a wet saw. When attaching tiles to the wall, use spacers to hold room for grout. Use a small tile saw to cut the last pieces of tile to fit. Add the trim and then grout after mortar has dried. Seal the grout with silicone sealer.
- This Old House: The Joy of Vintage Tile
- This Old House: Period Perfect Details at Any Price
- University of Wisconsin Oshkosh: Moulding
- DIYThisNThat.com: Design Ideas for Subway Tile: Wainscoting
- ReliableRemodeler.com: Home Decorating Tips: Wainscoting and Texture
- Subway Tile Outlet: How to Install Glass Subway Tile
- Photo Credit Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images