Your Total Guide to a Gorgeous, No-Regrets Kitchen Backsplash Design

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may remember I revealed my secret weapons for successful renovation projects, one of which is keeping detailed finish schedules that capture every bit of information needed to get a project’s finishes (paint, flooring, tile, etc.) done correctly the first time by eliminating miscommunications with the builder and subcontractors.

The amount of information that goes into those schedules reveal how many more decisions go into a design project than people realize (which just happens to be why I firmly believe it pays to hire an interior designer).

Take a look at my schedules for my clients’ kitchen backsplashes and you’ll see they’re the perfect example of the many decisions that go into something that seems simple if you don’t know any better. There’s a lot more to think about than just picking pretty tile – and if you don’t make those decisions ahead of time, you’ll wind up staring blankly at your tile installers (and possibly even having to postpone the job!) when they ask you about it all. Or worse yet, what was meant to be your beautiful new backsplash turns out all wrong in the end because you made uninformed decisions on the fly.

But as usual, we’ve got you covered! Here’s a rundown of everything you need to take into account when planning a new backsplash. We’ve even put together a handy infographic to use as a visual reference.

You can download that here.

Picking your tile

Of course, the primary consideration is the tile. Make sure what you select goes well with all the other finishes you’re putting in your kitchen. It’s best to take samples of your countertop material, cabinet paint or stain, wall color and flooring to the tile store or showroom. Lay everything out together to make sure the backsplash tile will harmonize with everything else.

While technically, you can use just about any size or shape of tile to create a backsplash, the look and feel – as well as the ease of installation – will be greatly affected by what you select. For instance, a 1-inch penny tile mosaic (backed with mesh) is quicker to install than individual 2-inch hex tiles, and both an intricately shaped arabesque tile and a 12-inch by 12-inch square tile will likely call for some tricky cuts and clever layout solutions to keep everything looking balanced.

Also bear in mind that the smaller your tile, the more grout lines you have, and the more grout lines you have, the “busier” the finished look will be. That said, you can dial that effect down by selecting grout in a color that’s similar to your field tile and/or using thinner grout lines. I always tell tile installers on my clients’ projects to apply the smallest grout line possible (ideally 1/8” or even 1/16”, if possible).

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Grout

When it comes to grout color, your choice should be largely based on how much of a statement you want it to have with your tile (think white tile with white grout vs. white tile with charcoal grout). One consideration here is that if there’s a lot of pattern or color happening in the tile itself, you may want to select a grout color that won’t stand out as much. Conversely, if your tile is very simple, you can use the grout color to add visual interest.

Whatever color you choose, you need to know that the lighter the grout, the harder it will be to keep it looking clean and fresh, though sealer will help make that job much easier regardless of grout color. I always, always, always recommend using a grout that has a sealer in it. Grout sealers help prevent stains from water filtration and inevitable food splashes and spills, oil spatter, etc.

At one time, sealer was only available as a separate product that had to be reapplied to the surface of the grout annually. Fortunately, some very smart product developers figured out how to incorporate the sealer right into the grout product itself so when the grout is applied after tiling, it’s already sealed permanently with no need to reseal it for the lifetime of the grout.

If you do happen to end up buying standard grout without a sealer included in it, you need to be sure to have it sealed right after the tile is installed, and then continue to reseal it annually, or as often as recommended in the product instructions.

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Tile setting patterns

Now we’re getting into the much less obvious decisions! If you select special shapes or mosaic tile (smaller tiles attached to a mesh backing, usually in 12in by 12 in sections) you may not have much (if any) choice for how to lay them out on the wall. But if you’re using square or subway tile, you have a lot of options when it comes to the setting pattern.

For example, square tile of any size can be set in a standard straight grid, on the diagonal, or even in an offset brickwork pattern. By adding different sizes into the mix, you open up a world of other options for creating intricate patterns.

Subway tile offers lots of layout options, as well. The most common is a classic brickwork pattern. But something as simple as setting that brickwork on the diagonal results in something much more unique. Other options include a variety of stepladder, herringbone, and stacked horizontal or vertical patterns.

Generally speaking, I tell my clients it’s best to stick with a more traditional layout if we’re using tile that’s more “fun,” but if the tile is very simple, it can be a great opportunity to add interest with a unique setting pattern, particularly in a home with a more modern style.

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Adding a feature above the stove

This is something my clients ask me about all the time – Is it best to add some kind of a focal point in the backsplash above the stove or is it better to keep things consistent throughout the kitchen?

There’s really no hard and fast answer in terms of trends (although I do think the popularity of having a feature over the stove is a bit lower right now). But for me, it really depends on the overall design of the house. If I’m working with a home that’s transitional in design, I think the backsplash is a great opportunity to do something a little different. In those situations, I love finding that “OMG!” tile – something that really makes the backsplash look spectacular! Plus, it’s a great budget-saving trick to use a more costly tile you love only in the feature, then choosing a beautiful but less expensive coordinating tile for the main backsplash. Another consideration is the location of the stove. If the stove itself is positioned as a focal point of the layout upon entering the kitchen, then a feature above it will definitely offer that “wow factor” just by virtue of being one of the first things you see.

When I’m working with clients whose home design leans more modern, on the other hand, I like to keep the backsplash simple and not add a feature. Depending on what’s happening in the rest of the kitchen’s design, I might keep the backsplash very low key, or, as noted above, I might opt to use contrasting grout or a special setting pattern to add interest.

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Carrying the countertop material onto the wall

Sometimes I don’t use tile for the backsplash at all! In more modern homes, I sometimes love wrapping the countertop material up the wall to create an ultra sleek, grout-free look. I find that many granite and quartz options look positively fantastic when used this way. It’s amazing that such a simple choice can make such a huge style statement – which is also why this choice can look very out of place in a more traditional kitchen. Context is definitely key in this case!

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Stopping and starting points

Tile or no tile, you’ll need to determine where you want your backsplash to begin and end. Do you want that subway tile to continue all the way up the wall where there aren’t any cabinets? Or should it stop even with the bottom of the window? Do you want to run the mosaic backsplash right up against the pantry’s doorframe? Or do you want to stop it where the cabinets end?

Again, there aren’t any hard and fast design rules to follow here. It’s fairly standard to use where the upper cabinets and the countertops are to dictate the backsplash area, but there are acceptable exceptions. If your counters extend beyond where your upper cabinets end, for instance, it may make more sense visually to stop the backsplash in line with the upper cabinets. This is definitely an area where it helps to have a designer on board to advise you, but whatever you do, be sure to think this through thoroughly before you start the project. It’s no fun to get the backsplash finished only to realize you forgot the area over the built-in desk or that the tile seems to stop randomly mid-wall by the refrigerator!

In terms of making a statement with where your backsplash starts and stops, modern kitchens can look great with fully tiled walls, especially if they have open shelving instead of upper cabinets. It’s a bold choice, so you may want to create a less overwhelming look by using a traditional tile and simple pattern.

Outlets

This is one thing many homeowners aren’t sure how to handle. Special GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets are required in backsplashes for safety reasons and they must be a certain distance away from each other per code specifications. But since we can’t eliminate them, we might as well make them blend in as much as possible.

I like to use Lutron outlets. They have a sleek, more high-end look, and they come in a good selection of colors. That helps me find something that won’t be an eyesore in the backsplash. I once did a mirrored backsplash for a client and in that instance, I had to have mirrored outlet covers made; but barring something unusual like that, you should be able to find something that looks good without too much trouble.

If you really don’t like the thought of having outlets in your backsplash, another option might be to hide them inside drawers or even under your upper cabinets. You’ll need to talk to your electrician, however, and see if either of those options will be acceptable under your city’s codes.

That’s a lot to think about, isn’t it?! But as long as you’re aware of these decisions ahead of time, you can make informed choices that result in a beautiful kitchen backsplash. And don’t forget to grab the infographic so you have all the information simplified and in one place!

Do you need some guidance to ensure your kitchen backsplash or other design decisions turn out right? We’re here to help! It all starts by filling out our contact form.

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