How To Install 3 x 6 Subway Wall Tiles

by Darwin Hall

subway porcelain tile tub

So I finally finished installing backer board to the tub surround of the bathroom.

This second floor bathroom is getting a full remodel, with a new vanity set, new lighting and outlets, storage over the toilet area, and a new bath fan.

And now it’s time for the fun part: installing subway tiles to the tub surround walls. 聽Yowzah! 馃槈

I started this part of the project by gathering all the required materials and tools and setting them in their proper places:

  • I put the wet saw outside close to a water source for cleaning off things and keeping the inside of the home clean,
  • a fresh聽bucket of water and dry tile adhesive for mixing ingredients,
  • I put several boxes of porcelain wall tiles in聽the bathroom for聽easy access,
  • and a few boxes of tile I placed outside near the wet saw for cutting them to size.

The next thing I did was protect the tub by taping a plastic drop to the lip of the tub with duct tape. 聽So why use duct tape instead of painter’s tape?

Answer: 聽Because duct tape will hold the drop cloth much better in place, whereas painter’s tape will constantly become un-stuck. 聽I also added an additional painter’s cloth to the inside聽of the tub.

See also: 聽How To Install Backerboard For Wall Tile

The聽plan is to install these wood-look wall tiles by first installing them on the back wall, then do the two side walls after聽that. 聽But we’ll see how that goes.

Step 1

I install 1 x 2聽boards聽for a bottom border of wall tile. 聽This is usually done for bathtubs that are not completely level. 聽The tile project must be installed in a level environment to give the job聽a professional appearance. 聽There’s windows and other things to consider too, and everything needs to be plumb.

1x2 installed tile tub surroundThe tub in the bathroom is already level; I just decided聽to install聽this way to show how this is done. 聽To achieve level, I took a few spare tiles and placed聽them on the back wall, one on top of the other.

I’m using tile spacers that are 1/8 inches wide, so I added 录 inch to the height measurement for two grout joints, and made a pencil mark on the wall indicating the starting height.

I then took my four foot level and drew a leveled line around the circumference of the wall layout. 聽Depending on how un-level your tub is, you may have to play with the height a little.

Before beginning the installation though, I separate dark and light tiles. 聽I do this so I won’t group a bunch of like-colored tiles together during the installation.聽 Tile with heavy veining got put in the dark pile, and tiles with almost no veining got put in the light stack. 聽I also have a few half pieces cut:

separating dark and light tilesI prepared to install the boards for the row of tiles. 聽The first row will be the last row I install before finishing this project. 聽I use 1 x 2 pieces of poplar because of it’s聽strength. 聽I ended up using聽some spare wooden stakes from inside聽my shed聽that were left over from a fence job, which are made of poplar wood.

Starting at the back wall, I fastened the stakes through the backer board and into the studs using 2 inch drywall screws. 聽You’ll have to drill starter holes through all of the pieces,聽because the boards will “back out” if you didn’t, due to the density of the Hardiboard.

Step 2

Install tile on the back wall. 聽The back wall will be where I start. 聽That is the most common place to begin because it will allow you to place the foundation tiles in place that will dictate where the other side wall tiles will lay in relation to the others.

I drew a long, vertical line indicating the center of the back wall. 聽I then dry-fitted tiles along the width of the wall to determine if I would need to cut tile at the ends of each corner.

I lucked up; I was able to start laying the first row of tiles without having to make a cut, because each corner will require a full, complete tile.

If your layout won’t work like this one did, start at the center line, then begin placing your tiles from center-to-left and center-to-right, with the final tiles on each end being cut the exact same length.

It will give the entire layout an “even” look. 聽See how those two bottom center tiles have a grout joint right between聽the middle of the center line in the below picture?

installing subway tile tub back wall

I proceeded to mix up a batch of thin-set mortar (same kind as the mortar for the backer board), except this time, I make it a little thicker — because I’m installing it on a聽wall.

I place a small amount on the wall with the smooth side of my 录-inch notched trowel, then scrape聽it back with the notched side. 聽I place聽the first tile in聽the corner, leaving a 1/8 gap at the end. 聽But before I do, I “back-butter” the adhesive side聽of the piece with my smaller hand trowel, which will give聽full contact聽of the tile to the wall.

I then place the next piece of tile next to the first, adding a 1/8 inch tile spacer in between them. 聽Just about every tile should be back-buttered;聽however,聽placing thin-set on the wall first won’t be required in other places all the time, like the small areas on each side of the window or the top area where smaller tiles will go.

Check to make sure each tile is the right depth relative to one another; if they aren’t simply pull the tile up with a chisel, then back butter more mortar onto the piece.

The second row above the starter row聽will begin with a full piece of tile cut exactly in half, to give it that brick subway pattern. 聽Set the wet saw guide rail, then cut four聽to eight pieces in half so you’ll have them at the聽ready.

You could cut more if your walls are completely level, but that’s usually not the case with most houses. 聽Check measurements every 6 to eight rows.

Here’s a quick tip: 聽If you don’t have a wet saw table, you can use a set-up like mine below: 聽I use a piece of 戮 inch thick plywood, painted with latex paint on the surface to stop water, set on聽saw horses for the legs. 聽Of course, having extra water bottles on-hand is essential for filling up the reservoir…

wet saw set up

Install聽the beginning of the second row after roughly four聽tiles are set聽along the first row.

Set聽all subway tiles in a stair-stepped, staggered method. 聽This adds strength to the row underneath the pattern, and the spacers won’t keep falling out of their positions.

Place a spacer in between each grout joint聽on the bottom and top tile of the horizontal line, like in the picture below. 聽Keep an eye on the vertical joints — making sure that they are in line with one another going vertically up the wall.

spacers and wall tile

The side wall tiles will be installed from the outside of the layout to the inside, like in the picture below. 聽This means the long bull nose tile will be installed first.

Any irregular cuts will be made in聽the corners only. 聽When cutting pieces for the corners, leave a small gap for grout as usual. 聽In the picture above, the back side wall is being tiled, after the center wall was聽installed.

Bull nose tile is back-buttered and set to the paint tape line running up the wall. 聽I put two spacers underneath each piece to hold it to it’s position.

I also have a bunch of pre-cut half pieces ready for the beginnings of each opposite run. 聽Install the cut side of the half piece to the bull nose tile side; the opposite聽edge聽has聽a slight angle you can recognize, if you聽examine the piece.

tub and shower set wall tileWhen I got聽to the wall with the tub spout assembly I needed to make a notched cut.

To do it, I took a tile to be installed there, marked the vertical and horizontal position of the copper pipe, then cut the section out from the tile by making a series of close-together cuts, following the lines.


Trimming out the window.聽 When I decided to re-trim the window, I took pieces of 1 x 2 poplar and cut them to size, and nailed them to the framing with shims and 2 陆 inch finish nails (before tiling around them, of course).

framing window with tile

I left the wood frame out past the face of the tile about 1/8 an inch, to accommodate new window trim molding, which I’ll install later. 聽Any gaps and nail holes will also be filled with wood putty.

I then finished both sides of the window with tile and continued up the back wall until I reached top of the ceiling almost. 聽I tiled the two side walls as I went along somewhat — to keep everything straight.

When I laid the last full tile at the top near the ceiling, I measured and cut a series of smaller tiles and installed them above that, leaving a regular gap at the top and at the bottom for grout.

finished installing subwayStep 4

Installing the final row of tiles. 聽I unscrewed all the wood from the wall and began the last portion of this tiling project. 聽If I measured correctly, each piece I install horizontally will have just enough space for grout above and below each individual聽tile.

shimming tile on bottom row

I painstakingly shimmed each and every piece at the base of the tub to I could get a perfectly sized grout joint above the tile. 聽I cut regular wooden shims to size and used spacers too.

I cut and laid this 3 x 6 subway tile during the course of 4 days. 聽I let all the tile dry for 24 hours, then move on to grouting.

Step 5

Grout the joints.聽 Working with grout is a messy job. 聽I begin the grouting process by re-taping the areas of the tub surround I want to protect. 聽These areas include:

  • the ceiling,
  • adding聽builder’s paper in the window,
  • taping the edge of the tub
  • and protecting the inside of the tub with a plastic drop cloth.

On top of the plastic in the tub, I placed a fabric drop cloth in there. 聽It not only stops the grout, but it’s easier to walk on, and prevents聽rips聽to聽the plastic. 聽I then removed all the tile spacers.

Tile adhesive seems to find its way through grout joints on every project like this. 聽Therefore, the seams need to be cleaned prior to grouting.

The easiest way to do this is to use a grouting tool. 聽It has a triangular carbide scraping tip that will easily remove grout and thin-set. 聽I start by scraping the long horizontal grout lines of the subway tile, then move on to the short, vertical seams.

I pull the tool towards me聽first, then push it — to break through each and every area that has the built-up stuff. 聽You can also turn the head flat to remove surface mortar.

using grout scraping tool

Next, I mix the grout. 聽A ten pound bag should be sufficient to cover an average聽tub surround with 1/8 inch thick joints.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and just be sure to put water in the bucket first, not the other way around. 聽If you added grout to the bucket first, it would never mix correctly and there would be dry spots throughout.

It really doesn’t matter which wall to begin grouting; 聽I start at the top of the layout聽on the shower side. 聽The idea here is to hit of all the edges of the layout first.

That means the top area near the ceiling, the tub’s edges, and the corners of the tub surround. 聽Then I work my way into the center. 聽That’s how I聽do it for each and every wall.

using bull float grout

Employ a diagonal motion when grouting the walls — upward and downward — for thorough coverage in the seams. 聽Let it “haze” up, which means let it dry a bit before you use a grout sponge to remove surface debris.

While it hazes, get a clean bucket of water and grouting sponge prepared and ready. 聽They will serve as a way to clean off all the excess grout. 聽Always start where you began.

Buy the grout sponge with the scrubby on the back of the sponge. 聽It will help you remove the stubborn parts. 聽Having additional green scrubbies around is also a good idea.

Wring out as much water as possible from the sponge, then聽remove聽grout with the sponge using a circular motion; like applying wax to a car.

grouting tub surround

Change the water frequently; the idea is to get the surface of the tiles clean again, without removing as much from the grouted joints. 聽Try to get about two or three complete cleanings of all the walls, then let it dry for 2 hours.

Then come back with a cheesecloth or a microfiber towel and buff the remaining haze off the tiles.


Apply a good, quality sealer. 聽There are a few types of sealer available. 聽The first is regular strength sealer and the second is extra strength. 聽I like to use extra strength for the tub and shower areas.

The product I use features built in Microban庐 product protection, which stops the growth of mold and mildew on cured sealant. 聽It costs almost double what regular strength cost but is well worth it, when it comes to protecting grouted joints.

grouted ancient gray tile

finished tile ancient gray porcelain

gray subway tilesYou simply wait three days to let the grout cure to a super-hard finish, then spray the product onto an applicator pad or sponge and wipe the tiled surfaces. 聽You allow it to penetrate for about 5 minutes, then wipe down excess sealer before it dries.

If the first coat was absorbed by the tile, apply a second coat. 聽Other kinds of tile may be porous, so the manufacturer聽suggests 2 or more applications for those kinds. 聽Peace. 馃槈

Tools You’ll Need:


Dotted Line Post Separator

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