Picking a Kitchen Backsplash

Get tips on how to find a backsplash that meets your needs and expresses your personality
Contemporary Kitchen with Glass Backsplash

Unique Contemporary Glass Backsplash

Designer Ammie Kim

Designer Ammie Kim

Your kitchen backsplash is a personality piece. Refined or funky, neutral or loud: What's your style? The tiles you choose to spruce up the wall space between the countertop and cabinets and above the range, should showcase the color scheme and theme of your kitchen, whether contemporary or traditional. Ultimately, that backsplash is a focal point. And it's an opportunity to be creative.

That said, why is this important decorative feature often the last detail planned in a kitchen design? Probably because there are so many choices. To make the process easier, we asked designers to provide some guidelines for choosing tile backsplash. Consider these points before you make your selection:

Match colors, mix materials. Having a tough time deciding among tiles? Live with them for a while. Tape color and tile samples to the walls to see what they look like throughout the day as natural light changes, suggests Stephen Kahn, president of Anchor Bay Tile in Phoenix, Ariz. Choose one main color and a couple of accent colors to use throughout the kitchen, including the backsplash.

Countertops often dictate the backsplash color and style, says Kira Van Deusen, designer at Covenant Kitchens & Baths in Westbrook, Conn. Also consider fixtures like your lighting and hardware.

Try mixing metallic tiles in different shades with various finishes, such as brushed stainless steel, oil-rubbed bronze or even an antique brass. By including small tiles of marble or granite, you can pull in the countertop color without being boring with a panel of granite that extends up from the countertop, says Barrie Spang, interior designer at Lee Meier Interiors in Westlake, Ohio. As for glass tiles, check out some of the newer tiles with a bit of crackle or frosted finish, Spang says.

Gorgeous Kitchen Backsplash Options and Ideas

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Invest in the high-impact zone. There is more square footage of wall space above the range and sink, so you can play with tile design. "That area gets a lot of visual attention," Van Deusen says. Consider a neutral field tile for the rest of the kitchen, then bring in a funky glass tile to create a showy centerpiece above the stove.

This is the place to play up pattern. Some options include installing tile on the diagonal, or applying a staggering brick pattern with slim subway tiles (now they come in sizes like 1-by-2 inches or elongated 4-by-12 inches). "Often, we will use different tiles in this space, or we'll take the same tile and turn it differently or create a border with a contrast tile," Spang says.

Don't be afraid to spice it up in this typically 2-by-3 foot area. Even as one of the larger swaths of tile space, it's still small. So if you choose a bold color or trendy tile pattern for this zone, you can always change it down the road without tearing out your entire kitchen backsplash, Van Deusen says. Looking for a bold idea? According to a 2011 trend report released by the National Kitchen & Bath Association, back-painted glass in strong carrot orange is fresh but refined and works well in a contemporary kitchen.

Be budget savvy. When on a budget, avoid trendy tile and revisit classic white ceramic that can cost less than a dollar per square foot. But don't skimp on the grout. "How the tiles adhere to the wall is important, so make sure you get a nice grout," Spang says.

Khan says flexibility is important if you're working on a budget—you might not get the exact tile size or color or texture. Where are you willing to compromise? Choose based on priority.

If you need to cover lots of area, like an entire wall, you can add interest without emptying your bank account by opting for practical metal panels. Stainless steel sheets come in a variety of finishes, Spang says. "They are very practical durability-wise, but they are a little more challenging to keep clean."

Avoid common mistakes. If you plan to order your own tile from a supplier, be sure to ask about these important components, suggests Stephen Kahn, president of Anchor Bay Tile in Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Primary (field) tile should be thicker than decorative tile. Otherwise, you'll spend more money "building up" the wall so that the majority of your tile lies even with those few decorative pieces.
  • Remember trim pieces. If you choose a beveled tile, you'll need a corner round trim piece (rather than a bullnose). Ask which trim and decorative moldings come with the tile—these pieces should all coordinate in glaze and thickness, and if you order them in separate batches, there could be discrepancies.
  • Ask if the tile you want is in stock. "The economy has changed things in the tile industry, and when times were booming, companies were willing to stock more," Khan says. "Now, with inventory turning less, there are lead times out there."

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Ask about wear and tear. How easily can you clean the tile, and what is the best way to seal it? Ceramic tile doesn't need this extra step, but natural tile does if you want to maintain its appearance. "If the tile is stainless steel, find out if abrasives will scratch it, and I would suggest getting a grout additive and sealing the grout itself so it stays fresh and clean for longer," Van Deusen says.

Generally speaking, you can apply any type of tile to a backsplash as long as porous materials like bamboo and cork are sealed. "There are building codes that require a clearance between the range and the wall to protect any material," Khan says. "Because of clearances and sealants, if anything gets splashed on the tile you can wipe it off."

Consider eco-friendly options. Cork mosaic tiles are appropriate for walls or floors, and tiles made of 100-percent bamboo are sealed to create a backsplash that's warm yet contemporary. Recycled glass tile is durable, stain resistant and comes in a range of unique colors that result from melting and repurposing recycled glass, Khan says. These tiles come in all sizes, from thumb-print sized mosaics to larger squares.

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