How to Tile a Backsplash: Prep Work

Learn how to prep walls for a tile backsplash! Don’t miss my final post in this series on how to grout tile!

Prep work is key with most things and tiling a backsplash is no exception. This post walks you through all the steps for removing tiles from the drywall and prepping the wall for new tile. 

how to prep walls for tile backsplash

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How to Tile a Backsplash Step-by-Step

Part 1: Prep work

  1. remove tiles from walls
  2. repair damage from old tile
  3. prime

Part 2: Installation

  1. apply thinset
  2. apply tile
  3. cut pieces where needed and apply them
  4. let dry completely

Part 3: Grouting

  1. grout
  2. clean up grout mess
  3. seal

Backsplash Prep FAQ’s

Can I tile over painted drywall?

Yes. If the paint is a glossy finish, I recommend priming the wall before installing tile. Priming will ensure good adhesion.

Be sure to start with a clean surface. You would be surprised at how much grease accumulates on walls (even if you don’t cook fried food!)

Do I need to prime drywall before tiling?

Yes. Whether the drywall is new or painted, I recommend priming before tiling for the best adhesion.

Fresh drywall has a paper backing that tears when tile is removed. Priming helps prevent that.

Can you tile over joint compound?

Joint compound or spackle should be primed before tiling.

Do you have to use cement board when tiling a wall?

Cement board or backer board is not required for a backsplash. However, it should be used in “wet” areas like a shower.

Can I paint my tile backsplash?

prep work

I had originally painted the yellow-ish backsplash white, priming it with Zinsser BIN shellac. This is my favorite primer so I trusted that it would work. It was mostly still in tact after 1 1/2 years, but there were a few places where canisters had rubbed against the wall, scraping the paint off.

I tried to use the delicate surface Frog tape to mark out where to paint my gingham pattern, but it peeled up paint where it was placed. (To be fair, it was not the tape’s fault. Painting glossy ceramic tile was a risk.)

I considered just free-hand painting it, but I wanted to create something that other people could also do. I want affordable, but I also want do-able. Tiling a backsplash can be affordable!

Painting the tile was worth it because it made something that was very ugly look better. I would still recommend it, but just understand that it’s a temporary solution. If I did it again, I would use oil primer instead. 

How to Prep a Wall for a Tile Backsplash

How to Remove A Tile Backsplash

I thought that it would be fun to get some aggression out on the tile by smashing stuff. I was so wrong. The only way to remove a tile backsplash is the hard way: brute manual labor.

I have almost 20 linear feet of backsplash, so it took forever. Each tile came off one-by-one. It was physically demanding of my shoulders. I had to take so many breaks to rest my muscles. The prep work is hard, but it pays off in the end!

Supplies Needed:

  1. Start by removing all of the outlet covers and switches.
  2. Use the painter’s multi-tool at an angle to pry up the first tile. The closer your slide it against the wall, the better it pries them off. Use the pointy bit when you don’t have a good angle to get at. Use a hammer to get the multi-tool under the tile to get more leverage.
    prep work for tile in kitchen
  3. Repeat 5000 times until you’re done. *Good to know: Smacking the tile with the hammer doesn’t actually remove it. You probably shouldn’t try it.*
  4. Some areas are harder than others to get to. This is where the crowbar comes in. Use it gently or you will crush the drywall under it.
    prep work for walls in kitchen for tile
  5. There were also soft spots in the drywall that made removal difficult. I used the crowbar for that too.

Cleaning Debris from Tile Removal

  1. Tile is heavy so only partially fill construction grade garbage bags. (Mine were filled to about 1/5th of their capacity.
  2. Use the shop vac and small broom to clean any remaining mess.
  3. Tile can be disposed at your local landfill. At our landfill, there’s a special place to dispose of construction debris.

Wall Prep: Repairing the Wall for Tile

Supplies needed:

  1. If you haven’t done so already in the clean up part, remove any crumbling mess from the drywall. I had big chunks to remove, plus bits of paper to pull off. Use the utility knife if you need to remove paper where necessary. (The house builders did not prime my walls, so I was left without drywall paper when I removed the tile.)
  2. Scrape any leftover thin-set ridges. Most of mine came off with the tiles, but if you have them, try to knock them down as much as possible. Sand it if you need to. I found that a scraper worker really well for this.
  3. Apply drywall mesh tape to the larger holes and gouges where the walls are broken.
  4. Apply joint compound where needed. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be pretty smooth. I mixed my own joint compound and made it thinner than normal for this first base, like yogurt.
  5. Let dry overnight. I use a fan on it since the humidity was pretty high.
    patched walls
  6. Scrape away any ridges using the scraper, then apply more joint compound where needed. This time, I mixed it the usual consistency, like icing.
  7. Let this dry again overnight.
    repaired walls in kitchen
  8. A third coat was not necessary, so I scraped any ridges, then sanded where necessary. Once again, it doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be fairly level.
  9. Clean up the mess from sanding.
  10. Prime the entire area. I didn’t see this as a step anywhere in instructions that I looked at, but DON’T skip this part. For the sanity of whoever buys your house next. Or when you redo your tile choice. It’s important. I believe that tile removal would have gone much smoother if the walls had been primed.
    primed walls

Now you have prepped the walls for tile, your walls are ready for the next step: thinset and the tile!

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