Subway Tile Bathroom Backsplash: Classic & Timeless Subway Tiles

Subway tiles are a classic and timeless choice for bathroom backsplashes. With their simple, rectangular shape and clean lines, subway tiles can lend a vintage or contemporary feel to any bathroom design. This versatile tile has remained popular for decades thanks to its easy maintenance, durability, and affordable price point.

What are Subway Tiles?

Subway tiles refer to rectangular ceramic tiles with a length twice or three times their height. They are named after the rectangular wall tiles that line New York City subway stations. The tiles typically come in a classic 3×6 inch size, but can range from 3×12 inches to 4×12 inches.

The tiles have slightly beveled edges and a glazed smooth finish. Traditional subway tiles come in white, but today you can find them in gray, black, and an array of bold colors. Subway tiles are made from natural clay or porcelain.

Key Characteristics

Here are some of the defining characteristics of subway tiles:

  • Rectangular shape – Length is twice or three times the height
  • Standard sizes range from 3×6 inches to 3×12 or 4×12 inches
  • Thickness is 1/4 to 5/16 inches
  • Beveled edges
  • Glazed surface for ease of cleaning
  • Typically white, but now available in many colors
  • Made of ceramic or porcelain
  • Matte or glossy finish

The History of Subway Tiles

Subway tiles have been common in North American architecture for over a century. They were first used in the early 1900s to line New York City subway stations to prevent water seepage and provide durability. The easy-to-clean tiles were an optimal material choice for high-traffic spaces.

The name “subway tile” stuck even when the tiles began being used in kitchen and bathroom backsplashes. They became especially popular for early 20th century home designs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, subway tiles took on a groovy, retro vibe. They remain a hallmark of mid-century modern style today.

While subway tiles fell out of favor in the 80s and 90s in lieu of more elaborate designs, they’ve come back in style in recent decades. Homeowners looking to evoke a vintage or contemporary minimalist look are turning to the simplicity and elegance of subway tiles.

Benefits of Using Subway Tiles

There are many excellent reasons subway tiles are still coveted after more than a century in architecture and interior design. Here are some of the benefits that make subway tile a go-to backsplash material.

Timeless Look

The understated look of subway tiles is simultaneously vintage and modern. They work with any style, from farmhouse to industrial chic. Subway tiles are a blank canvas that won’t box you into one era. Their versatile style works in kitchens and bathrooms of all designs.

Easy Maintenance

The glazed ceramic or porcelain material of subway tiles is stain-resistant and easy to clean. Their smooth finish doesn’t trap grease and grime. Simply wipe down subway tile backsplashes occasionally to keep them looking fresh.

They are also impervious to water, making them ideal for kitchens and bathrooms. Mold and mildew won’t take hold on subway tiles.

Durable & Moisture-Resistant

Subway tiles stand the test of time. Unlike paint or wallpaper backsplashes which can peel or fade, subway tiles maintain their integrity for decades. The tiles are fired at high temperatures making them more durable and less porous than other ceramic and porcelain tiles.

Their moisture-resistance makes them ideal for backsplashes which can get splashed with water regularly. Subway tile backsplashes handle splatters and spills exceptionally well.


Part of the appeal of subway tiles is they don’t break the bank. Subway tiles are on the affordable end of backsplash materials. Ceramic tiles tend to be cheaper than porcelain.

Their simple uniform shape also cuts down on installation time and labor costs. Compared to intricate or mosaic tile designs, installing subway tiles is relatively straightforward.

Easy to Install

The uniform size of subway tiles means they can be efficiently installed in a brickwork pattern. The tiles abut each other with barely any grout lines. This not only looks tidy but makes installation simple.

Their rectangular shape allows them to be cleanly cut as needed to fit the space. No tile cutting expertise is required.

Design Versatility

Don’t be fooled by their plain appearance – subway tiles offer many design possibilities. Their narrow shape enables you to lay out patterns and designs. Subway tiles can be installed:

  • In a classic brick pattern
  • In a herringbone design
  • With borders or accents made from specialty tiles
  • Mixing complimentary colors
  • In geometric shapes and patterns
  • Inset within larger tiles

Subway Tile Design Ideas

Subway tiles may be simple, but simple doesn’t have to mean boring. Here are some stylish ways to lay subway tiles to take your backsplash design up a notch:

Mix and Match Colors

Go beyond plain white subway tiles by mixing and matching colors. Pairing light and dark hues, or colors with white, adds interest. Try combining gray and white, blue and white, or opt for rainbow subway tiles.

White subway tiles paired with gray subway tiles create visual interest

White subway tiles paired with gray subway tiles create visual interest. Photo by Wellborn Cabinet, Inc. from Pexels

Stacked Layout

Stack subway tiles vertically instead of horizontally for a unique look. This adds height to the backsplash and draws the eye upward.

Vertically stacked white subway tiles

Vertically stacked white subway tiles create a modern statement. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels.

Contemporary Patterns

Use subway tiles to create modern patterns like chevrons, circles, diamonds, hexagons, or subways crossing each other perpendicularly. Contemporary patterns look stunning against plain subway tile backgrounds.

Subway tiles arranged in a hexagon pattern

Subway tiles arranged in a hexagon pattern for bold style. Photo by @vtorresdesign from Pexels.

Borders and Banding

Frame subway tile backsplashes with decorative borders or bands. This could be a row of specialty tiles like marble, glass, or handpainted tiles. Or create a band with tiles laid perpendicular to the main field.

Subway tile backsplash with marble tile border

Subway tile backsplash with marble tile border. Photo by @claire_stroud from Pexels.

Herringbone Layout

Laying subway tiles in a herringbone pattern adds beautiful visual texture. The interlocking arrangement looks stunning in kitchens or bathrooms.

Herringbone patterned subway tile backsplash

Herringbone patterned subway tile backsplash. Photo by @nardostyle from Pexels.

Decorative Accents

Make plain subway tiles pop with decorative inserts. This could be listello, penny round, or octagon accent tiles. Or use glass, stone, or ceramic mosaic tiles.

White subway tiles with glass mosaic tile inserts

White subway tiles with glass mosaic tile inserts. Photo by K limb from Pexels.

Popular Subway Tile Backsplash Ideas

Here are some stylish and inspiring ways to use subway tiles as kitchen or bathroom backsplashes:

All-White Backsplash

You can never go wrong with classic all-white subway tiles. White reflects light and makes spaces feel clean and bright. Use different grout colors like bright white, light gray, or charcoal to add subtle contrast.

All white subway tile kitchen backsplash

All white subway tile kitchen backsplash. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels.

Mix and Match Whites

Mixing subway tiles of differing whites and finishes creates depth. Pair glossy and matte tiles or bright white with warmer off-whites. Varying tile sizes also adds modern appeal.

Subway tiles in mix of whites and sizes

Subway tiles in mix of whites and sizes. Photo by @norrlandphotography from Pexels.

Bold Color Statement

Make a bold statement by using colored subway tiles. Rich hues like navy blue, emerald, or ruby red look polished against white grout. Match or contrast the tiles with your cabinetry.

Navy blue subway tile kitchen backsplash

Navy blue subway tile kitchen backsplash. Photo by @kritchanut from Pexels.

Subway Tiles with Mosaic Accents

Dotting a subway tile backsplash with mosaic tile inserts adds eye-catching style. Use mosaics sparingly as accents or borders so they don’t overwhelm.

Subway tile backsplash with mosaic medallions

Subway tile backsplash with mosaic medallions. Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

Modern Geometric

Lay subway tiles in graphic geometric patterns for contemporary edge. Play with intersecting angles, diamonds, concentric squares, or rays.

Geometric patterned subway tile backsplash

Geometric patterned subway tile backsplash. Photo by @hermosa_tile from Pexels.

Subway Tile Shapes

Cut subway tiles into specialty shapes like curves, circles, arrows, or clover shapes. Mix these in a brick pattern with whole tiles for a playful backsplash.

Subway tiles cut into circular shapes

Subway tiles cut into circular shapes. Photo by @tomasmiskinis from Pexels.

How to Install Subway Tile Backsplash

Installing a subway tile backsplash is a relatively easy DIY project for an experienced homeowner. Here are the steps:

Gather Supplies

First, gather your tile, grout, mortar, and the following supplies:

  • Notched trowel for spreading mortar
  • Tile spacers
  • Tile cutter (if needed)
  • Grout float
  • Grout sealer
  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Caulk/silicone

Prepare the Surface

Ensure the surface is clean, dry, and flat. For existing backsplashes, remove any old backsplash materials completely.

Apply painter’s tape around the edges to protect the surrounding walls and countertops. Apply tile backerboard if necessary to provide a suitable surface for the tiles to adhere to.

Plan Your Layout

Dry lay a row of tiles across the backsplash area to determine your layout and see how full tiles will fit. Measure and mark for each row. Cut any edge tiles as needed with the tile cutter.

Spread the Mortar

Use a notched trowel to spread thinset mortar evenly across the backsplash area. Only cover a small section at a time that you can tile before the mortar dries.

Set the Tiles

Starting at the bottom, press tiles into the mortar and space evenly using tile spacers. Work in sections and check occasionally that your tiles are level. Let the mortar fully cure per manufacturer instructions.


Mix the grout and apply it over the tiles to fill the spaces between them. Let that cure fully before cleaning off excess grout with a damp sponge. Apply grout sealer afterwards.

Finish and Seal

Remove any spacer tiles or tape. Caulk along the edges and seal as needed. Clean your new subway tile backsplash and enjoy your stylish new feature wall.

Subway Tile Backsplash Maintenance

Subway tile backsplashes are low maintenance thanks to the durable and moisture-resistant properties of ceramic and porcelain tiles. Here are some tips for keeping your backsplash looking its best:

  • Use a gentle cleaner made for tile instead of harsh chemicals
  • Vacuum or sweep regularly to prevent buildup in grout lines
  • Immediately wipe up spills to avoid staining
  • Reapply grout sealer every 1-2 years
  • Avoid hanging objects from backsplash to prevent damage
  • Repair any cracked or damaged tiles right away

With proper care, your beautiful subway tile backsplash will provide style and function for years before ever needing to be replaced!

FAQ About Subway Tile Backsplashes

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about subway tile backsplashes:

Are subway tile backsplashes still in style?

Yes, subway tiles remain highly popular for contemporary and classic design styles. Their versatility to fit any aesthetic helps subway tiles maintain longevity as a backsplash tile.

Do subway tiles work with all kitchen cabinetry styles?

Subway tiles complement almost any cabinetry style, from modern to traditional. Their simple look acts as a neutral backdrop that doesn’t compete with dramatic cabinets.

Should subway tiles go all the way to the ceiling?

It depends on your personal preference! Extending subway tiles to the ceiling makes a bold statement. But stopping halfway creates balance. Standard height is 4-5 feet.

What color grout looks best with white subway tiles?

White, light gray, and dark gray are popular grout colors with white subway tiles. White grout provides continuity, light gray adds subtle contrast, and dark gray makes a bold statement.

How do you cut subway tiles?

Easily cut subway tiles to fit with a manual tile cutter. Score the tile face and snap the tile for clean breaks. A wet saw can be used for specialty cuts like L-shapes, circles, and diagonals.

Can subway tile backsplashes be self-installed?

Yes, subway tile backsplashes are one of the easier DIY installations. Just ensure proper prep and safety precautions. Experience laying tile is recommended.

The Timeless Allure of Subway Tiles

Subway tiles have been a staple of kitchen and bathroom design for over a century, and their allure is sure to continue. Subway tiles offer a versatility that fits both modern and vintage aesthetics and pairs beautifully with any cabinetry style.

Their clean, sleek lines and easy maintenance make subway tile backsplashes a functional and stylish element of any home. When shopping for subway tiles, look for variety in sizing, color, finish, and texture to create a design that’s uniquely you. With a subway tile backsplash, you can bring a contemporary yet classic element into your home.