When we first moved to our farm, the bathroom was terrible. As an old cottage with some Craftsman bones hiding behind the fake-wood paneling and poorly installed drywall, I wanted to bring out that heritage back over time. My inspiration for the colors for this project came from a reproduction art nouveau ceramic tile that featured a beautiful forest and a castle in the background. The tile was special because it represented how my husband and I met in a medieval reenactment group.
But in the meantime, the plumbing was bordering on disturbing and would have never passed a codes inspection, the flooring needed work and the bathtub had places where chips had become rusty, bubbly enamel. But the vanity worked — kind of. At 24 inches wide and cobbled together from cheap materials, it held the sink and a few cleaning supplies, but really didn't work for our family. A couple of years ago, it finally failed, so I ripped it out and installed a new vanity. Unfortunately, we had too much going on with the addition, so that beautiful new vanity sat there waiting for a backsplash that would tie it to the rest of the house. Here's what I finally did about it.
Since this was the only bathroom in the house until the addition was done, the home improvement project needed to be completed quickly. I decided to experiment with the tile adhesive mats I'd seen used in DIY projects online. They looked fairly easy to use and would help cut back significantly on the setting time and cleanup. I had a number of spare sheets of mosaic tiles from other projects that I felt would go very well with the art nouveau tile mentioned above. Because the tiles were fairly close in spacing, I used a creamy sand-free grout. Once the grout had set up, I sealed it and the tiles, then caulked the major seams between the walls and vanity with silicone caulk rated for bathroom use.
In addition to the basic materials, I also used the following:
- Coarse sandpaper
- A tack cloth
- Rubbing alcohol
- A putty knife
- 1/8-inch tile spacers
- Carpenter's square or tape measure
- Utility knife
- Glass cutter
- A couple of rags
- Bucket for mixing grout
- Grout float
- Grout sponge
To get started, I began by marking the sides and bottom of the medicine cabinet that would be going back into place following the tile project.
Once it was down, I used a putty knife to remove any remaining glue, residues, old sealant and similar materials from the wall. This was followed by a gentle sanding and cleaning with a tacky cloth to remove any glossiness on the paint or material that could cause problems with the tile adhesive mat. After that was done, I wiped down the surfaces with rubbing alcohol to remove any remaining oils, greases or waxes. Now we're ready to start!
Challenges in Laying the Design Out
There were some real challenges to the design. It's near a window, which creates a low spot in the backsplash. When electricity was originally brought into the house, the breaker box was placed above the bathroom sink by about three or four feet. To be able to access the breaker, the medicine cabinet had to be placed fairly low over the sink and vanity. However, we're planning on having the service updated later this year and have the service box moved into the utility room next door. When that happens, I'm planning on raising the medicine cabinet. This all ties into the fact that I needed to keep that change in mind and design the layout to accommodate that change.
In addition to that challenge, the plumbing in this part of the house is ... interesting. The way the sink's drain line leaves the bathroom, the drain has to come through the floor right next to the wall. When the vanity was installed, that meant that there was a 1.5-inch gap between the back of the short backsplash on the counter and the wall. That would need to be filled before the backsplash could be tiled.
The third challenge involved my daughter's very energetic cleaning practices. When she's done in the bathroom, you're almost tempted to see if the Coast Guard is available to help rescue the flooding victims. Unfortunately, this means that if items that are not water resistant are left on the vanity counter, they may very well be lost at sea by the time she's done. I was able to combine this and the previous challenge into a short shelf at the back of the vanity for such items.
Most of the tiles were on mats, making them much easier to lay out and set very quickly. I arranged strips of a few tiles of one type, then a few of another. Because two of the tiles I chose to use were rectangular, some of them needed to be cut to create an even line at the end of the row. To accomplish this, I used a glass cutter to score a line across the glass or stone, placed a carpenter's pencil underneath the score and then pressed down very hard on both sides of the line, a technique I picked up from creating fused glass jewelry.
When it came time to place the art nouveau tile, I created a frame for it from one of the sets of rectangular tiles, making it stand out.
Setting the Tiles
The next step involved laying the tile adhesive mat. It came in a roll about a foot wide. I unrolled it, cut it with a utility knife and then applied it to the wall in a few separate sections. Once it was in place, I used a putty knife to press it into the wall, much like you would use a squeegee.
After this, I used the marks and measurements from the medicine cabinet so that I knew which area should retain its paper backing until the backsplash was completed when the breaker box is moved this summer. Once that area was marked out, I peeled off the paper backing that protected the second sticky side of the mat on the rest of the backsplash and began laying tiles, starting at the bottom. The first tiles added were the ones covering the small shelf or ledge at the back of the original backsplash, as these would impact the other rows of tile around them. After that, I began adding the wall tiles starting at the bottom. When I changed tile type, I added tile spacers to help keep the gaps uniform.
As I came to the area where I had planned on placing the art nouveau tile, I realized that it was thinner than the other tiles. As the tile adhesive mat could be layered, I placed two layers of the mat on the back of the tile to bring its thickness up to that of the other tiles.
Once I'd finished reaching the top of the backsplash, I still had some areas where a small amount of the mat was showing. I used the utility knife to cut off the remaining portion and peeled it carefully from the wall.
Grouting, Caulking and Sealing
Once I had finished laying the tile onto the mat, I could immediately grout the tile. This was one of the big time-saving features that allowed me to complete this project in an afternoon. I mixed an unsanded grout until it was about the consistency of toothpaste, allowed it to sit for 10 minutes per the directions on the package and then mixed it again. While it was sitting, I applied masking tape to the edges of the backsplash area to prevent the grout from sticking to other surfaces. Though this is a step I would typically do before starting laying tile, the tile adhesive mat made this unnecessary until this point. After this was done, I began applying the grout with the grout float.
After the grout sat for about 20 minutes, I began cleaning it with a damp grout sponge that had been thoroughly wrung out. I had to repeat this step several times until the tiles were no longer developing a haze between cleanings.
Once I was done cleaning the tiles and the grout had set up fairly well, I carefully removed the masking tape. I then applied silicone caulk to the major seams between the vanity and walls, applied tile and grout sealant and enjoyed the beautiful new backsplash I'd created. Now I want to paint the walls so they're just as pretty! This home improvement project is an easy DIY option to add some beauty and class to your home without investing a lot of time. Enjoy!
About The Author
Cathleen Vought is a dedicated DIYer, writer and artist living with her family on their sheep farm in southwest Missouri. With over 26 years of experience in contracting and advanced DIY, she loves helping people find their inner artist and style. She's an active member of the local arts scene creating beautiful glass and fiber artwork, and also volunteers in a range of emergency response roles in the community.