NYC Inspired DIY Tile Subway Wall

Words & Images by Jess Downey

7:10 AM

New York City. It's where I always dreamed of living. The place that I was lucky enough to live in for four years. It's the place my husband lived in for nine years and made so many memories. It's also where we met, fell in love, and got engaged. It's the place where we made our first home. There were so many firsts so to say we love it would be an understatement. Our love runs so deep for that magnificent city.

So when we bought our first home in rural Indiana, a big change from the bright lights of the big city, we wanted to do a little something to pay tribute to our beloved city we once called home.

I can't remember exactly how or when, but we decided we should do a wall in our house to look like a New York City subway stop. I know, kind of weird that we'd want to tribute the grossest thing in the city (other than the trash in the streets). But it sounded cool and it just so happened that we had a bare wall in our entry way that was pretty perfect for it.

Here's how we created a tile wall inspired by New York City.

We found a cool mosaic sign from Etsy and we were able to put our street name on it.

Then we trekked to Lowe's. Thank goodness for the guy at in the tile aisle because we just walked in there like we knew what we were doing. We grabbed our tiles and then I'm pretty sure we looked extremely confused because he ran over and graciously walked us through the aisles telling us what to grab. I seriously have no idea what we were thinking. 

We purchased:

  • Subway tile (6 x 3 inch)
  • Mastic
  • Grout (the powdered stuff)
  • A bucket
  • A sponge
  • Grout float
  • Wet saw/tile saw (you can also rent one if you don't want to put out the $100)
  • Trowel

The guy also gave us a few tips.  And we set home to complete our project.  Here's the step by step process of exactly how we went about tiling our wall. And since my husband did most of the work I use the term "we" pretty loosely. 

  1. Make sure that the wall is clean and primed (if necessary). Ours was ready to go since we had originally primed over wall paper so we could paint it.
  2. Figure out where you want to put the sign. We aimed for somewhere close to the middle, but we didn't want to have to cut the tiles on all sides so we measured to be sure to put it in a place where the cutting was minimal.
  3. Pick your starting point. We chose to start at the ceiling and work our way down because we have wainscoting on half of our wall. Scoop up some mastic with the trowel and put it on the wall. You'll want to hold the trowel at about a 45 degree angle and use the jagged edge to spread it out. We only spread enough for one row at a time. You can do more, but we were worried it would dry.
  4. Start the tiling. We started with the upper left corner and pressed tiles into the mastic, getting them as close to the ceiling and as close to each other as possible. We ignored the very last tile because it needed to be cut and my better half wanted to do all of the cutting at the same time.
  5. Move to the next row. You want to stagger the tiles, so this time we started from the right. We did the same thing with the trowel and the mastic, pressed down the tiles and so on. 
  6. Continue. We repeated that whole process until we came to the area where we wanted to put the sign.
  7. Add the sign to the wall. Since it's super heavy, we wanted to be sure there was enough mastic on it to make it stick so we put the mastic on the sign rather than the wall. We held it on the wall for a bit and put a row of nails below it to secure it in place.
  8. Back to tiling. This is where things get a little tricky. Using the same methods as before, continue to tile the wall. We tiled around the sign using the rows above as a guide so we could stagger them correctly. And, again, left any cutting for later. 
  9. Keep tiling. And this is also a tricky party. We didn't tile the row directly below the sign because we wanted to give everything time to dry and those needed to be cut. So we moved to the next row and used a level to be sure everything was level as we finished the rest of the rows.
  10. Cut all of the pieces. We measured all of the gaps and I do mean all. Don't assume that one gap is the same size as another especially if you have an old house. My grandpa always said "measure twice, cut once." So that's what we did. When using the tile saw, it will throw grimy water everywhere, so it's best to not use it in the kitchen unless you have lots of drop cloths. Also be sure to switch out the water every so often.
  11. Add cut pieces to the wall. We used the same tiling method as before. Some of the pieces were small so we applied the mastic directly to the pieces and stuck them on the wall.
  12. Pull the nails out. Once all of that's done, the mastic behind the sign should be dry enough and you can pull the nails out. If you're worried, you can leave that for later or the next day. Just note that it needs to dry a long time before grouting.
  13. Let dry until the next day. 
  14. Mix the grout. We followed the directions on the package to an extent. The ratios of powder to water were a bit off and ours was way too thick so we had to add more water. It should be a peanut butter or toothpaste consistency. It's probably best to mix the grout in batches since it's really hard to stir. And don't mix it with a paint stirrer.
  15. Apply the grout. We started from the bottom up, working in sections. We used the float tool and put lots of grout on it. Then held it with the long end at a 45 degree angle and spread it on wall to fill in the cracks, making sure that everything was filled in before moving on to the next section.
  16. Continue with the grout. We found that the sign had pulled away from the wall a bit and pushed some of the tiles with it. Everything was stuck well to the wall so we pressed it down a little and then grouted it and it seemed to be fine.
  17. Get rid of the excess grout. Once you've finished with all of the sections, you'll have some excess so hold the tool at a 90 degree angle and scrape along the wall to get the excess off.
  18. Let the grout sit. We followed the instructions on the package for how long to let the grout sit. Then used the sponge to clean off any additional. Do not let any grout dry on the tiles. Even the Lowes guy warned us about this.
  19. Let grout dry for 24 hours and admire your work. We found there was a filmy residue left behind. So after letting the grout dry for about 24 hours we wiped the wall down with a rag and a non-abrasive cleaner.

Just a little side note, if you're trying this yourself. The steps may vary as it depends on the size of the wall and other factors. Also keep in mind this was our first tile job ever so we are by no means professionals, but it's still standing so that has to say something.

Owner of Chaotic & Collected Blog & Stationery store. Former Brooklynite. Newlywed (ish). Lover of DIY, Crafts, bacon, blueberry jam, & coffee. Meticulous organizer. Fan of Food Network, HGTV, horror movies, & Catfish (the TV show). Maker of pretty handmade goods. Cooker of yummy foods.

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