Introduction: Portable Backsplash for Renters
Do you have vertical slat blinds, beige carpet, and white walls? Are you renting in a place with a significant chunk of your savings tied up in your security deposit? Do you watch HGTV and salivate over the kitchen remodels while steadfastly refusing to even glance at your own bland room that happens to have an oven in it because, let's be honest here, you hesitate to even call it a kitchen? Even my landlord, a man who is generally open to my DIY plumbing and electrical work, would balk at a kitchen project. But I think there are some folks out there who would love to add a dash of evanescent personality to their kitchen with an inexpensive and easy tile backsplash for the wall behind the stovetop or the sink.
Because the walls in my building are cinder blocks (fancy, huh?), it's a nightmare attaching anything to a wall, so I need my backsplash to be three things: First, it's gotta be a lean-to, because I can't glue or screw it to the wall; Second, it needs to be a close fit where it meets the hood so it blends into the kitchen without looking conspicuously like an add-on; Third, it needs to be easy (a problem solved by replacing thinset with Loctite Power Grab). Luckily, I noticed that my oven unit has several holes in the back where I managed to use some extra pegboard hangers (those little wire clips that hold tools) to support the completed backsplash. Those clips, plus the tight fit at the top and the inch or so of stove supporting the base, should hold the backsplash pretty nicely. If it starts to come away at the top, using some of that sticky 3M poster gunk should hold it in place without putting any holes in the wall or ripping off the paint.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the backsplash needs to look good. It needs to add panache to an otherwise ho-hum area of the wall. It needs to match with our hand towels and the generic tile floor, maybe serve as a visual transition from the beige carpet into a kitchen with a bit of color. It needs to shout Tuscan villa, mid-century modern, and cozy cottage all at the same time. It will serve as the beacon of originality in a The Giver-type dystopia of dullitude and blandification. Reasonable expectations, obviously. A philosophical framework to support you when the caulking gun starts to give your hand blisters and you realize that one of the tiles is obviously larger than the other ones. This is not just a fight for your kitchen, it is a fight for creativity against the blight of apathy and laziness, this is a fight for ALL the kitchens. So suck it up, buttercup, we're making a backsplash.
Step 1: Gather Materials
- 3x5 ft of 1/4" MDF*
- 1/8" spacers (pack of 250)
- Loctite Power Grab Heavy Duty
- Pre-mixed grout (alabaster)
- caulk gun
- retractable razor blade
- metal ruler
- measuring tape
- margin float
- dual-sided 3M sponge
*I initially wanted to mount my tile onto some concrete backerboard because it's water- and rot-proof. Turns out, that stuff is difficult to work with, a little messy, and doesn't look particularly good in this implementation. It's also way too heavy to be supported by my back-of-the-oven-clipping method. I figure that the stovetop location should be good to avoid any nastiness that the concrete board would have addressed, so MDF it is.
Step 2: Size Things Up
Take an accurate measurement of the space where you want to put your backsplash. Because my area includes about an inch that would be covered by the top of the stove, I made sure to include that in my measurement.
Using the dimensions you got from your measurement on the wall, measure out your rectangle on the MDF. Draw or snap a straight line along your measurements, then carefully cut along the pencil line with the razor. Make your first cuts cleanly so you can easily run the blade along the gap as you make several passes. It'll take a few cuts to get the board to a point where you can break it off cleanly along your scored lines, so be patient. (I hurried on mine and ended up having to rasp off the jagged edge where the board failed to break cleanly.)
Now that you've cut out your section of MDF, rough up one side with some sandpaper so the Loctite has a surface to grab ahold of. While you've got the sandpaper, you can smooth out the edges of your MDF if you want to even it up a bit.
Step 3: Tesselate and Glue
Open up your tile and start laying it out on the board in the pattern you want. Because I didn't have a tile saw, I chose to avoid any pattern where I'd have to use half a tile, so classic brick-style was out. Herringbone didn't look right, and pairs of offset squares looked tacky. So I went with a straight grid pattern. Use the spacers to get a sense of what the tile will look like on the board, then start gluing each tile down with the caulking gun.
Working with the Power Grab should be like spraying EZ Cheez on a cracker, don't overdo it. The size of a dime on the back of each tile should be good, enough to stick it down nicely but not so much that it squeezes up the sides and interferes with the grout. You don't want white chunks polluting the sea of alabaster grout.
Use the 1/8" spacers around each tile so that every tile is equidistant from its neighbors. Your board will start to look like a tiny graveyard with all the crosses sticking up from between the tiles. After an hour or so, you can start to pull up the spacers gently without disrupting the positioning of your tiles. Once you're finished, take a break and do something fun. You're going to grout in 24 hours, so enjoy the downtime while the glue cures.
Step 4: Float Some Grout
Now that the tile is all laid out and stuck to the board, it's time to fill in the spaces between the tile with that pre-mixed grout. Have your float and a damp sponge ready, and make sure that enough time has elapsed since gluing.
To float on the grout, scoop some up with your margin float and spread it diagonally across the tiles while holding the float at a 45 degree angle. Once you've fully covered everything with grout, you can use the float at a 90 degree angle to clean up any extra grout that couldn't find a niche to occupy. When you're done, the cracks should all be evenly filled and there will be a grouty mess on the surfaces of the tiles. Now it's sponge time.
Using your damp (not wet) sponge, start gently wiping away the grout from the surface of your tiles. It might take several passes to get up all of the extra grout, so keep a bucket filled with water next to your work area or you will be making several journeys to the sink to rinse your sponge. When you're done, there might be a slight film over the top of your tiles. This is normal, and we can clean that off once the grout has had time to set properly.
Step 5: Touch Up
Now that everything has had a chance to dry, there might be some extra bits of schmutz along the edges of your tile or board not to mention the grout film that might still be on the tile faces.
For the edges where grout may have accumulated and dried, just scrape it off with your fingernails or a blade and use some sandpaper like an eraser to remove grout from areas where you don't want it. Because the left and right edges will be visible, I took some extra time to take off any grout that might pollute an otherwise gorgeous backsplash.
Using a damp sponge, you can get rid of the grout film on the tiles themselves. Just repeat the technique you used when you sponged off the grout the first time. Wipe it away with a damp sponge and you're done. (At this point, you could use a grout sealant to keep the grout protected from stains. I elected not to because I don't anticipate getting huge messes on my backsplash. If you're a big tomato sauce-splasher, maybe get some sealant just to be safe.)
Step 6: Mount
Now that we've done all of the hard parts, let's do something fun: Put up the backsplash! Yay!
Your method of attaching the backsplash to the wall may vary. For me, I am using those wire clips from my pegboard tool holder. Two of the 27 degree angled pieces hold the tile and board very nicely when hung from the holes in the back of the oven unit.
Pull the oven out a little ways to give yourself some room to work. Maybe do some cleaning as long as you're back there. Gently place the backsplash into the clips and lean it against the wall. Slowly push the oven back into place, and the backsplash should move neatly into position.
All done. Now invite some people over so they can look it. Don't tell them that's why they're coming over, though. Let them be surprised and delighted by your pretty pretty backsplash. So, anybody wanna come over to watch the NBA Playoffs? There will be refreshments strategically placed along the counter near the new kitchen addition. "Oh, you noticed? No big deal. It's a backsplash. It comes off."