Perspective | How to install a removable vinyl tile backsplash – The Washington Post

Q: How do I install removable vinyl tile as a backsplash in a rental?
A: The how-to is easy, but first think carefully about whether you really want to do this.
It’s pretty appealing to use tiles that come in sheets that you can cut to fit and that have peel-and-stick backings. You can press the pieces to the wall and — presto — have a fresh, stylish surface. There’s no mess and no need for grout or the tools needed to install regular tile. There are also great designs, such as glossy subway tiles, stacked stones and intricate mosaics.
In a rental, these tiles could be a good solution if an instant refresh matters most, such as in a rental you own and have only a day or two to fix up between tenants. But if you’re a renter and see the “removable” aspect as a key advantage, you could be disappointed. Some manufacturers warn that tiles that have been on for a while won’t be easy to pull off. At first, it’s usually possible to peel off a tile and reposition it if you didn’t get the fit right on the first try. But months later, the adhesive will probably be much more tenacious.
Some manufactures recommend using a heat gun or a hair dryer to soften the adhesive and make the tiles easier to remove. Even then, some paint and wall compound may come off, too. If you need to take down the tiles when you move and want your full deposit back, you might be in for a repair project that could stretch over several days. You’d need drying time between patching, priming and painting. And forget about reusing the tiles at your next place.
These tiles also aren’t cheap. At a Home Depot, Smart Tiles’ Oslo white vinyl tiles, which look like white subway tiles, were recently $32.98 for two pieces, each about 23 inches wide and 11 inches tall. A package covers 2.8 square feet, which works out to $11.78 per square foot. Down the aisle were Daltile’s Restore ceramic subway tiles, each 3 by 6 inches. A case covering 12.5 square feet was $15, or $1.20 per square foot.
If you hired a contractor to install them, the cost would soar. But installing backsplash tiles is a relatively easy DIY project. If you took a minimalist approach and shopped at Home Depot, you would need only a tile cutter ($11.97), a notched trowel for spreading adhesive ($5.97), a rubber grout float ($9.97) and a masonry sponge ($1.97), totaling about $30. You could also get a product such as Custom Building Products’ SimpleFix premixed adhesive and grout ($10.98 a quart), rather than separate containers of tile adhesive, known as mastic, and joint filler, or grout.
Bottom line: If the backsplash is 10 square feet — 5 feet long and 2 feet high, for example — you’d need four packages of the vinyl tiles, for $131.92. That’s more than twice as much as the roughly $55 you’d spend for the case of ceramic tiles, tools and adhesive/grout. (In both cases, you’d have extra material in case you needed to recut some pieces.)
Installing the ceramic tiles would take more time, though. You’d need to put down plastic or paper to protect the countertop. Trimming edge pieces by scoring and snapping them, as you would when cutting glass, is more involved than cutting through vinyl with a utility knife. Also, you’d need to wait 24 to 48 hours after you attach the ceramic tiles to the wall before you could fill the joints. But at the end, you’d have the real thing.
If you decide to proceed with stick-on tiles, the first step would be to ensure you have a suitable surface. It must be flat, so you might need to fill the joints of existing tiles or resurface textured drywall. The tiles won’t stick to porous wood, ceramic tiles that have a surface texture or unpainted drywall. A freshly painted surface probably won’t do, either. Some manufacturers warn that paint must cure for three to four weeks first. Some also warn that existing paint or slick surfaces such as flat ceramic tiles should be scuffed up with sandpaper to help the adhesive stick better. And check manufacturers’ instructions before installing tiles near a cooktop or oven, because too much heat could cause the adhesive to fail.
Clean the surface thoroughly. (In a kitchen, use a degreaser.) Rinse and let dry completely, because the tiles won’t stick to a damp surface.
With a level, determine the lowest spot on the area you want to cover. Place a tile there and mark its height on the wall with a pencil. Then extend the line across the backsplash area using the level. The tiles typically have interlocking sides, but at the starting edge (or corner, depending on the situation), you’ll want a straight edge. Place the tile on a cutting board and trim that edge, using a ruler and utility knife with a new blade. (Save the pieces you trim off, because you might need them to fill the far edge or corner.) Also trim the bottom of the tile (if necessary), so the top edge aligns with the line you drew. Check the fit, because you might need to trim the side edge to accommodate a wall that isn’t straight.
When the fit is right, peel off about half of the tile backing. Place the top tile edge on the level line and press the tile into place, peeling off the remaining backing as you go. Install the bottom row of tiles the same way, then top that row with as many rows as necessary. If a tile will cover an electrical outlet, turn off power to that circuit. (Test this by having a radio or light turned on and ensuring it goes off when you trip the circuit.) Measure across from the adjoining tile and down from the level line (or up from the last tile row), so you can trim out the box shape on the tile. Press that tile into place, replace the outlet cover and switch the power back on.
As you place the tiles, be especially careful to press down the edges of each piece. Ensure the tiles meet at the edges; the tiles cannot partially overlap, or they won’t be secure.
Once installed, the tiles are ready to be enjoyed — with no waiting or drying time. But if the tiles rest on a countertop where water might collect, spread a narrow bead of clear silicone caulk to seal the edge. If the tiles get spattered, clean them with a sponge moistened with water, or water with a little hand dishwashing detergent — just as you’d clean a ceramic tile backsplash.
Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.
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