Tiles and tribulations

Remember the kitchen renovation? The one we’ve been working on since 2012, when I began this blog? The one we burned out on as soon as we had a fully functional kitchen? Well … we’re back on it!

ready for backsplash tiles

What about the side porch, you ask? For a while, it was on ice, literally. And then it was under water … and then .. well, maybe this isn’t the best time of year to build a porch. But it’s perfect for inching our not-quite-finished kitchen toward true completion.

Long ago we decided to repeat the bathroom’s white subway tile in the kitchen, but with gray grout to complement the floor. We bought all the materials. And naturally, I procrastinated. After months of tripping over buckets of thin set in the hall and working around the box of tile next to the sink, we finally got our butts in gear. We thought that our four days off over Thanksgiving should be more than adequate to install our backsplashes. (Place your bets now. The fact that I started writing this post in November and am just now publishing it in late December should be a hint.)

Oh no … not again! By clearing everything off the counters, I recreated this familiar scene. That dining room table sure is a magnet for kitchen crap … what can I say?

dining room mess

Months ago, when Eric installed the backing board, he was challenged to find adequate attachment points. He had difficulty installing the backing board at the same depth as the plaster wall above it. Easy in theory, but not so easy in practice. I put the camera as close to the wall as I could to get this shot, which shows a fairly wide gap between the countertop and the backing board. I was worried whether the thin set and tile would be thick enough to bridge that gap.

gap between counter and wall

I started tiling at the Mother Hubbard end. Applying mastic to the narrow space was awkward, even with a small notched knife. After messing with that for a while, I gave up and simply buttered the individual tiles.

The curved edge at the of the sink required some tricky cutting. Eric had the tile saw set up in the basement to prevent tile dust from covering the kitchen. He got his lower body workout running up and down, up and down the stairs, getting the tiles to fit. The cut tile wasn’t exactly precise, but we figured any irregularities would be disguised by caulk. That’s when I realized why I had avoided this task for so long: Tiling is messy, fussy, and time-consuming. The wall was not even and I had to scootch (technical term) the tiles to fit. The old house constantly reminded me of her age. “I’m 101 … this is as straight as I can stand!”

tiles curve around sink edge

As I progressed, I abandoned the gray grout idea because I knew gray would emphasize any unevenness between tiles. We traded the bucket of gray for white. Even without grout, I was surprised at how much vintage detail the subway tiles lent the room.

With the tile in place, I could feel the wintry air rushing in from between the window apron and the wall. Caulk … we need caulk!

sink wall backsplash nearly tiled

We moved on to the other side of the room, which we expected would be much easier, as there were no curves to negotiate … just two outlets. And it was easier. But … what the hell?? Look at the upper row of tiles—they’re WAY skinnier on the right. #$%^!!!

backsplash tiles are uneven

I had no idea that this wall was so out of alignment. Really, there wasn’t anything we could do. The counters are level with the floor, and the upper cabinets are level with the ceiling. It’s just that the floor and ceiling aren’t level with each other! Since we couldn’t change that, somewhere in the middle, the discrepancy had to make itself known. Unfortunately, it was in a place where the house screamed out at me, “Look how crooked I am!!” Those uneven tiles really looked pretty amateur. Most of our projects look darned good … I’m not a fan of amateur. I was bummed. I hoped that grout would conceal the unevenness.

tiles before grout is applied

I got busy with the grout and forgot to take photos. My small grout float wouldn’t fit behind the faucet, so I smooshed (another tech term) the grout in with my fingers. (Yes, the window trim desperately needs to be painted. That will be my next trick. Don’t hold your breath, though.)

grouting with my fingers behind the faucet

Then it was Eric’s turn with the caulk gun. I was right, the thin bead of white caulk neatly concealed any rough edges around the sink tiles, and with a little extra caulk, the winter air no longer blew in under the window. Whew!

caulking around sink

In Eric’s hand, that little plastic caulk trimmer did a great job of creating a clean line. The sink before trimming …

untrimmed caulk around sink and counter

And after. Nice, huh?

sink caulk trimmed

Overall, I’m really pleased with our backsplashes. They look so clean and shiny and Craftsman-y. The white grout did a lot to disguise the crooked top row under the upper cabinets. It still bugs me, but 95% of people who visit our kitchen won’t notice it. Of course, now you know, so you have to promise not to snicker or roll your eyes if you come over.

finished backsplash under cabinets

subway tile backsplash behind sink

So, this task is complete at last, and before the end of the year. TA DA! I can go to sleep at night knowing that I won’t have to do any tiling in the foreseeable future, and that nothing—but nothing!—will seep between my sink and the counter ever again. And really, isn’t that the secret to peace of mind?

white subwaytiles on wall



17 thoughts on “Tiles and tribulations

  1. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    Yay! You did it! It looks wonderful. We had the same problem with the top row of the tile being really uneven, but it isn’t noticeable once everything is on the counter. At least, we haven’t had anyone notice it yet.

  2. Jo

    I can’t see any unevenness and you’ve given me courage to try a little tiling myself. But, as you say, don’t hold your breath. Great job, D’Arcy. PS Let me know when you start painting your trim, mine needs painting also. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Go for it! Tiling isn’t very hard, just fussy. My excuse for not painting is that I’m waiting for warmer weather … and I’ll stick with that! 🙂

  3. ladylansdowne

    Firstly, i’m upset i didn’t think of this post title!! Looks amazing, our kitchen tiles are not straight or even either, i was really upset for a while and then got reminded that the house in general isn’t straight or even, and if it was, i wouldnt like it! Happy New Year to you.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      It’s reassuring to hear that others’ tiles are not straight, either. Maybe it’s a badge of honor in our old houses! Happy 2015 to you, too!

  4. Karen B.

    It looks fabulous. You and Eric are so talented in the DIY department and you both do the work so well. I don’t think anyone will notice the tiny little discrepancy between the top row of tiles under the cabinets…I promise not to tell anyone! 🙂
    Have a nice New Year celebration no matter what your plans. May 2015 be a good year for us all.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks, Karen! We’ll be lying low for New Year’s … having our traditional fondue and struggling to stay up till midnight. Happy New Year to you!!

  5. Tom & Judy

    Do you and Eric rent out for renovations? You two have done a superb job on every project you have tackled so far. No one will every notice the tile difference unless you point it out, which you probably will. lol Can’t wait to see the porch when you finish it. Don’t feel pressured though. lol

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      You are right, I’ll probably feel compelled to point it out … have to curb that impulse! We would rent ourselves out, but we’re booked until we are 85. 🙂

  6. newjersey.oldhouse

    Your tile looks great! We had a similar unevenness under our bay window–the narrowest tile was 1 centimeter wide, and the thickest was about an inch. I agree with everyone else–it’s really not particularly noticeable. And even though mine drove me crazy at first, I barely notice them now.

  7. Brian Erga

    Sounds and looks like you are having a great time with the old house. I know you love it dearly and I am very happy to hear and see Eric is helping it move into the next 100 years. When I fly south out of Seatac, I always look for your house.



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