10 Creative Ways to Use Subway Tile

I have talked about this classic tile before in many, if not all, of my posts (here, here, and here). If you’re considering a kitchen remodel and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a fancy-patterned ceramic tile, but still want something a little more interesting than a boring field tile, these designs will open up a world of possibility to you. This post was inspired by a colleague of mine who has a vendetta against subway tile, saying the traditional offset-joint field pattern is too reminiscent of actual subways. While I respect his opinion, the goal of this post is to prove the versatility of this tile by showing ten different ways it can be set as a kitchen backsplash. 

1. Offset Joint

First, we’ll start off simple: the most popular off-set brick pattern. This was the original setting of the tile when it was first introduced and remains the most popular way to install it. This is the look that my colleague doesn’t care for. Of course, I respectfully think he’s crazy.

2. Offset 1/3

If you want to use the brick pattern, but want to be a little different from the crowd, offset the bricks by 1/3 instead. This gives a slightly more horizontal look to the tile and elongates the space a bit more. It’s not a huge difference, but when you compare the style to the offset joint, you can see that the movement is slightly different.

3. Straight-Set

Too traditional for your taste? I’m the first to admit that an offset brick pattern doesn’t work in every home. If you are working with a modern space, try straight-setting the tiles. This creates straight lines which reflect a much more contemporary aesthetic. This is one of my personal favorite ways to install it.

4. Vertical Straight-Set

We’re going to get a little more crazy now…keeping the straight-set format, turn the tiles on their side and set them vertically for an unexpected pattern. This is a particularly nice setting if you are dealing with a more narrow space (less than 18″) as it can visually widen the space. This is also a very modern aesthetic which would look best in a newer room.

5. Vertical Offset Joint

Kicking it up a notch, offset the vertical tiles to give a bit of a funky vibe to it. I imagine this would look absolutely amazing in a loft-type kitchen with some bright glass subway inserts (I’m thinking reds, cobalts, etc.). It has become my personal mission to install this into a lofty-type kitchen by the end of the year.

6. Offset Joint + Vertical Straight-Set Trim

For those who prefer the traditional aesthetic with a bit of extra “oomph”, consider running a band of vertical subway within your field to act as trim. For tall spaces, run a second band to add extra interest. In an accent color, this pattern would be too busy for most spaces, but when using the same color throughout it just adds another element of interest.

7. Crosshatch

Taking a bit of a more ethnic look, try out a cross-hatch. Reflecting the appearance of a weave pattern, this has a bit of a more natural effect. To really play up the pattern, use a darker grout. For a subtle bit of texture, use a very light gray grout.

8. Herringbone

Get back to some wild patterns with a fun herringbone (one of my absolute favorite patterns of all-time) to give some movement to your kitchen. I particularly love this style because while it’s a much more daring pattern, herringbone is never going to be out of style.

9. Offset Joint Diagonal

For something out of the ordinary, but not too crazy, simply turn your brick field on a 45 degree angle to get these crisp, clean lines. This is an especially good pattern for those with elaborate counters, as the movement of the tile draws the eye back down to that level.

10. Straight-Set + Vertical Trim

For a contemporary look that I think would work in both traditional and modern homes, straight-set the field tile and run vertical straight-set tiles as trim. I depicted it running throughout the kitchen, but it would also look great as just two bands of trim over the stove. If you wanted to pack some extra punch, replace the vertical subway trim with linear glass to give a waterfall effect.

So there you have it. As an FYI, a beautiful handmade subway tile only costs about $10/SF and if you wanted to go REALLY budget, you can find similar subway tiles at your big box stores (of course, read this before you go the cheap route!). So consider this proof that you don’t have to spend a fortune on your field tile to get a unique look for your home; it really just takes a sense of imagination.

*First featured image courtesy of www.curbly.com. All sketches are the original work of TileTramp.

If you would like assistance planning your next tile project, email me at tiletramp@gmail.com for a free consultation!

32 Responses to “10 Creative Ways to Use Subway Tile”
  1. Mary says:

    WOW, I love the herringbone pattern! I don’t think I’ve seen that ‘in real life’ done in subway tile.

  2. Tile Tramp says:

    I know isn’t it great?? I think it’d be really cool to do alternate zig zags in white and black subway too to really give it a geometric punch.

    Kate at Domestiphobia.net actually did the herringbone pattern for part of her backsplash, you can see how it looks in a taupe subway here: http://domestiphobia.net/2010/05/14/kates-kitchen-befores-and-not-quite-afters/

    I love how she installed it at an angle, which gave it a bit of a more traditional vibe (in my humble opinion).

  3. Katie says:

    Aw, thanks for the link! And I wish I would’ve had this post as a reference before we planned our backsplash. 🙂

    • Tile Tramp says:

      Thanks Katie, but you didn’t need my help! I absolutely love your backsplash and that you took a risk with the herringbone…it definitely paid off for you guys 🙂

  4. Very good. you are just the right website.

  5. Amber says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for as we are purchasing white subway tiles today. After seeing this post, I’m convinced that the straight set is the one that will look best for our new remodel. Thanks for writing!

    • Tile Tramp says:

      Amber, glad I could help! Straight-set is one of my favorite ways to use subway too…it’s a really great marriage between a traditional tile and a modern look, and it’s a really inexpensive way to add some contemporary interest!

  6. chanie says:

    this is really instructive. i’m wondering about using pattern/different ways of setting the tiles on part of the wall or on one wall, and also about going for different options in the 3 bathrooms in our home (we’re doing a complete remodel and i want a certain unity throughout). i could imagine doing straight set on most walls, and having an accent of vertical, crosshatch, herringbone or straight set with the vertical trim on one wall. have you seen this done?

  7. chanie says:

    hmmm…now i’m looking at it further and thinking about the crosshatch or the straight set with vertical trim using the same color but with varied glaze – matte or shiny. thoughts? could create visual interest.

    • Tile Tramp says:

      Thanks for the comments, I’m glad you found this post inspiring! I love your idea, and think it would be a great way to keep a bit of continuity throughout your home while still creating unique spaces. To be honest, this post was inspired by a client of mine who wanted to accomplish the same task. As for mixing glazes, I think that’s a great idea. While I haven’t personally seen it done, I’ve seen clients mix white with a slight off-white to create a bit of distinction. I imagine mixing the glazes would have a similar effect.

  8. Lilibi says:

    I am going to be using the subway tile “Offset Joint” in the kitchen for the backsplash. What do you recommend to end the sides with? bullnose? pencil trim? or just end it with the tile?

    • Tile Tramp says:

      Hi Lilibi,

      You can definitely do all of the above, but I think using a bullnose or pencil trim gives more of a finished look. If your home is more traditional, I’d definitely recommend the pencil trim. If you have a more minimalist or modern home, go with bullnose. But if you’re really budget-conscious and want to save some dollars, you can end it with the tile, it just won’t be as polished.

      Hope that helps!

  9. Newbie says:

    Hello there, just wondering on what your thoughts are for a kitchen backsplash with ceramic matte subway tiles 4X12? Hoping to get a nice horizontal feel with this longer tile. Also what type of grout line would you use..just the natural line between the tiles or spacers? One more question….kitchen is white,grey and taupe…would light grey grout work?

    • Tile Tramp says:

      I think 4×12 is a really nice modern look. If your kitchen is very modern or contemporary, straight-set the tiles or offset them by 1/3. If it’s more traditional, off-set them by half. Use spacers for sure to give you a more clean look. But don’t bother buying any…if you have any pennies lying around, those will do the trick. And absolutely light gray grout will work. I like Mapei’s “Warm Gray”. Hope that helps!

      • Newbie says:

        I was actually looking at the Mapei Warm gray when I purchased the tile.. I think it’s the perfect complement!!

        I like the 1/2 offset as I would describe my kitchen as more on the traditional side. Thanks!

  10. Newbie says:

    Is white matte a better choice for the kitchen backsplash or is white glossy or are they the same? Just wondering your thoughts

    • Tile Tramp says:

      I like them both in different applications…if you don’t have a lot of natural light, it’s a good idea to choose glossy to reflect the light you do have. Matte tiles tend to absorb light. If you want to email me a picture of your kitchen (tiletramp@gmail.com) I could give you better advice!

  11. Cheri says:

    Thank you for sharing all of these creative ideas to use subway tile. We trying to decide between straight set or off set joint. I would like to email you a picture of my kitchen for you opinion. Would that be possible? We have some beautiful glass tiles from Bella Vita Tile.

  12. Susan says:

    Hi, I loved the ideas in this post, and I had sent you an email and some pics of my kitchen hoping for an idea for a subway tile backsplash. Did you receive my email? Would you be willing to take a look?

  13. Kirsten says:

    So glad to have found this site, we are remodeling our kitchen and have butcher block counters with white cabinets, I am trying to decide if glossy or matte is right for us and what color grout. Our kitchen is small but we have worked hard to open it up by painting the cabinets and restoring the original hard wood floors that were buried under five layers of lanoleum! Any ideas for brightening it up a bit more?

    • Tile Tramp says:

      When going for optimal brightness, always go gloss. Glossy finishes will reflect the light back out, while matte finishes will retain the light. To brighten it up even more, perhaps opt for a back-painted glass which offers additional depth as well as reflecting the light back in your space.

  14. denice says:

    YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We are doing a white subway tile backplash with delorean gray grout and my husband thought of the different idea of doing it in thirds. I couldnt find a picture of that anywhere on google images and was beginning to think there mught be something technically wrong with it but I liked the originality of it and the movement that pattern gives. Then just before he started cutting tile I said, Let m check the internet one more time…. and came across your blog!! We are going with the thirds as our kitchen is small but I do love the offset joint too – being a NY’er!
    Thanks you!!!

  15. StephieLeilani@gmail.com says:

    Random linear is also a fun one. Using multiple sizes that modulate in random offset patterns.

  16. Kelly says:

    Ok Glad I found your Site. Having Subway tile installed right now and thought they put my tiles in Wrong. They went with the 1/3 off set. I’ve never heard or seen this before. My tile guy said they are doing this quite a bit now. What are your thoughts.

  17. karen hanretty says:

    Could you do regular, inexpensive white tile as the straight-set and jazz it up with glass tile as the vertical? Or would that clash?

  18. Alejandra says:

    A friend referred me to this site. Thanks for the information.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] I personally believe these have risen in popularity due to the resurgence of French influence in design. All of a sudden, you can’t turn a page in a design magazine without seeing some sort of French feature. Herringbone and chevron both create a European feel, and make for a stunning backsplash that is quite a bit more interesting than your standard subway tile. And the best part? You can actually create this pattern using subway tile! […]

  2. […] 10 Creative Ways to Use Subway Tile « TileTramp This post was inspired by a colleague of mine who has a vendetta against subway tile saying the traditional offset-joint field pattern is too reminiscent of actual subways. While I respect his opinion, the goal of this post is to […]

  3. […] reminds me of the post I wrote discussing all the different ways you can use subway tile. Since a 1×2 follows the same ratio as the traditional subway tile (3×6), all the same […]

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