You’ve heard of it and admired it, but do you really know what makes a subway tile?
We’re here to help! We’ve included a little historical perspective, the general characteristics of traditional subway tile, creative installation patterns and adaptations, and some ideas on how to use it in your home.
What Is It?
The term subway tile refers to rectangular tiles (usually 3 x 6 inches) laid horizontally with a 50% offset. Made of ceramic tile, subway tile is known for both its durability and its timeless style.
Why Do They Call It Subway Tile?
You might be wondering, why are they called like that? The answer: They were first used in New York subway stations.
When designers were tasked with designing a surface that was both low-maintenance and bright for the first subway station in 1904, this tile was born.
Victorians prioritized hygiene, so easy-to-clean, stain-resistant, and bacteria-resistant ceramic tile was a natural choice. Additionally, the white and glossy design of the first subway tiles formed a highly reflective surface that helped create a safe, sanitary feeling for passengers who may have had concerns about travelling underground.
Is Subway Tile Still Popular?
After its inception in 1904, subway tiles went on to appear in other transportation hubs around the world. Its sanitary appearance and health benefits meant that it was soon being used anywhere hygiene was a concern, including kitchens and bathrooms.
Today, it’s popularity continues to grow.
We often get asked: Is it a fad? While the incredible popularity of subway tile design may make you wonder if it’s just another short-lived trend, its longevity is a major clue that this isn’t the case. Over 100 years old, it remains a favorite for home and business owners alike.
So why is it so popular?
We have to chalk it up to the inherent timelessness of this subway tile design. Using plain white rectangle tiles and a simple tile layout, it has managed to create a design that’s equally impactful and easy to achieve.
Subway Tile FAQs
Let’s get more specific: Here are some frequently asked questions about subway tile.
What is the pattern? They’re traditionally laid in a 50% offset, meaning that the middle of the tile aligns with the edges of the two tiles above or beneath it. However, modern interpretations of it often take liberties with this pattern, or even abandon it altogether. Alternative the patterns include a one-third offset and a one-fourth offset.
What is the standard size? What are the dimensions? It is traditionally 3 x 6 inches and this is the most popular size. However, any rectangular tile with 1-to-2 dimensions can work as subway tile, with other sizes including 2 x 4, 4 x 8, and 6 x 12.
What material is it? Is it porcelain or ceramic? The original was actually ceramic tile. Today, you can find tiles in ceramic, porcelain, and glass tiles, all popular choices for the same reason ceramic tiles were chosen in the first place: low maintenance and incredible style.
Are they expensive? Subway Tile can be quite affordable, especially if you go with the traditional white design.
Installation and Maintenance
How to install it: Do your research on what goes into the installation for your intended application and specific needs, such as how to install a subway tiles backsplash or how to install it in a shower. Consider researching the details, such as how to install the tile backsplash corners or how to tile a shower niche with subway tile. If you do not have the skills or tools necessary to do the job, we recommend hiring a qualified tile installer to ensure the quality of your installation.
How to lay it: For the traditional subway tile design, lay tiles with a 50% offset. The middle of each tile should line up with the edges of the two tiles above and beneath it. Because it typically has 1-to-2 dimensions, you can use the short side of a tile to determine the middle point of the long side. Before installing your tile, we suggest you do a dry layout to determine where your cuts will be needed.
How to cut it: You may need to cut some of your tiles to make your installation fit around outlets and the dimensions of your space. Some cuts can be made with a score and snap method using a snap cutter and others may require a wet saw. Certain materials, such as porcelain and glass tiles, may require a wet saw. If you do not have these tools or the skills to use them safely, we recommend hiring a qualified tile installer.
How long does it take to install it? The installation depends on the size of the application to be tiled, the complexity of the layout, and the experience of the tile installer. However, most traditional applications are relatively quick to install, especially for small areas such as backsplashes.
Can you install it over drywall? It is okay to install it over drywall so long as the area is not exposed to a lot of moisture. High-moisture areas (such as shower walls) benefit from cement board backers to improve long-term durability.
Can you paint it? Except in the case of small-scale DIY projects, it is not recommended to paint ceramic tiles. Painting your subway tiles may inhibit its ability to resist stains and scratches, and the design may not hold up over time. A better option is to choose it in the color or pattern that you desire.
Grout and Subway Tiles
How to grout it: Follow the manufacturer directions of your chosen grout for mixing and applying grout.
What color grout to use with white: White is commonly paired with white, gray, or black grout. However, white tile — and, indeed, any tile color — can be paired with any color of grout. When determining what color grout to use with subway tiles, consider whether you want to draw attention to the layout pattern or not. This tile with high-contrast grout emphasizes the pattern, whereas matching grout creates a seamless look. Choosing a colorful grout can also be a fun way to make your white tile unique. Pro tip: Grouts that are a high contrast with your subway tile color may also more easily show any imperfections in the grout line and may emphasize any tile size variation.
How big should grout lines be for subway tiles? 3 x 6 inch typically have grout joints of 1/16 inch, but 1/8 inch grout joints are also common.
Twists on the Classic Pattern
Now that you know some general characteristics of traditional subway tile, forget them. A key feature of modern tile is the pushing of boundaries to find unique new ways to showcase your design.
Often, this means altering the layout pattern itself.
Here are some creative ways to install subway tiles!
With a One-Third Offset
Only slightly different than the traditional 50% offset, the one-third offset is another common pattern.
With a One-Fourth Offset
Stagger your subway tiles by 25% and you’ll get the look of stairs climbing up and down your wall.
In a Horizontal Grid
Another option is to remove the offset altogether. Doing so creates a standard horizontal grid.
In a Vertical Grid
Turn your tile on its side to create a vertically offset or stacked pattern. Vertical tile layouts are a great way to elongate a backsplash or wall and draw the eye upward. To really mix things up, take the traditional subway tile layout and rotate it by 45 degrees and you’ll have a diagonal pattern.
In a Herringbone Pattern
How to lay it in a herringbone pattern: Laying herringbone tile may be slightly more complicated than laying a traditional offset pattern as it involves diagonal cuts around outlets and the edges of your space. Be sure to make exact measurements and practice laying everything out before getting started.
In a Straight Herringbone Pattern
You can also lay your tiles in a straight (or 90-degree) herringbone pattern. Simply lay one tile vertically and the other perpendicular to it, and then repeat that pattern.
In a Diagonal Herringbone Pattern
A horizontal herringbone “<” or “>” pattern creates movement horizontally rather than vertically.
More Creative Ways to Use It
Whether you stick with the traditional layout or not, there are plenty of other options to make your tile stand out.
Change the Color
Who said subway tile has to be white? Using colorful tile can be enough to give your design a fun and modern twist.
This kitchen backsplash opts for a neutral beige subway tile for a brick effect, but no color is off the table.
Sprinkle With Different Colors
If you can’t choose just one color, multicolor tile is for you. One trend is to sprinkle tiles of a different color into your design in a random fashion, giving you unique looks like the one pictured above.
Use a Pattern or Natural Look
At first glance, this white backsplash appears quite similar to the traditional white design, but its subtle marble veining adds a luxurious twist.
You can also do the opposite and go with larger-than-average tiles. These tiles aren’t technically subway tiles but the look is reminiscent. Only go this route if you’re tiling a larger area, such as an entire shower.
The variety of available ceramic tile options means you can even combine sizes for a one-of-a-kind look subway tiles.
Change the Dimensions
It is typically 3 x 6 inches, but this backsplash proves that’s not a hard and fast rule. In a thinner and elongated size, this backsplash tile starts to look like the subway tile running bond tile pattern (a 50% offset pattern).
Add Some Texture
Another way to make it unique: Choose a tile with a textured surface. Textured tile creates a design that you’ll admire and want to reach out and touch.
[Related: Tile Trend Ideas: Textured Tile]
Now here’s a way to make it stand out (literally). Beveled subway tile creates a three-dimensional tile design with sloped edges and a protruding surface.
Add Tile Accents
Adding tile accents is another way to make it unique. Options include adding a border to the top or bottom of your tile application (top left), adding a focal point (top right), or adding accent tiles between the subway tiles themselves (below).
Color the Lines
We commonly see subway tiles with white, gray, or black grout, but choosing colorful grout is a great way to make your tile one of a kind.
White subway tile with colored grout draws attention to the tile layout pattern, whereas matching grout creates a more seamless design.
A trend growing in popularity, staggered tile transitions, ends along the tiles’ natural shape rather than cutting the tile to create a straight edge. Subway tile is an excellent choice for staggered tile transitions, and the combination draws attention to the creative layout patterns subway tile can create.
Using a staggered tile transition, you can transition your tile design to another subway tile color, another tile shape, or another material altogether.
[Related: Get Creative With Staggered Tile Transitions]
More Subway Tile Ideas
Find even more ways to make your subway tile unique in our video.
Where to Use It
Subway tiles are typically manufactured for use as wall tiles and they commonly appear in applications such as those featured below.
Backsplashes are perhaps the most common place we see this type of tile today. The traditional white subway tile design looks great in just about any kitchen or bathroom, with options to customize your backsplash design to your space.
Plus, ceramic tile’s water and stain resistance protects the wall behind your counter and ensures that it will look great for years to come.
Subway tiles are a popular choice for showers as well, and traditional white showers are a particular favorite for those who want to create a Victorian-inspired design. All-white bathrooms were common during the Victorian era, since they reserved plain tiles for the less visible areas of the home.
Of course, today, white tile is shown off rather than hidden away!
Everyone’s Favorite Tile Style
Now you can see why everyone loves subway tile, how it has endured over the last 100-plus years, and why it’s here to stay. You may have even fallen in love with a specific subway tiles design yourself; and if not, you certainly have the tools and know-how to design the perfect fit for your home.