Subway tile: you’ve heard of it and admired it, but do you really know what makes subway tile subway tile?
We’re here to help! We’ve included a little historical perspective, the general characteristics of traditional subway tile, creative subway tile installation patterns and adaptations, and some ideas on how to use subway tile in your home.
What Is Subway Tile?
The term “subway tile” typically 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 subway tiles called subway tiles? 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, subway 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 tile 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, subway tile’s popularity continues to grow.
We often get asked: Is subway tile a fad? While the incredible popularity of this 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, subway tile remains a favorite for home and business owners alike.
So why is subway tile so popular?
We have to chalk it up to the inherent timelessness of the subway tile design. Using plain white rectangle tiles and a simple tile layout, subway tile 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.
Subway Tile Basics
What is the subway tile pattern? Subway tiles are 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 subway tile often take liberties with this pattern, or even abandon it altogether. Alternative subway tile patterns include a one-third offset and a one-fourth offset.
What is the standard subway tile size? What are the dimensions of subway tile? Subway tile is traditionally 3 x 6 inches and this is the most popular size of subway tile. However, any rectangular tile with 1-to-2 dimensions can work as subway tile, with other subway tile sizes including 2 x 4, 4 x 8, and 6 x 12.
What material is subway tile? Is subway tile porcelain or ceramic? The original subway tile was ceramic tile. Today, you can find subway 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 subway tiles expensive? Subway tiles can be quite affordable, especially if you go with the traditional white design.
Subway Tile Installation and Maintenance
How to install subway tile: Do your research on what goes into subway tile installation for your intended application and specific needs, such as how to install a subway tile backsplash or how to install subway tile in a shower. Consider researching the details, such as how to install subway 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 subway tile: 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 subway tile 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 subway tile: You may need to cut some of your subway 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 subway tile? Subway tile 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 subway tile applications are relatively quick to install, especially for small areas such as backsplashes.
Can you install subway tile over drywall? It is okay to install subway tile 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 subway tile? Except in the case of small-scale DIY projects, it is not recommended to paint ceramic tiles. Painting your subway tile may inhibit its ability to resist stains and scratches, and the design may not hold up over time. A better option is to choose subway tiles in the color or pattern that you desire.
How do you clean subway tile? Subway tile can be cleaned just like any other ceramic tile: merely by wiping with water. For additional cleaning tips, read our Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Ceramic Tile.
Grout and Subway Tile
How to grout subway tile: Follow the manufacturer directions of your chosen grout for mixing and applying grout.
What color grout to use with white subway tile: White subway tile is commonly paired with white, gray, or black grout. However, white subway tile — and, indeed, any subway tile color — can be paired with any color of grout. When determining what color grout to use with subway tile, consider whether you want to draw attention to the layout pattern or not. Subway tile with high-contrast grout emphasizes the pattern, whereas subway tile with matching grout creates a seamless look. Choosing a colorful grout can also be a fun way to make your white subway tile unique. Pro tip: Grouts that are a high contrast with your 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 tile? 3 x 6 inch subway tiles typically have grout joints of 1/16 inch, but 1/8 inch grout joints are also common.
Twists on the Classic Subway Tile Pattern
Now that you know some general characteristics of traditional subway tile, forget them. A key feature of modern subway tile is the pushing of boundaries to find unique new ways to showcase subway tile design.
Often, this means altering the layout pattern itself.
Here are some creative ways to install subway tile.
Subway Tile With a One-Third Offset
Only slightly different than the traditional 50% offset, the one-third offset is another common pattern for subway tile.
Subway Tile 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.
Subway Tile in a Horizontal Grid
Another option is to remove the offset altogether. Doing so creates a standard horizontal grid.
Subway Tile in a Vertical Grid
Turn your subway tile on its side to create a vertically offset or stacked pattern. Vertical subway 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.
Subway Tile in a Herringbone Pattern
Herringbone subway tile adds a sense of movement to any application and can be laid at different angles to different effects. The traditional herringbone pattern is pictured above.
How to lay subway tile 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.
Subway Tile in a Straight Herringbone Pattern
You can also lay your subway 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.
Subway Tile in a Diagonal Herringbone Pattern
A horizontal herringbone “<” or “>” pattern creates movement horizontally rather than vertically.
More Creative Ways to Use Subway Tile
Whether you stick with the traditional subway tile layout or not, there are plenty of other options to make your subway tile stand out.
Change the Color
Who said subway tile has to be white? Using colorful tile can be enough to give your subway tile 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.
[Related: Tile Color Psychology: How Your Tile Color Affects Your Mood]
Sprinkle With Different Colors
If you can’t choose just one color for your subway tile, multicolor subway tile is for you. One trend is to sprinkle tiles of a different color into your subway tile design in a random fashion, giving you unique looks like the one pictured above.
Use a Pattern or Natural Look
Subway tile doesn’t have to be monochromatic, either: Natural looks (marble, granite, wood, and more) and patterns (think graphic designs, florals, and Art Deco-inspired prints) look great with subway tile.
At first glance, this white subway tile backsplash appears quite similar to the traditional white subway tile design, but its subtle marble veining adds a luxurious twist.
Here’s a simple subway tile update: Use small tiles to create a subway tile mosaic. This option is a great choice for smaller tile applications such as backsplashes.
You can also do the opposite and go with larger-than-average subway 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..
Change the Dimensions
Subway tile 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 your subway tile unique: Choose a subway tile with a textured surface. Textured tile creates a subway tile 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 your subway tile 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 your subway tile unique. Options include adding a border to the top or bottom of your subway 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 tile with white, gray, or black grout, but choosing colorful grout is a great way to make your subway tile one of a kind.
White subway tile with colored grout draws attention to the tile layout pattern, whereas subway tile with 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]
Find even more ways to make your subway tile unique in our video.
Where to Use Subway Tile
Subway tiles are typically manufactured for use as wall tiles and they commonly appear in applications such as those featured below.
Subway Tile Backsplashes
Backsplashes are perhaps the most common place we see subway tile today. The traditional white subway tile design looks great in just about any kitchen or bathroom, with options to customize your subway tile 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.
[Related: Bathroom and Kitchen Backsplash Tile: Your Comprehensive Guide]
Subway Tile Feature Walls
Just like in the original New York subway station, entire walls can show off your subway tile. This living room opts for a rustic gray subway tile design.
Subway Tile Fireplace Surrounds
Fireplace surrounds can benefit from subway tile as well, such as this weathered reddish-brown subway tile. Ceramic tile is flame-resistant, so you needn’t worry about heat or flame harming your tile.
Subway Tile Showers
Subway tile is a popular choice for showers as well, and traditional white subway tile 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 subway 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 tile design yourself; and if not, you certainly have the tools and know-how to design the perfect subway tile for your home.
The inspiration doesn’t have to stop here, though: Visit our Design Gallery and Pinterest board for even more creative subway tile designs to admire.
Where to Buy Subway Tile
Use the search tool at the Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA) to find a ceramic tile showroom in your area for a more individual, one-on-one shopping, design and education experience, or visit a home improvement or flooring retailer.