Making a (Back)Splash
Choosing the right backsplash for your kitchen
Whether you are doing a whole-room makeover or just looking to perk things up with a change or two, your kitchen backsplash can play a key role. It can be an understated unifier that ties the room together, or it can be a stand-out work of art that proclaims your personal style.
The kitchen backsplash material and design is an important consideration, not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a functional one, as well. It is important to consider a material that meets YOUR particular requirements.
The wide number of materials and finishes available today, coupled with all of the pattern and design varieties mean your options are myriad—which can be a bit overwhelming. So, before you wander into a tile shop or home improvement store and randomly pull samples, take a few minutes to read through this primer on backsplash material basics and learn some of the pros and cons of some of your options.
If you are looking for a material that says, “showstopper,” glass is the way to go. The colors and sheens and degrees of transparency are virtually limitless, as are the sizes. You can get glass tiles in larger formats, small mosaic pieces, subway tiles, basic 4.5 x 4.5 squares, and more. Its natural luminescence is a great way to add light and color to your space.
Pros: Glass is truly customizable. Mix and match patterns and colors—you can even paint the wall behind a translucent tile and make your look even more unique. Glass can be used alone, or it pairs well with other materials, especially natural stone.
Glass is very low-maintenance, and naturally resistant to stains and to mildew, making it easy to keep clean and sanitary. The smooth, non-porous surface means soap and water are usually enough to keep it looking its best.
Want a green option? Glass is it! Choose a recycled glass product and save some space in the landfill while you add some glam to your kitchen.
Cons: Cost is the big one here—quality glass tile is not inexpensive; many varieties are substantially more than stone. Also, transparent tiles mean you can see the adhesive and whatever is on your wall. It also means cutting and routing need to be precise, or every imperfection will announce itself in glaring form. Not sure of your skills with a saw or with installation? Not a neatnik? Consider the cost of hiring a professional for a clean, polished look.
Considerations: Love the look of glass but on a limited budget? Consider interspersing it with ceramic tile or stone, either as part of a mosaic pattern or as a border. One final consideration is aesthetic—make sure you like what you choose and are prepared to have it impact resale (or be prepared to replace if you’re planning to sell). Glass is trendy—and hasn’t yet shown itself to be timeless. Colors and patterns that are en vogue now might not be in a decade.
Your budget-friendly, customizable, infinite-option option, tile (ceramic and porcelain) is the workhorse of the kitchen. Its also a style chameleon…it can look like, well, tile…or you can select options that mimic natural stone such as travertine or marble.
Pros: Tile is durable, and water and stain resistant. It’s also available in a wide variety of combinable sizes, colors, patterns, etc. These days, tile can be manufactured or printed to look like wood, natural stone, or many other materials. And while it is very hardy, should something happen, its modular nature means if an individual tile is damaged, all you need to do is remove and replace. You can often purchase tiles in sheets on a mesh backing (usually a 12- by 12-inch square) that come in patterns like herringbone, which means you can add dimension and style without having to lay out each and every individual piece.
Machine-made Ceramic tile is the workhorse of the bunch—wear-and-tear resistant, extremely easy to clean and maintain, and economical. It comes in matte, glossy, and satin finishes. Porcelain tile is very similar, although more durable (and more expensive). Made of high-fired, refined clay it is available glazed or unglazed. Both porcelain and ceramic tiles are great choices in high traffic areas, thanks to their durability and ease of cleaning and sterilizing.
Cons: Tile’s density means it is durable—but it also means it is extremely hard. It will also most likely break any dishware or glasses dropped on it, and glossy-finished tiles can be very slippery when wet (something to keep in mind if you have children or elderly family members), so consider carefully if you'd want to use it both as a counter and as a backsplash.
Considerations: The cost of tile is almost as variable as the options, however ceramic tile tends to range in price from inexpensive to moderately costly, while porcelain is moderately to very expensive. Upkeep is minimal—although the grout will need regular cleaning and periodic re-sealing.
Many materials allow you to customize your look…but stone is the original, original. Because it is a natural material no two pieces are ever identical. Some materials (marble, soapstone, I’m looking at you) can be a bit of the drama queen—high maintenance and requiring regular attention—but what you can rest assured that that bit of drama is yours, and yours alone in the looks department.
Pros: Natural stone, including slate, marble, limestone, and granite, is both beautiful and durable, with many color and pattern choices. From rustic rough slate to sleek polished marble, there are options for nearly every design vibe. It is also nearly indestructible (of course, that does NOT mean you can’t mark, scuff, or stain it). It has timeless appeal—travertine and marble, for example—were popular a decade ago, and will probably be so a decade or three down the road.
Cons: Unless you choose a honed or tumbled finish, many types of stone such as granite or marble can be slippery. Natural stone does need fairly regular maintenance. Its porous nature means it must be sealed regularly to protect it from dirt, stains, and moisture. Like tile, stone can be cold and hard on the feet (and on your glassware, should you drop it). The pits, grooves, and variations in texture can make it difficult to truly get clean, and you do need to make sure you use the right type of cleanser, or you can damage the surface. Stone is also exceptionally heavy, and requires a strong surface to mount to to hold the extra weight.
Considerations: Stone can be comparatively expensive, and often has labor-intensive, difficult, and costly installation. It also requires upkeep and elbow grease. But if you don’t mind a little added work, and consider the longevity of the product, you will get a timeless classic with universal appeal.
Manufactured Stone Veneer
Manufactured Stone Veneer
Advances in technology have meant manufactured stone veneers can offer a realistic aesthetic as an alternative to stone. Modern marvel or the great pretender…you make the call.
Pros: A man-made product composed of Portland cement, aggregates, and iron oxides, stone veneer gives you the look of real stone/slate, but is substantially lighter weight and is also easier to cut. Because it typically comes in 12x12 sheets, it makes laying it out easier—plus it does not require grout.
Cons: Veneer stone is porous, and food splatter—especially oils—can cause staining. And once it is stained, it is very difficult to clean. And, while you can attempt to seal veneered stone, thus protecting it from some of the worst stains, because of its texture and shape, everyday cleaning—such as a simple wipe-down—can be much more difficult.
Considerations: Stone veneer does come in sheets, but it can still be tricky to install, and may require cutting. And while it isn’t as hard as real stone, veneer stone pieces can still be hard for novices to cut. If you have reservations, always best to consult a professional.
Sleek, smooth, modern. Classic, clean, timeless. Stainless steel is an excellent choice for homeowners looking for a backsplash that is as eye-catching and efficient as it is long-lasting.
Pros: Stainless steel backsplashes come in all sorts of configurations, finishes, and textures, and can give your home a modern vibe. Its reflective nature brings light into a room, and its durability and smooth surface means it is easy to keep clean and sanitary. It is also heat-resistant, making it a good choice for behind stoves.
From stainless sheets to subway tiles, this popular option is relatively lightweight and easy to adhere to the wall. And, certain types also tend to be comparatively less expensive than some other popular materials, such as stone or granite. Unlike copper, zinc, or brass which can oxidize and change color over time, stainless steel does not require polishing, and upkeep is minimal—some hot soapy water and a soft sponge are usually all you need.
Cons: While it is easy to clean, and relatively low maintenance, stainless CAN stain…Certain types of spills and splashes, especially acidic ones, like tomatoes or lemons, can cause permanent damage/marking if left to sit on the material. It is also vulnerable to scratches and dents.
Considerations: Price varies on this material. Tiles can be quite expensive depending on the design—some of the more intricate patterns can cost as much as, or more, than stone. Sheet steel is inexpensive, however, it can be difficult for novices to work with and may require special cuts, especially around openings like light switches and outlets.
Quartz has become something of a design darling in recent years. And it’s not surprising, perhaps, that this manmade material has risen to prominence as an excellent countertop material, given its stain-resistant durable nature. Those same qualities also make it a great choice for a slab backsplash. A synthetic material that’s made of 90-95% quartz chips and 5-10% resins and pigments, quartz is sold by many companies, Cambria, Caesarstone, and Silestone being some of the leaders in the field.
Pros: Low-maintenance durability is the name of the game. Quartz requires very little in the way of upkeep—once installed it is basically set it and forget it. It never needs sealing, and its smooth, non-porous nature means it is resistant to bacterial growth and wipes clean with a damp cloth. It is durable, heat-resistant, and comes in myriad colors and patterns—you can get the look of granite, marble, concrete, or something totally not-found-in-nature…whatever meets your needs.
Cons: Although more and more patterns are being introduced every day, some people feel that quartz lacks the variations in patterning and veining of natural stone. Also, because it is sold in slabs, there will be visible seams, depending, of course, on how much of the material you need and in how large of a space. Quartz is not ideally suited for outdoor kitchens or areas that get high, prolonged UV exposure, either, as extended sun exposure can cause fading or discoloration. Cost is another drawback—quartz is a premium material, and as such, comes with a premium pricetag.
Considerations: If you are looking for a durable, eco-friendly, low-maintenance option, have the infrastructure suitable to hold a very heavy weight (heavier than granite), and don’t mind paying a bit more for a premium product, quartz is an elegant option.