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The Ultimate Guide to Subway Tile

subway tile kitchen

We’ve all heard of subway tile. It’s the tile version of shiplap. By that I mean it’s the most ubiquitous style of tile in the world and it’s didn’t even Chip and Joanna Gaines to make it famous.

Subway tile is like The Beatles of the tile world. Everyone has heard of it and most people love it, though like any top dog there are always the contrarians who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.

In this post I wanted to compile my years of experience working with and around subway tile to give you the ultimate guide to subway tile. So let’s dive in.

History of Subway Tile

On October 27, 1904 New York City’s first subway line opened at City Hall running along Centre Street north to Grand Central Station (the current route of the No. 6 train). Designers needed a way to make the dark and dreary tunnels seems clean, bright and appealing to New Yorkers to encourage them to travel underground (a radical idea for the times).

city hall subway station
City Hall Subway Station prior to opening in 1904

To do this they turned to architects George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge who designed the first subway stations for the IRT line including the showpiece station at City Hall. To accomplish this they created the distinctive 3″ x 6″ glaze white rectangles we’re all so familiar with today.

Heins and LaFarge knew what materials would stand up well to heavy-duty cleaning and scrubbing; they worked with the ceramic-producing firms Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati to create the tiles.

Even though Heins and LaFarge only designed a few early stations from 1901 to 1906 the architects like Squire Vickers who followed them as designer of the city’s subway stations from 1906 to 1942 followed their initial design aesthetic using mosaic tiles for for the station names with decorative borders and arts and craft motifs.

In the early days of the subway citizens admired the state of the art trains and designs so much that it wasn’t long before subway tile began appearing in bathrooms, kitchens, and utility rooms around around the area before spreading into a full fledged design craze in the 1920s with the advent of the “sanitary craze” when people believed that dirt carried disease and having easy to clean white surfaces could keep them safer from disease.

The tile was considered to be exceptionally sanitary because of the ease of cleaning and its pencil thin grout lines. 

Subway Tile Sizes & Designs

Is subway tile out of style today? Hardly! Subway tile has been one of the most resilient trends in tile design for well over a century and forecasters see no stopping to its dominance. Expect to see more creative designs, colors and patterns, but the basic rectangular shape of the subway tile still reigns supreme.

One of the most useful things about subway tile is their flexibility and utility. Think of a box of subway tile like a box of Legos. You can build almost anything from that box of goodies. A dragon, a pirate ship, or my kid’s favorites a race car. I’m talking the Legos here, but subway tile is just as flexible in the tile sense in that the design you can create from it are really left up to the limits of your own imagination.

Sizes 

The sizes of subway tile can vary greatly and many manufacturers have their own custom sizes that others don’t. Below I’ll mention the most common sizes that you’ll find.

Rectangles

The most common form of subway tile that we all know almost instantly is the traditional 3×6 white field tiles. These little rectangles are the major building blocks for millions of bathrooms around the world. Commonly between 1/4” and 3/8” thick they can and have been used in innumerable ways from tub surrounds, to backsplashes to actual subways.

subway tile shower

Today you’ll find any number of different size and shape rectangles as people look for more variety. 6×9, 2×12, even 1×16 these all got their start from those original 3×6 rectangles underground in new York’s subways.

If you are wanting larger subway tiles, but still want the same proportions then stick with a 1:2 proportion to keep that historic feel. So, pick dimensions like 1×2, 2×4, 3×6, 4×8, and so on.

Edging

One of the biggest difference in subway tile design and appearance is the edging of the tiles. By this I’m referring to the perimeter of each tile. Traditional subway tiles are almost flat with a rectified edge which, when installed, creates a very smooth and cohesive wall of tile with little to no variation.

Some less historically accurate subway tiles have a slight bevel on the edges to make installation simpler, but this also creates variety in the field that would not have been there in traditional installations.

Some subway tiles go as far as having beveled edges to create a completely different style for those who desire it. Check out the various options you can find and make the decision based on your own personal design aesthetics.

Design Patterns

Running Bond

The most common and historically appropriate pattern was the have the tiles laid horizontally and offset by half the distance just like a brick wall. Sometimes called a common bond or offset pattern the running bond provides a secure and cohesive field of subway tile that harkens back to the old tunnels of New York. This design can also be run vertically but if far less common.

Herringbone

A complex design that has a high end feel to it and add visual interest. The herringbone pattern gets its name from its visual similarity to the bone structure of a herring fish. The pattern has been used into antiquity as the Romans built their first paved roads using stones laid in a herringbone pattern. The strong interweaving of the materials provides a pattern that is extremely resilient to traffic.

Herringbone tile design
Herringbone tile design

Straight

Less common the straight stacking of subway tile either vertically or horizontally gives a unique modern look with lined up joints throughout the whole body of the tile.

Materials

The first subway tiles were made from ceramic. Of course, today they are available in the standard materials almost any tile is made out of like ceramic, porcelain, glass, marble, and other stone. The determining factor is what look and function do you want to have with your subway tile.

Ceramic

Ceramic tile is made from clay with a glazed face to it. The glazing creates the color and sheen that shows to the public but if the tile breaks then you’ll see the orange clay inside. Ceramic is an inexpensive option that works well for installations on a budget. It holds up reasonably well for most projects and is pretty common.

Porcelain

The general standard for subway tile porcelain tile is harder and has color throughout the body of the whole tile unlike ceramic. If it chips or is cut then the issue is less evident with porcelain. The increased hardness comes from the premium materials used in the production of porcelain tile. If you can afford the increased costs (we’ll discuss those below) then porcelain is always my recommendation.

subway tile spacing

Glass

The least historical in style, glass subway tiles are typically smaller in dimension and often used for things like backsplashes. The tile come in a wide variety of colors.

Marble & Natural Stone

A lot of manufacturers make marble and stone versions of the traditional subway tiles Marble is a great materials for tile, but it is a soft stone that can easily scratch, etch or stain if exposed to certain chemicals

How Much Does Subway Tile Cost?

How much does subway tile cost? That all depends on where you buy it and what it’s made from. Ceramic will typically be the least expensive followed by porcelain, glass and marble at the top of the price range.

At the low end a basic ceramic subway tile like DalTile’s 3×6 Restore line will run you around $1.20 per SF. For top notch restoration quality tile like Heritage Tile’s SubwayCeramics 3×6 field tile line which is solid porcelain you can expect to pay about $20 per SF.

Which do you need? That completely depends on the look and style you want, but you can expect to pay more for designer versions that the standard types just like with any product.

Installation Tips

Just like installing any tile there are some basics you should know that are specific to subway tile installation. For a tutorial of the entire installation process I did a few years ago check out this earlier post How To: Install Subway Tile.

Trowel Size

This will depend largely on the size tile you are using, but for standard 3×6 subway tile a 1/4″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″ square notched trowel is usually the right size. Any smaller and you risk not having enough mortar to securely hold the tile and any larger of a notch and you’ll get lots of thinset mortar squeezing out in the joints.

Joint Size

You can choose whatever size grout joints you want, but if you want a tradtional look to your subway tile then the smaller the joint the better so I’d recommend nothing larger than a 1/16″ joint for a historically accurate subway tile installation. I have worked with some irregular shaped subway tiles that were handmade and tiles like that require a 1/8″ joint to accommodate the slight differences in their size.

Some subway tile have spacers on the edges to give them the proper spacing and some require the use of plastic spacers until the mortar dries. Take a quick peek at your tile and check to see which kind you are dealing with and use spacers accordingly.

Grout Color

Again this is completely up to personal preference, but the historically accurate colors for subway tile grout are typically charcoal or a medium to dark grey. Using a contrasting grout color helps show off the design (whatever you may have chosen). White grout only hides the dimensions and blurs the edges.

A quick tip for those considering using white grout is to make sure you use white thinset instead of the standard grey thinset mortar. This will make cleaning your grout joints of excess mortar unnecessary and save you time and effort.

Layout

Do the extra time to figure out your layout ahead of time before you start slapping tiles up against the wall. Try to have the tiles centered on the wall so the corners don’t end up with any slivers of a tile. Subway tile is designed with symmetry in mind so work hard to keep that symmetry as a part of your layout even when changing from one wall to another.

That’s about it. You know pretty much everything you need now to pick out your subway tile and create a timeless bathroom, kitchen, or backsplash with one of the most enduring tile styles in American history. The question now is, what will you create?

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1 thought on “The Ultimate Guide to Subway Tile

  1. Scott, I need my (2+1 in Dallas) bathroom 1990 remodel re-done properly! I also co-own my ancestral home: a 1950 ranch style in San Diego, where the green subway has held up beautifully, even through some earthquakes. I’m told the mortar was laid thick back then, and the tiles were also thick. What would you recommend, instead of thin-set, for laying tile the thickness of the Heritage Subway?

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