From colours and layout ideas to styling advice, here's all you need to know to select the right subway tiles for your home
Classic subway tiles are a favourite among decorators and it’s easy to see why –they’re versatile, budget-friendly and suit just about any home style. Use our guide to help you choose the perfect style for your interior.
What are subway tiles?
Rectangular tiles that typically measure 75x150 millimetres. Subway tiles come in a variety of different materials, including ceramic, porcelain, gloss, marble and slate, with a matte or gloss finish.
Subway tiles originated from the walls of New York subway stations around 1904. Their clean lines and tight joint lines quickly caught the notice of decorators, who have been using them to line the walls of classic and contemporary homes ever since.
Subway tiles are incredibly versatile. They pair beautifully with other materials, such as timber, brick and natural stone, and their simple styling means they sit comfortably in anything from an eclectic interior to a minimalist home.
When laid in a traditional brick format, they can be used to ‘wrap’ around the corners of a bathroom or shower area without a visual break, allowing you to create a seamless look across two or more walls.
With their pared-back appearance, subway wall tiles are a good balance for more decorative floor tiles, such as mosaic and tessellated tiles. As they are generally fairly inexpensive, they give you the freedom to splash out on other decorative elements within a space, whether it’s stunning tapware or a show-stopping bench top.
Subway tiles are a design classic that is unlikely to date. Their simple lines and understated aesthetic gives them a timeless appeal, which is great news if you’re watching your reno budget and want something that will look good for years to come.
What sizes, colours and finishes do subway tiles come in?
Traditional subway tiles measure 75x150 millimetres. But you’ll also find other sizes on the market, such as a large-scale 100x200-millimetre format and a long and slender 70x240-millimetre format, both of which will give your bathroom or kitchen a more contemporary feel. While white or vanilla subway tiles are classic choices, there’s a vast range of other hues to choose from too, including soft pastels, earthy neutrals and bold, heritage tones. You’ll also find several different textures on offer, including high-gloss, mirrored and matte.
When it comes to finish, subway tiles with a bevelled edge will create an elegant, tailored feel in space. For a handmade, rustic feel, consider hand-glazed subway tiles with an uneven, natural edge – a popular choice for contemporary bathrooms and kitchen splashbacks. Or, opt for subway tiles with a crazed finish, which feature hairline cracks or slightly uneven colouring across the surface, for a modern-meets-vintage look.
What are the different ways to lay subway tiles?
The way you lay subway tiles will affect the look and feel of the space they’re in. You’ll generally see subway tiles laid in a brick format, where the end of each tile lines up with the centre of the ones above and below it, creating a smart, classic look.
But a brick layout is not your only option. For a modern twist, consider laying subway tiles vertically (which has added bonus of making your ceiling appear higher), opt for a stack lay (where tiles are arranged in straight grid lines), choose a chevron, basket weave or herringbone layout, or create pattern by mixing tiles of different colours – all of which will add interest to a room without upping your renovating costs.
Where can I use subway tiles in my home?
Subway tiles are great options for kitchen walls and splashbacks, bathroom walls and splashbacks, shower walls and fireplace surrounds.
How do I choose subway tiles for a kitchen splashback?
First step, think about the size and style of your kitchen. If your kitchen is small or dark, consider subway tiles in a pale colour with a metallic or light-coloured finish that will maximise natural light and make the space appear bigger. If it’s large and filled with light, subway tiles in a deeper shade with a matte finish will add drama and a contemporary feel.
Consider finish too. Subway tiles with a classic bevelled finish are a great fit for traditional or heritage kitchens. For a modern-rustic or coastal kitchen, consider handmade or hand-glazed subway tiles, which will add charm with their natural, organic feel.
When it comes to tile size, make sure the style you choose is in proportion with the splashback area. In general, the distance between the benchtop and the underside of most overhead kitchen cabinets is about 600 millimetres. Classic 75x150-millimetre subway tiles are a good fit for average-size splashbacks. If yours is on the small side, seek out a compact subway size, or for a large splashback, consider the 100x200-millimetre format. Just remember – the larger the tile, the less grout lines, which means less cleaning.
Ask yourself, do you want your subway tiles to be a feature or to blend into the background so that another element in the room, such as the benchtop, can take centre stage?
In an otherwise neutral kitchen, a bright, tiled splashback in an unexpected layout, such as herringbone or chevron, will draw the eye and energise the space. If you’d prefer your subway tiles to disappear into the background, consider tiles in a low-key neutral that matches or harmonises with surrounding paint or cabinetry colours, and opt for a brick or stack lay.
When selecting subway tile colour, you should also factor in the other finishes in the kitchen, such as cabinetry, paint, benchtop material and floor or wall tiles. It’s a good idea to take samples of these finishes with you when you go tile shopping so can check that colours will work well together.
Balance is another important consideration. Subway tiles look incredible paired with decorative encaustic floor tiles or mosaics, creating a look that’s both warm and eye-catching.
If you have chosen decorative tiles for your floor, it’s a good idea to balance them out with a neutral-coloured subway tile for your splashback. For a cohesive and considered look, pick up a key tone in the floor tiles and carry it through to your subway tiles.
How do I choose subway tiles for a bathroom?
When it comes to choosing subway tiles for your bathroom, take your cues from the style and dimensions of the space. White or vanilla subway tiles on the walls or splashback will make the room feel light and bright and maximise the sense of space. They will also provide a neutral backdrop to a heritage bathroom, which you can then dress up with decorative cappings and trims in rich shades, a beautiful tessellated floor, and exquisite fixtures such as a claw-foot bath.
For a more dramatic look, create a feature wall with subway tiles in a bold shade of teal or sage. Balance out the richness with bright, white bathroom fixtures and sleek brushed gold or chrome tapware.
Bevelled-edge subway tiles will create an elegant, timeless look that suits both traditional and modern bathrooms. For a softer and more organic feel, consider natural-edge subway tiles with a hand-glazed finish – an appealing choice for rustic-luxe and coastal bathrooms.
With their pared-back aesthetic, subway tiles make a perfect partner for decorative floor tiles in a bathroom. Choose from a bold, geometric-patterned tessellated floor in rich, heritage colours or more contemporary pastels; simple-but-striking encaustic tiles; or decorative mosaics. Create a sense of connection between your different tile types by choosing subways in a colour picked up from your floor tiles or opting for a neutral such as white or vanilla.
When considering which type of floor tile to choose for your bathroom, keep room size top of mind. Compact mosaic tiles, for example, are a good fit for small bathrooms, whereas larger-format encaustics will suit the proportions of a bigger bathroom space.
How do I choose subway tiles for a fireplace?
The fireplace is generally the focal point of a room and presents a great opportunity to add some decorative flair. With their warm, classic feel, ceramic subway tiles pair beautifully with the cosiness of a fireplace. They’re practical too; subway tiles are durable, heat-resistant and come in a vast range of colours and finishes that allow you to transform your fireplace into an eye-catching feature. When it comes to tile colour, think about the look you want to create. For an understated effect, consider white or vanilla subway tiles that match the colour of the walls. Choose tiles with a gloss finish for an elegant look or a matte finish for an earthy feel.
To make a statement, opt for subway tiles in a rich or bold hue that contrasts with your walls. Subway tiles in brights such as a teal or burnt orange will create a dramatic, contemporary look – perfect for modern architecture. Shades of burgundy, forest green or deep neutrals will convey a more traditional feel that is well-suited to period homes.
For a sense of cohesion, it’s always a good idea to choose a tile colour that picks up on another key element in the room, whether it’s a rug, sofa fabric, artwork or lead light windows.
Subway tiles can be laid in various ways around a fireplace to create different looks. For a traditional aesthetic, consider a brick layout. To create a fun and contemporary effect, lay them in a herringbone or stack arrangement. Or, to up the wow factor, take subway tiles all the way up the chimney breast from floor to ceiling. Alternatively, create a unique look by mixing and matching subway tiles with other types of tiles around a fireplace. The single-colour aesthetic of subway tiles means they balance beautifully with more intricate styles. Consider laying subways on the hearth and then frame the fireplace with decorative encaustic or tessellated tiles. Or, lay subway tiles on the fireplace surround and compact mosaic tiles in a contrasting colour on the hearth.
How do I choose the right grout for subway tiles?
There are two types of grout to choose from – epoxy grout, which is made from epoxy resins and a filler powder, and cement grout, which is made from a cement-powder mix. Epoxy grout is waterproof and more durable than cement grout, making it a better choice for bathrooms and wet areas.
For a seamless look, have grout custom-coloured to match the colour of your subway tiles. If you want to add depth and interest to your walls, choose grout in a contrasting colour, which will highlight the shape of individual tiles and create a grid-like effect. If you love the classic look of dark grout paired with white subway tiles, bear in mind that charcoal grout is a little less harsh and more livable than black.
The grout colour you choose can also affect how often you need to clean. Light-coloured grout tends to show more dirt, while darker grout conceals dirt and can extend the time between cleans.
How do I care for subway tiles?
Glazed ceramic subway tiles are easy to look after. To remove grease, food splatters and soap scum from kitchen and bathroom tiles, simply apply a mild detergent and warm water solution and wipe down with a microfibre cloth. Leave to dry naturally or give a final wipe over with a clean, dry cloth.
Never use harsh, chemical cleaners on tiles as they could damage the surface.
Grout – particularly lighter coloured ones – takes a little more effort to keep clean. Unlike glazed tiles, grout is porous and sits slightly below the surface of tiles where it tends to attract dirt, dust and food splatters. If left damp for long periods, grout can also develop mould. To remove mild grout stains, spray with warm water and scrub in a circular motion with a small hard-bristled brush or toothbrush.
For stubborn stains, spray on a half-and-half mix of vinegar and warm water; let it stand for five minutes; then scrub off in a circular motion. To remove mould or to deal with stains that refuse to budge, apply a paste made of water and baking soda to grout lines; and spray with the vinegar solution. The mixture will foam. When it stops, scrub and rinse grout clean with warm water.
You can reduce the likelihood of mould developing on bathroom grout by keeping the room well-ventilated – particularly after you’ve showered. It’s also a good idea to keep a squeegee in the shower so you can remove water from tiles straight after showering.
To protect grout against stains, apply grout sealer around 10-12 days after tiles have been laid. You can also steam clean glazed tiles and grout.
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