Opinions differ on this, but for a polished look I typically tile just the main walls of the kitchen (those that back the cabinets), ending at the corners rather than wrapping around to finish the sides, if there are any. In the case of an odd corner (like on the left in this kitchen by Spectra Design Build, where there is likely a pipe in the wall), consider the whole corner part of the “back.”
In some cases, a “sidesplash” on a noncabinet wall can be functional and beautiful, but skipping it is the simplest way to avoid situations where elements don’t line up neatly. Typically, the counter, upper cabinets and wall all end at different places on the sides, leaving no definitive stopping point.
In this example, the tile ends at the corners instead of wrapping onto the small wall with the doorway. If it did wrap onto that wall, the two sides of the door would be hard to balance and likely a bit awkward.
Small kitchens. Fully covering the wall usually is your best bet in a small kitchen (or in a larger kitchen that has just a small area for the backsplash).
This sort of layout, with just a single backsplash area between the fridge cabinet and the side wall, is common in galley kitchens in apartments and condominiums. Tiling the entire area in one material makes for the tidiest finish, which can help make the kitchen look its biggest.
Big kitchens. In the case of a very large kitchen, or one with dramatically tall ceilings, taking tile to full height can bust the budget or completely overload the look. In a case like this, ending the tile vertically at the same line as the upper cabinets gives a better finish.
If you use a darker color for the tiles than the remaining upper wall, it can visually help bring down the apparent ceiling line and make the room feel a little more intimate.
In spaces with taller ceilings, such as this project by KBG Design, a bulkhead often is used to fill in the void above the uppers. This also gives the tile a natural place to finish, so everything looks pleasingly framed in and there’s no empty space left to collect knickknacks and dust.
General Rule No. 2: Align Upper Cabinets, Lower Cabinets and Backsplash Edges
Knowing where to stop the tile horizontally is easy if your kitchen runs wall to wall, but what if it ends partway along a longer wall? In a case like this, where the kitchen cabinetry ends midroom, the best option is to end the upper cabinets, lower cabinets and backsplash all in one crisp line.
Notice at the right side of this kitchen by Cabri how the backsplash aligns with the upper and lower cabinets — while the counter hangs out over that line a little bit — rather than extending to the end of the counter and sticking out past the upper cabinets (which to me would be much less tidy).
Of course, this requires the upper and lower cabinets to align crisply, which can take careful planning when laying out the kitchen. Using filler panels and adjusting the spacing around a window can help make cabinets end at the same place on the top and bottom, even if the widths of each cabinet don’t match perfectly above and below.
Peninsulas. What about times when the upper and lower cabinets don’t align? A common place for this to occur is in U- or L-shaped kitchens where the uppers end over a peninsula. In this case, I would suggest ending the backsplash in line with the uppers, so you still get a crisp vertical line.
Windows. Sometimes there will be very small areas of wall between windows and a counter or cabinet. It may be tempting to leave these areas empty (and often easier on the tile installer), but the overall effect will be subtly tidier if you imagine the window does not exist when planning where to end the tile.
In this space by Jill Cordner Interior Design, the tile continues to the end of the counter, as ending at the upper cabinet would be far too early.
In this kitchen by Sagemodern, the tile continues all the way to the corner and up to the height of the upper shelves so that from a distance the line of the upper cabinets is unbroken. It’s a subtle difference versus simply ending at the window, but these little details can make a kitchen feel much more finished.
Modern slab backsplashes. In a kitchen with modern styling and a cool slab backsplash, it’s extra important for the elements to align pleasingly, or the look can become sloppy. Here, the cabinets and counter are sized to line up perfectly. When installing a peninsula with an overhang, you can also add or subtract an inch or two of counter to make the math work out just right.
Traditional slab backsplashes. Going for a more traditional or farmhouse-inspired look? A charming slab backsplash like this benefits from having some negative space left around it and doesn’t really need to line up with anything — in fact, it can be almost better if it doesn’t.
Edgy tiles. If you have an interesting tile shape, such as a playful hexagon, you can consider ending the tile with a messy edge to give a more relaxed appeal.
This can apply to the horizontal ends and the verticals. This tile fades slowly to white vertically so that the vibrant blue doesn’t have to carry all the way to the ceiling, and it makes for a unique feature.
Cabinet-free walls. In L- or U-shaped kitchens that have large areas — or entire walls — with no upper cabinets, you can tile the empty wall full height or simply continue the upper line of the backsplash around the entire room, as shown here.
Ending the backsplash with a shelf, even a shallow one, can give it a nice cap on walls where there are no other particular ending points such as a window or cabinet.
Differing heights. In a kitchen with many items at different heights, I would still use the bottom of the cabinets as a main stopping point, with possibly a little exception at the range for a taller backsplash up to the hood. Ending at the windows would leave an awkward sliver of space below the cabinets.
In more traditional kitchens, sometimes the tile will run even a little above the bottom of the cabinets, which gives a pleasing overlap that feels more relaxed and reduces the need to cut tiles into tiny slivers.
Another way to solve any backsplash height conundrums is to use an elegant short backsplash, just a few inches tall. This way, you can run it around the entire counter at one unbroken height and leave the rest of the wall a uniform color.
You can also pair a short backsplash with a second backsplash material, so you have one style (usually the more high-end material, such as a stone slab) run continuously and then a second material in pieces where needed to fill in.
Keep in mind, a full-height backsplash may not be as budget-busting or as visually overwhelming as you would think. A classic porcelain tile, with an optional contrast grout, can give a sophisticated, classic look for just a few dollars per square foot, meaning it can actually be a more luxe-looking option than a higher-end material used in a conservative dose.
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