Subway Tile Basics: What To Know Before You Start

Elegant white marble tile backdrop in a bright kitchen, featuring a rustic fruit bowl and fresh greenery next to modern cookbooks.

Ever found yourself marveling at subway tile and wondering exactly what it is?

Let us guide you through! This piece not only explores the historical origins of subway tile but also delves into the defining features that make it a favorite, inventive ways to arrange it, and various tips for incorporating it into your living spaces.


Modern kitchen with glossy white subway tile backsplash, stainless steel range hood, marble countertops, and white cabinetry for a sleek, contemporary look.


The Classic Subway Tile

Subway tile is characterized by its classic rectangular shape, typically measuring 3 x 6 inches. These tiles are typically laid out horizontally, featuring a staggered pattern with a 50% offset. Made from ceramic or porcelain, subway tiles are celebrated not only for their robustness but also for their enduring elegance.


Deserted subway station with classic white tiles and colorful mosaic accents, evoking a vintage yet timeless urban charm.


How Subway Tiles Got Their Name

Ever puzzled over the name "subway tile"? Well, the term has a practical origin: it first made its appearance in New York's subway stations.

Back in 1904, when designers were charged with the challenge of creating a surface for the first subway stations that was both easy to maintain and visually enhancing, subway tile emerged as the ideal solution.

During the Victorian era, cleanliness was paramount. The choice of easy-to-clean, stain-resistant, and bacteria-resistant glazed ceramic subway tile fits the bill perfectly. Moreover, the original subway tiles were designed to be white and glossy, creating a highly reflective surface. This not only amplified the light within the station but also promoted a sense of cleanliness and safety essential for comforting passengers as they ventured into the new, subterranean mode of transport.


Train arriving at Astor Place subway station, illuminating the dark platform with its headlights, surrounded by white tiled columns and a curved yellow safety line.


Why Subway Tiles Have Stood the Test of Time

Since its debut in 1904, subway tile has not only graced subway stations worldwide but has also become a staple in spaces where cleanliness is paramount, like kitchens and bathrooms.

Is subway tile just a passing trend? We get this question a lot. Despite the surge in popularity, the enduring appeal of subway tile hints at its staying power. With a history spanning over a century, it continues to be a top pick among homeowners and commercial decorators alike.

So, what keeps subway tiles in vogue?

The secret lies in its timeless design. The simple use of plain white rectangular tiles in an uncomplicated layout has crafted a look that is both striking and easily attainable, ensuring its place in both contemporary and traditional settings.


Warm terracotta tiles in a herringbone pattern create a cozy and inviting bathroom corner, accented with a rustic towel rack.


Beyond the Basics: Modern Patterns for Subway Tiles

Now that you're familiar with the traditional aspects of subway tile, it’s time to think outside the box. After all, modern design thrives on innovation and transforming classic elements into fresh, eye-catching features.

Changing up the layout pattern is a popular method for putting a personal twist on subway tiles. Below, we explore some imaginative approaches to installing subway tiles that can elevate any space!

With a One-Third Offset

Taking a subtle departure from the traditional 50% offset, the one-third offset serves as a popular alternative. This pattern offers a slightly different aesthetic that retains the classic appeal while introducing a unique visual twist.

With a One-Fourth Offset

By staggering your subway tiles with a 25% offset, you create a dynamic pattern reminiscent of stairs ascending and descending along your wall. This engaging layout adds movement and interest, transforming any space with its structured yet visually captivating appeal.

In a Horizontal Grid

Alternatively, you can eliminate the offset entirely, opting instead for a straightforward horizontal grid. This approach aligns the tiles perfectly from row to row, producing a clean and orderly appearance that suits modern and minimalist designs exceptionally well.

In a Vertical Grid

By positioning your tiles vertically, you can either create a vertically stacked or offset pattern. This method is excellent for elongating the appearance of a backsplash or wall, drawing the eye upwards and enhancing the sense of height. For an added twist, rotate the traditional subway tile layout by 45 degrees to introduce a striking diagonal pattern, infusing dynamism and a unique visual interest into your space.

In a Herringbone Pattern

Introducing a herringbone pattern with subway tile can dynamically enhance any space by creating a sense of movement. This pattern can be arranged at various angles to achieve different visual effects, each adding its unique flair.

Installing subway tiles in a herringbone pattern can be a bit more complex than more straightforward layouts. This technique requires diagonal cuts to fit around outlets and edges. It's crucial to take precise measurements and perform a dry run of the layout before beginning the actual installation to ensure accuracy and satisfaction with the final look.

In a Straight Herringbone Pattern

Opting for a straight (or 90-degree) herringbone pattern is another stylish way to arrange your subway tiles. In this layout, place one tile vertically and align the next one perpendicular to it, continuing this alternating pattern throughout the installation. This structured yet dynamic arrangement adds a geometric flair to any space, providing a visually striking and orderly appearance.

In a Diagonal Herringbone Pattern

For a horizontal take on the classic herringbone, try the diagonal herringbone pattern, which positions the tiles to form a series of "<" or ">" shapes across your surface. This layout shifts the movement horizontally, offering a fresh perspective that visually expands the space sideways rather than vertically, making it a striking choice for both walls and floors.


Luxurious shower featuring a striking mix of striped marble tiles, complemented by elegant golden fixtures.


Taking Your Subway Tile Design to the Next Level

Whether you choose to embrace the classic layout or venture into new territories, there are numerous creative avenues to explore that can make your subway tile installation truly stand out. From innovative patterns to unexpected applications, the possibilities are limitless. Let's delve into some unique options that can transform any space.

Change the Color

Who says subway tiles must always be white? Introducing colorful tiles can instantly elevate your design, adding a vibrant and modern twist to any space. Embrace the spectrum of possibilities by choosing hues that reflect your personal style or enhance the mood you want to create.

Sprinkle With Different Colors

Can't settle on a single color? Multicolor tile might be the perfect solution. A current trend is to integrate tiles of various colors randomly throughout your design, creating a unique and captivating visual effect. This approach allows you to personalize your space with a playful and distinctive style, as showcased in the example above.

Use a Pattern or Natural Look

Subway tile is not confined to monochromatic designs; it can also embrace the beauty of natural materials like marble, granite, and wood, or feature intricate patterns including graphic designs, florals, and Art Deco-inspired prints. Even a classic white backsplash can be transformed with subtle details: at first glance, it may look traditional, but a closer look reveals luxurious marble veining, adding an elegant twist to the standard design.

Go Small

Here's a straightforward yet impactful update: opt for smaller tiles to craft a subway tile mosaic. This approach is particularly well-suited for more compact areas, such as backsplashes, where the petite tiles can add intricate detail and enhance the space's overall aesthetic.

Go Large

Alternatively, consider scaling up with larger-than-average tiles. While these may not fall under the traditional definition of subway tiles, they certainly evoke a similar aesthetic. This option is best suited for more expansive surfaces, like covering an entire shower, where the bigger tiles can create a bold, streamlined look.

Combine Sizes

With the vast array of tile sizes available, you have the unique opportunity to mix and match different dimensions for a truly distinctive subway tile design. This creative approach allows you to tailor the aesthetic to your personal taste and space requirements, crafting an eye-catching, custom look.

Change the Dimensions

While the classic subway tile typically measures 3 x 6 inches, this is not a strict requirement. Consider the example of a backsplash that employs a thinner and more elongated tile size. This adaptation begins to mirror the appearance of a running bond tile pattern (a 50% offset pattern), showcasing how altering dimensions can refresh the traditional subway tile look while maintaining its inherent charm.

Add Some Texture

Enhance the uniqueness of your space by selecting tiles with textured surfaces. Textured tiles not only elevate the visual appeal of your design but also add a tactile dimension that invites touch. This simple choice can transform an ordinary area into a standout feature that captures both the eyes and the fingertips.

Bevel It

Here's a dynamic way to bring your tile design to life: opt for beveled subway tiles. These tiles feature sloped edges and a protruding surface, adding a three-dimensional effect to your walls. This architectural detail not only enhances the visual depth but also accentuates the light and shadow interplay across the tiled surface, making it a standout design choice.

Add Tile Accents

Injecting personality into your tile installation can be effortlessly achieved by adding tile accents. Consider various options to enhance your design: you could introduce a decorative border along the top or bottom of your installation, incorporate a focal point to draw the eye, or intersperse accent tiles among the subway tiles themselves. Each of these strategies offers a unique way to customize your space and create a visually engaging layout.

Color the Lines

While white, gray, or black grout are common choices for subway tiles, opting for colorful grout can truly set your design apart. Selecting a vibrant grout color for white subway tiles accentuates the tile layout, making the pattern strikingly evident. Conversely, using grout that matches the tile color can blend the lines for a more cohesive and subtle design. This approach allows for flexibility in highlighting architectural details or creating a sleek, uniform appearance.

Stagger It

Gaining momentum in the design world, staggered tile transitions allow the tiles to end along their natural contours instead of being cut into a straight edge. Subway tile is particularly well-suited for this style, as it accentuates the imaginative layout patterns that can be achieved.

With a staggered transition, you have the flexibility to seamlessly shift from one subway tile color to another, transition into a different tile shape, or even switch to a completely different material. This technique is perfect for creating a distinctive and eye-catching design element in any space.


Chic modern kitchen with light grey subway tile backsplash, blending seamlessly with dark cabinetry and wooden accents


Creative Uses for Subway Tiles Throughout Your Home

Subway tiles are primarily designed for wall applications, making them a versatile choice for various settings. They are frequently used in areas highlighted below, where their durability and aesthetic appeal can truly shine. Whether you’re considering a kitchen backsplash, a bathroom wall, or another creative installation, subway tiles offer a functional and stylish solution.


Backsplashes remain among the most popular applications for subway tiles, particularly in kitchens. The classic white subway tile design complements virtually any decor and offers numerous customization options to tailor your backsplash to your specific space.

Not only do ceramic and porcelain subway tiles offer a classic aesthetic, but they also come with practical benefits. Their inherent water and stain resistance make them an ideal choice for protecting the walls behind your counters, ensuring a durable and pristine appearance that will last for years.

Feature Walls

Drawing inspiration from the iconic New York subway stations, entire walls can be transformed into stunning showcases for subway tiles. For instance, consider a living room that embraces a rustic gray tile design. This approach not only highlights the aesthetic qualities of subway tiles but also creates a striking visual centerpiece in any space, adding character and depth to your home's interior.

Fireplace Surrounds

Porcelain subway tiles are also an excellent choice for fireplace surrounds, adding both style and functionality to your living space. Consider the warm, inviting look of weathered reddish-brown tiles, which can elevate the aesthetic of any hearth. Additionally, their flame-resistant properties ensure that they can withstand the heat and flame of the fireplace, making them a safe as well as beautiful choice for this high-heat environment.


Subway tiles crafted from ceramic or porcelain are a favored option for shower enclosures, particularly the classic white tiles that evoke a Victorian-inspired aesthetic. This design choice harks back to the Victorian era when all-white bathrooms were prevalent, primarily because plain tiles were often used in areas of the home that were less visible. Opting for traditional white subway tiles in showers not only brings a touch of historical elegance but also enhances the sense of cleanliness and brightness in your bathroom. For floor applications, ensure they are rated as slip-resistant, with the best recommendation being porcelain mosaic tiles in a matte finish.


Serene bathroom with a sleek white tub against a wall of distressed green subway tiles, offering a tranquil retreat


Find the Perfect Subway Tile Online

Discover the perfect subway tile for your project through Edward Martin’s website. We've refined the selection process to ensure it's seamless and intuitive for all our customers. Dive into our expansive online catalog to uncover a diverse range of subway tile designs and finishes at your fingertips. For a more tangible experience, you can request samples, which allows you to assess the texture and quality right from your home.

We're also thrilled to introduce an advanced Augmented Reality (AR) feature on our site. This cutting-edge technology lets you visualize how different subway tiles will appear in your actual space prior to purchase. We invite you to utilize this innovative tool on our AR Visualization page, helping you make a confident decision that aligns with your design aspirations.


Stylish kitchen featuring a subway tile backsplash with marble veining, perfectly complementing minimalist decor.



Subway tile has long been revered for its simplicity, functionality, and timeless aesthetic. Originating from the New York City subway stations in 1904, it has evolved into a staple in homes and businesses around the world. Its ability to adapt to different settings from kitchens and bathrooms to feature walls and fireplace surrounds, illustrates its versatility and enduring popularity.

The classic 3 x 6 inch ceramic or porcelain tiles laid in a 50% offset pattern have become iconic, yet modern interpretations continue to push the boundaries of design. Whether you're looking to achieve a traditional look or something more contemporary, subway tile offers a variety of patterns, sizes, and materials to fulfill any design vision. Its ease of maintenance and installation only adds to its appeal, making it a practical choice for both new constructions and renovations. As you explore the possibilities, remember that subway tile is more than just a decorative choice; it's a lasting investment in your home's future.


Soothing bathroom scene with a pale peach subway tile wall, creating a serene atmosphere complemented by natural decor.


Subway Tile FAQs 

Let’s get more specific. Here are some frequently asked questions about subway tiles.

Disclaimer: The installation suggestions provided here are general guidelines. For best results, always adhere to the specific recommendations provided by your tile manufacturer.

What are some possible patterns for arranging subway tiles? 

They’re 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 it often take liberties with this pattern, or even abandon it altogether. Alternately, the patterns include a one-third offset and a one-fourth offset.

What is the standard size of a subway tile?

It is traditionally 3 x 6 inches and this is the most popular size. However, any rectangular tile with 1-to-2 dimensions can work as subway tile, with other sizes including 2 x 4, 4 x 8, and 6 x 12.

What is subway tile typically made from, porcelain or ceramic?

The original subway tile was actually made from ceramic. Today, you can find tiles in porcelain as well, both 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 crafted from materials such as ceramic or porcelain can be quite affordable, especially if you go with the traditional white design.

What should I consider before installing subway tiles?

Before starting your installation, thoroughly research the requirements for your specific project, whether you're aiming to add a subway tile backsplash in the kitchen or cover a shower area. It’s crucial to understand how to approach specific elements, like fitting tiles around corners or within shower niches, so it's advisable to employ a qualified tile installer to guarantee a high-quality finish.

How do you properly install subway tiles in the traditional pattern?

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 it typically has 1-to-2 dimensions, you can use the short side of a tile to determine the middle point of the long side.

How long does it take to install subway tiles?

The 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 applications are relatively quick to install, especially for small areas such as backsplashes.

How do you clean subway tiles? 

Subway tiles, particularly those made of ceramic or porcelain, can be easily cleaned by simply wiping them down with water and a mild cleaning solution.

What is the correct method for grouting subway tiles?

Always follow the manufacturer's directions of your chosen grout for mixing and applying.

What grout color is best to use with white subway tiles?

White is commonly paired with white, gray, or black grout. When determining what grout color to use with subway tiles, consider whether you want to draw attention to the layout pattern or not. This tile with high-contrast grout emphasizes the pattern, whereas matching grout creates a seamless look. Choosing a colorful grout can also be a fun way to make your white tile unique. Pro tip: Grouts that are a high contrast with your subway 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 tiles?

3 x 6 inch typically have grout joints of 1/16 inch, but 1/8 inch grout joints are also common.

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Modern kitchen featuring a marble subway tile backsplash, wooden cabinets, and stylish decor items.