Tile over Formica backsplash

I had an old Formica backsplash, original to my house. It was still in good condition, but I’m not sure it looked good in 1965, let alone now. I wanted to replace it with tile but didn’t relish the $700 expense. What if I could lay tile right over Formica or other laminates? Here’s how to tile over Formica backsplash.

Tile mastic doesn’t stick well to Formica and other laminates, and the manufacturers won’t warranty it if you try. The most cost-effective solution in terms of time and money is a peel-and-stick product. As long as your existing backsplash is in good condition, it’s a good candidate for this.

Methods for applying tile over Formica backsplash

tile over Formica backsplash
I transformed a dated 1960s kitchen to this in a few hours by applying faux subway tile over the original Formica backsplash.

Conventional wisdom says the most cost effective way to replace a backsplash is to cut it out, cutting deep enough into the wall to remove the backsplash and drywall in one go, then throw in a new piece of drywall and then tile over it. It’s faster than chiseling out a backsplash and repairing the damaged drywall behind it, but still anything but a quick and easy project.

People apply tile over existing tile all the time. Specialty stores sell mastics that stick tile to tile for the purpose, so you’d think you could apply tile over laminates just as easily. Unfortunately that’s not the case right now. It can be done, but it’s not as easy and cheap. I’m not sure why the interest isn’t there, but it’s not.

I have seen some people apply tile over Formica and other laminate backsplashes, with varying degrees of success. The conventional method is to sand the surface and expose the dark-colored core, which a tile mastic will adhere to. But while I’ve found manufacturers repeating this advice, I still haven’t been able to find anyone willing to guarantee it. It should work, but it’s time consuming and risky.

The other method I’ve heard is using Amazing GOOP adhesive, which will bond to both laminates and tile without issue. Clean the backsplash thoroughly, then glue the tiles in place a row at a time, secure them with tape until the glue sets, then come back and do another row. Then come back when finished and grout the tiles as usual. This works, it’s just a slow process because the set time is about 24 hours. It’s completely impractical if you’re not using tiles with a mesh backing. And since a tube of the glue costs $6 and only covers about 1.5 square feet, it gets expensive.

The most cost effective method I’ve found is using a faux peel and stick tile.

How can peel and stick backsplash be any good?

Peel and stick backsplash doesn’t look like a two-dimensional tile pattern printed on cheap vinyl. It’s dimensional. The part that looks like tile is shaped like it, and smooth and shiny like ceramic tile. The fake plastic grout lines really are deeper into the material and have a slightly different texture.

It doesn’t feel exactly like tile. But it looks convincing enough.

Applying peel and stick tile to laminate

Home improvement centers sell Smart Tiles, a peel and stick faux tile that looks like grouted tile once applied, but it handles like peel and stick vinyl flooring. It cuts with a utility knife, sticks well to any smooth surface, and doesn’t use grout. It’s expensive, at $7 for about 1.5 square feet, but cost effective because you don’t need any special tools or adhesives. Ceramic tile costs less than $1 per square foot in many cases, but the mastic and grout cost more than the tile. It’s still cheaper than the peel and stick variety, if you have the tools to work with tile. The question is what your time is worth.

To apply the peel and stick variety over your existing laminate backsplash, clean the backsplash thoroughly with a degreaser like TSP or Simple Green, or even mineral spirits. Let it dry completely, then avoid touching it with your bare hands to avoid introducing more oils onto it. As long as the surface is clean, you don’t need additional primer.

Cutting the faux tiles

tile over Formica backsplash
Here I marked the space for an outlet before cutting it out with a utility knife. And as you can see, the subway tile is a much more timeless look than the 1960s flowery pattern.

The tiles cut with scissors or a utility knife. Use a new blade, as even with a new blade, it takes 2-3 passes to get through it. I used a cork-backed ruler and a cutting mat to help me get square cuts.

When planning, keep in mind I found it easiest to start up against any obstacle, such as a wall, and work my way out from that. If I had to put a new section in between a section already on the wall and the obstacle, I had more difficulty lining everything up. Also pay attention to the overlap section. It’s thinner, so it’s easier to wrinkle it.

To get started, cut a tile square on one side with a straight edge and utility knife. Leave the side that has the marks indicating where to overlap.

I needed 3/4 tiles on my lower row. Instead of cutting those tiles to height, I just loosened my countertops, laid full tiles behind them, then put the countertops back. I’m not sure it saved any time, but it ensured I didn’t leave gaps where the tiles met the countertop.

As you approach openings for electrical outlets and light switches, shut off the power to the outlets and remove the cover plates. Hold the sections up into place and mark the spots for your openings. You don’t have to be perfect cutting those openings since the wall plates will cover the edges. Test the fit a couple of times before you peel the backing. It’s a lot easier to cut the tiles before you have the backing removed.

Applying the faux tiles

tile over Formica backsplash
I finished about 10 feet of backsplash in about four hours. Doing a backsplash and countertops in a three-day weekend is completely feasible.

Double check before you cut. Peel off the backing and apply it in one corner. Tilt in one edge, then the other, get everything nice and straight and square, then lay it down. Apply sections adjacent to it, filling in the backsplash. The tiles interlock like puzzle pieces, creating a subway pattern. Be careful with the overlap area. When you don’t get the spacing quite right, you’ll end up with some tiles with a thicker grout line than others.

When you reach the other edge, hold a tile up into place, mark the end with a pencil, then cut. Peel the backing, then lay the tile in place. In my kitchen, four tiles covered either side of my stove. For the 8-foot run behind my sink and dishwasher, it took about 20 tiles to cover it, after cutting them to fit.

Once you have the tiles down, use a handheld vinyl floor roller to really press the tiles into place.

I could have done the kitchen in a single Saturday, if I’d dedicated the whole day to it and the store had enough of the tiles in stock. But I did it in phases. I did the section between my range and my fridge one evening to make sure I’d like it. Then I did the other side of the range another evening, to finish up that half of the kitchen. That left about 10 feet of backsplash on the other side of the kitchen.

Caveats to peel and stick backsplash

There are some caveats to these peel and stick wall tiles. First, don’t use them right behind a gas range. Mine already had a 30×24 stainless steel backsplash directly behind it. If you don’t, you’ll need to either install one, or have someone install one.

Second, don’t put the peel and stick backsplash on a countertop to make a faux tile countertop. It’s not durable enough for that. It’s strong enough to hold up fine on a wall, but it won’t hold up to a countertop workload.

Finally, don’t tile a shower with it either. It’s water resistant enough to protect your wall against kitchen splatters. It won’t hold up in a shower. It’s not designed for that volume of water or humidity.

The cost

All in all, it’s a fairly cost effective update. I needed about $300 worth of material, but there wasn’t much in the way of hidden cost. Besides the tile, I needed a bottle of cleaner and a $40 floor roller, which I already owned. Using conventional tile, I would have needed $200 worth of material, but I also would have needed a tile cutter, an angle grinder, a sander, sandpaper, float, grout sponge, and dropcloths, at the very least. If I had those tools and was willing to take a more conventional approach, the tile would cost less, but take more time. Buying cheap tools at Harbor Freight with coupons is an option, but could still outstrip the difference in the cost of materials.

If I paid a contractor to do it, we’re talking a $900 job. So doing it myself with peel and stick is much more cost effective in that case.

The flexibility is a boon. I could have done the whole thing on a Saturday. I could have done the whole thing over the course of 3-5 evenings. Or any combination of the two. In either case, I didn’t have to tear up the kitchen being able to get it done over the course in a Saturday afternoon without tearing apart the kitchen, and once the tiles are applied, I’m probably the only one who will know the difference. It’s a big upgrade over dated laminate backsplash, so even though the materials aren’t cheap, the relative lack of hidden cost makes it more cost effective than it would first appear.

In the end, I opted to tile over Formica backsplash using peel and stick tiles, and I’m happy with the results. I think you will be too.

Reversing after you tile over laminate backsplash with peel and stick

When the time comes, the peel and stick tiles can come back down, unlike some other methods. Applying heat to the tiles will reactivate the adhesive, allowing you to peel the tiles off. Then you’ll be able to apply new tiles over the others. Or you could go with a more conventional demolition.

I’ve tested this already, unfortunately. As I was laying one of my rows, I cut my first two sections incorrectly and noticed the problem just before I cut my third. The tiles did come down, but put up a fight in doing so. They’ll come down, but as long as you stick them to a clean surface, they won’t come down accidentally.

The nice thing about this approach is it leaves some options open in the future. If you change stuff every few years, leaving options open is a boon.

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