Wednesday, April 21, 2010

diy: painting kitchen tile

Our kitchen was the last room on our to-do list for the house. (The last room. The siding is still burn-your-retinas-blue, and the prefab aluminum sunroom - The Abomination - haunts my dreams.) The kitchen is small, but it works - I've made two wedding cakes in it - so it's not really the functionality that bothers me. Mostly, it's the rainbow-colored backsplash tile. Rainbow-colored backsplash tile.

Behold the hellscape that is Ronald McDonald's kitchen:

I decided to paint the red and yellow tiles two different shades of silver-gray to achieve a cooler, more cohesive palette of blue, green, and gray. The result cools down the kitchen dramatically. There's not nearly as much visual clutter, and it was a relatively easy, though time-consuming, process.

Painting the tiles takes a few days, but it's about a $40 project, rather than a $400 project, as retiling the kitchen might have been. This is a great way to change the character of a kitchen without spending much money, but it is time-consuming, and would probably become a weeks-long job in a large kitchen. We don't have to worry about the travails of a large kitchen, as ours is awkwardly tiny.

Degreaser (Fantastic, 409, etc.)
dish soap and sponge
rubbing alcohol
Surface conditioner for enamel paint
Enamel paint in your desired color (I used Permenamel brand, also available at Michael's)
Enamel paint dilutant (thinner)
Gloss finish for enamel paint (optional)
Small flat craft paintbrushes
Small foam paint roller

First, pick your paint colors. I mixed two colors - a light gray and a darker gray. Each was one bottle of Slate (a light gray), two bottles of silver, and a little bit of white and black, respectively.

I ended up using about 5 or 6 ounces of each color, on 40% of the tile covering a 25-square foot area. Each paint bottle is 2 ounces; I used eight bottles in all, and I have extra paint on hand, for retouching.

Paint a test tile. We had some extra tiles left in the attic by the previous owners, so I painted one tile of each color. Conversely, you could paint a tile that's normally covered by an appliance, or buy a few similar tiles at a hardware store. Make sure you like the color.

The tiles in your kitchen are likely at least a little greasy. First spray the backsplash with a degreaser, and wipe clean. Then use a sponge and rag to wash the tiles with dish soap, twice. Finally, wipe everything down with a rag dampened with a little rubbing alcohol. You can't get the backsplash too clean. Then, brush on the surface conditioner, and allow to dry. It only lasts four hours, so only apply it to the tiles you think you'll get to in one sitting.

Time to paint!

The silver paint is especially goopy, making my mixture the consistency of very thick glue. Pour a couple of tablespoons onto a plastic dish or tray, and add dilutant a few drops at a time, mixing until you reach the thin consistency of Elmer's glue.

Brush a small amount of paint onto a tile, giving careful attention to the edges. If you run over a little bit onto the grout, you can cover it later with a dab of white paint.

Brush the paint on very thin, or it will drip before it dries. A good bit of color should still show through from the tile.

Paint every tile, and allow to dry for a day or so. I used dark gray on the red tiles, and light gray on the yellow. Go through all of one color first, then go back and do the other.

Apply a second coat, again paying attention to the edges. Very little color should show through from the tile's original glaze now. Allow to dry.

Apply a third coat. This is a quick coat, as the color is likely already well-covered and your edges are clean and covered. Once you've brushed the third coat on to each tile, quickly take your 4" foam roller, and roll over the tile in every direction. This smooths the paint and erases brush marks. Allow to dry.

Your tiles should now have a nice, smooth, matte finish. If you wish, you can apply a gloss coat, which will make the tiles easier to clean, and impart a subtle satin finish. In my kitchen, I gave each of the dark tiles two coats of gloss, and I gave about half of the light-colored tiles one coat of gloss.

Thin the gloss on a plastic tray, brush onto a tile, and roll your roller over the tile in each direction. Do this for every coat of the gloss. Experiment with one or two coats - the finish is so subtle that you're not likely to notice an odd tile or two with one coat instead of two.

Finally, fix your mistakes. My grout is off-white, so I added a little bit of gray to a tablespoon or two of white paint, and thinned the mixture. Then I used a tiny paintbrush to cover the bits of gray that had made its way onto the grout.

Let the paint cure for 10 days before you clean it or lean anything against it.


  1. AMAZING! It looks soooooo much better. I'm impressed.

  2. Thanks, y'all! I really like the way it turned out, too.

  3. That makes my back hurt just looking at it.

    You guys need a toilet or three? We are doing spring cleaning at work. Lightly used of course. . . but only in the test lab.

  4. Hot dang, Elizabeth! That looks amazing- great job.

  5. This is crazy cool!! Thanks for sharing!

    I am about to embark on a kitchen backsplash project and this will encourage me to think towards the future and not go too crazy :)


  6. What a great idea! I actually preferred the original colors, but that's of course just me!

  7. Based on product reviews for the paint (Pronamel), it sounds like people use enamel paint to do this pretty often.

    As for all the prep work - unfortunately the brand of paint I used sells a surface conditioner, but not a primer, and I was worried about the paint adhering to the slick surface. Plus, I knew we'd be cleaning the backsplash from time to time, and it would get food splatters, etc. The prep may have been overkill, but I wanted the paint to look good and last.

    Jessica - I know what you mean; the "before" was really cheerful. The problem, however, is that this kitchen is tiny and gets a LOT of afternoon light, so from about 1 to 7, the colors were super overwhelming. And it just wasn't my palette.

    I actually love our kitchen now, which I never thought would happen.

    Thanks for all the comments!

    1. I am looking at doing my bathroom tiles and came across your project. Your results are really outstanding. I can't tell which tiles are painted and which are not. They are all super glossy. Your original colors never would have bothered me as I love bright colorful tiles, but I am truly amazed by the quality of your results and you definitely achieved your objective of a more harmonious palette and less visual clutter! It looks great.

  8. Wow I'm amazingly impressed with your patience! It definitely paid off, it totally changes the feel of the space-- for the better!

  9. Elizabeth,

    I want to tackle a similar project in my kitchen, but my tiles are on the backsplash and countertops? Do you think it would hold up for every day use?

  10. You did an absolutely phenomenal job! It really looks wonderful. I recently installed a glass tile backsplash from and I've been very happy with the results- I find it brightens up a space, don't you?

  11. I am definitely going to paint over my mauve and maroon kitchen tiles! Thanks for detailing the process. Now if I could just decide on colors!

  12. This is absolutely genius you did such a great job and I LOVE the new colors you chose.

    I was wondering if you might be interested in doing a special guest post about this on my blog Remodelaholic. Let me know via email, if you are interested I will send you the details!


  13. Looks great -- such a big difference! I love the name of your blog -- I would have probably gone with something more obvious like "The blue is obviously land," so good for you for being more sly than me!

  14. The transformation is amazing! You have given me hope to paint the tile in our new kitchen!

    My question is, i have a TON of paint left over from painting our front door and i LOVE the color! It's an exterior paint from Olympic. The can says "exterior latex, 100% acrylic, excellent durability, semi-gloss" it says it's ideal for use on wood, bring, aged masonry, or concrete, aluminum and vinyl siding and metal. Do you think i could use it on the tile if i properly primed the surface?

    Thank you very much!

  15. Hi Jillyn,
    Thanks so much! The outcome was well worth the work.

    I can relate to having leftover paint that you want to use, but I'm not sure about using latex paint for this application. I used enamel paint because I wanted a hard, slick surface - as hard as you can get without a fired-on glaze. Latex paint will have a more flexible, perhaps slightly tacky finish. It could very well work just fine, and be just as durable and stain-resistant as enamel paint. But I'd hate for you to do all the work in applying it, just to be disappointed in the paint's performance. Permenamel comes in a wide array of colors - but not the almost infinite palette available in latex paints, which is a definite downside. Sorry, and good luck!

  16. Elizabeth- I can't thank you enough for your detailed directions and inspiration! I bought all the supplies last week and did a test run on a spare tile. I found my color choices to be too dark. I went back to several craft stores today, but the variety of enamel paints is small. The enamel paints sold in the store also say 'acrylic'. Is there any reason I can not use plain acrylic craft paint?
    P.S. I know I could mix the paint and lighten it, but I'm not sure how much I will need and I'm afraid if I run out I won't be able to match the color again.

  17. Heather,
    You're so very welcome! I'm glad it was helpful.

    I really don't know enough about enamel paints to say one way or the other - this brand and type are the only ones I have experience with. I was worried that we'd have at least some chipping, but over a year later, there's been none at all. That is to say, I'm really pleased with the brand I used, but a different type may serve you just fine. I chose this brand because it's supposed to be formulated for ceramics and tile.

    The part of our kitchen that has a backsplash is about 6'x8'. I bought and mixed 16 ounces (8 bottles of paint), did three coats, and have extra leftover. I would shoot to have extra, for exactly the reason you mentioned.

    If you're in doubt, you might buy the kind I used (Pronamel) from an online craft store like Dick Blick or Mr. Art - they have a lot of different colors. But if you can't return the stuff you've already bought, nothing's to say that it won't work just as well.

    Sorry I can't be of more help!

  18. Thank you so much for sharing & detailing this whole process! I'm definitely going to give this a try, and will be more than pleased if my results are like yours! You're a jewel and real DIYer :) Judy O.

  19. This just rocked my entire world.. we are moving into a house where I HATE the tile in the kitchen. ANd like yours.. it will be the very last thing we will be able to change. Now.. maybe I will never need to!

  20. I live in remote Alaska and my counter tops are LAVENDER! I think about how to change my counter top constantly (my husband is just fine with what is there). We have the backsplash and counter then a bar that is the length of the kitchen and it's all tiled. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for posting this! I'm gonna try to order the paints and do this! What's the worst that can happen, I totally screw it up and I have to get new countertops?!? You saved me because my first idea was to pour concrete countertops. God bless, Kelly

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