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Choosing a Kitchen Backsplash?

When it comes to selecting kitchen backsplash materials, the abundance of options is daunting. As with the perfect outfit, a backsplash depends on the other pieces in the ensemble—notably the countertops. Here are five key questions to help you narrow the field and build a kitchen backsplash best suited to your setup.

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1. Which comes first, the countertop or the backsplash?

There’s no right answer to this question; even the experts disagree on the best approach. The key is to decide which of the two is more important to you. It may boil down to whether you have a dream material, or whether you favor functionality (countertop) or a focal point (backsplash) in your kitchen’s design. Whichever material you choose first, there’s no arguing that the first selection will drive the second. The two materials meet at the wall line, so the general rule is they ought to coordinate or complement each other in color and texture.

Countertop First: “In my opinion, backsplashes are not the most important elements and should be selected only after other decisions are made,” says architect Elizabeth Roberts of Elizabeth Roberts Design/Ensemble Architecture. “Countertops and cabinets come first.” Not as easily switched out as backsplashes, countertops need to be hard-wearing (for use as a work surface) and are typically also the bigger investment in terms of budget, kitchen real-estate coverage, and longevity.

Backsplash First: Interior designer Alison Davin of Jute Design believes that the backsplash decision should always come first: “The backsplash is more of a focal point because of its placement,” she says. “The countertop should complement the backsplash.”

2. What look are you after: a statement or subtlety?

As its name suggests, a backsplash is there to protect the wall from splashes (not to mention cooking grease). But unlike the counter, it doesn’t need to accommodate hot pans, sharp knives, and food prep. So the choice is largely an aesthetic one—with many, many possibilities. Whittle down the choices by zeroing in on the effect you’re after. And keep in mind that countertops and backsplashes shouldn’t both compete for attention, only one should be statement-making.

3. How much cleaning and maintenance can you handle?

An often overlooked issue when considering backsplashes is the day-to-day cleaning requirements of different materials. This may only be pertinent in the areas behind the stove and sink, but it’s important. Gather information about how to clean the materials you’re considering. Tiled backsplashes have grout that can collect dust and grime. Solid slabs lack dirt-gathering seams, but some natural stone materials can react poorly to grease and other cooking byproducts. And will that glimmering glass or stainless backsplash require nonstop polishing?

4. Where will the backsplash go?

A backsplash generally covers the space between the kitchen counter and the upper cabinetry. It might wrap the entire kitchen or just be a small rectangle along one wall. Consider the size of your space when making a backsplash choice. Do you have no upper cabinets and want a backsplash that reaches the ceiling? Or do you want to limit the backsplash to high-use areas, such as behind the stove, sink, and kitchen desk?

5. What’s your budget?

Knowing what you want to spend helps whittle down the possibilities. Here are some tips to help control costs:

Choose classic materials that won’t go out of style. White ceramic tiles, for instance, offer a great bang for your buck in terms of cost and longevity.
Consider using an affordable neutral field tile or stainless sheeting for the majority of the backsplash paired with a statement tile in a smaller focal point.
Natural materials, such as marble, are often much more affordable as tiles rather than slabs.
Be flexible and look for a bargain. At tile stores and even on Craigslist, it’s often possible to find tile seconds and overstock, as well as discontinued patterns and colors at a significant savings.