What to Know Before Installing a Wood Backsplash

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A wood backsplash provides a rustic, homey vibe.
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Wood is a naturally warm material, and a wood backsplash can bring a needed touch of nature to a kitchen outfitted with metal appliances and synthetic materials such as vinyl and laminates. It also provides a great counterpoint for stone countertops and monochromatic cabinets. You can choose from beadboard, plywood paneling, recycled wood, shiplap siding and even hardwood flooring.

"Wait," you say, "wood flooring on the walls?" Sure... why not? Tongue-and-groove flooring is easy to install on the walls, it's structurally stable, it looks great and it's an efficient use of leftover materials from a flooring project. If the idea of hanging flooring on the wall behind your sink and stove seems incoherent, though, you still have many other options.

Wood has two characteristics that would seem to disqualify it from the job of protecting your walls from splashing water and oils from the stove. The first is that it's naturally porous and soaks up liquids, and the second is that it's flammable. While it's true that you do have to keep it away from the stove, the porosity of wood isn't an issue if you seal it properly.

The Kitchen Backsplash Explained

If you think of a backsplash as the 4-inch riser on the back of a countertop, expand your view to include the entire wall behind the countertop extending all the way to the bottom of the cabinets or to the ceiling and you'll be on the same page as home-design pros like Kitchen Cabinet Kings. The backsplash is there to provide an easy-to-clean barrier between the sink, stove and food prep areas and the drywall. It's protective, but it's also a focal point, analogous to the accent wall in a living room or bedroom.

While that 4-inch riser on the back of a countertop is technically a backsplash, it's usually considered part of the countertop, whereas a full backsplash is a wall feature. It's one of the first things you see when you enter the kitchen, and it's what you stare at when you're cooking and doing dishes, assuming you aren't looking out the window. A countertop backsplash has to blend with the countertop and the wall behind it, but a full backsplash has to blend with the entire kitchen decor, including the walls, floor and appliances.

To fulfill its aesthetic function, a kitchen backsplash must be easy to clean. It's there to provide a safe place for water, greases, oils and other liquids to collect, and while some of these evaporate harmlessly, some can stain or leave a film. If you can't get the stains and film off easily, the backsplash isn't doing much good as an aesthetic feature.

Make sure to seal your backsplash to ensure easy cleaning.
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Pros and Cons of a Wood Backsplash

The aesthetic appeal of a wood backsplash is obvious. Wood is a timeless material that provides an old-world touch that offsets other common features in a contemporary kitchen, such as stone, metal or solid-surface countertops, shiny metal appliances and monochromatic walls and cabinets. Whereas too much wood can make a room look busy and closed in, the limited amount of wood in a backsplash adds just enough to make the kitchen cozy and livable.

For the DIY enthusiast, there's a lot to love in a wood backsplash. It's easier to install than a tile or metal backsplash, and assuming you properly finish the planks — which is essential, especially if you use barn wood or reclaimed wood — a wood backsplash is also easy to keep clean. If stains do penetrate the finish and discolor the wood, the damage is fixable with a hand sander.

One disadvantage of wood is that it's flammable. You shouldn't install it behind a gas cooktop unless you can guarantee a minimum distance of 18 inches between the backsplash and the back burners. Another problem with wood is that unlike tile, stone and metal, wood can warp. To minimize warping, seal both sides of the material before installing it and glue the wood to the wall with construction adhesive.

Wood Backsplash Options and Costs

Because installation of a wood project is a fairly straightforward DIY project, you can minimize costs by doing the work yourself, and your costs will be mostly for materials. You can also minimize these costs by using wood that is leftover from another project. Some of the wood backsplash options you might consider include:

  • Beadboard — The price of beadboard paneling varies widely from $3 to $40 per square foot depending on quality and style. Beadboard comes in traditional tongue-and-groove planks and in milled panels.
  • Tongue-and-groove flooring — Virtually any style of flooring can work as a backsplash, but if you want to reduce your work and guarantee a cleanable surface, use prefinished flooring. Costs vary from $3 per square foot for oak and bamboo to $12 or more per square foot for exotic hardwoods. You can also use laminate flooring, which is thinner and easier to work with than real-wood flooring.
  • Shiplap siding — Shiplap siding boards can look great in the kitchen. Expect to pay from $2.50 to $3.50 per square foot for hardwood, between $2.50 and $7 for cedar and between $2.75 and $3.75 for pine.
  • Reclaimed wood — Reclaimed-wood flooring costs between $8 and $10 per square foot. It isn't the least-expensive option by far, but in many ways, it's the most stylish and interesting. It's a guaranteed conversation starter.
  • Barn wood and pallet wood — Because they are rough and difficult to keep clean, barn wood and pallet wood aren't the best choices for a backsplash. If you have your heart set on barn wood, prices start at $3 per square foot and climb upward with increasing quality. Pallet wood is free, but the planks are irregular and difficult to fit together, so you have your work cut out for you if you choose this option.
Wood can also be an excellent choice for a garage backsplash.
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Preparing for a Wood Backsplash

The wall behind a wood backsplash doesn't require as much preparation as when you are installing tile. It needs to be flat, but small variations in level are acceptable, and because construction adhesive adheres better than thinset tile adhesive, you don't have to put as much energy into deglossing and scuffing the wall. Because it's possible to attach shiplap, tongue-and-groove and beadboard by nailing or screwing planks and sheets to the wall studs, you can make your home-improvement project easier by installing the backsplash over damaged drywall without fixing it.

One issue you will have to address is how to extend the wall outlets and switches to make them flush with the new wall surface, which will be extended outward by as much as 3/4 inch. Electrical code requires all wiring to be enclosed in an approved electrical box, so you can't just cut holes in the backsplash, feed the outlets and switches through and screw them to the wood. The solution is to install a box extender — an inexpensive plastic ring that effectively extends the edges of the electrical box.

Seal the Wood Before You Install It

Sealing the wood is essential for two reasons. The first is that sealed wood, like sealed grout, is waterproof and easier to clean. The second, which is probably more important, is that sealed wood is less affected by changes in humidity and is less likely to warp or lift off the wall.

To prevent warping, you have to seal both sides of the wood, so it's something you need to do before you install it. If you use a clear sealer such as varnish or a penetrating oil, apply at least one coat and let it dry before installation. Then, apply a finish coat to the exposed surface after installation is complete. If you plan to paint, apply the primer before installation and paint afterward.

A gloss finish is better than a matte one when it comes to backsplashes. Matte finishes tend to collect dust, and they are more difficult to clean. When varnishing or painting, choose a gloss or semigloss sheen. When applying penetrating oil, consider buffing the finished surface with beeswax or paraffin wax.

Installation Tips for a Wood Backsplash

You don't always have to glue wood to the wall with construction adhesive, but it's a good idea because the adhesive helps prevent the wood from curling and warping, which is always a possibility when a natural material like wood is involved. Use a caulk gun directly on the back of each plank as you install it and use nails to hold the planks in place until the glue sets, removing them afterward if you want.

A few other tips can help make installation easier and can prevent mistakes that could lead to a makeover of the entire project:

  • Leave a 1/8-inch expansion gap between the backsplash and the countertops, cabinets, ceiling and any other transitions. Fill the gap with flexible caulk and, if warranted, cover it with trim but don't nail the trim to the backsplash with nails that penetrate to the surface underneath because that prevents the wood from moving and defeats the purpose of the gap. Glue the trim to the backsplash or the adjoining surface but not both, or you can nail it to the countertop or cabinets.
  • Install tongue-and-groove flooring to the wall the same way you install it on the floor

    by driving nails through the tongues into the wall studs and covering the nails with the next board.

  • You can't avoid the use of fasteners when installing shiplap planks because they are wide and tend to curl if you don't fasten both sides. Drive ring-shank nails or trim screws through each overlapping joint into the wall studs. Fill the holes with wood filler and sand well before applying the final finish.
  • Backsplash areas are loaded with electrical outlets, which means there might be a lot of wiring behind the drywall. Be careful when driving nails or screws and make sure all fasteners are not so long that they can contact wiring.

Keeping Your Wood Backsplash Clean

The best cleaning method for your wood backsplash depends on the finish you apply. Surfaces finished with polyurethane are generally the easiest to clean, requiring only occasional wiping down with a damp rag or a solution of dish soap and water. Remove grime and oils with a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water. This cleaning method also works well for surfaces finished with gloss or semigloss enamel paint.

If you finished your wood backsplash with penetrating oil and a buffed wax surface, keep it clean by dusting with a dry cloth. Use a damp one only when you need to wipe off stains. A buffed wax finish needs to be updated every year or so with new wax, and it needs occasional buffing with a soft cloth or lambswool buffer to keep its shine.

If your backsplash suffers damage such as a dent or burn, you can usually sand it out and touch up the finish when you're done. The only time this might be difficult is when you use prefinished flooring because the factory finish can be difficult to match with products you can apply at home. Your best bet is to get professional help.

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Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.

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