When selecting surface materials for a new construction or remodel project, consumers sometimes steer away from ceramic tile. Although tile has been used in interior design since antiquity, in recent years, this material has gained a reputation for being cold and hard, for being difficult to clean, hard to install and remove, easy to stain and damage, and difficult to maintain. New technologies in manufacturing and installation can mitigate these problems, making ceramic tile a durable surface with nearly infinite design possibilities.
The term “tile” can actually refer to any hard-wearing manufactured surfacing product. Tiles can be made from hardwood (as in parquet), metal, glass, concrete, engineered or natural stone, pebbles, vinyl, linoleum, cork, rubber or clay. Tiles can range in size from tiny mosaics to huge large format tiles, 24″ and larger. Tiles are arranged in a design or the floor, wall, or countertop. The tile is adhered to the surface using an appropriate mastic. The seams may be as wide as almost an inch (as in some floor tile, especially outdoors) or as narrow as 1/16″. Vinyl, linoleum, cork, and rubber tiles can even be “butt joined”- that is, set right next to each other with no visible gaps. Sometimes wood, concrete, natural stone, linoleum, and cork tiles will need to be sealed with a special product after installation, and resealed on a regular maintenance schedule.
Ceramic tile is any tile that is made from clay (sometimes with other additives such as construction debris, glass, or other materials), shaped, and then fired in a kiln. “Saltillo” tile (sometimes referred to as “Mexican pavers”) is made from red quarried clay, shaped in a mold, fired in a kiln at relatively low temperature, and usually left unglazed. Saltillo can make a beautiful floor, but it is porous (unless sealed after installation), prone to staining, and relatively soft. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “porcelain” tile is made from a kaolin based clay (often with additives) and fired at very high temperatures. The resulting product is extremely dense and hard, making it durable, impervious, and frost resistant. “Glazed porcelain” (or “glazed ceramic”, which might designate a tile fired at lower temperatures and made with different types of clay) is a tile that has been fired first, then glazed and fired again. A “colorbody” porcelain (sometimes referred to as “through-body”) will have a tile body that is as close as possible to the color of the top of the tile.
The edges of the tile may be rolled, rounded, chiseled, or squared off, giving the tile a rustic, classic, or modem appearance. Many high-quality porcelain tiles being manufactured today are “rectified.” This means that the tile has been trimmed by a special machine to make the edges smooth and the tiles more exact in size. (Since clay often shrinks in firing process, most tiles are only “nominally” the size they are sold as.) A skilled tile installer can lay rectified tile with very narrow grout seams, usually less than 1/8″.
Because tiles are put together much like a puzzle or quilt, you can mix and match tile types, sizes, shapes, and colors. Tiles can also be cut to a wide variety sizes and shapes, and some tile manufacturers provide this service. Hand painted, glass, metal,
natural stone, even river rock, can be incorporated into a ceramic tile design. You want to devise a design that is simple, coherent, and visually interesting. Because these special materials are sometimes more costly than ceramic, blending the different tile types can add elegance and excitement to the overall design, while keeping the overall cost of the project lower. A professional interior designer is a good resource for helping you to come up with a design that is both unique and well-composed.
The success of your project will depend on a quality installation job. You should discuss your design and material preferences and concerns with your installer, as well as the type of grout he plans to use. A crack suppression membrane can be used in the installation. “Trim” pieces for the edges of design are often available in tile, but many designers have begun specifying metal strips (like those made by Schluter) to give a tile project a clean, streamlined look. These metal edges can also help you create economical and functional countertops using large format tile. A large tile surface like a floor can make a house cooler during the summer months, and a surface with a south or west exposure can create a thermal mass that warms the home during cold months. In a room with little or no solar exposure (like a bathroom), a thermostatically controlled warming mat can be installed under the tile to make the tile warm during cold weather.
Because tile is a long-wearing material, you should select the highest quality tile with the most desirable look that you can afford and have an expert install it. These steps will ensure that you enjoy your tile project for many years to come.