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Remodeling 101: A Guide to the Only 7 Types of Tile You Need to Know

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Remodeling 101: A Guide to the Only 7 Types of Tile You Need to Know

April 19, 2018

Europeans have long had a love affair with tile. Walk into almost any café in Paris or Seville or Lisbon and you’ll see glorious tiled surfaces, implemented for their artfulness. But here in the United States, tiles are traditionally installed for sanitary reasons, as a protective surface to ward off spills and moisture in the kitchen and bath.

“The rest of the world likes tile because it’s beautiful,” says Deborah Osburn, who founded Clé Tile, her artisanal tile business in Sausalito, in 2012. We asked Osburn to fill us in on the seven different types of tile commonly available, from cement to porcelain to glass, plus what to use where, what you can expect to spend, and more. Here’s what you need to know—take note for your next renovation project.

Ceramic Tile

First, a brief rundown on the types of tile that all fall under the “ceramic” umbrella. Basically a fired clay tile, ceramic tile started as simple earthenware, such as terracotta tiles that are fired at a low temperature and not impervious to moisture. Next came an earthenware tile that’s been glazed to make the surface impervious. An early form of this type of low-fire glazed ceramic tile is called “zellige;” today’s subway tile is a more modern version. Stoneware, the next level, is fired at a higher temperature and thus harder. Last comes porcelain, the most sophisticated type of ceramic tile, fired at the hottest kiln temperatures. Read on for info on each.

1. Terracotta Tile

Terracotta tile in situ at Casa No Tempo: A Minimalist Retreat in the Portuguese Countryside.
Above: Terracotta tile in situ at Casa No Tempo: A Minimalist Retreat in the Portuguese Countryside.
We called terracotta tile as one of our 17 Design Trends for 2017; shown here, Clé’s antique hexagonal tiles.
Above: We called terracotta tile as one of our 17 Design Trends for 2017; shown here, Clé’s antique hexagonal tiles.

Terracotta tile offers a rustic, primitive look that is emerging big-time. But, Osburn says, it isn’t for perfectionists.

“Mexican saltillo tiles became popular here in the early 1980s,” she says. “Some of them were sun-fired, not even fired in a kiln, so they were really fragile. But people liked these primitive tiles for their authenticity—especially if they had stray pieces of straw, or footprints left by a dog or chicken.” Clé Tile sells sophisticated types of terracotta, including antique tiles reclaimed from old French farmhouses and a Belgian reproduction version. Note that some terracotta tiles are unglazed and usually left unsealed, which is what you want to get the look of old Provence, and although silicone impregnators are available to avoid grease spots, the tiles will still develop a patina from age. And while many Americans insist on tiles that look like new, Osburn says, “we’re seeing a growing demand for imperfect tile.”

Good for: Floors.

Pros: Aesthetically pleasing and soft underfoot. Dark colors hide dirt.

Cons: Since the tiles are handmade from low-fired clay, shapes can be uneven; an experienced installer is needed. Stains aren’t easy to remove.

Price: $8 per square foot for Mexican tiles, $35 for reclaimed French.

2. Subway Tile

Subway tile in Kitchen of the Week: The Ultimate Staff Kitchen in NYC.
Above: Subway tile in Kitchen of the Week: The Ultimate Staff Kitchen in NYC.
Zellige (glazed ceramic tile) is an early form of what we now call “subway tile.” Shown here: Zellige Terracotta Weathered Tile by Clé Tile, as seen as a backsplash in House Call: 50 Shades of Weathered White in Hudson, NY, from Zio & Sons.
Above: Zellige (glazed ceramic tile) is an early form of what we now call “subway tile.” Shown here: Zellige Terracotta Weathered Tile by Clé Tile, as seen as a backsplash in House Call: 50 Shades of Weathered White in Hudson, NY, from Zio & Sons.

The expression “subway tile” has come to define both a shape and a pattern; it refers to any thin, low-fired glazed ceramic tile. “It’s become a classic, like jeans and a T-shirt,” says Osburn, who predicts that subway tile will never go out of style. “You can create a design statement with even the most economical tile, and dress it up or down.”

Good for: Walls, backsplash, shower stalls.

Pros: Affordable, durable, and easily cleaned. Easily installed.

Con: Not suitable for floors.

Price: As low as $4 per square foot for a decent product.

3. Stoneware Tile

Hard-wearing stoneware tile in A Caviar Bar in Finland with a Wintry Palette.
Above: Hard-wearing stoneware tile in A Caviar Bar in Finland with a Wintry Palette.

This affordable tile is readily available in home-supply stores. Elements in the clay allow it to be fired at higher temperatures, which makes for a harder, glasslike surface. Stoneware tiles can be plain matte or glossy; other types can have a printed glaze finish made to look like wood or stone. They’re typically found on restaurant floors, where durability is needed; at home, dog owners who like the look of hardwood but can’t put it in their high-traffic area might opt for the visual impact of wood-patterned stoneware.

Good for: Mostly floors, but also used on walls.

Pros: Affordable, durable, and easily cleaned. Easily installed.

Con: Note that stoneware that looks like faux stone or wood doesn’t wear as well as the real thing.

Price: As low as $5 per square foot, but good quality tiles can run from $7.50 to $15.

4. Porcelain Tile

The Mews Porcelain Tile by Barber & Osgerby for Mutina has a sophisticated air; read more about it at Trend Alert: 5 Minimalist Graphic Ceramic Tiles.
Above: The Mews Porcelain Tile by Barber & Osgerby for Mutina has a sophisticated air; read more about it at Trend Alert: 5 Minimalist Graphic Ceramic Tiles.

These are ceramic tiles made from a white clay that’s more elastic and can be somewhat translucent. It’s fired at an even higher temperature than stoneware, which makes it harder and tougher. The current porcelain trend started because the Italians decided to show off their tile-making chops, Osburn explains. “At one point stoneware was the big tile, and the Italians decided to switch to porcelain,” she says. “But it barely makes any difference in how the tile looks or performs.”

Good for: Walls, backsplash, shower stalls.

Pros: Durable and easily cleaned. Easily installed.

Con: Higher priced than other ceramic tiles.

Price: As low as $10 per square foot, but $25 to $30 for more sophisticated tiles.

Other Types of Tile

5. Glass Tile

Photographer Aya Brackett had a glass-tile floor installed in her Oakland, California, bath, to dramatic effect. Read on in Bathroom of the Week: An Artist-Made Mosaic Tile Floor, Start to Finish.
Above: Photographer Aya Brackett had a glass-tile floor installed in her Oakland, California, bath, to dramatic effect. Read on in Bathroom of the Week: An Artist-Made Mosaic Tile Floor, Start to Finish.

It’s possible to get even more beautiful colors in glass tile that you can from glazes, says Osburn. Still, you have to be a fan of that glasslike surface, which was especially popular 15 years ago. Glass tile is also tricky to install because of the translucency.

Good for: Walls, backsplash, shower stalls.

Pros: Durable and impervious to staining. Brilliant colors and finishes.

Cons: Requires special materials and techniques to install. Can be expensive. Not always suitable for floors (it can help if the tile surface is textured).

Price: From $16 per square foot (steer clear of anything less) to as high as $100. Standard good-quality glass tiles are around $25 to $35.

6. Natural Stone Tile

Carrara marble tile makes a luxe bathroom floor; for more, see Steal This Look: A Barbara Bestor–Designed Master Bath in LA.
Above: Carrara marble tile makes a luxe bathroom floor; for more, see Steal This Look: A Barbara Bestor–Designed Master Bath in LA.

While stone tiles have been used around the world since ancient times, they were brand-new in the United States 30 years ago. And like terracotta, there was a learning curve: Many homeowners didn’t like that it can be hard to maintain, might vary from one tile to the next, and would develop a patina.

Many types of stone are cut into tiles for household and commercial uses; these vary in terms of their strength, durability, and imperviousness. The softest is limestone tile, which is earthy-looking and can’t be polished to a high shine.

Marble tile is somewhat harder, but not maintenance-free, while granite is the hardest and the easiest to maintain. And then there’s quartzite, which is also very hard—and not to be confused with quartz, an engineered stone that’s hard and stain-resistant. (Many of these stones are more often used as a slab for countertops and shower stall walls.) Slate tile is well suited for flooring since its natural texture makes it slip-resistant.

Good for: Walls, backsplash, shower stalls, floors.

Pros: Natural patterns are aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes, there’s no grout needed for installation.

Cons: Some stone tiles must be regularly sealed or treated to prevent staining. Those left unsealed can stain.

Price: Depending on the type of stone, anywhere from $8 to $150 per square foot.

7. Cement Tile

Graphic cement tile in black and white (it’s Granada Tile’s Fez) on the floor of Barzotto in San Francisco.
Above: Graphic cement tile in black and white (it’s Granada Tile’s Fez) on the floor of Barzotto in San Francisco.
More cement tile—this time the Claesson Koivisto Rune–designed Casa Series cement tiles from Marrakech Design in a guest bath in Serenity Now: Creating Calm and Luxe in a Brooklyn Townhouse.
Above: More cement tile—this time the Claesson Koivisto Rune–designed Casa Series cement tiles from Marrakech Design in a guest bath in Serenity Now: Creating Calm and Luxe in a Brooklyn Townhouse.

Tiles made of pigmented cement—also called concrete tiles—are currently the biggest seller at Clé Tile, as the US scrambles to catch up with the rest of the world. Osburn considers cement tiles one of the best flooring materials, both for their beauty and for the fact that, like hardwood floors, they can be refinished over and over. However, they’re meant to develop a patina with age, so if you consider that a downside, cement tiles aren’t for you.

Good for: Walls, backsplash, floors.

Pros: Attractive, durable, and affordable. “There’s nothing more beautiful in that price range,” Osburn says. Grout is not always needed for installation, depending on the function and area where it’s used. Can be refinished.

Cons: Depending on wear and tear, needs to be sealed and maintained.

Price: From $8.75 per square foot; median is around $15, can go to $25 for intricate shapes.

For more from Clé Tile, see The New Artist Cement CollectionAn Ode to Belgian Design, in Blackened Terracotta, and A New Blue Delft Tile Line from a California Artist.

And for more in our Remodeling 101: The Only Styles You Need to Know miniseries, check out:

N.B.: Featured photograph from A Glamorous Farmhouse in Southwest France by Studio Maclean, courtesy of Studio Maclean.

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