A layman's guide to the material of the moment
November 19, 2018
Tile can add lasting beauty to a home in a way that almost no other design element can. But because tile is so lasting, homeowners need to understand its basics well enough to talk intelligently with designers and contractors (the best of the latter are certified tile installers) who might be helping them make decisions they could be living with far longer than the latest trends in paint. Here are seven fundamentals that should make the process less daunting.
Ceramic is the most widely used type of tile because it is durable, relatively inexpensive, and available in almost no end of colors and shapes. A current trend that doesn't appear to be fading anytime soon is ceramic tile that retains all of its virtues but, through digital printing, mimics the look of other material, including wood and fabric, so well that it's often difficult to tell them apart. A more expensive variation, porcelain, does much of what ceramic tile can do, but even better.
Tile made of natural stone – marble, travertine, quartzite, granite, onyx, limestone, sandstone, and slate – is noted for its natural beauty but requires special care and maintenance. Unglazed quarry and terracotta tiles have a rough surface that not only makes them slip resistant when underfoot but also gives them a rustic look.
Among other tile types are mosaic, consisting of small squares of glass or stone. The super-hot tile of the moment is cement, which comes in an endless wave of geometric designs, making it a favorite of anyone wanting to put their design personality on more permanent display than is possible with a coat of paint.
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Typically, smaller tiles are used in smaller spaces and larger tiles in larger ones, although the trend is toward larger tiles overall, as they make a space look bigger and less busy. On the walls, classic 3″ x 6″ subway tiles are being supplanted more and more by 4″ x 12″ iterations.
Floor tiles, which tend to be larger than wall tiles (the exception is in the shower, where tiles larger than 4″ x 4″ can be too slippery), are usually no smaller than 12″ x 12″, and may be, especially with ceramic tile planks, up to 48″ in length. At the extreme, wallpaper-like "tiles" up to ten feet in length are making an appearance, too.
Square and rectangular tiles will always remain popular, as despite their simplicity it is possible to create pleasing designs with them. But among homeowners who might not necessarily have short-term resale in mind, less common shapes, such as variations of hexagon, octagon, penny round, diamond, triangle, picket, wave, ogee drop (or fish scale), and arabesque, can be yet another way of using tile to express personal style. Because these unusual shapes can be more difficult to install, it is best to have the work done by a certified tile installer.
Tile color is an effective way to accentuate a room feature, or hide it. Light color tile can make a room seem cooler and larger, while darker colors have the opposite effect. Take the focus off a floor by using the same color tiles as the wall paint, or make it stand out by contrasting them. With large areas of solid color, minimize color variation by checking the packing specs to make sure the tiles all came from the same batch.
Tile shape, size, color, and texture are used to create patterns. Most common is the straight pattern, whose simple grid of vertical and horizontal lines is easy to create and allows other design elements to stand out. A variation is the running bond, in which tiles are offset, as on a brick wall. Other popular patterns include diagonal, basket weave, herringbone, windmill, chevron, and hopscotch or pinwheel, each suited to creating a particular effect. A diagonal pattern, for example, can make a small space look bigger, while windmill excels at focusing on tiles you want to draw attention to.
More than just the substance that fills the space between the tiles—and collects dirt and stains if not properly sealed—grout is an important element of tile design. Grout color, which is not just available in white, gray, or beige but can be almost any hue, can determine if a tile makes a bold statement or fades into the background. In general, the more closely grout color matches tile color, the more the grout lines will seem to disappear. This not only allows the tile space to feel bigger but also lets a room's other design elements take on more prominence. Conversely, the more contrast there is between tile and grout color, the more the individual tile shapes will stand out and grout lines will become a design element on their own.
Often listed on each tile box, ratings tell you if the tile is physically up to the job you are demanding of it. The most common metric, PEI, measures a glazed tile's abrasion resistance. PEI 3 and 4 are suitable for most residential uses, 1 and 2 only for walls. Other ratings indicate a tile's likelihood of having minor surface imperfections, how slippery it is, its imperviousness to water, its frost resistance, and variations in its color.