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Kitchen Tile Basics: Ceramic and Porcelain for Floor, Backsplash, and Counter

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Kitchen Tile: Ceramic, Glass, and Porcelain for Floor, Backsplash, Counter
Kitchen Tiling Ideas for Counter
© Florim USA
It's rare to find a kitchen without some form of tile. Even kitchens that claim to be tile-free might still have a backsplash or medallion made of tile.

Why is this? Do you want the usual homilies? All right then: tile is hard, inexpensive, moderately easy for novices to install, water-impermeable, and comes in an infinite range of colors and styles. You can even get tile that wickedly imitates stone or wood to such a degree that visitors might be fooled.

One reason often stated for tile in the kitchen is that it is many thousands of years old, and Greeks and Romans laid it. Thus, it must be good. I take a different view. Yes, tile's long-standing popularity counts for much; but just because something is old doesn't make it universally practical. I will cover this in more depth, but because new materials have been developed over the years, there are alternatives to tile that actually work better than tile.

Top 3 Locations to Install Tile

In order of popularity,
  1. Floor: Resilient and easy to clean, kitchen floor tile remains a perennial favorite and shows little erosion in its popularity to other resilient floor coverings such as luxury vinyl tile and conventional sheet or tile vinyl.
  2. Backsplash: Tiling a backsplash is pure art. It's easy, fun, and a quick way to dress up a kitchen. Glass mosaic tile works wonders on brightening up dark corners and reflecting light.
  3. Counters: The least popular application for tile in the kitchen. Grout lines in counters are bad, and tilework is bursting with grout lines.

Porcelain or Ceramic?

Porcelain is a subset of ceramic tile. The only thing distinguishing porcelain from other types of ceramic tile is that porcelain has a water absorption rate of no more than 0.5%. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) sets standards for water absorption rates, and this number basically means that the tile has been tested and its weight has increased only half of one-percent. Currently, there are less than 20 tile companies certified that produce porcelain tile.

But do you need porcelain? Experts may beg to differ, but I believe that floor and backsplash tile do not need to meet these rigorous standards. Counter tile is the only tile application where you might remotely care about having extremely impervious tile. But a kitchen is not a bathroom--the type of place where you might have shower walls or a shower/tub surround that receive continuous water.

Which Type and Size of Tile to Use?

It all depends on the application. Glass tile is beautiful for the backsplash but you would never want to use it on floors: it's too slippery and edges can sometimes be sharp. Large 16" tiles look beautiful on a floor, but would be awkward on backsplashes.

Backsplashes: Mosaic or subway tile are favorite types. One- or two-inch mosaic gives you walls a colorful, artful look, and are easy to install. Since subway tile is wider than it is tall (about a 2:1 ratio) it is a great size for these horizontal spaces. A more contemporary look is found in what I call long-and-skinny tiles (example: a tile that is 4" wide and 1" tall). Because backsplashes get almost no wear and tear, PEI abrasion ratings are largely meaningless.

Floors: You can go big on the sizing: 12" tile or large tends to look better than smaller tiles. Because of moisture, look for a vitreous or semi-vitreous tile that will help resist water. COF, or coefficient of friction rating, help you determine if the tile will be too slippery under foot; look for a 0.60 or better rating. As for PEI, install only Class 3 or higher tile to ensure that the product will hold up to the heavy foot-wear that kitchens tend to get.

Counters: You need an impervious ceramic, porcelain, or natural stone (granite, etc.) tile that isn't too small or too large. One-inch mosaic tile multiplies the grout lines and makes it impossible to wipe clean. Overly large tiles not only look ungainly, but you've got simple measuring problems: what kind of tile will you find to fit the counter's 24"-25" depth? Some homeowners purchase rectified tile and install them with hairline grout lines.

Kitchen Tile Trends...Past and Present

The biggest flooring trend which I don't see abating any time soon is that of tile that looks like wood. Benefits are tremendous: close-to-wood appearance with none of the moisture problems associated with wood.

White ceramic subway tile will not go away for kitchens aiming for a certain early 20th century ambiance. But one emerging trend is in bright and bold colors, and sometimes set vertically rather than in the usual horizontal manner.

One played-out trend, at least in my eyes, is earthen-colored backsplash mosaic tile.

5 Recommendations

I have compiled a list of five unique types of tile that I especially like for floor and backsplash:
  1. Linen Texture Ceramic: Soft textures that look like cloth, yet with the hardness of tile.
  2. Wood-Look Tile: Looks like solid hardwood and even has the same plank-like dimensions. A huge market that's just getting huger by the day.
  3. Supersized Tile: No tile on counters? Who says? One pricey exception to the rule is a product such as StonePeak's 5'x10' (yes, feet) super-sized tile that practically eliminates seams.
  4. Uncut Mosaic Tile For Backsplashes and Walls: Chunky, primitive styles.
  5. Ceramic/Vinyl Hybrid Tile: Armstrong Alterna is one example of this limestone/vinyl hybrid.

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