Tile adds style to any room

By Paul J. Donio, Today’s Homeowner

Tiling a Wall, floor or counter top is like covering it with a shell: The result is relatively thin, yet durable enough to withstand water, dirt and traffic.

Such toughness doesn't sacrifice beauty, either. Tile comes in a spectrum of colors and shapes, from subtle to bold.

While you'll also find a stupefying selection that includes marble, glass, brass and other materials, ceramic tile easily is the most popular, versatile and affordable. There's more to ceramic tile than meets the eye, however. Which to buy and where to put it depends as much on how it's made as on how it looks.

How it performs
Every ceramic tile is a piece of fired clay. The formed, but not yet fired, clay is called a bisque or biscuit.As with biscuit batter, the longer and hotter you bake the clay, the harder and denser it gets, with fewer air pockets for greater resistance to water absorption.

Hard, dense ceramic tiles are termed vitreous and - for the densest porcelain versions - impervious. Most tiles for residential applications are semivitreous, while the least dense tiles are nonvitreous and are primarily for decorating walls in dry areas.

Glazing can also block water absorption - to a point. It typically involves coating the tip surface with ground glass and pigments, then firing the tile again. The mixture fuses with the tile to give it a deep finish that is either clear or richly colored.

Because the glaze is also a sealer, it protects the tops of semivitreous and nonvitreous tile from moisture and stains, but it can't keep moisture from entering the sides and back.

Unlike wall tiles, floor tiles bear the extra burden of foot traffic. Fortunately, you can gauge their toughness by checking the manufacturers' ratings, which are fairly consistent because most are based on a European standard.

Tile in Group I is fine for walls, but suitable for floors only in bathrooms, where the traffic is bare foot or slippered.

Group II tile is rated for general residential use except in kitchens, entryways and other high-traffic areas.

Group III tile is the best choice for most homeowners; it's rated for all residential and light commercial environments.

Tiles in Group IV or Group V are extra-tough varieties made for factories, shopping malls and other public places, and they carry an extra-high price.

Tile by type
Once you know what goes into ceramic tile, choosing one kind over another is that much easier. You'll find these following types in most stores.

  • Glazed floor tiles make up more than half the tiles sold annually in the United States. They're available in a seemingly endless variety, with glazes that vary from rough to smooth.The smoothest are slippery when wet, so choose rougher glazed tiles for bathroom floors. Look for a tile with a coefficient of friction (COF) rating of at least 0.60, dry and wet.

    Vitreous, glazed floor tiles are a durable option for counter tops and walls, but check with the salesperson to be certain the setting materials and grout needed can be used on eating surfaces.
  • Glazed wall tiles offer the most color and style choices, including most hand-painted types but, because the majorities are nonvitreous and their glaze is light-duty, they aren't for floors and counter tops.Mosaic tiles are 2 inches square or smaller. These tiny tiles allow you to create geometric and pictorial scenes in variety of colors. The tiles are attached to paper or mesh, creating ready-made designs. Mosaics can be glazed or unglazed, porcelain or non-ceramic. Again, what they're made of determines where they go.Pavers are vitreous floor tiles at least 3/8-inch thick and at least 6 inches square. They are available glazed and unglazed, and in porcelain, stone and ceramic. Their uneven surface makes them unsuitable for counters.Porcelain tiles are fine for all floors, walls and counter tops. Most porcelain tiles are vitreous, although some are impervious. They used to be mainly in mosaic tiles, but now porcelain comes in many sizes, with textures from rough stone to polished.

    Because the color goes all the way through, chips and scratches can be buffed out - something you can't do with a glaze. But all that extra performance costs at least $1 to $2 more per square foot than ordinary ceramic tiles.

    Quarry tiles are vitreous, unglazed tiles that are usually ½-inch thick and are used mostlyfor floors. Their color goes all the way through. Quarry tiles can be used in wet areas, but they stain easily and aren't for kitchen unless they're sealed.

    Specialty tiles include glass often used in mosaics or as a wall-tile accent -- and cut stone, such as marble, slate, limestone and granite. All are sold in standard tile sizes.

    You can also buy tiles that are handmade, hand-painted, or both. Called art tiles, they're available in ceramic and non-ceramic materials and are easier to find than you might think. Many tile retailers sell the work of local artisans and can refer you to one for custom designs.
  • Versatile medium. You can choose tile to give you almost any look you want.For example, rough textured floor tiles tend to give a rustic appearance, while hand carved wall tiles might look relatively delicate.

    As with every other finish material, from carpet to wallpaper, the secret is to focus on color, texture and pattern. What's unique about tile is that it allows you to control all three factors.
  • Color and texture. Glazed tiles are available in almost any color. Their textures vary from highly polished to rough (courtesy of burned-off sawdust sprinkled on the glaze before it's fired).

    Unglazed tiles usually are not available in the brightest shades, though they come in a full range of colors and textures. Solid-colored tiles gives a crisp or even flat appearance.

    Color variation on individual tiles gives the installation a textured look.
  • Pattern. The most popular pattern is the basic grid of squares. Classic variations include diagonals grids and grids with dots in the cut-off corners of squares, as well as herringbone patterns and a brick-like overlapping layout.

    Whichever pattern you pick, you can make it strong or subtle in several ways.

    For example, high-contrast grout - either much lighter or darker than the tile – makes for a bolder pattern; if the grout color blends with the tile, the pattern becomes subtle or can virtually fade into one continuous-looking surface.

    The size of the tiles within a pattern makes a difference, too. Large tiles make an expansive area look smaller, while small tiles in a subtle pattern will stretch a small area. And small tiles in a variety of similar colors give the impression of a continuous but textured surface.

    Using contrasting corner molding, base molding and accent strips is another way to enliven tile.

    Borders with tiles of a different color, shape or size than the field tile are a popular example. Because it's impossible to get a tile grid perfectly aligned in a room, count on centering the pattern and cutting the tiles around the perimeter of a floor.

    Major manufacturers like American Olean, Dal Tile and Florida Tile have made choosing trim and accent tiles easier by offering a wide variety of coordinated tiles.

    Some, like Crossville, group their tiles by color, and many list recommended accent colors and shapes for certain selections. Several makers even offer colors that match plumbing fixtures from major companies.

  • When you shop. Tile prices can vary widely from one region to another. Even within one store, costs can range from under 25 cents each for a basic 4 1/8-inch square glazed wall tile to 200 times that or more for hand-cut stone or an exotic forged metal.

    But there are some reliable averages. Basic glazed floor and wall tile starts at $2 per square foot, and basic mosaics start a little higher than that. Porcelain tiles, thick pavers and large stone-look tiles are all available for less than $5 per square foot, though you’ll pay more for most styles.

    At the high end are art and other specialty tiles. They range from $8 per square foot in some areas up to $100.Installation cost varies wildly, too. As a rough guideline, figure $1.50 to $2.50 per square foot for all the setting materials, and $4 to 6 per square foot for labor.

    The bottom line: You can get an incredible variety of tile for less than $10 per square foot installed. And you can make clever, unique designs out of basic tile for half that amount.

  • Where to look. Stores that specialize in floor coverings or tile tend to have a better selection and better prices than home centers offer.

    Their tile specialists will give you expert advice on color and layout, as well as on the technical considerations. Even if you stick with the basics, a specialist will suggest the right combination of grout, mortar, backer and adhesive for your job and for the tile you pick. You should double-check these factors, no matter where you shop.

    And never order tile right out of catalog. Get a sample. Look at it. Feel it. Then take it home. The color and texture will look different in your house than they do in the store.

    Finally, if you hire an installer, have the pro buy your tile and the same setting materials. You may pay a little extra, but the installer will be responsible if anything goes wrong.And, you won’t have to try to figure out how much to buy.

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