Ceramic, vinyl, or parquet? Cork or carpet? What substrate? Which adhesive? The more you know about the various kinds of tile, the easier it will be for you to answer these questions and design and install a practical and durable surface.

How to shop for tile

In this section, you’ll find information about different kinds of tile and learn which material works best in different settings. You’ll read about membranes, mortars, and mastics, which, along with substrates, provide the foundation for the tile.

When you begin to look for tile, don’t start with a list of materials. First, ask yourself, ‘How do I want to use this space?’ The answer to that question will help determine what kind of tile and other materials to use.

Make a list of the characteristics needed for the area. Does it have to be waterproof? Will it need to stand up to a lot of heavy traffic? Do you want it to feel comfortable and cosy?

Then consider your budget. High-traffic areas, such as a foyer, call for the durability of ceramic tile. But if your bank account won’t accommodate a ceramic floor, solid vinyl tile is a tough and affordable alternative. In the kids’ room, carpet tile can help quiet the noise of children’s play, and stained or damaged sections can be easily replaced.


After considering the uses of a room, make some general decisions about how you want the space to look. Then go shopping at several suppliers. Compare prices and take samples home. Fit them in a trial layout; if they don’t work, go back and borrow other samples.

Ask plenty of questions and choose a supplier who can provide answers about the permeability, durability, and maintenance of any tile you choose.

Look for an outlet that will lend or rent tools. A store that offers how-to seminars will likely provide good service after a sale. Purchase all the tiles and materials you need from the same supplier. That way you will be assured of consistent information and compatibility among the products you choose.

Tile terms

The terminology used to describe tiles and materials may vary among suppliers and from region to region. Porcelain tile, for example, may mean large, modern floor tile to one supplier and small, hexagonal mosaics to another. What one dealer calls an “isolation membrane” may be a “slip sheet” to another. Clarify specifics as you go, so you know what you’re buying.

Many tile sizes are listed as nominal, not actual measurements. The actual size of a 6×6 tile, for example, may be 5 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches, which allows for the width of the grout joint.

How to Shop for Stone Tile

Add an unending variety of colours, patterns, and textures to your home with stone tile.

Stone cut from local quarries was likely the first tile used in ancient construction, and the qualities that made it desirable then — an unending variety of colors, patterns, and textures — are the same ones desired now. Today stone tile is cut with diamond blades from slabs and polished (gauged stone) or split by hand from large sections of rock.

Gauged stone is fairly uniform in size and thickness. Cleft stone is irregular. You’ll find highly polished, matte, and flamed finishes (which gives the surface a coarse texture), as well as roughed-up tumbled stone.

Not all stone is tough enough for floors, and it’s not rated by density like ceramics. Four grades, however, indicate its tendency to break. Exercise caution when cutting stone tile.

Most varieties are sold as 3- to 12-inch squares, but 4×2-inch rectangles and 2×2-foot squares are becoming increasingly popular. Oversize tiles make striking design elements and also make installation go more quickly.

Marble, granite, and slate are the most popular stone tiles. Like anything natural, they’re prone to damage and colour changes. Buy extra tiles, and when you get the boxes home, examine each tile for damage and consistency of color. Don’t be afraid to return a tile that detracts from the beauty of your installation.

Substrates for stone tile All tile must be set on a surface that’s smooth and free of deflection. A substrate of 1/2-inch backerboard laid over 3/4-inch plywood will provide sufficient stability to keep stone tile and its grout joints from cracking.

Installation of such a substrate, however, increases the height of the floor and is often impractical in existing construction. In addition, the combined weight of substrate, mortar, and stone tile may exceed the structural limitations of the subfloor. Stone tile weighs considerably more than ceramic tile, so before you commit yourself to a stone floor, engage the services of a structural engineer or architect. An inexpensive deflection test will tell you quickly if your subfloor can handle the weight.


Marble colours range from almost pure white to nearly black, with shades of pink, grey, and green in between. Some varieties are dense and vitreous; others are soft and absorbent. Be sure to consider how much wear your marble tile will be subject to before making a purchase.


Granite is the hardiest of the stone tile family. Its density is the same as vitreous ceramic tile, so it can withstand freezing conditions, resist staining, and stand up to heavy use. These qualities make it extremely versatile; it’s well suited for floors, walls, and countertops.

Tumbled stone

Tumbled stone is marble or slate that has been roughened by abrasives and acids. The result is a dimensioned tile with a rough-hewn texture, accentuated veining, and rounded edges. It can add classic or rustic character. Tumbled stone must be sealed to prevent staining.


Agglomerates are formed from a mixture of stone dust and epoxy resin. The mix is moulded, hardened, and then polished to a high gloss. It is a manufactured stone and not as durable as the natural material from which it came. However, it is less expensive than natural stone tile.


Slate originates from petrified mud, and although some varieties are as soft as marble, others are as hard as granite. It comes in a surprising variety of greens, greys, and blues, which are often installed in quiltlike patterns. Its slightly ridged surface makes harder species ideal for floors.

Limestone and Sandstone

Limestone and sandstone come in a wide variety of muted colours and offer a rustic look. As sedimentary rocks, both are porous and vary in hardness, so make sure you’re purchasing a stone suitable for long wear when planning to install it on a floor.


Quartzite is sandstone that has been buried deep in the earth, where pressure and high temperatures have fused its minerals into an extremely hard and weather-resistant rock. Like marble, quartzite comes in many colours, but in its pure form it’s a light neutral colour.

Cutting Stone Tile

Unlike ceramic tile, stone fractures unpredictably, so you can’t cut it with a snap cutter or trim it with tile nippers. Make straight cuts in stone tile with a wet saw or a small stone saw equipped with a diamond blade. To make curved cuts, mark the cut line on the tile with a china marker (felt-tip markers may bleed into the surface). Support the tile on a firm surface. Using a rod saw and carbide blade, cut along the line. Go slowly to avoid splitting the cutout. Smooth exposed edges with a rubbing stone.

Ceramic and Cement Tile

Ceramic and cement-bodied tiles are the hardest and most durable members of the tile family.

Ceramic Tile

The term ceramic refers to any hard-bodied material made chiefly from clay and hardened by firing at high temperatures. Most modern ceramic tiles contain a mixture of refined clay, ground shale or gypsum, and other ingredients that reduce the shrinkage of the tile as it’s fired.

Once mixed with water, the clay body of the tile (or its bisque) gets its shape by being squeezed into a mould, pressed into a die, or cut like cookies from sheets. From there, temperatures from 900 degrees F to 2,500 degrees F harden the bisque. Most ceramic tiles are fired at about 2,000 degrees F. In general, higher temperatures produce a denser tile. Most unglazed tiles are fired only once, but some are fired twice. Those with decorative glazes are fired up to five times. The more firings, the higher the cost.

Other Hard-Bodied Tile

In addition to high-fired clay products, you’ll find a host of other hard-bodied tiles. Some, such as brick veneer, originate from clay mixtures fired at lower temperatures than ceramic tiles. Others, such as saltillo tiles, are handmade from unrefined clay and bonding agents and don’t get fired at all — they are sun-dried or allowed to dry in low-temperature kilns. Cement-bodied tiles are made from a mortar-and-sand mix that cures in a chemical reaction.

Some of these nonceramic varieties have specific uses and a few restrictions. For example, most imitation brick veneer is too soft for floors but is a great choice for walls. Handmade tiles, such as saltillo, have a rough texture. Their natural imperfections can add rustic charm, but they also absorb water readily. That relegates them to indoor use, and they still require sealing. Cement-bodied tiles are a less expensive, long-lasting look-alike for ceramics that work well in many kinds of applications.

Quarry tile

Quarry tile, extruded and fired at high temperatures, is semivitreous or vitreous. Made in 1/2 to 3/4 inch thicknesses, it is fired unglazed with bisques in many colours, sizes, and shapes, such as 4- to 12-inch squares and hexagons, and 3×6-inch or 4×8-inch rectangles.

Porcelain tile

Porcelain tile, made of highly refined clay and fired at extremely high temperatures, absorbs virtually no moisture. Porcelain tiles may be glazed or unglazed. Sizes range from 1×1-inch mosaics to large 24×24-inch pieces, some with stone-look patterns.

Terra-cotta tile

Terra-cotta tile, though technically not a ceramic because it is fired at low temperatures, is a low-density, nonvitreous tile suitable for dry areas. Its surface defects add to its charm. Available sealed or unsealed, it comes in squares from 3 to 12 inches and in other geometric shapes.

Cement-bodied tile

Cement-bodied tile, a cured sand-and-mortar mix, is a nonvitreous tile with excellent durability. Some tiles look rough-hewn, others sport smooth finishes. Available in squares or rectangles from about 6 to 9 inches and in mesh-backed paver sheets (up to 36 inches) that mimic cleft stone.

Saltillo tile

Saltillo tile is not a true ceramic tile because it is dried not fired. Nevertheless it is treated as a ceramic tile and enjoys wide use in rustic and Southwestern designs. Available in squares, rectangles, octagons, and hexagons, from 4 to 12 inches, it is a low-density, nonvitreous product.

Choosing Tile for Different Locations


Tile varies in its ability to absorb water, and its vitreosity should be a factor in choosing tile for different locations.

Nonvitreous tile can absorb more than 7 percent of its weight in water and is not suitable for areas that will get wet.

Semivitreous tile has an absorption rate of 3 to 7 percent — good for family rooms but not desirable for outdoor use.

Vitreous tile is dense; it absorbs only 0.5 to 3 percent of its weight in water. You can install it in almost any location.

Impervious tile is almost completely water-resistant. It is more commonly found in hospitals, restaurants, and other commercial installations rather than residential settings.

Glazes of Decorative Tiles

Glazes made of lead silicates and pigments brushed or sprayed onto the surface of the tile add both colour and protection. Some glazes are applied to the bisque before it’s fired. Others go on after the first firing and are fired again. Single-fired tiles exhibit greater strength and durability. Additives introduced to the glaze will provide texture to the surface of the tile.

Glazed tiles are water-resistant, but the grout joints between them are not. Even when grouting tiles with a latex- or polymer-modified grout, you should seal the joints.

Unglazed tiles soak up water and always need sealing to prevent damaging the adhesive or surface below.

Technical Terms

As you make decisions about tile purchases, you may encounter the following terms associated with tile manufacturing:

  • Bisque: The clay body of the tile. Bisque that is “green” has not yet been fired.
  • Cured: Describes bisque dried naturally or in low-temperature kilns.
  • Extruded: A process in which wet clay is squeezed under pressure into a mould.
  • Fired: Bisque hardened in high temperatures.
  • Glaze: A hard, thin layer of pigment applied to the tile to give it colour and protection.
  • Vitreosity: The resistance of a tile to water absorption, ranging from nonvitreous (very absorbent) to impervious (almost completely water-resistant).

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