Selecting Tile

Porcelain is a semi-translucent ceramic that is valued for its delicate appearance and its strength. It was created in China by combining white clay and a type of feldspar found almost exclusively in that country. When the ingredients are fired at extremely high temperatures, the feldspar melts to form a natural glass that fuses to the clay particles.

Medieval craftspeople used lead glazes fired on red clay to create colourful, waterproof tiles that were used as flooring for churches, expensive homes and stately buildings. Sophisticated decorations applied to tiles required the development of tin glazes, a technique that emerged from Middle Eastern countries.

As early as 500 BC, glazed and decorated tiles were used to adorn Iranian palaces and monuments. Tiles from this era still survive at the palaces of Susa and Persepolis. The "Eternal Soldiers", a mosaic at Persepolis, was created with glazed tiles in various shades of yellow, green and brown.

The fascinating evolution of the production techniques used to create beautiful and enduring tile is far from over. Visit your local home renovation store and you will find an amazing selection of tile for a variety of uses in and around your home.

Purchasing and installing tile can be a significant investment but consumers often don't realize that the wrong tile choice can be even more expensive. Unsuitable tile can result in water damage, stains and even broken bones! Once tile has been laid it is quite time-consuming to remove or repair.

The following is a list of some commonly available types of tile and their basic characteristics and applications:

Glazed vs. Unglazed

Ceramic glaze is a glass-like material that is baked onto the tile, so that it bonds firmly to provide a hard, protective shell. Glazing makes it possible to create tiles in a wide range of vivid colours. Unglazed tiles are typically available in natural shades of white, beige, brown and gray depending on the clay and other materials used to make the brick.

A common misperception is that all glazed tiles are too slippery for wet areas. In fact, most high-moisture areas such as bathrooms, kitchens and foyers require glazed tiles. Moisture can seep into unglazed products depending on the composition and the firing temperature of the tile. This can be a serious problem because the longer the tile stays wet, the more likely it is that bacteria and mildew will multiply. Perpetually damp tiles can also lead to wood rot in the floor beneath the tiles. Tile manufacturers make a wide range of skid-resistant glazed products.

In general, unglazed tiles that have been fired at relatively low temperatures, such as terracotta, are porous allowing water to soak into, or even through, the tiles. These types of tile are often labelled "nonvitreous" or "not impervious to water". Unglazed tiles fired at high temperatures are more dense and therefore more water resistant. These tiles, labelled "vitreous" or "imperious" are very water repellent. Although it is possible to apply sealer to unglazed tiles, glazed tiles are the best choice for wet areas.

Another consideration when selecting a glazed tile is durability. Kitchens, bathrooms, hallways and foyers tend to be high-traffic areas. Select tile with a glaze that is very hard and scratch-resistant. It can be almost impossible to tell whether a glaze has such characteristics just by feel and appearance. Check with a knowledgeable sales representative to help you sort through the countless products and make a choice that suits your unique needs.

Porcelain

Porcelain tile is made by firing white clay paste and feldspar at extremely high temperatures. The result is a very strong tile that is imperious to water (i.e. vitreous). Porcelain tiles are available glazed and unglazed.

Porcelain tile can be tinted any colour because it starts out as pure white. The colours available in porcelain are truer and more intense than most other natural clay-based tiles. Due to that colour clarity, porcelain tiles can even be made to resemble marble.

Quarry Tile

Do not be fooled by the name - most modern "quarry" tile was not hewn from the earth - it was more likely made from fired red clay. The name is related to appearance. Quarry tiles are unglazed so they often look like cut, unpolished stone.

Because quarry tile is not glazed, it absorbs moisture and is prone to stains. It is well suited to patio and pool areas where the natural look and skid-resistance of an unglazed surface are desirable characteristics.

Glass

Although glass tiles are most often used on walls and in mosaics, advances in tempering techniques have produced fairly durable tiles for floors. Most glass tiles are still not as strong as porcelain. If you like the luminescence and depth that only glass can produce, you may wish to sacrifice some strength for appearance. These tiles are available in a range of finishes from glossy to frosted.

Natural Stone Tile

Granite, marble, onyx and travertine are a few of the most popular types of natural stone tile. Traditionally, they have been polished to create a deep shine that maximizes the colour and beauty of the stone. On the market today, you will find many alternatives to polished finishes including sandblasted finishes. Polished tiles tend to possess more vivid colours and greater stain-resistance than stone tiles with rough finishes.

Although one may think all stone would be impervious to water, in fact this is not universally true. Marble and granite are harder, more water and scratch-resistant than onyx and travertine. If you really like the look and colour of travertine or onyx, try to use them on the walls or apply a sealer for use on the floor.

Cement

Unlike most tiles, which are made from clay, cement tiles are actually small slabs of concrete. They can be stained to almost any colour and any design including the veined appearance of marble. Cement tiles can be rough and porous or polished to a sheen. In areas with high moisture or the potential for stains, the tiles should be sealed regularly.

Let your imagination run wild when it comes to choosing the colour, size and styles of your tile but don't neglect the practicalities!