Miles of Tile
Choosing the best materials and format for showers, walls, and floors takes focus.
Synopsis: When you’re building or remodeling a bathroom, chances are that you will end up looking at tile for walls or floors, but the array of choices can be overwhelming. In this article, FHB managing editor Debra Judge Silber takes a look at the world of bathroom tile with an overview that will help tile shoppers to decide the best material whether it’s for a shower or the entire bathroom, walls or floors. Bathroom tile can be made of several materials: ceramic; porcelain; natural stone; metal; and glass. Silber also looks at trends in bathroom tile, including artisan and handmade tile; ink-jet porcelain; sustainable tile; mosaic tile; split-face tile; and large-format tile. In addition to a list of tile resources, this article includes a visual glossary of tile parts, such as chair rail, liner, bullnose, V-cap corner, cove base, quarter-round, radius cap, V-cap, and field.
The tile you choose not only has a substantial impact on the cost of your bathroom project, but it also affects how your new bath functions, ages, and impresses those who peek inside. If that’s not daunting enough, consider the sheer volume of choices facing you inside the local tile store.
Designer-builder Patrick Sutton of Austin, Texas, suggests that clients avoid the tile store until they know what they’re looking for. “I always tell people, ‘I can’t forbid you from going to a tile showroom, but I wish you wouldn’t. Sit down first and make a list of what you’re trying to do. Then go to the tile store.’” Lexington, Mass., architect Lynn Hopkins encourages clients to consider the style of the whole house before choosing one feature — which could be tile — to set the design tone for the bath. “Ask: What is this tile saying about the character of the room in which it wants to be? It gives you a context in which to make all those other decisions.”
Aesthetics aside, there are other qualities you’ll want to look for. One is strength, which will determine whether the tile is suitable for wall or floor applications (or both). Another is slip resistance. You can judge slip resistance based on the coefficient of friction (a COF of 0.5 or above is OK for floors), or you can do what many builders do: run your hand over the surface. A third feature to consider is shade variation, or the degree of difference in color and pattern from one tile to the next. Shade variation is designated by a V followed by a number from 1 to 4, with 1 having the least variation (minimal to no difference) and 4 having substantial, sometimes dramatic, variation in color or pattern between tiles.
Tile isn’t forever, but try to choose one you can love for the long haul. “Find something you know you can be happy with for the next 10 to 20 years,” advises Tom Meehan, a master tile setter in Harwich, Mass. He adds that it’s not just the tile, but also the complete design that matters. “When guests look in, you want them to say, ‘What an incredible bathroom!’ not ‘What incredible tile!’”
Made of clay mixed with minerals and water, ceramic tile, like that used on the floor above, comes in a broad array of shapes, sizes, and colors. Initially fired to create bisque ware (unglazed ceramic), it can be fired a second time with a ceramic glaze to produce a surface that is stain and scratch resistant. The tile body itself, however, is porous. Depending on its hardness rating, ceramic tile can be used on either walls or floors. For the most part, ceramic tile is easy to work with snap cutters and nippers, making it DIY-friendly. Although ceramic tile traditionally has been the most economical choice, the availability of porcelain tile in recent years has lessened ceramic’s dominance in the market.
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