11 things to consider when choosing tiles
This article was originally printed in the Your Home & Garden magazine. You can view it here.
Get ready to make some hard decisions for your walls and floors
With so many tiles available it may feel a bit overwhelming choosing just one. Fortunately, not all tiles are created equal, which makes narrowing down the choice much easier.
Bear in mind when looking at tiles that they are priced in dollars per square metre, which is illustrated as either an actual $/sqm price, or an indication of price point such as $, $$ or $$$ etc. When calculating the quantity of tiles needed, always add 10-15 percent for breaks, cuts and faults. Tiles are usually delivered in boxes of about 1sqm each – however many tiles that may be, depending on their size.
The majority of tiles available in New Zealand hail from either China or Europe – the latter are generally more expensive.
Most of the tiles you come across will be either ceramic or porcelain, although they might be finished in such a way as to look like natural stone. Why? Because natural stone tiles are heavy and expensive, which means their ceramic copycats are much more lightweight and affordable to install.
Ceramic and porcelain Ceramic tiles are made from natural clay, sand and water, then baked to remove most of the moisture. Porcelain tiles are often referred to as ceramic but they’re slightly different, in that they’re made from a denser clay and baked at a higher temperature until almost all of the moisture evaporates. The long drying process makes porcelain tiles more expensive than ceramic, but it also makes them a lot harder. While this does increase durability, it unfortunately makes installation difficult, so aren’t recommended anywhere requiring tricky cuts such as a centred floor waste in a tiled shower floor. In terms of colour, ceramic tiles usually display warmer undertones that are hidden during the glazing process, whereas porcelain is at the white and grey end of the spectrum and often left unglazed.
Cement Also known as Moroccan tiles, cement tiles are made from pressed cement and are not fired in a kiln. They have a more natural look, which fades as they age.
Terracotta Natural and unglazed clay-fired tiles, these are usually an orangey-brown colour but are rarely consistent from one tile to the next. While their porous nature makes the texture nice underfoot, it also means they can stain easily as they absorb water and other liquids that are spilled on them. Much like porcelain, they can be frustrating to install due to their hardness, but the installation costs are easily offset by their relatively affordable price.
Natural stone This is an all-encompassing term used to describe tiles made from granite, slate, marble, limestone such as travertine, or sandstone such as quartz. They’re quarried by cutting off large pieces, which are then sliced into slabs and polished. Slabs of natural stone can be used for kitchen and vanity benchtops or cut into tiles such as 60cm x 60cm squares. Usually stone tiles are supplied with a honed finish, which means they will need to be sealed after being installed in your home and before use, especially if you’re using them in your bathroom. It goes without saying that natural stone tiles are the most expensive.
Terrazzo Growing in popularity, terrazzo is a precast composite material that consists of pieces of stone-like marble, quartz, granite, glass and other such materials within a binding agent, which may have a colour pigment added. They’re then polished smooth to show the blended contents, similar to the way you expose the aggregate in a polished concrete floor. Terrazzo is an expensive choice.
Size and shape
A lot of tiles will have a nominal size – the size that manufacturing is targeting when producing tiles. Sizes can vary between batches however, so the tile size from that batch will usually be printed on the label too, normally in millimetres – 600mm x 600mm would be a 60cm x 60cm tile. Rectified tiles have been cut after glazing to ensure consistent sizing.
Mosaics Usually about 1.5cm square and available in a broad range of colours, glazes and other finishes.
Finger tiles Also called pencil or kit-kat tiles, they are long and skinny (around 2cm) – even though purchased on sheets, they can be installed in a different laying pattern.
Penny rounds Small round tiles, no bigger than a coin.
Fish scale Available either in one consistent finish like marble or multi- coloured so that three to five different colours are laid on the sheet in a specific pattern.
Chevron/herringbone Bought in sheets if they’re very small, or individually for larger format tiles. Their size is measured as if they were a rectangle and not the asymmetrical shape they are – imagine if you cut a triangle off one end to make it square and added it to the other end. The finished rectangle would be the measurements used when sizing these tiles.
3D tiles Tiles with a sculpted surface. They’re a bit harder to clean so not ideal for splashbacks or in the shower.
You might find the tile thickness mentioned next to its surface dimensions, such as 5mm. This is an important detail when considering the transition of different floor finishes.
Tiles are mostly glazed after firing. The glaze (gloss, polished or matte) is non-porous and provides a harder wearing layer to the top surface. A porcelain or ceramic tile left unglazed can also have a matte finish, and a porcelain or ceramic tile that’s unglazed and polished about 1mm off the surface can be labelled polished or semi-polished. Natural stone tiles are most often supplied with a honed finish and can also be described as structured in finish.
Honed Also known as satin, this is a semi-polished finish that is smooth to the touch – usually found in natural stone tiles.
Structured A more textured finish to the tile, with ridges and dips in the surface, mostly used outside due to their non-slip characteristics.
Grade or use
The grade of a tile refers to its abrasion resistance, such as how much foot traffic it is suited to. There are five grades of tile and most suppliers will work to a similar framework when grading their tiles:
Grade one: For use on walls only.
Grade two: Residential use, such as the bathroom floor.
Grade three: Light to moderate foot traffic, such as in your kitchen or hallway at home.
Grade four: Commercial use, such as a retail store. office kitchen or bathroom.
Grade five: Heavy foot traffic, such as a shopping mall or airport.
The batch is the specific production run that the tile comes from, and colours/sizes can vary slightly between them. For that reason, buying all your tiles for one area from the same batch is a good idea – and definitely an extra 10-15 percent because if you run out, you might struggle to match them. Installing or laying tiles is a specialist task and is best left to a professional.
Levelling compound – screed
It would be unusual to find a perfectly level floor no matter when it was constructed, which is why levelling compound is often used as a starting point to any tiling exercise. If the pits and troughs in a floor are only minor, they might be dealt with sand and cement screed, otherwise a levelling compound is used. This is made from a polymer-modified cement that has a high flow characteristic, meaning when poured on the floor it will flow and set level almost completely by itself, which is why it’s called self-levelling compound. It’s quite expensive to use though, so encourage your tiler to use regular screed unless there’s a huge difference in height across your floor.
Sand and cement screed
A more affordable alternative to levelling compound is sand and cement screed. Screed is thicker so it requires a bit more effort to install, however its thicker nature makes it easier to use for feathering the floor as needed. If the bathroom floor is lower than the adjacent finished floor level, the screed can be used to feather or lightly ramp the floor up or down to the room’s entrance to ensure a flush transition between floor finishes when tiled.
If you intend to install underfloor heating then a levelling compound screed will usually be required, even if it’s just a few millimetres to ensure the floor is a consistent level, and the elements will be installed on top of that. Underfloor heating systems are powerful enough to be felt through waterproofing, mortar and tiles.
If you’re tiling a wet area, you’ll require waterproofing as well. The most common systems use either a blue-coloured membrane with either a polyurethane base or an acrylic or polymer base that is applied to the walls and floors as needed, including at least 15cm up adjoining walls that don’t require full waterproofing. Waterproofing is recommended in any areas with a regular ‘splash’ such as: an enclosed and tiled shower; an unenclosed and tiled shower; bath with a shower overhead; a bath; above the vanity benchtop and underneath the vanity on the floor if floor mounted.
Grout is the finishing touch – a thick mixture of water, cement and sand used to fill gaps between your floor tiles, for example, and available in a large range of colours so you can colour-match or contrast against the tile colour. There are two types of grout: regular cement-based grout and epoxy. Epoxy grout is a resin-based grout that is more durable and stain-proof than regular grout. While it is more expensive to use, I recommend opting for epoxy grout in your bathroom and for your kitchen or laundry splashback to make for easier cleaning. Be aware not all tiles are compatible with epoxy grout, so make sure you check with the tiler first.
This adhesive is used to hold the tile to the substrate (your original floor or the waterproofing membrane). There are two main types of mortar, thinset mortar or medium-bed mortar. Thinset mortar (made from sand) is most commonly used in wet areas such as a tiled shower floor, or with heavier tiles such as those made from natural stone. Medium-bed mortar is more coarse sand and other aggregate and is applied in a thicker layer. Your tiler will know which is best for the application.
More porous varieties of tile, such as natural stone, will require a sealant to be applied to reduce staining from spills. Tiles requiring sealing should be done so before grouting, otherwise they’ll absorb the moisture and colour from the grout. Sealants aren’t needed for glazed tiles.