Tile terminology can be confusing. Most types of tiles are made from clay or a mixture of clay and other materials. They are then kiln-fired. The larger classification of “ceramic tiles” can be split into two groups: 1) porcelain tiles and 2) non-porcelain tiles. These non-porcelain tiles are frequently referred to as “ceramic tiles” by themselves, separate from porcelain tiles. While porcelain tiles technically are a subset of ceramics, they are often referred to as porcelains because they are denser, stronger and tend to look nicer.
It’s important to understand that not all ceramic or porcelain tiles are suitable for all areas. Tile products generally are wear-rated from low to high (PEI hardness rating). Most manufacturers do meet international standards (but with a growing number of imports, some manufacturers do not comply). And, it is important to understand if the tile is floor or wall tile. Floor tile can be used on walls, but not vice versa. Wall tiles are generally not suitable for the floor. Wall tiles on the floor will usually crack and some are slippery, especially when wet, so they can also create a safety hazard.
Ceramic tiles (or non porcelain tiles) are generally made from red or white clay fired in a kiln. They are almost always finished with a durable glaze which carries the color and pattern. They can be naturally colored and left unglazed (like terra cotta) or they can have highly stylized and designed surfaces that are glazed. They can be glazed in a high gloss or matte finish. These tiles are used in both wall tile and floor tile applications. They are softer and easier to cut than porcelain, and usually carry a PEI 0 to 3 rating (see below). Ceramic tiles are usually suitable for very light to moderate traffic and generally have a relatively high water absorption rating making them less frost resistant. They tend to be more prone to wear and chipping than porcelain tiles. And, because they often red or white underneath, when they do chip, it tends to show more.
PEI stands for Porcelain Enamel Institute and is a measure of hardness
Class 1: No foot traffic. Wall use only
Class 2: Light traffic. Bathroom wall and floor applications
Class 3: Light to moderate traffic. Walls, counter tops and floors normal foot traffic
Class 4: Moderate to heavy traffic. Good for all residential applications as well as medium commercial and light institutional
Class 5: Heavy to extra heavy traffic. All residential and all commercial and institutional use.
Porcelain tiles are a newer form of ceramic tile and extremely popular among homeowners. They are generally made by the dust pressed method from porcelain clays and fired at much higher temperatures than ceramic tiles. This process makes porcelain tile more dense, less porous, much harder and less prone to moisture and stain absorption than ceramic tiles. For these reasons, most porcelain tiles are suitable for both indoor and outdoor installations. Porcelain tiles usually have a much lower water absorption rate (less than 0.5%) than non-porcelain tiles making them frost resistant or frost-proof. Porcelain tiles are also harder to cut due to their density and hardness.
Porcelain tiles are much harder and more wear and damage resistant than non-porcelain ceramic tiles, making them suitable for any application from light residential traffic to heavy commercial traffic. Full body porcelain tiles carry the color and pattern through the entire thickness of the tile making them virtually impervious to wear and are suitable for any application from residential to the highest traffic commercial or industrial applications. Porcelain tiles are available in matte, unglazed or a high polished finish. They tend to look more real (many look like natural stone), have more intricate designs and they tend to cost a bit more than basic ceramic tiles.
Regardless of whether you choose ceramic tile or porcelain tile for your decorating project, you will find both types of tiles offer a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and styles. You can also add some flair with borders and accent tiles. These accents can even be metals, granites, or glass. And, you can get creative with the layouts (e.g. diagonal or brick lay, or insets or even using multiple sizes and shapes). This will give you an almost unlimited design possibilities.
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