For many centuries, marble and other types of natural stone have symbolized wealth and power when used for flooring and other surfaces in residential dwellings. In the ancient civilizations of Persia, Greece, and Italy, the hand labor involved in quarrying, cutting, and transporting natural stone meant that it was only the wealthiest citizens—or the government itself—who could afford to use these materials in their buildings. Although modern equipment and transportation systems now make it more accessible to more people, marble and other natural stone is still a building material that retains a royal mystique.
To understand why you need only consider what goes into making a typical marble floor tile.
How Stone Tiles Are Made
There are slight variations in how various types of natural stone are quarried and shaped into tiles or countertops, but the process is similar for all the common types of stone, whether it is marble, granite, slate, limestone, or travertine. The example of how raw marble becomes a tile is a good example.
At an established commercial quarry, which in the case of marble is usually a mountainous site, often in a remote location, special equipment is used to drill access holes through which diamond wire cables are run. Motorized equipment draws the cutting cable through the stone, much the way a chainsaw cuts wood (although it takes much longer) until a large block of stone weighing hundreds of tons is separated from the surrounding stone in the quarry.
Still in place, this large block is now cut down into smaller blocks, each weighing thousands of pounds, which are lifted by heavy cranes onto massive trucks that transport the blocks to a cutting yard, where a gang saw with multiple cutting blades slices the block into individual slabs, much the way a bread slicer cuts a loaf into slices. At some sites, specialized saws also cut narrow strips for marble that is destined to be cut into tiles.
The slabs or strips are now passed through equipment that polishes the faces of the stone. The process begins with coarse diamond abrasives and gradually moves to very fine abrasives. Once the degree of polish is satisfactory, the slabs or strips are packed and shipped by truck to distribution facilities, which may be located near ocean ports if the stone is destined for overseas locations. When shipped overseas, the stone is shipped in massive 20-foot long shipping containers holding up to 20 tons each.
After weeks aboard ship and further transportation by truck, the slabs or strips reach wholesale distribution centers, where individual retail customers—either retail stores or individual consumers—may inspect and purchase the stone. If the stone is being cut into tiles, it is usually purchased in bulk by tile manufacturers, who ship it to factories where the strips of stone are cut into individual tiles and packed for redistribution to warehouses or showroom centers. If the stone is to be used for countertops or similar applications, the hand-selected slab is shipped to a fabricator who will cut it to the specifications of specific building sites.
Given how many steps are involved and how many hands touch a slab of stone, it is no wonder that marble and other natural stone are among the most expensive surfaces you can choose for a bathroom. Still, there are reasons why stone is among the most desired of all remodeling materials.
Advantages of Stone
Today, the principle advantage of marble and other natural stone in a bathroom is that it makes a bold statement of elegance and style. In centuries past, stone was chosen as a building material because of its strength and durability, but in today's construction, other building materials offer better strength and nearly equal durability—as well as lower cost. What hasn't changed—and probably never will, since marble and other natural stone exist in limited supplies—is that natural stone symbolizes exclusivity and style.
Aesthetically, every quarry in the world has a slightly different form of stone, and even within the same quarry, individual slabs of stone will have slightly different veining and coloring. This means that a floor, countertop, or wall surface made of marble or another natural stone will always have a unique look that is different from every other bathroom in the world.
The fact that natural stone is both expensive and unique means that using marble or other natural stone in your home almost automatically improves its resale value. Real estate agents will virtually always point out the presence of natural stone when selling a home, and prospective buyers always view it as a strong positive.
Some of the disadvantages of stone (and there are many) have now been reduced or eliminated by the development of chemical sealers that allow marble, granite, and other natural stone to be sealed against water and stains. The availability and effectiveness of these synthetic sealers are largely responsible for natural stone now being a viable material for wet locations such as bathrooms. Even showers—once off-limits to marble and other natural stone—are now seeing stone surfaces installed with some regularity.
Disadvantages of Stone
For every advantage of natural stone, there are multiple disadvantages:
- For most people, the sheer expense of stone is prohibitive enough to make it a poor choice. Depending on the type of stone, you can expect to pay $100 to $300 per square foot for the combined material and labor cost of stone floors, walls, or showers. A large 6 x 8 x 7-ft.-tall shower lined with rare marble, for example, could tens of thousands of dollars for the stone installation alone.
- Stone is cold. Walking on natural stone with bare feet can be a decidedly unpleasant experience unless it is laid over a radiant floor heating system. This is such a drawback that most people who are prepared for the expense of a stone floor automatically opt for radiant floor heating, as well. This naturally makes the overall remodeling cost even higher.
- Stone is slippery. For stone to work effectively in a bathroom environment, it must be sealed, and a sealed stone surface becomes very slippery when it becomes wet. Natural stone can be a severe safety hazard in a bathroom and isn't advised for bathrooms used by children or elderly people.
- Stone is brittle. Somewhat surprisingly, natural stone is not nearly as strong as ceramic tile when it comes to holding up to flexing and expansion. Natural stone tiles break rather easily.
- Stone floors may require structural adaptations. Stone is very, very heavy and is susceptible to cracking if the subfloor flexes at all. This may require substantial (and expensive) reinforcement of the subfloor before stone tile is installed.
- Natural stone is porous. In contrast to glazed ceramic or porcelain tiles, marble and other types of natural stone are relatively porous and are easily discolored by moisture. Types of stone that have a high iron content (marble is one) may discolor and rust when used in a moist environment. This porousness also means that stone is rather easily stained—a stone countertop can be permanently discolored by hair coloring or even lipstick. The only preventive strategy is to seal the stone at least once a year.
- Stone is difficult to maintain. Standard cleaning detergents or soaps can't be used on stone, because a discoloring film will gradually build up.
- Stone is not a "green" material. Worldwide supplies of fine marble and other stone are finite, and the quarrying of stone can only be done by destroying natural scenery. Environmentally conscious homeowners will want to consider these facts when choosing materials.
Substitutes for Natural Stone
Manufacturers have long attempted to simulate the look of natural stone in other building materials. Ceramic tile was created as a means of achieving the hardness and durability of stone in a material that could be mass-produced. The so-called "cultured marble" countertops made from plastic resins were an early attempt at achieving a stone look, and more modern solid-surface materials such as Corian® or Swanstone® are formulated to have a stone-like look. There are other examples, but none of these products is fully successful in mimicking the look of true natural stone.
Another somewhat more successful attempt is a building material known as quartz, often used in countertops. The name is somewhat misleading since quartz countertops are not made from quarried quartz mineral. Instead, "quartz" is a mass-produced material formulated from ground quartz particles mixed with polymer resins, which can then be formed into various shapes to simulate the look of natural quarried stone.
One of the very best substitutes for natural stone are recent forms of porcelain tiles. Porcelain is a subcategory of ceramic tile that uses finer clay particles that create a denser tile that is more impervious to water. Unlike standard ceramic tiles, which are generally uniform in color, porcelains have enormous design flexibility and can be made to resemble almost any material, including wood, leather, or natural stone. So convincing are stone-look porcelains that it can take an expert eye to distinguish them from the real thing. Porcelain tiles are available in quite large sizes similar to natural stone, and they are as easy to install as any standard ceramic tile. Costs are far less than natural stone—marble-look porcelain tiles start at about $2 per square foot. Best of all, there are textured porcelain tiles available that offer a non-slip surface that is ideal for bathroom and shower floor surfaces.
Natural stone for bathroom countertops, floors, and walls is a viable option, thanks to modern sealers that reduce stone's susceptibility to water damage and staining. And natural stone may be a good choice for homeowners who want the "wow" factor of using this exclusive, expensive building material in their homes. But for most people, stone-look porcelain tiles are a much better choice, offering most of the advantages, none of the disadvantages, and much lower cost than natural stone.