For serious ceramic tile work, no tool is better for cutting tile than a wet saw. While there are other ways to cut tile that may serve you well for small jobs, if you are tiling a bathroom or large floor, your work will be much easier with a tile saw.
How Wet Saws Work
A wet tile saw resembles a miniature table saw with a few important exceptions. For one, it is equipped with a special diamond-edged carbide blade that is quite different than the saw blades used to cut wood. Rather than ripping the hard ceramic material, it effectively grinds through it. The blade on a wet saw works somewhat like the thick carbide blade on an angle grinder. While not especially fast, it is the fastest way to make straight cuts on ceramic tile, porcelain, and natural stone tiles.
A tile saw's action is different, too. A tile saw has a sliding table that feeds a tile through the overhead blade. A miter saw, for example, leaves the wood stationary, and the cutting blade moves to meet it. With a tile saw, it is the opposite: the blade is stationary, while the material moves to meet the blade.
Recirculating vs. Fresh Water Tile Saw Modes
The most unique feature of a tile saw is that it includes a reservoir of water that pumps a stream of water over the spot where the diamond blade is cutting through the tile. The water stream keeps the blade and ceramic material cool and reduces dust and flying particles.
Most tile saws incorporate two different modes of delivering water to the work material: recirculating or fresh water (though some tile saws have either recirculating or fresh water modes).
With this mode, the wet tile saw keeps recirculating and filtering the same water from the lower basin. This eliminates the need to be hooked up to a water faucet. The downside is that chips and debris from cut tile may begin to clog up the recirculating pump's inlet screen.
With fresh water mode, the tile saw draws water straight from a water source. While this ensures a continual spray of clean water, it also means that you cannot stray too far from a water source.
Other Methods of Cutting Tile
Snap or Rail Tile Cutter
An inexpensive tool called a snap tile cutter or rail cutter is ideal for small jobs that do not require much cutting. Breaks with snap cutters can be uneven and unpredictable, leading to waste.
Snap cutters work best on thinner wall tiles; they are difficult to use on thick flooring tiles, and do not work very well at all for harder porcelain tiles or for very hard natural stone tiles. By contrast, the wet tile saw makes clean, predictable cuts on almost any ceramic, porcelain, or stone tile.
An ordinary circular saw equipped with an abrasive diamond blade can cut tiles, too. Such blades are sold for exactly this purpose. This is a dry-cutting process that is messy and potentially dangerous due to flying chips and glazing fragments.
An angle grinder with a diamond blade can be used to cut small portions of tile. As with the circular saw, it is a dry-cut tool, so flying dust and debris is a problem.
Renting a Tile Saw
Cutting tile is unlike cutting other types of materials—breakage is common, and the risk of sharp, flying particles is very real. And this is not a tool that has other uses. It is used for cutting tile or stone only, nothing else.
Depending on the local tile saw rental rates, it only takes a few days of tiling before the cost of buying a moderately good saw is a better bargain than renting. As a rule of thumb, if you have only one room to tile and expect to complete the work in one or two days, then renting the tool probably makes more sense.
Available storage space might also be a consideration. With their water reservoir trays, wet tile saws are bulky, large tools. If storage space around your home is at a premium, you may prefer to rent a saw when you need it.
Better quality saw than you might purchase for yourself
No storage problems around your house
Less economical for multi-day tiling
Hassle of renting and returning tool
Buying a Tile Saw
Wet saws are specialty machines, and like table saws, they come in a range of qualities and prices. Some retailers offer wet tile saws for less than $200. Yet unlike a table saw, this is a one-use tool that you will only use when tiling.
If you have two or more rooms to tile or expect to tackle another major tiling job in the future, purchasing a good, low-cost wet tile saw is a good investment.
Tool on hand for whenever you need it
Can be less expensive than renting for large projects
Less expensive machines may be lower quality
If you have a small amount of tiling to do, or are simply replacing a few tiles, and would like the convenience and ease of a wet-saw, tabletop tile saws are available. These tile saws are less expensive, ranging in price from below $100 to $200. They look similar to a table saw but use a system in which the diamond blade is partially submerged in a water reservoir. They are smaller, less powerful, and somewhat slower than a conventional tile saw, but may be a good solution for the small-job DIYer, or if you are uncertain that owning a standard tile saw is right for you.