When considering marble tiles as a flooring material, most people think of the classic, glass-smooth white stone with smoky grey veining. But there are actually many other options for finishes, sizes, colors, and vein patterns of marble floor tiles.
It may surprise you that marble is typically formed out of limestone or dolomite rock, both of which are common types of sedimentary rocks. The rocks are then metamorphosed under heat and pressure when the earth's crust moves, resulting in a recrystallized and hard marble stone. Depending on the chemical composition of the original sedimentary rock, and the conditions under which it metamorphoses, the marble can take a variety of appearances, though nearly always with distinctive wavy veins running through it.
Marble can be categorized in a number of ways, and knowing the differences will help you make informed decisions.
The various types of commercial marble sold by retailers are usually named for the region from which they are quarried. Nearly every continent contains deposits of marble, but most of the commercial marble sold for residential building materials comes from Italy, Spain, or other areas of southern Europe. The appearance of the marble usually gives clear clues as to its place of origin. Here's a list of the most popular marbles and where they are quarried.
The Meaning of Marble's Magnesium Carbonate Content
Although rarely highlighted by sellers of marble, different types of marble are sometimes categorized according to the amount of magnesium carbonate they contain. The more magnesium carbonate content, the more the marble may react to acids which could etch the marble's surface:
- Dolomite marble contains over 40% magnesium carbonate.
- Magnesium marble contains between 5% and 40% magnesium.
- Calcite marble contains less than 5% magnesium carbonate.
This classic white or light gray stone with soft gray veins is one of the lightest colored marbles used for flooring tiles. It is quarried in the city of Carrara in the northern tip of Tuscany, Italy. With hundreds of operating quarries producing it, Carrara marble is one of the most readily available marbles you can choose. By some accounts, more than 80% of all marble used in residential construction up to now is Carrara marble. Supplies of Carrara marble are dwindling, however, and you can expect other different sources of marble to come into heavier use in the coming years.
Calacatta marble is a whitish marble with very pronounced veins ranging from gray to golden brown. Originating in the Apuan Mountains in Carrara, Italy, it is a high-end luxury stone that is used both in countertop slabs and flooring tiles. It is available in both honed and polished finishes. Calacatta is quite similar to Carrara marble, but with more prominent veining. This is a rare and more expensive form of marble.
Also called Statuario, this marble is also quarried from the Carrara region of Italy, but it has a lighter field with less color variation that classic Carrara marble. The veins are usually a mixture of light and dark gray. LIke Calacatta, this is a rare and more expensive form of Italian marble.
Breccia Onicada Marble
Breccia onicada is a warmer, darker marble in creamy browns and reds, and is also quarried in Italy. It is used both for countertops and floors. It is sometimes considered a form of limestone, and the stone has a more complicated veining pattern than most marbles. The term "breccia" refers to the rock's composition, in which broken fragments are cemented together in a fine-grained mixture. This angular, broken pattern makes for a very attractive stone surface.
Arabescato Orobico Marble
This is a very dark marble with sweeping veins of light gray to brown. It is a premium, high-end marble that comes from the Brembana Valley in Northern Italy.
This marble is available in various shades of brown with fine grains and irregular veins. It is quarried from three different regions of Spain. The darker color makes a good choice for high-traffic floor areas and it is also commonly used for fireplace surrounds.
Crema Marfil Marble
This textured creamy beige stone has an overall yellow, cinnamon, or golden beige color with very soft veins of darker colors. Like breccia onicada, it is sometimes marketed as a form of limestone. It is quarried in Spain.
There are also alluring marbles available from Turkey, Greece, and other regions. These often are quite expensive, but they can have truly unique colors, such as deep reds or greens.
Hiding Acid Etching Stains
It may sound counterintuitive, but the whiter the marble, the less it will show white etching marks resulting from spilled acidic liquids. Etching will also dull spots on polished marbles but fade better into honed finishes.
Marble tile can be finished with any one of several different surface styles. The most popular marble finishes are polished, honed, tumbled, and brushed.
One of the prized characteristics of a marble floor is its ability to take a very high polish. This allows the material to be buffed until it glistens in the light and is perfectly smooth to the touch. In lighter-colored marbles, polished tiles will actually glow, with the light of the room penetrating slightly into the stone and then reflecting outward with soft illumination.
There are several drawbacks to polished marble floors. They are very slippery, especially in wet environments. They also easily damage—and will readily show those problems especially in bright light. These blemishes will be more visible in darker solid colored marble materials than they are in light or single-colored tiles.
In a honed surface, the marble is grinded down until it is flat and smooth, but not to the point where it is slippery and polished. These tiles allow you to have the beauty of marble but with less concern about slipping hazards.
Honed marble may be more muted and often does not have the same vibrancy of color as a highly polished stone. The finish also still has a relatively low coefficient of friction (which means it's still somewhat slippery), and it can be scratched if not cared for properly.
Tumbled marble is created by processing tiles in a drum with rock and sand aggregate that create small chips, scratches, and rounded edges on the tiles. The resulting tiles have a rustic, natural look. The texture of tumbled marble is ideal for shower floors since the finish reduces the risk of slipping.
Each piece of tumbled marble is slightly different. Though the tiles are fairly standard in size, the shapes will vary slightly, and not every piece will be a perfect right-angled square or consistently textured. This irregularity is part of the appeal of using honed materials.
Brushed marble is created by scuffing the surface of the tile with abrasives until a natural antiqued look is created. The brushing process, however, creates a somewhat porous surface that must be frequently sealed in order to resist staining. The floor needs to be cleaned frequently because dust tends to collect in the textured pits of the surface.
Tile Size and Shape
While marble flooring can be installed in large slabs, this is rarely done except in formal, commercial settings. For residential use, marble flooring is almost always installed in the form of tiles. Classic marble floor tile is usually square in shape, with several dimensions most common:
- Tiles measuring 12-inches by 12-inches and generally 3/8 inch thick are most common.
- Tiles measuring 16-inches by 16-inches and usually 7/16 inch thick are also quite common.
- Tiles measuring 24-inches by 24-inches and typically 1/2 inch thick are usually the largest available for flooring.
There are also rectangular marble tiles available in a variety of dimensions, such as 8 inches by 20 inches, 12 inches by 18 inches, and 12 inches by 24 inches. There are also geometric tiles, most commonly in the shape of hexagons.
Mosaic Marble Flooring
Marble is often available in a variety of mosaic cuts. These can either be small individual chips or mesh-mounted chips laid on a flexible mesh backing and ready for installation. You can also buy medallions or patterns in which the marble colors are arranged on the mesh mount to create attractive and colorful displays.
Marble Floor Pricing and Installation
Marble tiles can be purchased at big box home improvement centers, but for a wider range of options, consult a specialty flooring store or tile retailer.
Read Labels Carefully
What is sold as marble is sometimes not genuine stone, but rather a "marble-look" porcelain tile that mimics marble and is less costly.
Marble floor tiles at retail can range in price from as low as $7 per square foot for a pure white Cararra tile to $50 per square foot for a rare tile. You can pay considerably more—prices upwards of $200 per square foot are possible—for designer mosaic tile sheets that feature a blend of marbles in different colors and shapes.
Costs for genuine marble at big box home improvement centers can be as low as $4 per square foot to about $20 per square foot, but the selection is generally limited to standard Cararra marbles or other mass-produced varieties.
Marble Floor Installation
As with any tile, you can install marble flooring yourself to save labor costs. In addition to the material costs, professional installation can cost from $3 to about $7 per square foot, depending on the size of the room, the complexity of the work, and the labor cost/availability in your area. Simple square or rectangular tiles will be easier to install, and therefore cheaper, than installations calling for intricate patterns and extensive tile cutting.
With all tile floors, the larger the tile, the fewer grout lines you will have. Grout is one of the most vulnerable parts of a tile floor installation, and the presence of more grout lines will mean that the floor will require more labor to install and more maintenance to keep it protected against stains and water damage. More grout will also present further challenges when removing a marble floor. When practical for the flooring design you seek, choosing large tiles requiring fewer grout lines is the best option.