Options for Marble Floor Tiles

marble floor tiles

JazzIRT / E+ / Getty Images

When considering marble tiles as a flooring material, most people think of the classic, glass-smooth white stone with smokey grey veining. But there are actually many options for color, vein pattern, finish, and size of marble floor tiles.

Marble forms as carbonate sedimentary rock, such as limestone, is metamorphosed under pressure to recrystallize into a harder 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.

Mineral Content

Although it is rarely highlighted by sellers of marble, different types of marble are sometimes categorized according to the amount of magnesium carbonate they contain:

  • Dolomite marble contains more than 40% magnesium carbonate.
  • Magnesium marble contains between 5% and 40% magnesium.
  • Calcite marble contains less than 5% magnesium carbonate.

Geographic Origin

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.

Carrara marble: This classic white or light gray marble is one of the lightest marbles used for flooring tiles. It is typically white or very light gray, with soft gray veins running through it 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: 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 rarer, and more expensive form of marble.

Statuary 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 rarer and more expensive form of Italian marble.

Breccia onicada marble: This is warmer, darker marble, with creamy browns and reds common. It is used both for countertops and floors. Breccia onicada is sometimes considered a form of limestone, and it 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. The onicada form of brecciated marble is quarried in Italy.

Arabescato orobico marble: This is a very dark marble with light gray to brown sweeping veins. It is a premium, high-end marble that comes from the Brembana Valley in Northern Italy.

Emerador marble: This marble is quarried from three different regions of Spain and is available in various shades of brown, with fine grains and irregular veins. The darker color makes is a good choice for floor areas that receive high traffic; it is also commonly used for fireplace surrounds.

Crema marfil marble: This textured creamy beige stone has an overall yellow, cinamon, or golden beige color with very soft veins of darker color. Like breccia onicada, it is sometimes marketed as a form of limestone. It is quarried in Spain.

There are also unique and exotic 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.

Buying Tip

What is sold as "marble" in big box home improvement centers is sometimes not genuine stone, but rather a "marble-look" porcelain tile. there is nothing wrong with these manmade ceramic products—they are much cheaper than genuine marble and can be remarkably effective at mimicking the look—but if you are set on using real marble for your flooring, read labels carefully. Shopping from a specialty flooring store will ensure that you are getting genuine marble.

Surface Finish

Any marble tile can be finished with any one of several different surface finishes. The most popular are polished, honed, tumbled, and brushed.

Polished Marble

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. First, they are very slippery, especially in wet environments. They also easy to damage—and will readily show that damage. These blemishes will be more visible in darker solid colored marble materials than they are in light or single-colored tiles.

Honed Marble

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 with less concern about slipping hazards.

Unfortunately, honed marble often does not have the same vibrancy of color as highly polished stone. Often, the hues seem a little faded and washed out compared to the similar material in a polished finish. Honed marble also still has a relatively low coefficient of friction, and it can be scratched if not cared for properly.

Tumbled Marble

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 that many people find attractive. The texture of tumbled marble is a good feature for shower floors, since it reduces the slipperiness of the tiles.

With tumbled marble, each piece you get is slightly different. The tiles themselves are fairly standard in size, but the shapes will vary slightly, and not every piece will be a perfect right-angled square. You may also have some pieces that are polished and others that have a stripped honed surface. This irregularity is part of the appeal of using honed materials. However, when laying out honed tile for a floor, make sure the overall variation of the tile shapes and coloring have an attractively random look.

Brushed Marble

Brushed marble is created scuffing the surface of the tile with abrasives until a natural, antique 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 texture 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:

  • 12 x 12-inch tiles are most common; generally 3/8 inch thick.
  • 16 x 16-inch tiles are also common; usually 7/16 inch thick.
  • 24-x 24-inch tiles are usually the biggest available; typically 1/2 inch thick.

There are also rectangular marble tiles available in a variety of dimensions, such as 8 x 20-inches, 12 x 18-inches, and 12 x 24 inches. There are also geometric tiles, most commonly hexagons.

Mosaics

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. You can also buy medallions or patterns in which the marble colors are arranged on the mesh mount to create attractive and colorful displays.

Grout Lines

With all tile floors, the bigger 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 maintenance to keep it protected against stains and water damage. When practical for the flooring design you seek, choosing large tiles is the best option.

Price

At consumer tile stores, marble floor tiles 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 rarer 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 exotic marbles in different colors and shapes.

If money isn't a limiting factor, there are also high-end luxury tile retailers that specialize in exotic marbles from around the world. Costs can be quite exhorbitant.

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.

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.

Bottom Line

When choosing marble floor tile, you have more options than you may realize. Marble colors and veining patterns can very greatly, depending on the region where the marble was quarried; and the manufacturing process offers you several options for tile shape, size, and finish. 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.