There are a lot of similarities between ceramic tiles and the various natural stone materials that are available. They are both hard-surface flooring options that are highly durable and water-resistant and can last for many years in numerous environments. The key difference is in the melted glass glaze that can be applied to ceramics to protect them from damage and stains. Ceramic tile also can be manufactured to mimic the look of other materials, such as wood, glass, metal, and, yes, natural stone.
Natural Stone Tile
Mountain-born stone comprises a variety of specific materials, each of which has unique properties and characteristics.
The hardest and densest construction-grade stone material, granite can be polished smooth, honed flat, or left in a naturally gauged state. While it is resistant to stains and water penetration, it is somewhat porous and should be sealed after installation, to protect both the tiles and the grout lines between them.
Almost as hard as granite, slate is a striated material that consists of layers of flat, hard-packed stone that are compressed by the weight of the earth into solid pieces. This gives the material a very strong structure, making it resistant to cracks and breaks. However, it is prone to some chipping on tile edges. Naturally porous, like all stones, slate should be chemically sealed after installation, with periodic reapplication recommended for best effect.
Limestone offers moderate density and strength and is porous (must be sealed). It tends to weather well, taking on an aged, antique look over time, reminiscent of classical stone structures.
An extremely porous material, sandstone needs to be treated with multiple applications of a quality penetrating sealer and a surface sealer on a regular basis. Sandstone is generally not recommended in bathrooms and other humid or wet environments.
Types of Ceramic Floor Tile
Ceramic floor tile is available in both glazed and unglazed forms. Because ceramic is made from clay—or earth—unglazed tile has some of the same drawbacks as stone tile.
The vast majority of ceramic tiles are manufactured with glaze to create an impervious seal over the surface of the natural clay material. The glazed surface is tough, waterproof, and highly stain-resistant. It needs no sealer or other protective finish of any kind.
Ceramic is made from clay and sediments which are baked hard in a kiln. In its natural state, it is very porous and will readily absorb liquids and staining agents. This can be prevented to some extent by sealing the floor with a quality chemical ceramic tile sealer. Unglazed materials are usually chosen over more durable options because of the natural, rustic beauty of the pure clay.
Terra cotta is a specific form of unglazed ceramic that is made from a type of red clay found in Mexico and parts of Europe. These materials produce tiles with distinctive patterns and hues that are quite attractive and are popular for southwest-style decorating. However, the material is porous and must be sealed to prevent stains and moisture absorption.
When it comes to porosity and vulnerability to water, unglazed ceramic is similar to a mid-range travertine stone material. It needs to be sealed on a regular basis to protect it from stains. All-natural stone materials also have to be sealed, although harder options such as granite and slate can sometimes weather fine after only an initial application. With glazed ceramic, you don’t have to worry about water penetration at all, and sealing is unnecessary for the tile itself. However, all grout lines in floor tile, regardless of the tile material, should be sealed to prevent staining and discoloration. The only exception to this rule is epoxy grout, a specialty material used for some ceramic and stone tile installations.
Natural stone can be damaged by acid. Because of this, you have to avoid the use of any acidic cleaners, as they will cause a reaction in the stone which can result in a permanent stain. Sealing the surface will help to prevent this to some extent if spills or splashes occur with acid liquids, such as vinegar.
With glazed ceramic, you can use virtually any cleaning agent that you want to completely sanitize the area. With harsher chemicals, you should be careful not to degrade the grout lines too much. You also want to make sure the space being cleaned is well-ventilated, and follow all manufacturer instructions in the application of any cleanser.
The structural strength of a ceramic tile comes from the temperature of the kiln when the ceramic is fired. Higher temperatures result in more durable materials, such as porcelain. For all glazed tile, the glazing helps prevent scratches and reduces wear. Natural stone also varies by type of material, with granite and slate being much harder than marble or limestone. However, stone can have hidden faults in individual pieces, and some materials may be prone to chipping along the edges and at the corners of the tile.
In general, glazed ceramic is the right choice if you want a low-maintenance, stain-resistant, hassle-free floor. However, ceramic is not a completely natural product, and while it can mimic the look of stone, it is not able to fully reproduce it. For this reason, people often opt for the less durable natural option, even though it requires more care and maintenance.
Black & Decker The Complete Guide to Tile, 4th Edition. Cool Springs, 2015