Tile is a type of thin, rigid hard-surface material, formed by manufacturing processes into uniform geometric shapes for use as a finish material for flat surfaces, such as floors, countertops, or walls. It can include rustic natural stone, such as granite; or highly processed materials, such as reflective glass, but It does not include various forms of vinyl flooring tiles, as these are considered resilient flooring materials.
Various forms of hard tile have been a favored building material for millennia. Although hard tiles used for floors, walls, backsplashes, and countertops are sometimes lumped under the label "ceramic" in reality there are seven distinct options for hard-surfaced tiles, of which clay ceramic is only one. The best choice for you will depend on your budget, your decor goals, and your DIY aspirations.
Below, learn how to choose from seven basic materials commonly used in hard tile materials for floors, walls, countertops, and backsplashes.
01 of 07
Best for: Economical floor and wall surfaces, DIY installations.
Ceramic tile is the most common form of tile used for walls, floors, and countertops, accounting for roughly two-thirds of all tile installations. The term "ceramic" refers to a product made from clay pressed into a shape and then fired in a kiln to harden it, at temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Most ceramic tiles are glazed by coating the tiles with a glass or metallic material during the final firing to give them a hard, shiny surface. The classic and ever-popular subway tile, for example, is made from traditional ceramic material.
While not all ceramic tile is cheap, it is possible to find bargain ceramic tiles that are quite attractive and stylish. Costs for ceramic tiles start as low as $.50 per square foot for basic square white tiles. But there are literally thousands of colors and styles available for any home style and remodeling budget, and it's not hard to spend $30 or more per square foot for imported designer tiles. But the average cost, nationwide, is about $2 per square foot (material alone, without installation labor cost).Pros
Many colors available
Least expensive type
Easy to cut and install
Thin tiles can be prone to cracking
Thin glazing can be prone to scratching
Can be slippery on floors
02 of 07
Best for: Durable, stylish floors, and showers at an affordable price.
Porcelain is a particular type of ceramic material that is made from finer clays and fired at higher temperatures than standard ceramics. According to the PTCA (Porcelain Tile Certification Agency) porcelain must meet a higher standard of water absorption than ordinary ceramic, and is thus a better candidate for high moisture areas like next to bathtubs and in showers. Porcelain tiles are typically thicker and stronger than standard ceramic tiles, so they are also a good choice for floors.
But an even greater benefit of porcelain tile is that the manufacturing processes allow it to be shaped and styled in a way that closely mimics other building materials, such as marble, granite, slate—or even wood and metal. Porcelain tile can be an excellent choice for a luxury look at an affordable price. Nationally, porcelain tiles average about $6 per square foot, not including installation. Here, too, there is an enormous range of prices for this type of tile.
Thicker, stronger than traditional ceramic tile
Can be manufactured to mimic natural stone, even wood
Surfaces are almost impervious to staining
More expensive than traditional ceramic
Slightly more difficult than ceramic tile to cut and install
Can be slippery on floors
03 of 07
Best for: Attention-drawing wall and backsplash surfaces.
Glass tile is a semi-translucent material, usually solid-color, often sold in mosaic sheets. Best for creating showy, flashy, fun vertical surfaces, glass mosaic is sometimes associated with design trends of the early 2000s, but it still holds firm as the tile of choice for limited vertical surfaces that get lots of attention. Because it cracks under pressure, glass mosaic is not appropriate for floors. Glass tile has a sparkling, lustrous beauty that cannot be matched in other types of tile materials.
The cost of glass tiles is usually comparable to porcelain tile—about $6 per square foot—though some types created as "designer" products can cost much, much more.Pros
Semi-translucent, light-reflective surface
Adds unique decorative element to walls
Mosaic sheets make installation easy
Easily cracked, not suitable for floors
Unique appearance can become dated over time
Requires special white tile adhesive
04 of 07
Best for: Rustic-style floors.
Traditional terracotta is a form of tile made from fairly coarse natural clay that is pressed into shapes and fired without the benefit of surface glazing. Thus, the color is usually a variation of reddish-orange, yellow, or brown, depending on the local clay used to make the tile. Terracotta makes an excellent floor surface in Mediterranean- or Southwest-style homes where it lends a rustic charm, but it is a fairly high-maintenance tile that is easily stained unless it is regularly sealed.
These tiles, in their basic square form, are usually available for less than $4 per square foot—sometimes as little as $1 per square foot—thanks to a relatively simple manufacturing process, in which raw clay is formed, then fired. But designer tiles made from important clays, or those created by artisans, can cost considerably more, often rivaling natural stone.Pros
Warm, natural-looking flooring material
Textured surface offers good slip protection
Textured, molded styles available
Continue to 5 of 7 below.
Subject to staining unless sealed
Limited color options
05 of 07
Best for: Floors, sheltered patios and sunrooms.
Despite the name, quarry tiles are not made from solid stone cut directly from quarries. Instead, they are tiles formed from a blend of natural stone minerals, such as feldspar, clay, and shales, which are ground together and then shaped into tile forms and baked at high temperatures. Like terracotta, unglazed quarry tiles must be sealed to make them impervious to stains. They usually have a rough texture, which makes them a good non-slip surface for floors and patios.
On average, the cost for quarry tiles is about $5 per square foot. They are typically a little more expensive than terracotta tiles, because the manufacturing process is more complex. However, as with any of the other hard-tile materials, there is an enormous range here—you can easily pay $20 per square foot or more for high-end quarry tiles.Pros
Rough surfaces resist slipping
Very durable and long-lasting
More water resistant than terracotta; good for entryways and outdoor applications
Thick, hard tiles are hard to cut
Easily stained unless sealed.
Color options limited—mostly reddish browns, beiges
06 of 07
Although it is a less common tile material, traditional concrete is also used to form tiles for floors and other applications. Consisting of a mixture of Portland cement and fine aggregate that is shaped and dried, concrete tile can be left in its traditional smooth gray form, or it can be textured and colored during the manufacturing process to resemble other forms of natural stone or quarry tile. Concrete can be a good choice for providing bold colors where you want a more dramatic quarry-tile look. Most concrete tiles can also be painted after installation, allowing you to change their appearance when you want to redecorate.
On average, concrete tiles are relatively inexpensive and comparable to ceramic tile, about $2 per square foot (materials only). But textured, colored tiles can cost considerably more, making them comparable to good quality porcelain tiles. They are almost always, however, more affordable than natural stone, and often hard to distinguish from the real thing.Pros
More economical than quarry tile
Very durable when maintained
Available in bold colors and textured forms
Material is porous and stains easily unless sealed.
May crack if subject to frost in outdoor locations.
Difficult to cut
07 of 07
Best for: Luxury floors, showers.
The most expensive, and arguably the most luxurious option when it comes to floor tiles is natural stone tile. These products are solid stone, are quarried in blocks then cut into tile shapes, and often polished to a smooth finish. The most common natural types of stone used for tiles are slate, granite, and marble.
While granite is a fairly water-resistant mineral, the same cannot be said of all forms of natural stone. Marble and slate, for example, will require regular sealing in order to keep them resistant to stains and water absorption. And some natural stone can be surprisingly susceptible to scratching, so take this into consideration when choosing a natural stone tile for high-use areas. Marble and slate, for example, can show the effects of foot-traffic abrasion over time.
On average, this is the most expensive of all hard tile materials. The national average is about $6 per square foot—though again with huge variations possible. Slate, limestone, and travertine are a little less expensive than granite, while marble is typically the most expensive natural stone—especially if it is imported from overseas. Installation costs can be somewhat higher than for other tiles, as natural stone is more difficult to cut and fit.
Premium building material that adds real estate value
Extremely strong and durable
Creates one-of-a-kind look; no two floors alike
Most stone requires frequent sealing to prevent staining
Difficult to cut and install
Choosing Hard Tile Materials
In general, hard tile is a good choice for any floor (or other surface) where you want a durable, premium-looking finish. Even the cheapest ceramic tile will make a bathroom look better than one finished with basic wallboard and vinyl flooring, for example. But within the seven basic hard tile materials, the following considerations will play into your selection:
- Budget: While each type of material is available in a huge range of prices based on color, pattern, and style, budget-conscious homeowners will trend toward using basic ceramic or terracotta tiles, which are usually quite affordable, while those seeking a premium, luxury look will look first to natural stone—which always signals prestige. In between, a variety of materials are available.
- Use of space: Hard tile is best for adult-use areas that get lots of foot traffic. But some hard tiles are more durable than others. Ceramic tile is a thin product that is fairly easy to crack in a floor or countertop application. Terracotta is a fairly brittle flooring tile, and should be avoided in situations where heavy impacts are likely. Dropping heavy kitchen pots on a ceramic or terracotta kitchen floor will make you wish you had installed porcelain, quarry tile, or granite.
- Likelihood of staining, water penetration: In a kitchen or other area where spills are likely, a glazed material like ceramic or porcelain tile is often the best choice. Terracotta and many types of natural stone can be somewhat porous and susceptible to staining.
- Design goals: For sheer flexibility, porcelain tiles are a great choice, as they can be manufactured to look like almost any material—from terracotta to marble, and even metal or wood. Other materials have a natural affinity to certain home styles—terracotta for Southwestern decor styles, for example. Many types of natural stone shout out "luxury," making them the choice if that's the message you want to send.
- Maintenance profile: For sheer durability and easy care, ceramic and porcelain tile with glazed surfaces can't be beaten. Nearly all other forms of tile will have some form of regular maintenance required—often involving sealing the surfaces to shield against staining and water penetration.
- DIY suitability: Just about any DIYer can learn how to install ceramic and porcelain tiles, but other types require a bit more expertise and hard work. That's not to say that DIYers can't install any form of hard tile, but you may need special tools to cut natural stone, for example.
The Complete Guide to Tile. Cool Spring Press, 2015.
Tile Installation Cost. HomeGuide.
The Complete Guide to Tile. Cool Springs Press, 2015.