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Ceramic and Stone Tiles

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Ceramic tile is a natural product made of clay, minerals, and water, which is pressed into shapes and fired at high temperatures. The body of the tile may be glazed or left unglazed, depending on the intended use. Tile strength is determined by the body's thickness, composition, and by the duration of firing.

Ceramic tile falls into four basic categories: quarry tile, paver tile, patio tile, and glazed tile. The body of a tile, sometimes called the bisque or biscuit, is produced to meet a specific need or use. Although thickness is one gauge of strength, composition of the tile and the temperature and duration of firing also determine its strength. A reputable tile dealer can help you match the body and glaze to your installation requirements.

Clay-base ceramic tile is suitable for use anywhere you want a durable, low-maintenance floor. This is especially true of moisture-prone, heavy-traffic areas such as bathrooms, mudrooms, entryways, and kitchens. Ceramic tiles come in almost unlimited colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes.

Glazing tile is used more often for residential flooring than unglazed tile. With today's technology, tile manufacturers are able to produce a wide selection of colors, sizes, shapes, and new textures. Lori Kirk-Rolley, marketing director for Dal-Tile Corp., a Dallas-based manufacturer, says there is a continued demand for natural stone looks in ceramic tile. Large tiles -- 12 x 12-inch squares and larger -- are becoming popular, and decorative elements, such as strips and borders, are being used more and more.

Large tiles offer two big advantages: there are fewer tiles to install and there are fewer grout joints to keep clean. The tile itself is easily cleaned with a damp mop or sponge and an approved tile cleaner from your local home center. "With proper care, [a tile floor] could last as long as your home," says Kirk-Rolley. What homeowners really need to be cautious about is the grout, because it shows wear a lot sooner: "Grout is like a sponge and will get dirty before the tile will." Once the tile is down and cured, she recommends sealing the grout to keep it clean. Grout cleaning can also be minimized by using a gray, taupe, or dark neutral color instead of white or another light color.

Porcelain tiles are popular nowadays because of their durability. The face color typically runs through the entire body of the tile, making it a good choice for heavy-traffic areas. Porcelain also can be used outdoors in any climate because it accepts freeze-thaw conditions, Kirk-Rolley says.

Stone tile is another option. Stone tiles are sliced into a variety of sizes and shapes from boulders of granite, marble, slate and limestone.  Not all stones are suitable for use as a flooring material. Some, such as granite, are practically indestructible. Others may contain soft spots, fissures, and other imperfections that diminish performance. (Imperfections, however, may make a stone floor more attractive.) Some stone tiles can warp from exposure to water or moisture. These may have to be installed with an epoxy adhesive and grout. Colored grout can pose a danger to some stone tiles: It can stain the tiles permanently.

In most cases, the more expensive the stone tile, the more fragile. The finish on stone tiles must be carefully chosen and matched to the anticipated wear. For example, a highly polished marble will dull on the floor in a beach house. For that reason, you might want to limit highly polished tiles to areas where soft footwear is generally worn, such as in the master bathroom. In most other areas, a matte-look honed finish is preferred.

The color and appearance of a single stone tile won't represent the entire batch required to surface a floor -- even if all the tiles were cut off the same block of stone.