Everything you need to know about materials, grout, installation, and more
Written by Tim McKeough William Abranowicz
Choosing new tile for kitchen floors and backsplashes can be fraught with uncertainty. There's a bewildering array of options, including a variety of materials, treatments, and sizes to choose from. How do you know which options will perform the best and be easiest to maintain? What are the latest product offerings? And, what should you keep in mind when it comes to installation? To help narrow the field, we recently spoke with some tiling pros.
"Ceramic and glass are great options for a backsplash since they are easy to maintain and come in an incredible variety of colors, shapes, styles, and price points," says DeeDee Gundberg, product development portfolio director at Ann Sacks. "Porcelain is an excellent option for floors since it's low maintenance, and the tiles tend to be large format, which means less grout."
At the high end, natural stone is also very popular, Gundberg notes, but isn't necessarily the best in terms of carefree performance. Many varieties of stone, including limestone and marble, are sensitive to acid and can become etched with marks or stains, so they need to be carefully sealed.
That extra care is worth it, says Barbara Sallick, senior vice president of design at Waterworks. "I personally believe that stone is best on the floor," she says. "But you have to be careful about the kind of stone you use. For instance, I would never select travertine for a kitchen floor, because it's a material that has lots of holes in it, and that's a place for dirt to collect."
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Sallick's favorites are dense, dark stones like bluestone. For a lighter look, she says that Carrara marble is acceptable-but be aware that it will show age over time. "If you use a light-color stone, you'll begin to see the history of your family," she says. "There's something really wonderful about that," as long as you expect it.
For a floor that looks like stone, but is easier to maintain, kitchen designer Ellen Cheever recommends the latest stone-inspired ceramic tiles. "They're a fraction of the cost of natural stone, far easier to care for, and less expensive to install because they're easier to work with and don't need to be sealed," she says. She points out that the tiles can cost as little as $5 per square foot, where comparable natural stone runs $35. Thanks to improvements in tile-manufacturing technology "the randomness of natural products can now be beautifully replicated in a ceramic product," she says.
"The newest thing in contemporary settings are big, oversize rectangular tiles," says Cheever. "I've used tiles that are 13" x 36" and 17" x 27" on floors."
Gundberg agrees: "Large-format tiles are popular, not only because they create fewer grout joints but because the scale adds drama and sophistication," she says.
For backsplashes, both Cheever and Sallick like long, skinny tiles, such as 1" x 4", as well as other unexpected shapes. Just don't use the most common tile size-12" x 12"-suggests Sallick. "They look awful pretty much anywhere, but they look particularly bad as a backsplash," she says.
Finally, be creative when deciding on the layout. "Think about the orientation of the tile," says Sallick. "To make a kitchen feel more modern, I might take a 3" x 6" tile and run it vertically. Or, run it horizontally and just grid it, rather than brick bond, so that everything lines up. You can change the look of a tile by the direction in which you lay it."
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All three experts agree that thinner lines are better when it comes to grout. "It's desirable to have a tight grout joint, which will give your installation a cleaner look," says Gundberg. "However, if a tile is handmade and has variation, you will need to allow for a larger grout joint in order to install them properly."
For Sallick, that means sticking with lines that are either 1/16" or 1/8" wide, which are easier to maintain than wider lines. She also stresses that grout needs to be sealed, even if paired with impervious porcelain tile, to keep it from staining.
For the ultimate in sophistication, Gundberg suggests matching the color of the grout to the color of your tile-in most cases. "This will give your installation a seamless, softer appearance.
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Putting it all together
"We are very, very cautious when a client makes their final tile selection," says Cheever. "We order samples. We mount it on a backer board, we grout it with the selected grout, and we either seal it or enhance it. That's because the grout can change the tone of the tile, and the sealer or enhancer can really surprise people-and I don't mean in a good way." Seeing a sample section can help avoid disappointing, costly mistakes.
"The most beautiful tile in the world can be ruined by a bad installation," says Gundberg. "Finding a good installer is one of the most important steps in this process. A poor installation not only can look bad but can lead to problems, such as tiles popping up, cracked tiles, or moisture seepage behind tiles that can then lead to a host of other issues." To find a good installer, seek local recommendations and then ask for references and photos of previous work.