Floor tile debate: stone vs. porcelain
For 20 years, the construction industry has seen a move to building products that are not what they appear to be, including porcelain tile that is a dead-ringer for natural stone. However while they may look the same, a review of the similarities and differences between the two can help you guarantee the perfect installation for the job.
Natural stone has proven itself for centuries to be an attractive, amazingly durable flooring material. It’s quarried and sliced into thin tiles from great slabs of granite, slate, marble, limestone and travertine.
Today, natural stone tiles are available in a wide array of colors, patterns, sizes, textures and finishes. And they can be installed in virtually any room on floors, walls and ceilings. Most natural-stone tile lines also include accent pieces carved from stone, such as bull-nose edging, chair rail, medallions and rope moldings.
Stone, by its nature, has inherent defects – tiny fissures, holes, chips and weak spots. Its surface is porous and susceptible to staining. Most types of stone are relatively soft, especially marble, so cracking is common. And stone tile is fairly expensive.
In response to these potential shortcomings, manufacturers developed porcelain tiles that resemble natural stone.
By far the most popular faux-stone porcelain tiles are ones that mimic marble, which makes sense because marble is the most popular natural stone. However, unlike marble, which can be slippery when wet, porcelain tile look-alikes are made with various finishes and textures, including some with slip-resistance.
Installing floor tile
Differences between natural stone and porcelain tiles also impact how they’re installed.
Both are installed using standard tile-setting tools and materials. Both can be installed over any recommended substrate, including concrete slabs, cement backerboard, plywood and crack-isolation membranes.
And both are adhered with thin-set mortar. However, porcelain tiles are typically installed using standard gray thinset, while natural stone may require a specially formulated thinset.
For example, white and light-colored marble tiles must be set in white mortar. Standard gray mortar will telegraph through and darken the surface of white marble. Green marble tiles should never be set with mortar that contains high amounts of lime because it can cause the marble to cup and warp.
Instructions on the bag of mortar will help you determine the appropriate mortar for the tile you are installing and you’ll also find recommendations for which type and size notched trowel to use, mixing directions, and square-footage coverage rates per bag.
The key installation contrast between stone and porcelain is that you can cut porcelain tile with a manual score-and-snap tile cutter, but a wet tile saw is required to cut natural stone. That’s not to suggest that you won’t need a wet saw when installing porcelain tile – you’ll need one to cut notches, slots and large holes – but the majority of cuts in porcelain tile can be made with a manual cutter.
Using a wet saw for every cut when setting natural stone means it typically takes longer to install stone tile than it does to set porcelain tile, an important distinction when estimating the cost of a tile job.
Because a porcelain tile has four factory edges, when you cut a tile, you trim off the factory edge, and the cut edge is placed against a wall or other surface where it is concealed by baseboard or other trim. You can’t use a cut glazed-porcelain tile in the middle of field pattern because the cut edge would be exposed.
Natural stone tiles are solid and don’t have a glazing topcoat. That means you can cut a stone tile and then redress the cut edge with a diamond-grit rubbing stone, creating a new factory edge. That tile can be installed anywhere in the pattern, including in the middle of the field. As a result, you’ll use more of the tile purchased and have less waste.
A hard or sharp object dropped on a glazed tile, can chip the glazing, exposing the porcelain core. If a stone tile is damaged, the chip is less noticeable because the tile is solid.
Since natural stone is porous and susceptible to staining, you should protect it with a penetrating sealer. Ideally, you can seal stone tiles prior to installation, which will make it much easier to clean mortar and grout.
In general, natural stone still costs 10 to 20 percent more than a comparable porcelain tile. But with the widespread popularity and increased production of stone-look porcelain tile, you can find affordable porcelain tiles that cost a lot less than many stone products, as well as plenty of high-end porcelain tiles that are costlier than budget-priced stone tiles.
So which should you choose? From an installation standpoint, porcelain tile is typically quicker and easier to install. It’s also harder and more durable, and requires less maintenance. And on average, porcelain tiles cost less to buy and install. That’s why contractors install stone-look porcelain than any other tile.