Tiles: what they are and all you need to know

Insights, information and advice on tiles.

Tiles

The term "tile" is commonly used to describe a "thin, strong, compact ceramic slab of geometric shape, used to cover horizontal or vertical surfaces".

Originating more than 5,000 years ago in the form of a baked clay tablet on which codes, regulations or biographies were engraved, tiles have, over time, become a decorative element for covering and enriching the walls of tombs and sacred buildings to the point of becoming, today, an interior design element used, as you will see, in a great many areas. 

The tile's ability to imitate natural materials, metal plates rather than resin or wood surfaces - but with greater strength and lower cost - has allowed it to become enormously popular.
Today ceramic tiles are the most widely used floor and wall covering materials in the world, far more so than marble, wood and laminates.

Here you will find some data on this topic: 

 the world tile market 

If you continue reading, we will give you the opportunity to learn more about the world of ceramic tiles for construction and furniture, depending on your specific interest.

 

Tiles in house in Verona

The history of ceramic tiles

Ceramic tiles originated around 5,000 years ago in the Middle East. The first tiles were small terracotta slabs on which laws or historical events that they wanted to immortalise were engraved.

From these primitive ceramic 'books', people then moved on to decorative functions by glazing and decorating the tiles before firing them and then using them as wall coverings in sacred buildings and tombs.
From the Middle East, with the Islamic expansion, tiles arrived in Spain and southern Italy and their use spread throughout Europe.

The industrialisation of the production process and a series of innovations allowed the development of increasingly high-performance products. So much so that today tiles have become true objects of interior design. Do you want to know the history and evolution of ceramic tiles? Here it is:
 

the history of ceramic tiles

Tiles: laying a covering

Tiles: how they are produced

The production process of ceramic tiles involves several steps to transform clay, properly mixed and ground, into a compact and resistant stoneware. 

  • The first step is to find the right mixture of clays, kaolins and feldspars from mines in different countries (England, Turkey, Russia...).
  • Once the right mixture of clays has been obtained, they are finely ground to a very fine powder, called atomized.
  • The atomized is pressed to obtain "raw tiles".
  • Finally, these raw tiles are dried and then fired in a kiln at a temperature and for a duration that varies according to the quality of the product to be obtained.
  • Once fired, the tiles can undergo further processing such as edge grinding or surface polishing.
  • They are then boxed and shipped

You will find videos and photos in this article:

Read also: tile production

 

Large format tiles at a dealer in Vicenza

Tiles: the producers

Tiles are produced in various countries around the world, and Italy can boast, in this sector, producers of excellence, known all over the world. The Sassuolo tile district includes around 180 production companies in the area between Modena and Reggio Emilia, which accounts for around 80% of national production. Other companies are located in Milan, Faenza and Naples, in the Amalfitan ceramic district. 

Read also:  the tile district

 

The Sassuolo district had allowed Italy to be the leading producer in the world, both in terms of quality and quantity, until about 25 years ago when, thanks to Italian machinery, other developing countries began to produce tiles. Today, statistics show that China ranks first, although the quality of Italian ceramic tiles is still considered the best in the world. 

Read also: tiles in the world: statistics

Renovating floor tiles in an office in Vicenza

Overlapping of large slabs on old tiles

Tile thickness

The "standard" thickness of a ceramic tile is about 1 centimetre, but today you can find tiles with a minimum thickness of up to 3 millimetres and a maximum thickness of up to 3 centimetres.

Reduced thickness tiles are produced using a technology known as "laminated stoneware" and offer the advantages of being lighter in weight and being able to be laid over an existing floor or wall covering with less disruption. 

Thicker tiles are also known as 'thicker' or 'thicker tiles' and can also be laid floating, on gravel, sand or feet. The advantages are in the higher mechanical resistance. 

Read also: laminated stoneware

Read also:  thick stoneware

 

Tiles in giant format

Tile sizes 

Technological progress today allows us to choose from tiles in very small formats, such as micromosaic, to giant formats

An example of a very small format is Appiani's ceramic mosaic: made using double loading technology, it allows us to obtain 1x1 centimetre tiles with which to make very resistant floor or wall tiles. 
At the opposite end of the scale we find the large ceramic slabs, of enormous dimensions, up to 160x320 centimetres. With large slabs we can make not only floor and wall tiles, but also kitchen tops, tops for bathroom furniture, tables, counters and other furnishing elements. 
So whether your size is XXS or XXL, we have the tiles for you! 

XXS : the Appiani mosaic  or the bisazza mosaic

XXL:   large stoneware slabs 

 

Large tiles for a marble-effect bathroom

Tiles: geometric shapes

Tiles: square, rectangular, hexagonal... 

How many shapes can you find tiles in? I can't tell you, but there are many. The most common shape is obviously the square one, which is also the cheapest. The second most popular is certainly the rectangular shape which, unlike in the past, nowadays reaches considerable lengths with minimal widths (for example in the wood effect we have widths of 20 centimetres and lengths of up to three metres).

But in addition to these better-known geometries we now have a good range of hexagonal tiles, which can be used either in a single colour or by mixing different colours. 

IL FORMATO ARABESQUE IN PRODUZIONE
Arabesque tiles in production phase

For those who are looking for special shapes we have the Provencal format, or the chest of drawers with the square and the lozenge, or finally the round tile, to be grouted with epoxy to have an easily cleanable surface.

Tiles: not just square tiles!

Tiles: laying patterns

For the square format, laying can be straight or diagonal. In the case of large formats (80x80 or larger) we recommend straight laying as it is more modern than diagonal and less laborious, unless there are major problems with out-of-square walls. 

For rectangular formats, the tiles can be laid straight, with parallel joints, or staggered. The staggered installation can be staggered by a third, a half or randomly. Straight laying is more modern, while staggered laying is more suitable for rustic tiles. The diagonal format can also be laid diagonally. 

Finally, there are other laying patterns for formats other than the traditional ones, some of which are shown below: 

Tile laying patterns: 2 formats

Tiles of 'strange' formats: laying patterns

Rectangular tiles in this floor in Vicenza 

Tiles: types according to production process

Tiles can be distinguished according to the production process in which they are made, in:

  • Double-firing: raw tiles are fired and then glazed or decorated. Once decorated, they are fired again (this is why they are double-fired) so that the glaze solidifies and clings to the fired substrate. Generally, this process produces products that are only suitable for covering, because they are not very resistant, even if they are extraordinarily bright and beautiful. 

Read also:  double-fired tiles 

  • Single-fired: the raw tiles are glazed before being fired in the kiln. In this way, the glaze penetrates deeply into the raw substrate and clings to it better. The product is more resistant, even if decorations and colours are not as vivid as in double-firing.

Read also: single-fired tiles

  • Porcelain stoneware: "Full body" stoneware is produced using only mixed clay that is not glazed. In this way the substrate and the surface layer coincide. The tile is even more resistant and compact even if the aesthetics are affected.

Read also: stoneware tiles

  • Glazed porcelain stoneware: The most recent evolution is to use full body stoneware as a support and then add surface decorations to improve the aesthetics of the tile. In this way we can obtain tiles with very high resistance characteristics but also with a fine aesthetic. 

Read also: glazed porcelain stoneware tiles

Stoneware tiles and rustic kitchen

Works on tile surface

Una volta uscite dal forno le piastrelle possono essere direttamente inscatolate e si dirà che la loro superficie è "naturale", cioè che non ha subito alcuna lavorazione. Può essere, invece, che le piastrelle subiscano delle lavorazioni al fine di modificarne l'aspetto estetico.

Le lavorazioni più comuni sono la rettifica del bordo, per rendere il pavimento posato più preciso, per avere delle fughe più regolari e rettilinee. Una seconda tipologia di interventi riguarda invece la superficie della piastrella che può essere resa più lucida - con la levigatura - o leggermente più liscia, con la lappatura

Leggi anche: edge grinding and lapping 

Leggi anche: polishing the tile

 

Tiles: which aesthetics?

We can also classify and choose tiles on the basis of aesthetics. Thanks to new digital decoration technologies, tiles can imitate materials such as marble, wood, stone, metals... Let's see some of them. 

  • Marble-effect tiles. This is one of the materials that tiles imitate best: Carrara, Calacatta, Portoro, Onyx and precious marbles... digital decoration on stoneware slabs combined with surface polishing makes it possible to obtain products that would deceive even an expert eye...

Read also: marble effect tiles

  • Wood-effect tiles: This is one of the best-selling products because it combines the aesthetic appearance of wood with the resistance of stoneware tiles. Thanks to the evolution of formats and large slabs, today we are able to replicate not only the aesthetics but also the dimensions of wood staves. 

Read also: wood effect tiles

  • Stone-effect tiles: Appreciated both indoors and outdoors, where we can use them with the "grip" surface, they imitate modern but above all antiqued stone. The passage of time, wear on the surface, stains... there are many elements that are combined to give the tile the appearance of a floor that has been walked on and worn. 

Read also: stone effect tiles 

  • Cement-effect tiles: those who love a minimalist or industrial style will love cement-effect tiles, which are now available in various forms. Smooth cements, moulded cements, polished cements or resined cements. 

Read also: cement effect tiles

  • One of the latest trends is cementine effect tiles. Beautiful for bathrooms, both for floors and walls, they can be laid with a single decoration or with a composition of decorations (patchwork). They imitate cementine but are not absorbent and do not stain. They can also embellish the floor and we therefore propose them as carpets or inserts:

Read also: cementine effect tiles

Marble effect tiles, stairs and living in Vicenza

Wood effect tiles, Lonigo

Stone effect tiles, bathroom in Torrebelvicino

Cement effect tiles in Vicenza

Decorated tiles: cementines

Tiles: prices

The price of a tile varies depending on many factors:

  • size (thickness and format)
  • processes such as edge grinding, lapping or surface polishing 
  • firing temperature and duration 
  • type of clays used for the body of the tile
  • type of glazes used to decorate the surface of the tile
  • number of product graphics
  • designer who conceived and followed the creation of the collection 


Read also: the price of a tile 

Tiles: laying 

The quality of tile installation is just as important as the quality of the product. Also in this sector, progress makes available techniques and products that can improve the final result of the floor.

Read also: levellers for tiles

Installation techniques vary depending on whether the tiles are small or large format. In the case of very large formats, also known as "large stoneware slabs", laying must be carried out with special care and equipment:

Read alsoequipment for large format tiles

Read also: precautions for large format tiles

Finally, it must be said that installation has a significant impact on the final cost of a ceramic tile floor, especially if it is large or very large. Below are the costs for laying the tiles:

Read alsoinstallation costs

Laying large slabs, Vicenza

Tiles: the joints

The joints, or rather the spaces between one tile and another, are our "cross and delight". They are fundamental because they are "shock absorbers", cushions between the tiles that prevent settlements and movements of the floor from transferring to the tiles and causing them to break. But they are also our "cross" because they are the most difficult part of a ceramic floor to clean and where dirt can hide. 

It has to be said that, as with many other things, stucco has also seen important progress. Today we have many possibilities (clearly with different costs). Cementitious filler can now be replaced by epoxy resin filler, which will be more elastic and much easier to clean. We have discussed this in detail here:

Read also: joints and stuccoes

Some of the most common complaints are about irregular dimensions or the excessive depth of joints in the floor. We have discussed this here:

Read also: tiles with irregular joints

Finally, we have also answered one of the most frequent questions we receive: can tiles be laid without joints

Read also: tiles without joints, is it possible?

Tiles: the background for laying

In addition to the quality of the tiles and of the installation, it is very important to make sure that the substrate is well made. A compact, flat and non-sagging substrate is a necessary condition to guarantee an excellent final result. 
For this reason, we recommend entrusting both the laying and the screed to a single partner so that there are no "blame-shifting" in the event of unsuccessful work. 


Read also:the screed for laying tiles

Read also: laying tiles on old floors

Tiles problems

Tiles can have intrinsic quality problems (and we talk about tile problems) or problems due to errors in the installation of the tiles (and we should talk about tiling problems). 
The most serious manufacturers carry out a double check, either by means of computers equipped with sensors and cameras that detect defects, or by means of a second check carried out by real people who check tile by tile. 
In spite of these checks, tiles can present problems, the most common of which are:

  • scaling
  • inconsistent shades in the same batch
  • edge chipping (usually due to poor handling)
  • irregular geometry (e.g. trapezoidal instead of square)
  • stains or marks on the surface (aesthetic defects) 
  • non-detensioned tiles: they break when being cut or during processing.

We have dealt with these and other problems here:

Read more: tile problems

Tiles: destination environment

When buying a tile one of the things to consider is its intended use. The area of use is decisive when considering the characteristics a tile floor should have.
Below we see which tiles are best suited for specific areas of use:

basement tiles

garage tiles

tiles for a bar 

tiles for an office

Tiles in a shop

Indoor or outdoor tiles?

If the tiles you are going to buy are to be placed outdoors, it is necessary to check that they have some basic requirements to avoid future problems. The main ones are:

  • the non-slipperiness: the surface must not be smooth but must allow a certain grip to guarantee safety for those who walk on it. 
  • frost resistance: the tiles must not deteriorate with frost or sudden changes in temperature. 

In our Outlet: outdoor tiles

Laying outdoor tiles

Outdoor tiles: non-slip and thick for dry laying

House outdoor tiles

Cleaning tiles

Generally speaking, good quality tiles can be cleaned with even very aggressive detergents, both basic and acidic. The only acid they should fear is hydrofluoric acid, which should never be used. 
More aggressive cleaning agents are only needed after installation to remove building site dirt and installation residues (adhesives and fillers).  A neutral detergent or water and vinegar is sufficient for routine cleaning. 
Be careful when using wax-based detergents or detergents containing liquid waxes: over time they build up layers and the floor becomes greasy and difficult to clean. 

We have dedicated an article to floor cleaning and have tried to give you a solution for each type of stain:

Read also: cleaning tiles

Slate effect tiles and cementines in a bethroom

Light-coloured tiles in living area, Vicenza

Approfondimenti