Your Complete Guide to Tile Terminology | New Home Directory
Your Complete Guide to Tile Terminology

By Janet Dunn, Houzz

Don’t know your terra cotta from your travertine, your bullnose from your bicottura? All trades have their jargon — a language that professionals understand but that can bewilder consumers — and the tile industry is no exception. Although buying tile doesn’t require a degree in tile talk, it’s a big bonus to know some basic vocabulary. Bone up here.

enticdesigns, original photo on Houzz

Abrasion resistance: A tile’s ability to withstand foot traffic and friction. The Porcelain Enamel Institute’s abrasion scale goes from 0 (not recommended for floors) to 5 (heavy commercial) to help you determine how well a tile will wear.

Absorption: The amount of moisture a tile absorbs, expressed as a percentage. Vitrified porcelain rates low (less than 0.5 percent), semivitrified tiles absorb 3 to 6 percent, and standard glazed wall tiles absorb 10 to 20 percent. This figure dictates where tiles should be used and affects their durability with temperature fluctuations.

Batch: A lot of identical tiles from the same production run. Colors vary from batch to batch. For a consistent look, use tiles with the same batch number in one area, especially with plain tiles.

Body: The primary structural part of a ceramic tile, excluding the glaze.

Bullnose: Trim tile with a rounded finished edge, often used on kitchen counters. Also known by its Italian name, battiscopa.

AGA & Fired Earth Danmark, original photo on Houzz

Cement tile: A pressed, not fired, tile. Handmade cement tiles, such as the ones in this kitchen, are trending because of their natural look that mellows with age. With their diverse range of classic and modern colors and patterns, they are popular for indoor and outdoor floors.

Ceramic tile: Classified as nonporcelain and porcelain. Nonporcelain, usually with a decorative glaze, is softer and less durable than porcelain, which has a slightly different composition and was fired at higher temperatures. For the tile shopper, “ceramic” usually refers to nonporcelain ceramic. It’s suited to walls and floors and lighter wear than porcelain.

Cotto: Italian for “cooked.” It refers to the firing process. Monocottura tiles are fired once at a high temperature. For bicottura tiles, the body and glaze are fired separately, resulting in a less-scratch-resistant tile best suited to walls.

Cove: Concave trim tile used at the junction of a wall and a floor, often in bathrooms and kitchens. It’s considered hygienic and easy to clean, but it doesn’t come in all tile ranges.

Dimensional tile: A three-dimensional tile with a sculpted surface, resulting from new tile technology. The effect can be subtle or dramatic.

Epoxy: A durable, stain- and chemical-proof, resin-based grout. It’s costly, has a plastic-like look and requires extensive cleanup of residue, but it sets faster than regular grout and means no more scrubbing.

Bisazza Italy, original photo on Houzz

Finish: The processing of a tile to achieve surface appearance. There are many options, including matte, semipolished, glossy, hammered, honed and textured. Finish doesn’t affect just the feel of a space; it’s also an important factor for appearance, functionality and safety. It’s best assessed hands-on at your tile supplier.

Format: The size and shape of a tile. Formats range from tiny half-inch-square mosaics to 2-foot-square tiles and larger. Tiles come in square, rectangular and many other shapes. Format strongly affects the perceived size and shape of a space. As a rule, it’s best to use small tiles in small zones, such as backsplashes or feature areas. Large tiles are suited to spacious rooms, adding to the sense of openness and flow.

Glaze: A glassy opaque coating on a tile, fired for hardness. It forms a surface that is slippery when wet but reduces porosity. Nonporcelain ceramics are often glazed and can add sparkle to backsplashes. Although porcelain doesn’t need glazing, glazed porcelain is a popular look. Glazes may be glossy, matte or satin, and they vary from fairly soft to diamond hard.

Granite: One of the hardest natural stones. It comes in tile or slab form and beats other stone products for nonporosity and stain resistance, although it should be sealed in moisture-prone rooms. It’s great for floors.

Honed: A semipolished finish that gives a smooth but softer look than polished tiles. Honed tiles are less slippery and show dirt less readily than highly polished tiles. A good choice for high-traffic areas, it is mostly used with natural stone materials.

Inkjet printing: A printing method that has opened up a huge diversity of tile options. Stone and wood textures, as well as images like graffiti, fabrics, and scenes, can be replicated on ceramic tiles. Printing is surface-applied and may eventually wear with heavy use.

CG&S Design-Build, original photo on Houzz

Lappato: Italian for a semipolished finish on porcelain tiles.

Layout: The way tiles are arranged on a surface. The blue tiles here are laid in a simple stacked pattern, which gives a crisp, clean look to modern rooms.

Lippage: Results when tiles laid on an uneven or unstable substrate subside in places with use, leaving some edges higher than others. It’s expensive to rectify, so consider engaging a pro to ensure a level and stable substrate.

Moroccan tile: Authentic cement Moroccan tiles are still handmade the traditional way, but many of the patterns and motifs have been replicated in modern ceramic and porcelain tiles.

Mosaic tile: A ceramic or glass tile about a half-inch square. Mosaics come in a variety of shapes and materials, glazed or unglazed, and are mounted on mesh backing for ease of laying. Companies such as Bisazza offer mosaics with a high glamour factor, using metallics and iridescent tiles for dramatic effects.

Pencil tile, finger tile: A narrow rectangular tile, about three-quarters inch by 8 inches, used as accents on walls.

Penny tile: Small coin-shaped tiles laid in sheets. They can be ceramic, metal or glass, and are used for borders, niches, accent strips or whole walls to add sparkle, depth and interest.

Quarry tile: Unglazed extruded clay tile with high density, hardness and slip resistance. Top-quality quarry tile is largely nonporous, especially when sealed or waxed. Natural colors, from rust and ocher to grays and browns, give spaces a warm, mellow look.

Rectification: A process for correcting irregularities caused by firing of nonporcelain or porcelain tiles. Cutting or grinding creates near-perfect straight edges, reducing the need for wide grout to allow for slight edge differences. The result is a smooth, streamlined look with almost invisible grouting.

Sealant: A penetrating substance applied to porous tiles and grout to reduce staining from spills. Glazed tiles don’t need sealing. Consult a pro before DIY sealing, as some sealants suit particular tiles.

Statkus Architecture Pty Ltd, original photo on Houzz

Slate: A stone characterized by natural cleaved layers and an uneven surface. Slate is enjoying a renaissance right now, with the latest versions honed to a smooth, low-sheen finish with narrow grout lines. Shades vary from charcoal and lilac to silvery blue. It is hard-wearing and low-maintenance.

Slip resistance: There are many evolving test methods related to slip resistance, an important safety concern. To make sure you choose the right tile for your space and purpose, always tell your supplier where you intend to use a tile.

Subway tile: A rectangular tile typically 3 by 6 inches but available in slimmer and larger formats. It’s traditionally laid in a brick pattern; other designs include chevron and herringbone.

Terra-cotta tile: A natural fired clay tile made from more refined and smoother clay than quarry tile. Terra cotta is growing in popularity, admired for its warmth and durability. It’s versatile, and can be used on floors, walls, fire surrounds, pool coping and outdoor surfaces.

Through-body, color-body: When the color on the tile face continues through the body so that chips and scratches aren’t obvious. Unglazed porcelain is a through-body tile. A glazed tile has only a surface coating of color, which means that it shows wear faster.

Travertine: These natural stone tiles are suitable for both indoor and outdoor flooring, but since they’re highly porous, regular sealing is recommended to prevent stains and water marks. Choose from a variety of colors, including ivory, gold and soft coral. Tumbled travertine is a popular choice for those looking for a soft, lived-in look.

Tumbled: A process applied to stone tiles to give them a soft, worn look with rounded edges and a chalky finish. Smaller tiles are tumbled in a drum; larger ones are hand- or machine-chipped to achieve the look.

ds design studio, original photo on Houzz

Unglazed: An unglazed ceramic tile has a natural, earthy look and is slip-resistant, making it suitable for outdoor areas. A clear sealant can be applied to unglazed tiles to improve water resistance.

Versailles: A method of laying tiles that uses four sizes in a staggered formation, as shown in this photo. It is often used with stone tiles and is a job for a skilled tiler.

Vitrified: A fully vitrified tile has quartz and feldspar added before firing, creating a glassy element in the tile body and a very low absorption rate of less than 0.5 percent, compared with 3 percent and higher in a standard glazed ceramic tile. Vitrified tiles are suitable for wet areas like bathrooms and kitchens.

Wall tile: It’s not rocket science, but tiles classified “wall” or “floor” aren’t interchangeable. Wall tiles won’t withstand traffic on the floor, and floor tiles are usually too thick and heavy to put on the wall.

Wastage: The contingency allowed when ordering tiles to account for breakage, faulty tiles and cutting for awkward angles. Usually 10 percent is recommended, and higher if the area to be tiled is quite intricate. Allow for a small quantity to be set aside so that you can replace any damaged tiles, or easily identify the batch or number reference.

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