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Tile 101: Everything You Need to Know About Buying & Picking Tile

You might have heard that home renovations are at an all-time high right now. It’s WILD. And guess what? We have A TON of really really helpful posts that thoroughly breakdown some of the more overwhelming reno topics. So we thought we’d help all of you out who might have some questions on topics like…tile and repost some of them! EHD Alum, Grace (who is kicking butt working with Velinda on the e-design side of the business) wrote this insanely helpful post on all of your tile options, the pros and cons of each type, and where they should go. Yes, it’s that helpful. So without further ado, take it away Grace!

If you tuned in yesterday, you probably saw our post on the must-know rules and guidelines for pairing multiple tiles in a single bathroom project. I walked you through the EHD considerations (such as stick to a color palette, vary your scales and finishes…head here to see the rest if you missed it). But today, we’re rewinding a bit and talking tile basis…or what I like to call Tile 101. (Earlier this year, I did a similar post but on countertop materials, so, if you’re renovating, do yourself a favor and open this in a separate tab to read through after you get to the end of today’s post.) 

Anyhow, today is all about the nitty-gritty of tile…the what, when, how. I promise to not go too nerdy on ya, but I know it’s always helpful when you are equipped with at least some info when thinking through (and trying to describe) the tile you want for a home reno project. Knowing the lingo—and function—is half the battle, folks. Alright, let’s do this. 

Tile 101 

Tiles have certainly been around for ages…I’m talking Babylon here guys. Many of the other earlier civilizations made use of baked clay tiles in their buildings, including one that you’re almost certainly familiar with—zellige. It’s a tile favorite around here at EHD and has Moroccan roots from the 10th century. Tile as old as time, indeed…Get it?

While most hard materials cut up into tiny little pieces can technically be referred to as tile, today we’re talking more about your usual suspects: ceramic, stone, glass, etc., along with their respective pros and cons.

Floor Tile vs. Wall Tile

photo by zeke ruelas | from: modern deco kitchen reveal

While a lot of tiles available these days could definitely be used interchangeably (check with your manufacturer please!), I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that floor tiles are specifically made to tolerate more stress than those manufactured for use as wall tiles. Floor tiles, because they’re subject to a lot of traffic, both human and heavy furniture, need to be strong and durable to withstand such pressures. And because they’re durable enough, no worries if you also want to use them as wall tiles—tile away. And countertops, too.

But using them the other way around? Stop, don’t do it, find yourself another tile. Wall tiles are generally manufactured to be thinner and lighter, and will most likely not be durable enough (read: may crack or break!) for all the heavy traffic that it will receive as a floor tile. Double check before buying en masse por favor. How? Enter, the PEI rating.

Emily Henderson How to Pick Tile3

I read that providing this information isn’t required, so some manufacturers will actually NOT specify some or all of their tile’s ratings. BUT they will usually say something about where they recommend you use the tile that you’re looking at. For tile manufacturers that do use this rating, you can usually find it down in their tile specs, tear sheet, or sales sheet. 

This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: even if you see photos online of people using what seems to be the same exact material on their walls and floor, you should always make sure yourself that the tile you’re buying is appropriate for whichever use you’re wanting it for. 🙂

Now let’s talk about some of the more common types of tiles, shall we? And if you don’t feel like reading through my ramblings, scroll down to the end for a handy little graphic I created with all the key things you’d need to know about these tiles.

Ceramic Tile

photo by tessa neustadt | from: our guest bath reveal

Always a popular choice. It’s made out of pressed clay that’s fired in a kiln at high temperatures and can come in practically any shape that you can think of. They can be glazed, embossed, or even hand-painted, and can be used both on your floor and walls.

Adding glaze isn’t done just for color and aesthetics, but also for practicality (glazed tiles are harder and more resistant to water and moisture, which means you can worry less about mildew, making them a little bit more low-maintenance). Obviously, the downside of glazed surfaces is that they can be slippery when used as flooring, but you can check with your tile’s manufacturer on what options they have (there are additives for glazes that can make your tiles slip-resistant). 

If you’re looking for a more rustic and casual vibe, you can opt for unglazed (matte) tiles (we’re big fans)—just don’t forget to use some sort of breathable penetrating sealer after installation so that you can protect your tiles from stains and traffic.

Classification: Ceramic | Type: Zellige

Good for: floors and walls

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: velinda’s tiny basement kitchen makeover takeover

You know what I’m talking about; you’ve seen us use this here on the blog and you’ve seen photos of it on Instagram and pretty much all over the internet. While square and rectangle zellige tiles are what’s on trend right now (a timeless and classic shape, in my opinion), these can also come in star, octagon, or cross-shaped forms (it did come from Morocco, after all).

Making zellige is very labor-intensive as it requires master craftsmen to hand-shape, hand-cut and hand-glaze each tile by hand, making each tile unique in shape and color. Because these are not machine-made, you won’t get a perfect edge or surface, but if you ask me, that’s where the magic is. These are available both glazed and unglazed, though shiny glazed tiles are usually the norm.

Hot Tip

Make sure that you or your tilers take a careful look at your overall tile placement so that you don’t end up clustering too-similar-looking tiles in one area.

Hot Tip

Zellige is usually installed closer to each other (read: thinner and barely visible grout lines), so that’s a plus for worrying less about keeping your grout clean.

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: the riskiest bathroom i designed

P.S. You might be wondering, if their handmade nature causes some unevenness, would they be annoying on your floors? Well, some of you might remember that the mountain house upstairs hall bath has square zellige tiles for its flooring, and we’re happy to report that it’s not even an issue and doesn’t bother anyone at all. 🙂

Classification: Ceramic | Type: Subway Tile

Good for: walls

photo by zeke ruelas | from: orlando’s kitchen reveal

Officially, subway tiles are thin, low-fired glazed ceramic tiles that measure 3” x 6”. But these days, a lot of white, glossy, and sometimes even square tiles have gone on to be referred to as subway tiles. And if you’re thinking, maybe part of what makes subway tile a subway tile is how they’re laid out in a brick pattern, think again. You can lay out subway tiles in any pattern you want: herringbone, stacked, basketweave, the possibilities are almost endless.

Apparently considered a “descendant” of zellige, subway tiles first appeared in the subways of New York (hence the name). It came out of a need for a material that was durable, easy to clean, and stain-resistant, becoming a widely popular choice for kitchens, bathrooms, and butcher shops. 

It’s definitely a classic that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Especially since it’s one of the cheaper tile options that you can get without sacrificing any style. Just never use it on floors. 

Classification: Ceramic | Type: Porcelain

Good for: floors, walls, and even countertops

Okay, so you guys should know porcelain by now because I talked about it in detail in this countertop post, and yes, they do come in tile form that you can use on your floor, walls, and even your countertop. What makes it different from ceramic tiles is that dye is mixed into the clay before pressing and firing, which means the color goes all the way through the tile—a plus if you chip a tile.

Like I mentioned in the other post, manufacturers can “print” designs on your porcelain tile to mimic natural stone or some other type of finish of your choosing. Some options even come with textural designs so you’re not stuck with flat surfaces if your space can use the variety, or you know, the non-slip advantage. It’s fired at a very high temperature, making it extremely hard and strong, as well as resistant to water, stain, or mildew. 

Classification: Ceramic | Type: Terra-cotta

Good for: floors

design by frances merrill/reath design | via house beautiful

Made from fired earth (literal translation: “baked earth”) and usually with colors ranging from red to brown due to the high iron content of the local clay used to make them, terra-cotta tiles are what you’d typically associate with Mexican patios, Spanish courtyards or Mediterranean piazzas. They definitely give a space that charming Old World quality, while also being very durable—so long as you seal them properly. Unlike the tiles mentioned above, terra-cotta is very porous in nature, making it prone to mold and stains from water and liquid. 

There are options in the market for both handmade and machine-made terra-cotta tiles. Handmade ones, especially the traditional ones from Mexico, though very beautiful because of their rustic charm, will have irregularities and unevenness, making installation a little bit tougher. Machine-made ones on the other hand, will have more regularity and will be easier to install. Something to keep in mind if you’re planning on DIY-ing.

Classification: Ceramic | Type: Encaustic

Good for: floors, walls, backsplash

design and image by three birds renovations

Not to be confused with cement tiles…even though they usually are. (Guilty!) Encaustic tiles are a type of ceramic tile (meaning it’s fired in a kiln) that uses colored clay to get a specific design on its surface (as opposed to a glaze). The different colors of clay are inlaid together before firing, which is why it actually used to be called “inlaid tiles” way back in the day. Cement tiles on the other hand, which we’ll get to in the next section, are NOT fired in a kiln.

They can come either glazed or unglazed, but because they do get fired, they are a lot more durable and resistant to staining. They’re good on floors, walls, and backsplashes both indoor and outdoor as they are frost-proof.

And remember, let’s all agree to stop using the term “encaustic cement tile” so we don’t keep confusing ourselves, ya?

Specialty Tile

Classification: Specialty | Type: Cement Tile

Good for: floors and walls

photo by tessa neustadt | from: the finished patio (with tile!)

Ah, cement tile. A.K.A. what the flooring of “America’s Patio” is made out of. These tiles were originally from Europe, brought about as a cheaper and easier-to-make alternative to ceramic tiles. Your options can range from solid-colored tiles (like the gorgeous scalloped one from one of my favorite EHD bathrooms, the modern Old-World master bathroom from several years ago) to bold, drop-dead gorgeous, and intricately-designed tiles.

Unlike ceramic tiles, these are not fired in a kiln and no glaze is added to the finished product (it’s a two-part product that’s pressed together and consists of a base layer of gray cement, plus a top layer of white cement mixed with pigment). Heads up, folks: this tile is very porous in nature and will absolutely develop a patina over time (read: it will discolor). So keep that in mind when considering them in your design process—depending on where you use it, or the overall style of your space (like Emily’s tiles in her patio), the patina that it will develop over time may or may not be to your liking or advantage. This tile also isn’t advisable for places that experience hard freezes, jsyk.

Hot Tip

If you don’t want a patina to develop, you have to properly seal it the first time and keep on re-sealing it very regularly. It will add a little bit of shine, but worth it in a high-traffic area and if you don’t want it to discolor.

Classification: Specialty | Type: Glass Tile

Good for: walls and backsplashes

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: how to design a family-friendly laundry room

Glass tiles can be a smart alternative to the other tiles mentioned above because their nature makes them impervious to staining. And because pigment is mixed during its actual production, you’re able to get amazing colors that won’t fade because they’re completely integrated with the entire material. But because glass will, at the end of the day, still be glass, it’s not the best option for flooring or other surfaces that will be subject to heavy traffic or blunt force.

Hot Tip

It will need to be installed in front of a white background to make sure that you get the most accurate color (if the glass tile isn’t completely opaque, the backing could show through and we wouldn’t want that).

Classification: Specialty | Type: Mosaic Tile

Good for: floors and walls

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: silver lake hills master bath reveal

Made out of tiny, flat little pieces of stone, glass, terra-cotta, or unglazed ceramic, mosaic tiles were very popular with the Romans back in the day, creating beautiful images out of little pieces called tesserae… But you’re probably also picturing craft night, or Greece, or maybe even Gaudi’s colorful Casa Batlló. I won’t talk too much about this because a lot of the materials above can be laid out mosaic-style, but know that there are tons of great options on the market nowadays that won’t end up looking like a bad art project.

They can be great feature walls, a nice little moment in a niche, or something bold and graphic for your floor. Because you would normally use more grout with (traditional) mosaic tiles, they’re a great flooring option in wet areas for their non-slip attributes. If you’re DIY-ing this, I read that the weight of mosaic tiles altogether is quite considerable, so make sure you put a layer of concrete subfloor down first. And if installing on wooden floorboards, it’s a good idea to lay down a sheet of plywood first for stability.

Natural Stone Tile

Classification: Natural Stone | Type: Marble

Good for: floors, walls, and countertops

photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: the portland master bathroom reveal

I won’t get into these much in today’s post—most of what I have to say, I’ve already said in this very comprehensive stone post right here, but this is also an excellent option and I’d like to touch on it a little bit.

You’ve got marble, granite, limestone, travertine, slate and quartzite. The pros and cons of each are in this post here. There are tons of natural stone tiles available on the market, but if you’ve fallen in love with a very specific slab of stone, then your best bet is buying the slab and getting it cut into the size or shape you want. 

While you can get a slab cut into your run-of-the-mill rectangular or square tiles, you can get customized cuts and create show-stopping patterns a la Kelly Wearstler. Seriously, that woman knows her stuff with designing bold and totally un-boring floors (and rooms and restaurants, I could literally go on and on).

But unless you’re working on a big commercial space or really have the budget, you probably won’t be doing a lot of slab-buying and custom-cutting to make your own patterned flooring. Maybe do yourself a favor by finding a premade mosaic tile with an interesting or playful pattern that you like and be done with it.

Okay! That’s all I got for you today, guys. That was kind of a lot, I know. So here’s a little chart of what we covered here to help you keep track. Pin it, save it, bookmark it for when you’re about to start tile shopping for your next home project. 🙂

AND BONUS TIP: When you eventually buy your tiles, don’t forget to add in some allowance for waste during installation (10-15% is usually a safe bet), but also as a just in case, throw in some extra for later down the road, should you end up with some chipped and broken tiles in your forever home.

Wait did you think we’d leave you without giving you our favorite tile resources?? NEVER. So if you are in the market is our list of the EHD go-to online tile resources we shop from.

Hope this is useful for you guys! xx

Opening Image Credits: Photo by Tessa Neustadt | From: Emily’s Kitchen and Dining Room Reveal

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4 years ago

This is the most incredibly helpful article, thank you! – pinned for future use xxx

4 years ago

I absolutely love the stone tiles used in the Portland master bath – are there any “budget” similar linear/graphic designs you have run across, maybe even in a different material but same type of look? Please let me know!!!

4 years ago
Reply to  Amy

Yes, love that tile too! Please let us know!!

4 years ago

The most common subway tile used in NYC stations: 4×4 white, stacked.

4 years ago

Super helpful post! I may be missing it, but is the chart linked? I don’t see it. Thanks!

4 years ago

So helpful, thank you.
Even more helpful if you would please give us some links to some of your favorite suppliers of these materials. 🙂

4 years ago

I’m curious about how practical those beveled tiles are. Do all the different facets collect dust etc? It seems harder to keep clean than a flat tile you can wipe down easily.

Roberta Davis
4 years ago

Thank you! Very helpful especially for me right now as I choose tile for my bathrooms. I’d like to see the chart, too.

One question. I got a sample from Cle and I was surprised to see how thick it is. I love the tile bu don’t want to give up an extra 1/2″ of elbow space in an already tight shower. Are all of Cle’s tiles super thick? I got the Moroccan Salt, which is beautiful but I think I want something thinner with a similar look. I ask because I see Emily used a different tile from Cle in her kitchen. Was it super think, too?


4 years ago

Super useful post, thanks Team EHD!

4 years ago

Great article! We are on the cusp of a bathroom remodel and picking materials so this is super well-timed for us 🙂

Maybe it’s just semantics, but it seems like subway tiles do also come often in matte, not just zellige tiles, contrary to what the graph shows…

We are about to order 2×8 matte white subway tiles from Olympia Tile ( ). Not plugging them, haven’t gotten them so they could be poor quality though we are hoping not, just wanted to pull up a specific example of white matte subway tile.

Mostly just wondering if them being matte means they aren’t technically subway tiles or some other such nomenclature nonsense. (Not that it really matters, it’s going on the wall regardless).

4 years ago

great post, thanks!

Elizabeth Senge
4 years ago

THANK YOU for this article. I’d like to know your favorite places from which to source all these various types of tile. Aside from Cle and Home Depot, I have no idea where to go!

4 years ago

We have used Fireclay Tile in many places in our home, because they were the locally made tiles. They are in San Francisco now, so I’m guessing you’d need to get samples for a project before ordering, unless you live close enough to visit. I feel like Emily used some Fireclay Tile in the Portland project, too.

Sarah White
4 years ago

What a great article! This was very helpful & now I’m tempted to put mosaic tiles in my master bathroom! I had some tile put into my downstairs bathroom a few years ago, but the grout got so dirty- I even had to get professionals to clean it. I would love to see an article about tile care/maintenance!!

4 years ago

Weird! I’m from Arizona and the “terra cotta” tile is super popular, as you can imagine, but is ALWAYS called Saltillo. Thanks for all this info.

4 years ago

So much incorrect information. Wow…

4 years ago

Quality tile from quality sources is a lot more than $2/sf. Please do your research. I’ve been in the tile industry for over 20 years and am not aware of those prices unless it’s poor made junk.

3 years ago

This post should be included in interior design and house renovation text books! It is awesome and fully comprehensive. Thank you, Grace.
Only one thing that it is important, the smaller the tiles the more expensive it is to put them on the wall and the more skilful the workers have to be.
Also, rectified tiles are more expensive to instal.
It is very practical to put big tiles in your kitchen with some shine. They are very easy to clean.

3 years ago

now do grout and grout lines!!

Colleen Clark
3 years ago

Hey y’all – I think there’s an error in the pricing on the chart for cement tiles cause i’ve tried sourcing them for my house and they’re deffffiinitely not $2 a sq foot. It’s more like $10-15 per sq foot. I WISH they were $2 a sq foot! I’d put them everywhere!