An Introduction To Stone Tile Flooring: Stone Basics You Need To Know

Stone has been used in interior and exterior design for centuries, from the smallest decorative embellishments to the basis for entire buildings. Stone tile flooring is a mark of quality and style without peer, and it’s still popularly used in many modern homes, especially in the bathroom. But not all stone is created equal, and while appearance and price are major considerations for most people, there are a few more practical features you should be aware of, too.

Tile Ratings

Many Tiles Are Packaged With Symbols Similar To These To Help You Judge The Quality Of The Tile At A Glance
Many Tiles Are Packaged With Symbols Similar To These To Help You Judge The Quality Of The Tile At A Glance

The very most important thing you need to consider before stalling any kind of tile, including stone, is whether or not the tile you choose is suited to the space you intend to use it in. Most importantly, you want to be aware of the Mohs rating of the stone, which determines it’s relative hardness – and how easily it can be scratched. Stone tile, notably marble, is often more susceptible to damage than ceramic or porcelain, and the Mohs rating and PEI wear rating can help determine how well a particular type of stone will hold up in a high-traffic area – the higher the number the better. For use in a bathroom, you want a tile with a very low water absorption rating, as more porous stone tile can absorb and hold water and even begin to mold. Most tiles are classified as impervious, vitreous, semi-vitreous, and non-vitreous, ranging from least to most absorbent.

You also want to look at the grade of the tile (usually ranked 1 [high] to three [low]) which determines the overall quality of the tile, with lower grades possessing some flaws or chips that make them a poor choice for flooring. Coefficient of friction is how slippery floors are when dry and wet, which is incredibly important for safety in a bathroom (higher numbers are better, and anything lower than a .6 dry rating is a poor choice for a bathroom). Many stone tiles are also rated for indoor or outdoor use, chemical resistance, potential for oxidation (meaning, parts of the stone that can rust when exposed to water), frost resistance, and the degree of tone variation in color between tiles.

Stone Naming

Crema Marfil Flooring (by Partners 4 Design)
Crema Marfil Flooring (by Partners 4 Design)

Stone tile floors come in a rainbow of colors, from pure white to vibrant greens, oranges, and pinks, but the naming system for various types and colors of stone tile can be a little confusing. All stones have a scientific name (which refers specifically to the geological composition of the stone and where it was quarried) but many common stone types have commercial names so that stone tiles of similar appearance can be identified even if they’re quarried in different locations. Carrara and Calacatta marble, for example, are quarried only in Tuscany, Italy, while Crema Marfil can originate in Spain or Turkey. This is more significant for some tiles than others – serpentine, for example, refers more to a green color than to a type of stone or a single quarry location, and quality can vary widely depending on the source. In fact, some stones (including onyx and some marbles) aren’t always even labeled for the type of stone they actually are, geologically speaking, so it’s always wise to consult with an expert to find out exactly what you’re buying.

Stone Finish

Slate Tile Flooring (by Brillo Home Improvements)
Slate Tile Flooring (by Brillo Home Improvements)

Not only are stone tiles available in an amazing array of colors, they can also be finished in several different ways. Depending on the type of stone you choose, the tiles are either cut to size or (in the case of slate especially) split or cleft to form a naturally slightly uneven, textured surface. Split stone tile are left with their natural texture, but other stones like marble or granite are then polished to create a smooth, glossy, reflective finish that shows off crystals or  veining in the stone. Others are honed to create a smooth finish without the buffed gloss of a polished stone, which can offer better slip resistance for use in a bathroom. Finally, some stone is intentionally textured, using sandblasting (for a lightly roughed surface), brush-hammered (to create a rough texture), or tumbled for a rough, rustic, more natural appearance. Many stones must be filled or coated with a polymer to fill gaps and improve water tightness, and are then sealed to prevent staining and maintain the appearance of the stone.

Installation

Professional Installation Is Especially Important With An Irregular Natural Material Like Stone (photo via DIY Advice)
Careful Installation Is Especially Important With An Irregular Natural Material Like Stone (photo via DIY Advice)

A shorter term consideration is that stone tile is somewhat more difficult to install than ceramic or porcelain tile, for the simple reason that it’s a bit more fragile. Stone needs to be installed on a very even, flat surface, and should always be installed by a professional. Poor installation can emphasize the natural faults in a piece of stone tile, and significantly reduce the life of a floor that should theoretically last as long as your house. Professional installation is also important because certain thin-sets and grouts can stain certain stone tiles – a costly mistake you definitely DON’T want to make!

And Maintenance

Keeping A Marble Floor Gleaming Like This One Takes Regular Maintenance And Care (by BOWA, photo Bob Narod)
Keeping A Marble Floor Gleaming Like This One Takes Regular Maintenance And Care (by BOWA, photo Bob Narod)

When choosing a type of tile to use as flooring in any room, it’s important to consider not only the way a tile will look, but also how well it will hold up over time (and what you’ll have to do to keep it looking good). This is especially true with stone tile, which is much more easily stained and scuffed than ceramic or porcelain tile. Because stone is naturally porous (some more than others), they need to be routinely polished (weekly) and sealed (once or twice a year) to prevent staining. And because many stones (including marble) are reactive to acid, you may not be able to use standard household cleaners. Stone can be more easily resurfaced to hide damage over time, but because it’s typically softer than ceramic or porcelain tile, it also means it’s more easily damaged and requires gentler care.

Adding stone tile to almost any room is a great way to improve the value of your home, to say nothing of the style – but it’s a choice that shouldn’t be made lightly, with many factors that can have a direct impact on the look, feel, and longevity of the floor you choose! What type of stone tile most appeals to you? And what room are you planning to install it in?