What's the Difference: Stone vs. Porcelain Tile
Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a steady progression of building products that are not what they appear to be: cedar shingles made of fiber-cement, wood decking molded out of recycled plastic, hardwood flooring mimicked by plastic-laminate planks, and slate roofing made of composite rubber. And while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, these faux products have created a challenge for homeowners: When is it better to use an imitation product over the original?
There’s no easy answer because so much depends on availability, quality (real and perceived), price, ease of installation and personal taste. However, when it comes to floor tiles, faux products are particularly challenging because most tile manufacturers now produce porcelain tiles that are dead ringers to one of the world’s oldest and most beloved building materials: natural stone.
Natural stone is quarried and sliced into thin tiles from great slabs of granite, slate, marble, limestone and travertine. They can be installed in virtually any room in the house, including on floors, walls and ceilings. And most natural-stone tile lines also include complementary accent pieces, such as bull-nose edging, chair rail, medallions and rope moldings, which are carved from stone.
The beauty of real stone is on display with this tumbled-marble bath floor.
Natural stone has proven to be a near-perfect flooring material and therein lies the problem: it’s nearly perfect. Stone is naturally formed under immense pressure throughout millennia, so it has inherent defects, such as tiny fissures, holes, chips and weak spots. Its surface is porous and susceptible to staining. Most types of stone are relatively soft, so cracking is common. And stone tile is fairly expensive to quarry, manufacture and ship. It’s for these reasons, and others, that manufacturers began developing porcelain tiles that resemble natural stone.
Porcelain tiles are made from ultra-fine porcelain clays, which are fired at extremely high temperatures. The resulting tile is much harder, more dense, and less porous than natural stone. Porcelain tiles are also available in larger sizes than stone tiles.
This custom shower features porcelain tiles that mimic the look of real crema marfil marble.
Porcelain tiles are produced to exacting standards in controlled manufacturing plants, which ensure quality, consistency and uniform sizing, while virtually eliminating defects. And they come in virtually every imaginable color, pattern and texture, including many that are nearly identical to natural stone. In fact, you’re likely to find more porcelain tiles that resemble natural stone, than you are to find different types of real stone tile. Again, that’s because as a manufactured product, a tile company can simply engineer a new tile to whatever shade, pattern or texture it desires—even if it doesn’t actually exist in nature. The differences between natural stone and manufactured porcelain tiles extend beyond the way a tile looks or performs. It also affects how it’s installed.
This "natural" slate kitchen floor is actually made up of glazed porcelain tiles.
Natural stone and porcelain tiles are both installed using standard tile-setting tools and materials. Any competent do-it-yourselfer should have no problem installing either type. Both stone and porcelain can be installed over any approved substrate, including concrete slabs, cement backerboard, plywood and crack-isolation membranes. And both tiles are adhered with thin-set mortar.
Porcelain tiles are typically installed using standard gray thin set. Natural stone, however, requires a specially formulated thin set. 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.
Fortunately identifying the appropriate mortar for setting any type of tile—stone or porcelain—is easy: go online and visit the website of the tile company or mortar manufacturer. Or, read the instructions on the bag of mortar. There, you’ll find appropriate uses, recommendations for which type and size notched trowel to use, mixing directions, and square-footage coverage rates per bag.
With all the installation similarities between stone and porcelain, there is one key difference: You can cut porcelain tile with a manual score-and-snap tile cutter, but you must use a motorized wet saw to cut natural stone. Now that’s not to suggest that you won’t need a wet saw when installing porcelain tile. You’ll need it to cut notches, slots and large holes, but a vast majority of cuts in porcelain can be made with a manual cutter. The result of having to use a wet saw for every cut when setting natural stone means that it typically takes longer to install stone tile than it does to set porcelain tile.
As mentioned earlier, natural stone is porous and susceptible to staining. Therefore it’s important to protect the tiles with a penetrating sealer. Glazed-porcelain tiles don’t require sealing because the glazed surface is impervious to staining. Grout joints between tiles—porcelain or stone—should always be sealed to prevent staining. The exception is epoxy grout, which doesn’t require sealing.
At one time, not too long ago, natural stone tile always cost more than porcelain tile. That’s no longer the case thanks to the widespread popularity and increased production of stone-look porcelain tile. Both products are now available in a wide range of prices. You can find affordable porcelain tiles that cost less than many stone products, and there are plenty of high-end porcelain tiles that are costlier than budget-priced stone tiles. However, in general, natural stone still costs 10 to 20 percent more than a comparable porcelain tile. But again, the gap is closing as demand for porcelain tiles continues to grow.
The Final Word
So, getting back to the question asked earlier: When is it better to use an imitation product over the original? As you may have guessed, there’s no easy answer. From the installation point of view, porcelain tile is typically quicker and easier to install than stone tile. It’s also harder, more durable and requires less maintenance once installed. And on average, porcelain tiles cost less to buy and install.
At this point you might be wondering why would anyone install a real stone floor. The answer is really very simple: Nothing can match the natural beauty of real stone. No matter how authentic looking a porcelain tile may be, it’s still an imitation. It can never fully replicate the completely random patterns, unique colors, and incredibly beautiful subtleties that only Mother Nature can create.
Also, there are some natural stone tiles that have unusual shading, unique grain patterns or interesting veining, and they just aren’t available in porcelain. In those cases,
real stone is the only choice. And finally, there’s a certain percentage of people who value the natural beauty of genuine building materials. For those homeowners, natural stone is the only acceptable option, regardless of cost, availability or installation time.