Tile or Stone: Helping Your Customer Choose
May 1st, 2006


Knowing the upside and the downside of these products, and educating the customer, is key to their satisfaction.

By Jeffrey Steele

May-June 2006

At Surface Concepts, a Laguna Hills, Cal. company that offers tile, stone and glass coverings, many stroll into CEO Lisa McVey’s showroom with preconceived ideas about their preferences for either stone or tile. “If they want tile, they want a porcelain,” McVey says. “Or they want stone. But do they leave with that same mindset? No!

“They find that they can buy tile that looks like stone, and avoid the upkeep. Or they realize they can get a stone that possibly has a lot more opportunity for edge characteristics, much wider range of color variation and a wide range of surfaces.”

In short, many people are convinced they absolutely, positively know all the pluses and minuses of their favorite covering products, only to find their preconceived notions turned on their heads. And that’s what makes comparing tile and stone so much fun. With that in mind, TileDealer talked to some industry experts to learn their thinking regarding the benefits and drawbacks of each covering material.

Both tile and stone have distinct advantages. Tile’s benefits include a non-porous nature, lighter weight, easier installation and a look that’s increasingly natural looking, says Rick Danter, certified kitchen designer through the National Kitchen and Bath Association, and senior designer with McNulty Design Group in Glencoe, Ill. “If you have a glazed ceramic tile, it’s sealed,” he says. “And with a glazed seal, it has the advantage of being non-porous. It doesn’t absorb bacteria, so that will not be absorbed into the surface. That’s more a concern with kitchen countertops than floors.”

Howard Pryor, CCS, CTC, director of architectural services with Harrisburg, Pa.-based Conestoga Tile, also appreciates the non-porous qualities of tile. Ceramic tile is mold and mildew resistant because it’s an inorganic material, says Pryor, whose 47-year-old company carries both ceramic tile and stone. “Stone is more porous than tile, so there are areas for mold and mildew to collect and grow,” he says.

Because both ceramic and porcelain tile are lighter weight than stone, they’re also easier to install, Danter says. Ceramic and porcelain tile are generally installed with thin set adhesives, while stone requires cement or mortar, which adds to the cost of the stone. In addition, ceramic and porcelain tile now offer patterns that mimic the look of natural stone, he comments. For that reason, individuals looking for the appearance of natural stone but without the upkeep and maintenance often choose tile.

Pryor also comments on the increasingly attractive look of today’s tile products. “Ceramic tile today has double-pressed, double-loaded materials,” he reports.

“That allows it to mimic the look of natural stone. One Italian company has come out with a vertical-loaded process. They can take a digital picture of stone and with the vertical-loading process manufacture a porcelain tile product that looks exactly like the stone product. The beauty of porcelain is you can’t scratch it as you can with stone. It’s impenetrable from staining and it’s frost resistant, so you can put it outside.”

Ellen Cantor, ASID, CID, and president of Torrance, Cal.-based Ellen Cantor Interior Design, agrees with the observation about porcelain tile. An interior designer who specializes in residential remodeling and new construction, Cantor notes that porcelain tile is one of the strongest materials that can be applied to a floor.

Advantages of Stone

When experts discuss stone’s many advantages, they invariably start with one simple fact. Stone is, in Pryor’s words, “God-made,” and is the most natural surface you can apply to walls, countertops or floors. It’s also absolutely unique in all the world, remarks Guido Gliori, a board member of the Marble Institute of America, and executive vice-president of Eagen, Minn.-based Grazzini Brothers, an 85-year-old Twin Cities-area subcontractor that installs tile, terrazzo and stone products.

“No two stones are the same, so the appearance of the material is varied,” Gliori says. “You go out and buy a green granite or a green marble, and I’ll buy the same product and they’re not going to be exactly alike. That gives people something that they alone can boast about, because it’s not the same as any other stone.”

In the eyes of many, stone is also the most beautiful of all covering materials. “The fact that tile manufacturers are more and more trying to copy the look of stone says a lot about the preference for stone,” Gliori says.

Adds Cantor: “I work with travertine, slate and limestone for floors, and granite for countertops, and there’s nothing more beautiful than natural stone.”

While some cite upkeep as a major negative of stone, Richard Scott, president of Seattle‘s Status Custom Ceramics, says that often depends on the type of stone. For instance, dense granite will require less upkeep than many other kinds of stone, he notes.

Is there a downside?

While tile has many advantages, it’s not perfect. What it offers in the way of cost-effectiveness, ease of installation and other benefits may be at least partially offset by other considerations. Among them is the fact tile lacks the uniqueness of stone, according to Gliori. “Porcelain tile manufacturers can come up with five or six appearances and vary them slightly, but they can’t come up with a million,” he says.

There’s also the issue of prestige. “There is the perception stone carries more cache, more status,” observes McVey, adding with a laugh: “Though sometimes if I put both [tile and stone] down side by side, people can’t tell the difference.”

Also among the disadvantages of ceramic and porcelain tile is that both feature ridges that make them difficult to clean, particularly in the kitchen, Cantor says.

“So I encourage my customers to choose a smoother tile, and one that doesn’t have little indentations where the dirt can get in, especially if it’s a lighter color,” she says. In addition, ceramic tile isn’t as durable as porcelain tile, she notes. “If it’s not through-body and it chips, you’ll see the different color in the area where it chipped.”

Maintenance concerns top the list of disadvantages associated with natural stone. According to Cantor, stone has to be sealed every year, which makes it problematic for busy families. “If you’re using limestone or travertine, which are usually lighter materials, and you stain it by spilling wine, tomato sauce, orange juice, mustard or vinegar, you have to be careful to clean it quickly,” she notes.

“If you leave it on even for an hour or two, you will have a stain. Sometimes you can get that stain out yourself, but if it’s really bad you may need to have a professional come in. It can be removed, but stone takes more care.”

Danter also cites maintenance as the chief disadvantage of natural stone. Some kinds of stone require sealing every six months, others every year, he says, although he admits some of his clients have gotten by with sealing every year and a half. There are natural stone products that don’t necessarily have to be sealed, he adds, but most stone manufacturers suggest putting down a sealer, which will repel the majority of stains.

For his part, Pryor says sealers are necessary on marble, granite, slate and limestone. “Once you start, that’s a lifetime process,” he adds.

“Sealers will wear according to traffic patterns, and then they have to be stripped and reapplied. There are penetrating sealers that are better than top finish sealers because they are permanent, and never need to be reapplied again.”

Another downside of natural stone applies particularly to slate. While a beautiful flooring material, it can be uncomfortable to walk on barefooted, Cantor says. It’s sold in both ledgered and non-ledgered versions, and the former has levels, which can make it feel as though you are walking outside on rock if you trod it in bare feet, she remarks.

The lack of uniformity offered by natural stone is also a downside, according to Pryor. Many of his uninitiated customers expect stone to be uniform in color and consistency, and quickly find it simply is not. Customers of Conestoga Tile can return stone within a week for a refund, but they must return the entire order.

“That’s because people tend to pick out the best stone and return the rest of the order, which leaves companies with discarded stone,” he says.

For that reason, he recommends stone be “laid out dry” before it’s installed so customers can get a sense of how it will look when set. That helps avoid the problem of customers disapproving of the way veining or shade variation has been placed.

“With stone, you get what you get,” he notes. “There’s a lot of variation, and it has a lot of imperfections and blemishes, but that’s also the inherent beauty of it.”

One final negative is that the cost of stone, when one factors in life cycle maintenance, is substantially higher than ceramic or porcelain tile, experts say.

“A nice, high-quality stone will run you close to two to three times what a nice quality porcelain will run you,” Scott says. “Then you have your installation, which will be more expensive. A good installer should lay it out first, to make sure the stone looks good together and that each piece is totally unique.”

Pryor echoes the sentiment about cost, and provides numbers to back up his analysis. Ceramic tile can cost as little as 32 cents per square foot per year in life cycle costs, which includes owning, maintaining and disposing of the product. By comparison, marble can cost up to 61 cents per square foot per year, he reports.

Citing a study by Scharf & Godfrey, Pryor says the approximate installed costs of ceramic tile and porcelain tile are $6.83 and $8.30 a square foot. Compare that with marble, which as a category installs at $21 a square foot. The least expensive marble, a Turkish travertine, comes in at $12.50 a square foot, he reports.

What’s Best for Commercial and Residential Applications?

Ask experts if tile or stone is best suited to residential or commercial applications, and you may find yourself receiving widely varied answers. Danter believes natural stone’s high cost and upkeep makes it better suited for residential than commercial environments. “Natural stone would almost be prohibitive to use in a commercial setting,” he says. “It’s the upkeep and maintenance. And unless you’re doing a real high-end boutique or clothing store, natural stone is kind of cost prohibitive.”

Pryor says granite countertops make up most of the natural stone in residences. “Commercially, you see a lot of stone being used in floor and wall systems, particularly in high-end hotels, where they like the look of natural stone,” he says. “You’re starting to see the ceramic tile companies come out with products that assimilate that look. Down the road, the ceramic tile manufacturers will be able to give them that look, but at less cost and better performance, because it doesn’t stain and scratch.”


Ellen Cantor, president
Ellen Cantor Interior Design, Torrance , CA

Rick Danter, certified kitchen designer, senior designer
McNulty Design Group, Glencoe , IL

Guideo Gliori, executive vice-president
Grazzini Brothers, Eagen , MN

Lisa McVey, president/CEO
Surface Concepts, Laguna Hills , CA

Howard Pryor, director of architectural services
Conestoga Tile, Harrisburg , PA
717-564-6860 ext. 4252

Richard Scott, president
Status Custom Ceramics, Seattle

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