Choosing Stone or Ceramic: Educate Customers to Choose Well
 
November 2nd, 2008

November – December 2008

Beneath the Surface

When humankind goes up against Mother Nature, the outcome is usually predictable. Despite the best efforts and greatest technology of man, nature triumphs.

Some would argue the same holds true in the world of coverings. When man-made tile competes against natural stone forged through the ages by geophysical forces, they say, stone’s unsurpassed beauty, strength and uniqueness carry the day.

Makers of ceramic and porcelain tile would beg to differ, however. In recent years, breakthroughs in materials and technology have yielded man-made coverings that boast stone’s beauty and uniqueness, and surpass stone in hardness and durability. And they do it with greater quality control and more attractive pricing.

This issue, TileDealer goes beneath the surface to probe the rivalry between the natural and man-made materials, finding the former’s superiority no longer set in stone.

Stone: Natural Selection

Authentic natural stone has one great head start on any other covering material. It is nature made and millions of years old. “There are stone structures and floors that are still performing well after thousands of years,” says Donato Pompo, consultant with Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants Inc. in San Diego.

Moreover, stone has an innate beauty that’s hard to match. Whether it is marble, granite, limestone, slate, travertine or any other type of natural stone, stone’s beauty alone imbues a cachet that makes it increasingly a favorite of homeowners.

Stone also has a huge advantage over man-made materials in its status as a one-of-a-kind covering, says Lynle Hawkins-Struble, owner of San Diego’s Lynle Ellis Design. Upscale homeowners she serves in San Diego condos and nearby suburbs such as Delmar and Carlsbad appreciate the stone they add to their homes is uniquely different, and unmatched by any other covering. “Part of the beauty of it is it’s not all the same,” Hawkins-Struble says. “No two stones are exactly identical.”

Add to this the fact that stone can be given a “tumbled effect,” she says. To create a tumbled look, stones are actually tumbled with other stones to produce a worn, walked-on and ageless appearance that makes it look as if the stone has been part of a French chateau for centuries. A similar tumbled look has been tried in ceramic through forming, Hawkins-Struble says, but without the same stunning effect.

Finally, with stone tile available in various sizes from mosaics to 18- by 24-inches and larger, stone offers new levels of choice. Part of its surge in popularity, she says, results from the emergence of different colors and textures, as well as patterns such as Versailles or herringbone. “There’s a lot of flexibility,” she says of stone’s designability.

Ceramic: Carefree Choice

For all its advantages, stone is not for everyone. If freedom from scratching, staining and other maintenance is a priority, if there are children whose hijinks may do damage to a covering, if certain types of creativity are sought, or if the concern is cost, it’s likely the choice of surface will not be stone but ceramic or porcelain tile.

As a sub category of ceramic, porcelain offers much of the beauty and even the appearance of stone. At the same time, it is even harder than many types of stone, and requires less maintenance to ensure it continues looking great.

“If you have someone choosing ceramic, it’s typically because of maintenance issues and cost issues,” Hawkins-Struble says. “If you have a family with four children, ceramic tile is easier because it’s more durable and less porous.”

Porcelain’s lack of porosity, for instance, helps ensure wines or dark-colored fruits like strawberries won’t stain a tiled surface. Moreover, the age-old problem of ceramic chipping has been solved with porcelain’s through-body colors, she says.

Like stone, ceramic and porcelain tile can provide great beauty. “Lots of times, [clients] come to me and they want the look of stone, but in ceramic,” Hawkins-Struble says, noting dramatic improvements in the industry’s ability to add color and texture to tile. “But the people who go with ceramic don’t want anyone to know it’s ceramic.”

Cost can also be a factor, Hawkins-Struble says. The fact that ceramic tile is easier to install often results in lower installation costs. For instance, ceramic tile allows for a comparatively simple thin-set installation. But the irregularity of stone frequently requires a thicker “mud” adhesive installation involving more effort, she notes.

Stone Vs. Ceramic Head-to-Head

As noted, stone and ceramic have distinct pros and cons. Therefore, a head-to-head comparison is the best way to illustrate the plusses and minuses of each.

Maintenance. Good quality ceramic floor tiles will not easily wear out, and tend to be resistant to both stains and scratching, Pompo says. Porcelain tiles are very durable and generally perform better with less maintenance than natural stone, he says.

Noah Chitty, technical services director with Chicago-based StonePeak Ceramics, which specializes in porcelain tile, agrees. “We like to think of porcelain tile as providing the same aesthetic as stone, without the same problems,” he says.

By contrast, natural stone requires far more maintenance, which can include sealing and repolishing every year or so, depending on conditions, Pompo says.

Dave Gobis, Racine, Wisc.-based technical director with the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, echoes the opinion that careful attention is essential to keep stone looking great. “We get calls all the time from people about stone tile cracking,” he says. “That’s the nature of the beast. A lot of people like the beauty of stone, but aren’t prepared for the maintenance stone requires . . . Every vein in marble is a crack waiting to happen. If you don’t have a supporting structure, then there’s going to be cracks.”

Within natural stone, significant variation exists in terms of durability, says David Butler, president of Nantucket, Mass.-based Cornerstone Granite Company. Some stones, such as granite, are highly stain and scratch resistant. Others, such as marble and limestone, are softer and more susceptible to damage.

“In my opinion, marble and limestone should not be installed as a polished surface,” he says. “Instead, they should be installed as a honed surface, so they can be maintained for years to come.”

Appearance

Stone is acknowledged as being naturally beautiful. Its wonderful veining, rich colors and varied textures have made it a favored material for eons.

But porcelain tile makers have perfected technology that helps provide similarly stunning looks. For instance, StonePeak Ceramics is a leader among U.S. companies in creating glazed, unglazed and colored-body materials. “Using one of those three types, you can replicate virtually anything available in stone,” Chitty says. “Obviously, the better your technology, the better it gets. But the technology is there.”

Moisture resistance

Natural stone is often moisture sensitive, Pompo reports. Ceramic and porcelain tile vary widely in moisture resistance. Ceramic tile tends to have a moisture gain of about three to four percent, and can reach seven percent. By contrast, porcelain tile is considered impervious to moisture, meaning it is limited to a moisture gain of no more than one-half of one percent, Gobis says. That impervious nature can make it harder to bond in some cases. “You have hardly any pores at all in porcelain, and cement bonds by grabbing on to the pores in a tile,” Gobis explains.

Chitty, however, disagrees. “With the technology these days in the thin set, we don’t get issues of de-bonding due to lack of porosity,” he says of porcelain.

Creative Shapes

In stone processing, a straight-line cutting method is often used, says Stephen Powers, president of Keene, NH-based Trikeenan Tileworks, internationally renowned for its award-winning ceramic tile. “That means if you have a hard material and need to cut it, they are set up to make straight cuts like squares and rectangles,” he says. “It’s really hard to get an undulating shape with stone.”

Ceramics provide a far more malleable material with which to work. “You can create three-dimensional tile, round shapes and undulating edges,” Powers says.

Finishing and Refinishing

Stone tiles can be easily ground and polished to provide a finished edge. Porcelain through-body tiles can also be ground and polished, but other ceramic tile cannot be. Natural stone can be finished to look like new, Pompo says. On the other hand, glazed ceramic tiles, once worn, can’t be repaired.

Consistency

Stone boasts natural variations in color, texture and appearance that help make each piece unique. Ceramic tile, on the other hand, is a product that is generally manufactured to be consistent. “Stone has more variation in color, and some stones vary so much in color that the buyer believes it’s a different tile,” Pompo says.

“The buyer of stone has to like natural variation. While some stones are very consistent in color and texture, there is always some variation.”

Not all buyers appreciate that characteristic, Butler notes. “Some people do not like variations—in color and pattern—in natural stone,” he says. “For these people, a synthetic stone like a caesarstone or a fifestone are much better products.”

All the same, in the area of consistency, technology has again helped eliminate some of the differences between stone and porcelain. StonePeak’s technology allows it to make consistent tiles from piece to piece, as well as a completely random and different tile every time. In the marble-look porcelain tiles it creates, for instance, the company can produce completely unique veining with each marble tile, Chitty reports.

“In some cases, unless you turn the tile over and look for a back-stamped pattern, you could not tell the difference from the face,” he says. “Side by side, you couldn’t tell the difference between that and genuine marble.”

Installation Cost and Difficulty

Stone is often more expensive to install because it tends to be less consistent in size, Pompo says.

“In other cases, the stone is cut to size, gauged and is very consistent [in size], but because the homeowner wants small grout joint widths, more time and effort is required for installation,” he notes. “Because stone can be ground and polished after it is installed, some people will pay extra to have the tile installed first, ground flat and smooth and then polished to provide a perfect looking floor.”

While the line has blurred a bit in the past two decades, tile installers still don’t tend to install stone, Gobis says. “Stone has very special considerations,” he says, noting black, green and red marble tiles are so moisture sensitive that if a thin set used for ceramic tiles is used to set these pieces, the marble will absorb moisture and curl. “Good coverage is more important with stone than with tile. It goes back to support. If you have a vein without support, you will have a crack. If you bond two sides of stone, and there’s a vein unsupported in the middle, it’s a crack waiting to happen.”

Quality Control

Stone’s hugely increased popularity over the past two decades has fostered not only an enormous surge in stone imports, but serious quality issues as well, Pompo says. “People bring in stone from India, for instance, and these products are being used in applications for which they aren’t suitable,” he observes.

“Buyers think they are purchasing a stone of a certain grade or classification, but when it’s tested, it’s found to be substandard. And the trouble is it’s not generally tested until there’s a problem. People think they are getting a good deal with a great price on a travertine, for example, but the physical properties are lacking.”

In some cases, the physical properties are substantially less than those specified by ASTM International for each classification of stone, he adds. One stone may be significantly better quality than another, based on which country, quarry or even part of the same quarry it emanated from.

“You can’t tell by looking,” he says. “With experience, you may see symptoms suggesting this stone may not be up to standards. Importers are not testing the stone they’re buying to substantiate [that the] products they’re selling are meeting minimum standards.”

Cost

For years, the high cost of mining, cutting, shipping and processing stone left it beyond the budgets of the average American. But improvements in technology, as well as an increase in the number of exporting countries and the greater affordability of cutting machinery, have brought it within the budgets of more and more homeowners.

Butler believes the cost to produce stone has come down in recent years. But that reduction has been more than offset by other dynamics.

One is the devaluation of the dollar versus other world currencies. An even more crucial factor has been the increase in energy costs required to ship stone from quarries worldwide.

“The result is that there’s been an overall increase in prices,” he says.

Ceramic and porcelain are considered more affordable than stone. But Powers cautions buyers shouldn’t assume price advantages extend across the board.

“Ceramic is a less expensive product,” he says. “But they’re making higher-end mosaics and ceramics, so there’s a broader range of costs than ever before.”

Interior and Exterior Applications

Stone is often considered superior in outdoor applications vis-à-vis ceramic tile, Pompo says. Most stones can be used both indoors and outdoors, while many ceramic tiles are too slippery to be used outdoors. Most stones are freeze-thaw stable, a characteristic not shared by all ceramic tile.

Educating Customers

Tile dealers can take a number of steps to make sure their customers are fully informed and educated about stone and ceramic tile, Pompo says. Among the more important guidelines he recommends are the following:

Stone and ceramic tile must be displayed to show full range of colors.

Samples from new shipments of stone should replace showroom samples.

Dealers should require stone suppliers to provide test data demonstrating the stone meets the respective minimum ASTM International physical property standards.

Ceramic and stone suppliers should furnish dealers with high quality installation products that come with guarantees, as well as guidelines for use.

Dealers should also provide maintenance guidelines for all their stone and ceramic tile products. “This helps buyers properly care for [the products] and have a happy experience,” Pompo says. “The dealer makes added sales and profit by selling maintenance products, and the buyer keeps coming back to buy the products, spurring additional sales.”

What does the future hold for stone and ceramic coverings? Hawkins-Struble applauds the strides of ceramic and porcelain tile makers, but believes it’s a stone-cold lock one segment of the buying populace will remain highly partial to stone.

“As the tile industry gets better, as they make tile look more like stone, there may be a shift of the middle to upper-income homeowner to ceramic and porcelain,” she says. “The super-wealthy are always going to want stone. It’s unique and natural.”

SOURCES:

David Butler, president

Cornerstone Granite Co., Nantucket, MA

508-228-7771

Noah Chitty, Crossville-based technical services director

StonePeak Ceramics, Chicago

931-459-2518

Dave Gobis, Racine, Wisc.-based technical director

Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, Clemson, SC

864-226-1804

864-222-2131

Lynle Hawkins-Struble, owner

Lynle Ellis Design, San Diego

619-985-8081

Donato Pompo, national consultant

Ceramic tile and Stone Consultants, Inc.

San Diego, CA 619-669-2967

Stephen Powers, president

Trikeenan TileWorks, Keene, NH

603-352-4299

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