Ceramic kitchen tiles are a popular choice for countertops and backsplashes for a few good reasons. It’s available in a vast range of sizes, styles and colors; it’s durable and can be repaired, and some tile-not all-is reasonably priced. Tiling is also relatively easy to install, and many homeowners learn how to do it themselves to create a truly custom look. As with all other kitchen materials, however, tile has its disadvantages.
One is that tile doesn’t create a perfectly smooth or flat surface, making it a poor surface for some tasks, such as rolling dough, and also making wiping the counters more difficult. Another potential drawback is that the grout that seals the spaces between individual tiles is prone to staining, but much of that is preventable. Tile is also a very hard surface that’s unforgiving when you drop a glass or baking dish.
Understanding Tile & Grout
Ceramic kitchen tiles are made of fired clay; the longer and hotter they’re fired, the harder and denser they get. For countertops, use only glazed ceramic tile. The glaze is a hard, glass like coating that protects the top surface from moisture and stains and adds strength to the tile. Ceramic tile is rated 1 through 5 for hardness, which translates to durability. Class 1 includes most wall tile, while Class 5 is rated for heavy-duty commercial floors. Most kitchen tile dealers will simply recommend floor tile for countertops. Commercial tile includes Class 3, 4 or 5; any of these is suitable for countertops.
While glazing protects the tile surface from most types of stains, the grout is still vulnerable because it’s so porous, but there are effective ways to minimize this risk. If you’re installing your own tile, use a grout that contains a latex additive, or mix the grout powder with a liquid latex additive instead of water; both will add stain resistance. And always seal the grout with a high-quality grout sealer (be sure it’s safe for food contact).
New grout should be sealed after it fully cures, then again about once a year after that. If you’re hiring professionals to install your tile, request that they use epoxy grout, which is much less absorptive than standard grout and doesn’t have to be sealed. Because epoxy grout can be diffi- cult to work with, it’s not recommended for beginning tile-setters. The staff at a good tile store can tell you all you need to know about tile and grout; just make sure to tell them where you’re using the tile and who is going to install it.
Installing a Tile
Tiling a countertop is within the skills range of most do-it-yourselfers, but there are some important things to consider.
Worktop and tile installation:
Quality countertop are in its fabrication and installation. No matter who manufactures the solid-surfacing material you choose, a local fabricator will cut, shape, and install it, so it’s critical to find a good fabricator. Also, most manufacturers will honor their warranties only if the installation is done by a fabricator they’ve certified; do-it-yourself counters are rarely covered. The fabricator will usually be chosen by your general contractor, cabinet dealer, kitchen designer or by a home center. If you hire a fabricator yourself, get three bids and check references, as usual.
Although the fabrication time will be just a few days, the total lead time will be much more than that. The fabricator will usually need to visit your home to take measurements after the base cabinets and the appliances next to the counters are in place. Here’s what to look for in a quality installation:
The counter should be leveled with shims, and the countertop should be supported by plywood strips, rather than a solid underlayment.
All the seams should feel smooth, with no detectable dips or bumps. Since the seams joined on-site are weak points, they should be placed over a support strip. All seams should be at least 3 in. away from the sink and cooktop.
Inside corners must be cut in perfect curves and sanded very smooth to withstand stress.
The cooktop cutout should be pro- tected by at least two layers of aluminum tape, which should be left hang- ing down under the counter (inside the cabinet) to dissipate heat.
The finish should be consistent over the entire surface. To be sure, examine it from several points of view.
Making It Last
As tough as it is, a solid surface coun- tertop does require some care. You can wipe up most stains and spills with soap and water. For stubborn stains, use a cleanser and a non-abrasive pad. On matte finishes, you can remove minor scratches by sanding with very fine sandpaper or a fine abrasive dish-scrubbing sponge, then buffing with a non-abrasive pad. High-gloss finishes require more buffing and, sometimes, polishing.
Check with the manufacturer for specific care instructions. Don’t use a solid-surface countertop as a cutting board, as knives will scratch the surface. Also, don’t place hot pots and pans directly on the counter. If part of your counter is cut out for a sink, ask your fabricator for the waste piece. Save the piece as a source of perfectly color-matched patch material, in case your counter is ever damaged.