Skip to content

Best Tile for Shower Walls – Ceramic or Porcelain

In this post we’ll discuss which is the best tile for your shower walls. Are ceramic tile shower walls better than porcelain tile shower walls? You’ll find out below.

This is Steve from SKG Renovations (Steve’s Bio) with another addition to my Redblock shower remodel series. I’ll utilize my extensive shower remodel experience to give you the straight goods on the best tile to use for your shower wall tile.

So let’s get into it!

Best Tile for Shower Walls Ceramic or Porcelain ?

The Main Difference

In a word, the main difference between porcelain tiles and ceramic tiles is density.

The more dense a tile, the less permeable it is to water (more on that later), and the more load stress it can handle. The density of a tile may not be something that seems too important for shower wall tile, but there are definitely some things to consider before making your decision between porcelain and ceramic.

Shower Tile Density Explained

If you’re building a shower with tiled walls, you need to know more about the density of ceramic tile vs porcelain tile to make an informed decision about what type of tile is best tile for shower walls.

Ceramic and porcelain tile are both made primarily of clay and water. The difference is that sand and feldspar are also included in the mix when making porcelain tile.

When a porcelain tile is fired (cured) at high temperature (up to 2300 F), these two extra ingredients fuse together with the clay, creating a material that resembles glass. This process increases the density of porcelain tile significantly, compared with ceramic tile.

All tiles are rated according to their water absorption (or degree of vitreosity), so it’s important to clarify where ceramic and porcelain tiles fit into this rating system.

Non-vitreous: Tile with a water absorption rating of 7.0 percent. This is a low density ceramic tile, but there are actually lower density tiles out there, with water absorption greater than 10%.

Semi-vitreous: Tile with a water absorption rating between 3.0 percent and 7.0 percent. This is a medium density ceramic tile.

Vitreous: Tile with a water absorption rating between 0.5 percent and 3.0 percent.

Until around 2010, “vitreous” tile was considered to have the lowest water absorption, but the TCNA changed their porcelain definition to include only tile with water absorption less than 0.5% . This has always been confusing because most people believe that vitreous tiles are synonymous with porcelain tiles.

Impervious or Fully Vitrified: Tile with a water absorption rating less than 0.5 percent.

According to the Tile Council of North America, this is the only group of tiles that can be called “porcelain tiles”.

Is Ceramic Tile Good for Shower Walls?

Redblock N1014 SS Shower Niche installed in grey tile wall

Image Courtesy of SKG Renovations

It will be difficult to make a decision about which is the best tile for shower walls by only considering tile density and water absorption, but it’s definitely an important consideration when weighing all the pros and cons of ceramic tile for the shower wall.

Here are some important things to consider…

The “Warm feeling” of Ceramic Shower Wall Tile

Ceramic tile showers have been said to possess a certain comfort and warmth that porcelain tile showers do not.

This is due to the often varied and creative textures and colors of ceramic tile glazing, their slightly uneven surface, low edge radius, and almost infinite variety of shapes and thickness available.

Not all ceramic tiles have all these qualities but they are generally less uniform and consistent than porcelain tiles.

Low Compressive Strength is OK!

Shower wall tiles don’t need really much compressive strength, so their density can be quite low without causing problems….with one condition.

The condition is that ALL shower wall tile should be installed over a good shower wall waterproofing membrane. If you don’t pay close attention to shower wall waterproofing, you can experience major problems down the road, even with a relatively dense ceramic tile on your shower wall.

Remember that all tile will absorb some moisture no matter the density. It is just a matter of how much.

I lower density ceramic shower wall tile will allow more moisture to pass through it, so you’ll need to rely more on a good waterproofing membrane to keep this moisture out of the stud wall.

A higher density shower wall tile will resist moisture transmission to a higher degree, so you’ll be relying less on the integrity of the membrane to keep moisture out of the shower wall.

Easier to Cut

Low and medium density ceramic shower wall tiles are very easy to cut and shape.

If you use a snap cutter, the break line is almost always cleaner than with ceramic tile and it takes very little effort to break because of a relatively low “breaking load” compared to porcelain tile.

You can also cut most most ceramic tile with a tile nipper to take small bits off the edges. This allows you to shape the tile to conform to obstructions.

And by using a tile nipper with a tile file (smooth edge, diamond face), you can smooth out rough cuts and even create smooth curved cuts in most low and medium density ceramic shower tiles.

Ceramic Tile Water Absorption – A Deal Breaker?

If you’re considering a lower density ceramic tile for your shower wall, you should not only be concerned about how permeable its surface is to moisture, but also how much water it tends to absorb on its back side (its bonding surface).

When you’re setting tile into the mortar bed during tile installation, adequate hydration of the mortar beneath your tile is extremely important for secure bonding.

Unlike porcelain tile, lower density ceramic tile absorbs water (hygroscopic), so it tends to remove the water from the layer of mortar just beneath the tile (the bonding layer).

This reduces the mortar’s ability to set properly and bond to the tile to the shower wall. The lower the density of the ceramic tile, the bigger this problem becomes.

This also makes setting tile on your shower wall particularly difficult because the mortar becomes so stiff and brittle, that it’s almost impossible to properly position the tile.

The solution? Use a bonding agent.

A simple solution to this problem is to apply a bonding agent to the unglazed back of the tile. This partially “seals” the ceramic, allowing the back of the tile to absorb only a small amount of moisture from the mortar.

If you use this strategy, you’ll get perfect tile mobility so you can position the tile properly on the shower wall, AND perfect tile adhesion, because the mortar can cure perfectly under the tile. A bit of extra work, but definitely worth it.

A product I use regularly for this purpose is diluted Weldbond. It’s water soluble, non-toxic, and very low odor. You can find it at almost any home improvement store, hardware store, or online.

Is Porcelain Tile Good for Shower Walls?

Remember the ceramic and porcelain shower tile density discussion earlier?

Now it’s time to talk about how high density and durable porcelain tile is, and how this type of shower tile might rise to the top of your list as the best tile for shower walls.

Water Absorption of Porcelain Shower Walls

As I mentioned earlier, according to the Tile Council of North America, only tiles with a water absorption rating < 0.5 percent can be called “porcelain tiles”. These are in the category of “Impervious” or “Fully Vitrified” tile.

This means that very little moisture will get through a real “porcelain tile” to the surface of the waterproofing membrane. This is a VERY good thing, especially if your shower is on an outside wall, you have only a 2×4″ deep stud cavity, and/or you have inadequate insulation in your outside wall.

The lower the moisture absorption rating of your shower wall tile, the lower the chance that moisture will pass through the tile assembly (& membrane) and condense in the wall cavity, with all the nasty mold implications that go with it.

Large Tile Shower

Beta's guest shower-Balsam-Horiz with niche

Are bigger tiles better for shower walls? There are definitely some benefits to using bigger porcelain tiles on your shower walls, but there are conditions to this (aren’t there always conditions?).

Porcelain tiles are strong and stable enough to be made into much larger sizes than ceramic tiles.

Large porcelain tiles are perfect for installing on the shower wall because it means there are less grout lines to clean, and some people REALLY love this.

Large format porcelain tiles in the 1’x2′ range are very common (see image above), as are the 2’x2′ sizes. Porcelain is so rigid and dense that even porcelain slabs as big as your shower wall are available.

The downside of the larger size porcelain tiles and slabs is that they’re super heavy, compared to ceramic tile. This makes them more difficult and more risky to handle.

More than a few times I’ve accidentally bumped the edge of a slab or large format porcelain tile into some hard surface and chipped the edge or broken it entirely. Super frustrating, but it’s one of the downsides of porcelain tile because of its high density and brittle nature.

Another issue when setting the bigger porcelain tiles on your shower wall is that they need a lot of support from below to prevent them from sliding down the shower wall. So you’ll need to make sure you’ve solidly supported the base row with solid spacers that don’t slip out of place, or easily compress.

Porcelain Tile “Install” Considerations

Tile Edge Trim?

Installing porcelain tile against tile edge trim

When installing porcelain tile on the shower wall you will need to install some tile edging, same as you would with ceramic tile (see image).

I bring this up because in my experience, many people seem to believe that surface color of porcelain tile is the same as its interior color, making tile edging unnecessary. This is not true.

Occasionally, I’ve installed a ceramic tile with a body color that’s very similar to that of it’s surface color, but you can never count on this.

The only tile that can be exposed at it’s edges are the softer stone tiles, but only when the edges are polished. I’ve had a lot of success polishing edges of marble tile but most other types of stone tile are impractical to polish because they’re too hard.

Wet Saw or Snap Cutter?

A wet saw is an amazing and essential tool when you are cutting and installing porcelain tile on your shower walls, but a lot of DIY tilers don’t have access to one, and/or they believe they don’t need one.

I’m here to tell you that you should probably buy or rent a wet saw for your shower tiling project if you want your tile cuts to look nice. Most snap cutters won’t cut it… so to speak.

It is possible for snap cutters to create smooth cuts, but only the more expensive ones in my experience. The Sigma cutter I bought was over $500, so it’s a bit steep for most DIYers. I’ve found the cheaper cutters to be inconsistent and unreliable.

You will still need to cover the outside perimeter of your porcelain shower walls tile installation with tile trim, but with a wet saw you can count on these cuts to be straight and smooth every time.

Large Format Porcelain Tile Lippage

When your shower wall’s not perfectly flat, significant tile lippage problems can occur when setting large format tiles.

As you set your porcelain shower wall tiles in place on the shower wall, you’ll notice that the edges of the tiles will not always line up properly. They will protrude above, or be recessed below, your intended tile surface plane.

This vertical displacement of adjacent tiles is known as “tile lippage”. This can easily occur even with the very common 12 inch x 24 inch tiles, but the larger the tile, the larger this problem becomes.

This is because larger tiles will emphasize any “hills” or “valley’s” on your wall plane. In other words, the edges of the tile that ride on the top of a “hill” will be proud of the tiles that end up in the “valley”.

If you apply a thicker mortar bed and leveling clips it will lessen this problem, but it doesn’t usually eliminate it.

Believe me, this is a VERY big thing, and it only shows up when your setting larger format tiles. If you are a perfectionist like me, this is extremely irritating and can ruin an entire project.

Another problem is that lippage is often only discovered during the tile setting process, so it’s basically too late to do anything about it (flatten the wall surface, in other words).

If you want to know more about how to avoid this problem, please refer to my Shower Tile Installation post.

So… Best Tile for Shower Walls Ceramic or Porcelain ?

So in conclusion, you can definitely use either ceramic or porcelain tile on your shower wall as long as you combine it with the appropriate under-tile waterproofing membrane.

If you decide on a lower density ceramic shower wall tile (non-vitreous or semi-vitreous), you should make sure that you install a VERY GOOD shower wall waterproofing membrane (<0.1 perms) under your tile, especially on an outside wall.

If you instead decide you’re going to install porcelain tile on your shower wall, the integrity of the waterproofing is still important, but not as important as in the low vitreous ceramic tile installation.

I will always say that using a waterproofing membrane with the best perm rating is always the safest, but I will also say that you can probably get away with using a .5 perm membrane if you are installing “real” porcelain tile. That’s the rating of the most popular sheet waterproofing membrane (Schluter Kerdi), so it shouldn’t be difficult to achieve.

That’s it. I hope you enjoyed my post.

I also hope that it’s helped you understand the confusing business of tile density, and whether ceramic or porcelain tiles are best for your shower wall tile installation.

Good luck!… And please leave a comment below, if you’d like to ask me any specific questions on this topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *