Ceramic or Porcelain or Stone Shower Tile – Which is Best? [and Why?]
In this post I’m going to show you what type of tile (ceramic or porcelain or stone) is the best choice for your shower walls & shower base, and why.
I have installed a lot of tile over the years and from this experience I have compiled a list of little known facts and advice to help you choose your tile with confidence.
Please keep in mind that this is strictly a “nuts and bolts” guide to choosing the right type of tile for your shower remodel – it is not a design guide. Remember, I’m a contractor, not a designer…….. although I do have a lot of opinions about design. 🙂
Ceramic or Porcelain Tile?
Shower Base Tile vs Shower Wall Tile
Ceramic or Porcelain Tile
In my humble opinion, porcelain tile is generally a better choice than ceramic tile for your shower wall and shower base tile but there are benefits to using ceramic over porcelain.
Below I will compare these two types of tile, assuming that they are being installed into an area of constant water immersion…….. in other words, a fish pond you plan to build in your backyard…. (just kidding), or your shower.
The Main Difference
In a word, the primary 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.
Porcelain and Ceramic Density
As mentioned above, the decision about ceramic or porcelain tile is all about material density. Although the density of porcelain tiles can vary significantly, porcelain is more like glass in the way it absorbs water.
Think of a porcelain tea cup that you may have in your kitchen cupboard. It is not completely water resistant like glass, but it does repel water similar to glass.
In contrast, ceramic tile absorbs water quite readily.
You can probably look in your kitchen cupboard again for another good example of this. On the unglazed base of any ceramic mug, you can see the tone of the ceramic gets darker when exposed to water. This indicates that it’s absorbing water.
I’m not suggesting that the top face of the ceramic tiles in your shower will be unglazed like the base of your coffee mug, but it’s a good way to see the major difference between the material used to make porcelain vs ceramic tile.
The fact is, the glazing on the top surface of all ceramic products only inhibits moisture from being absorbed. No matter how it is glazed, it will always be far more permeable than porcelain.
And speaking of permeability…..
Ceramic Tile Permeability Problem
Because ceramic tile is significantly less dense than porcelain, it is more permeable to moisture. This can be a problem when you’re building a tiled shower.
When you are laying tile, the hydration of the mortar beneath your tile is extremely important for secure bonding to the substrate, and strength after setting.
Because the back side of all ceramic tiles absorb water extremely well (hygroscopic), they tend to remove the water from the mortar reducing it’s ability to bond and set properly.
As the mortar dries, it stiffens and become brittle as the ceramic draws the moisture out of it.
This also causes a serious and very irritating problem of tile immobility. Nothing is worse than your tiles being stuck in place after being set into the tile mortar…. not being able to adjust them at all because the mortar is too dry and stiff.
A terrible situation all around if you’ve ever experienced it. And because of the poor bonding, your tiles can eventually delaminate over time.
Use a Bonding Agent
If you plan to install ceramic tile, a simple solution to the permeability problem is to apply a bonding agent to the unglazed back of the tile.
If you use this strategy, the ceramic will be partially “sealed” allowing the tile to absorb only a small amount of moisture from the mortar.
This allows for perfect tile adhesion, perfect tile mobility, perfect bonding, and perfect mortar setting. A lot of extra work, but definitely worth it.
Wetting Instead of Bonding?
Some contractors prefer to just wet the back of the tile with a sponge and water before setting it into the mortar. I do not recommend this.
One of the problems with tile wetting is that you must do it while you are in the middle of laying your tiles. This adds another time consuming step to an already very hectic tile installation process.
There is also a very real risk of wetting the back of the tile too much using the sponging strategy. If it gets too wet, the mortar will also not bond properly.
If you are using modified mortar, the risk of delamination is a fair bit lower but I would still highly recommend pre bonding.
Varying Sizes of Ceramic Tile
Maybe it’s my own problem because I am a bit of a perfectionist, but another issue I have with ceramic tile is that they can vary in size significantly, even out of the same box.
I have noticed this with both ceramic tiles and porcelain tiles, but it seems to be a bigger problem with ceramics.
The problem is also more pronounced between different boxes, even if they belong to the same tile lot.
WARNING: In my experience, I have found that the lower the tile cost, the more exaggerated this problem becomes.
I have actually spent many hours measuring and sorting through tiles so that I can alternate rows of smaller and larger tiles on a shower wall. This is often the only way to keep rows of tiles uniform and symmetrical.
If your ceramic tiles vary too much in size, and you’re using a fixed size tile spacer, your grout lines will drift out of level and out of alignment.
I talk more about tile drift in my Tile laying post.