Kitchen range with white, turquois and black tile design.
Photo: Tom Wyatt

A creative mix of readily available wall tiles and borders echoes kitchen colors elsewhere and neatly ties the sleek hood and cooktop together.

Smaller, lighter, and thinner than floor tiles, most wall tiles are not meant to withstand either high heels or hot pots. But their lightness is a plus for vertical installation and for cutting, and they come in a dazzling array of colors and textures.

Commercial wall tiles are made by the dust-press method, and the machine-made precision of their shapes works especially well with the clean lines of many contemporary designs. They're usually set closely together, with thin (1/16-inch) grout lines―often calibrated via built-in lug spacers on the tiles' edges.

Although the white, gypsum-based tile bodies are generally nonvitreous, the glazing process makes their faces (but not their edges or backs) both water and stain resistant. Water-resistant backing, adhesive, and grout can improve performance, but for vulnerable locations like showers, floors, and exteriors in freezing climates, choose vitreous or impervious tiles.

Increasingly, the distinction between traditional wall tiles and art tiles is blurring, as wall tiles take on both new colors and finishes.

Colors range from quiet whites and creams through soft pastels to glowing reds and deep, intense blues, and if you can't find what you want, your dealer can probably order custom colors. Surface finishes can be glossy, matte, or textured, and glazes can have a metallic, crackled, or brushed look instead of the customary flat color. For a sampling, see the photos below.

Most wall tiles have soft glazes, which are usually not a problem on tub surrounds or backsplashes. A few, with Mohs hardness ratings of 5 or higher, may be suitable for light-duty bathroom or bed-room floors (if they pass the slip-resistance test). In general, the shinier the glaze, the more easily it's scratched.

Some wall tiles are tough enough to be used as countertops. But check with the dealer to be sure the tile's surface can withstand both abrasion and chemicals (the acids in some foods, for example, can etch through certain glazes, especially those with copper-based green pigment).

Common sizes for glazed wall tiles include 3 by 3, 4¼ by 4¼, and 6 by 6 inches; larger squares and rectangles may also be available. These dimensions are nominal and may not be exactly accurate, so be sure to take precise measurements of the tiles you like. Nominal thickness is usually about 1/4 to 5/16 inch.

Prices range from as little as 50 cents per commercial tile to $20 or more per square foot for custom colors or one-of-a-kind creations. Generally, the more tiles of a particular size, glaze, and ornamentation that are manufactured, the less each one will cost.

Remember that you can create complex designs from the most basic of tiles. Commercial wall tiles are easily cut to form variant units that work with basic squares. And because these tiles come in such a variety of colors, they can be mixed and matched to create endless contrasts and custom-look patterns.

Many wall tile lines include coordinated border and trim pieces. Some integrated lines include matching floor tiles, countertop tiles, and coordinated bathroom fixtures. Some even offer matching ceramic soap dishes, towel bars, and other accessories.


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