Cement tiles are a beautiful and durable design element that can add surprising color and pattern to rooms throughout the house and even outdoors. They are also an eco-friendly choice made from natural materials and produced with sustainable manufacturing processes. They are also easy to maintain, requiring only routine sweeping and mopping with water and a pH neutral cleaner. When compared to the frequent vacuuming and steam cleaning required of carpeting, or the periodic polishing and sealing needed with stone surfaces, it’s easy to see why cement tile has become such a popular design choice.
While many in North America have only recently discovered these versatile and affordable design elements, cement tiles have been a mainstay of European style for more than a century. Developed in Spain in the 1850s and popularized at the Paris International Exposition of 1867, they are an update on the decorative ceramic Majolica tiles that had long been the hallmark of Spanish architecture and design.
Unlike ceramic tiles, which are fired in a kiln to achieve their finished form and color, cement tiles are handmade by artisan craftspeople who apply separate mineral pigments to a wet base of coarse sand and cement. This layer is then hydraulically pressed into the surface of each individual tile, becoming a permanent part of the final product rather than a glaze that sits on top of it. This technique gives cement tiles their durability, and it is what sets them apart from other decorative tile options such as glass or porcelain.
In addition to their durability, the hand-applied pigments and the hydraulic forming method give cement tiles an unmistakable quality. Each tile is unique and has a richly textured finish that varies from one piece to the next. This texture and the varying depths of the color layer contribute to their durability, as well as their beauty. As the tiles age and are exposed to weather, temperature changes and traffic patterns, they can develop hairline cracks on the surface, which adds to their character. This is more pronounced with lighter colored cement tiles and with those that have a thinner pigment layer.
Because of the dimensional differences between cement tiles and other floor or wall coverings, they require special consideration when abutting them in a installation. Especially in floor applications, transition trim is often required to accommodate the change in thickness. The layered construction of cement tiles also means that the top surface where the different colors lie is 1/8 inch thicker than a typical wall or floor tile, so coordinating trim pieces may be necessary when abutting the tiles to a material with a different thickness.
Since cement tiles are made from natural products, they are susceptible to staining if not properly maintained. As such, they should be sealed with a penetrating sealer PRIOR to installation and then resealed on an annual basis to protect them from moisture that can cause them to deteriorate or stain. It is also important to clean up spills quickly and thoroughly.