For many, the terms "ceramic" and "porcelain" get thrown around interchangeably, as if they were the same. Tile shop salespeople often claim a vast world of difference between the two in order to justify porcelain's higher prices.
Many customers often scratch their head when they are presented with a choice between ceramic or porcelain tiles. What's the difference? Which one do I need? Is one better than the other?
As it turns out, homeowners are closer to the truth than the tile people. Here's why.
For those of you wanting to get straight to the quick answer...
Although they may look the same, the main difference between ceramic and porcelain tiles is that a 'porcelain' tile is much denser than a 'ceramic' tile and less porous, making it more hard wearing and suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. This extra density is a result of slightly different manufacturing materials & processes.
Whilst ceramic tiles are only recommended for interior walls and floors, porcelain tiles are a more common choice for floors that anticipate heavier traffic as they are much more resistant to scratching, chipping, etc. These will include areas such as kitchen floors, entrances and the majority of commercial applications. Due to their low water absorption, porcelain tiles are also suitable for outdoors.
Porcelain tiles generally have no glaze (the colour/design) baked onto the face, therefore the colour runs right through the tile. These are called 'through-body' porcelain tiles. Therefore, in addition to them being very hard wearing, any wear or chips to the tile will be difficult to see.
However, just like ceramic tiles, some porcelain tiles on the market are also manufactured with a glaze on the face. In this case, despite the body of the tile being hard wearing, the glaze has the same vulnerability to chipping as the glaze on a ceramic tile. Therefore in the unlikely event of a chip, the tile body's colour, regardless if ceramic or porcelain, will show through the chipped glaze.
(i) Ceramic Tiles
Ceramic tiles are made from a natural clay with a durable 'glaze' (the design) added to the face after the clay has been pressed/baked at high temperatures in a kiln to remove most of the water content.
(ii) Porcelain Tiles
Porcelain tiles are also made from clay, but generally those of a denser nature. Finely ground sand is also added to the mix. The materials are then pressed and fired at higher temperatures (compared to ceramic tiles) and for much longer to remove practically all of the water content. This process is what makes porcelain tiles denser, less porous and more hard wearing than ceramic tiles.
PEI Ratings: Where Can I Use Porcelain or Ceramic Tiles?
The Porcelain Enamel Institute rating, more commonly known as the PEI rating, is a great tool to help you determine the recommended use for the tile.
PEI Rating for porcelain tile tend to be around 5 (heavy residential and commercial traffic). PEI ratings for ceramic tile can range anywhere from PEI 0 (no foot traffic) up to PEI 5, but with most ratings in the lower end of the scale.
All tiles will be classified with a PEI rating, although it is more common with floor tiles. In summary, the 5-scale rating is as follows:
- PEI 0 - No foot traffic (wall tile only) • PEI 1 - Very light traffic (e.g bathroom) • PEI 2 - Light traffic (e.g. bathroom and bedroom) • PEI 3 - Light to moderate traffic (most domestic floors; no heavy appliances/traffic) • PEI 4 - Moderate to heavy traffic (e.g. door entry, kitchen, balcony, some commercial) • PEI 5 - Heavy traffic (all domestic/commercial uses with heavy abrasion/footfall)
Today, most ceramic floor tiles will carry a PEI rating from 3 to 4, with porcelain tiles ranging from PEI 3 to 5. Our advice is to always check with a member of staff to confirm your intended use of a tile.
If you are needing a floor tile for a commercial project, discuss your requirements with a member of staff, however, it is recommended that you should look at a floor tile with a PEI rating of 5.
Ceramic tiles are very easy to work with: they can be scored, cut and nipped fairly easily with the right tools. Most DIY'ers, and certainly fixers, don't have any problems.
As porcelain tiles are denser and much hard wearing, they are generally heavier and harder to work with (cut, etc). The average DIY'er may find it more difficult to work with them, however, a professional fixer should have the right tools to help them do the job. Regardless, it may take more time compared to tiling the same area with ceramic tiles.
Whatever tile you are fixing, it is imperative that you fix them with the right tile adhesive. See a member of staff for more specific advice.
Interior or Exterior: No Ceramic Outside
Laying porcelain or ceramic tile outside is typically not recommended. Ceramic is usually not durable enough for exterior use because it absorbs too much water. If you live in areas which freeze, your tile would likely crack on the first freezing night. Stone is a better option.
Even though conventional wisdom has been to keep porcelains/ceramics away from the outside, I'm seeing more that are for exterior use. I would still recommend buying porcelain that is expressly designated for exterior use.
Density: Porcelain Denser Than Ceramic
Porcelain clays are denser and thus less porous than ceramic clays. This makes porcelain tile harder and more impervious to moisture than ceramic tile.
Durability: Porcelain Wins
Not only is porcelain tile more dense than ceramic tile, but due to its through-body composition it is considered more durable and better suited for heavy usage than ceramic tile. Chip the ceramic tile and you find a different color underneath the top glaze. Chip the porcelain and the color keeps on going--the chip is nearly invisible.
While both porcelain and ceramic are fired, porcelain is fired at higher temperatures for a longer time than ceramic. Also, porcelain has higher feldspar content, which makes it more durable.
Ease of Cutting: Ceramic a Softer Cut Than Porcelain
The aforementioned density has a good side and a bad side. While ceramic is less dense than porcelain, it's also a far easier material for DIY homeowners to cut--by hand, by wet tile saw, or snap tile cutter. Porcelain is more brittle and may require the experienced hand of a tile-setter to cut properly.
You may expect porcelain to be more expensive than ceramic, however, this is not always the case. Each type of tile can vary from one end of the price scale to the other. Look out for some fantastic deals on both types of tile in your nearest showroom.
Unless there is some anomaly in pricing, ceramic tile will always be cheaper than porcelain tile. But again, you need to consider other factors in your choice of tile, not solely pricing.