Ceramic Tile

By virtue of its sheer variety in color, shape and size, ceramic tile is undoubtedly the most versatile backsplash material. Even simple tricks— turning square tiles on point, varying and combining standard shapes, adding the occasional accent tile—can spice up your kitchen without emptying your wallet.

How the tile is set depends on where you live. In the West, installers often set tile in thinset adhesive over a "floated" mortar bed usually about 1/2 in. thick. This traditional construction technique is not recommended for novice tile setters. But when a pro does it right, it's virtually bombproof.

In the East, you might get a blank stare from your tile installer if you ask him if he intends to float a mortar bed for your backsplash. He'll likely use cement backerboard as a substrate—1/4- or 1/2-in.-thick sheets screwed to the wall. Either method is okay. Prices start at $2 per square foot for 4-in. machine-made tiles and can easily top $20 per square foot for handmade tile. Mesh-backed mosaic tiles in a 151- or 152-ft. sheet start at $5 or less per square foot; their glass counterparts are considerably more, starting at $25 per square foot. Mass-produced tile murals may cost as little as $45 for a six-tile pattern of, say, flowers or vegetables. But you can also spend thousands of dollars for hand-painted murals designed by an artist who creates original designs.

Labor rates for setting tile vary by region as well as by the complexity of the job. Robert Daniels, of the Tile Council of America, says labor rates average from about $2.50 per square foot to $8.50 per square foot. But prices are higher in some local markets. One tile contractor in the San Francisco area, for example, calculates labor at $9.50 per square foot for setting standard-grade tile (more for mosaics, stone tile and custom installations). In other parts of the country, like Florida, setting rates are less than $2 per square foot. But wherever you are, look for established tile contractors. One trade-group executive warns that tile work is too often backed by only a "taillight guarantee." That is, it's good only as long as you can see the installer's taillights. When he's gone, it's gone.

Most wall tiles require little maintenance (porous stone and clay tiles must be sealed periodically). However grout between tiles should be sealed so it won't stain or absorb water. Epoxy grout, says Chip O'Rear, assistant executive director of the National Tile Contractors Association, is water- and stainproof, but it is harder to install and may yellow over time. O'Rear says a strong solvent will remove the yellowing. Just remember, you have to use this type of solvent with caution and adequate ventilation.

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