Natural stone offers almost as many possibilities in color and texture as tile. With the ascendancy of polished granite as a counter choice—one suburban Connecticut kitchen showroom estimates that 60 percent of the new counters it handles are granite— tumbled marble in 4-in. squares is becoming the backsplash du jour. It has a worn, pitted surface, and its colors have been softened and muted by abrasion or an acid wash.

Stone tile is set much like ceramic tile: on a mortar bed or cement backerboard with thinset adhesive, or over drywall with mastic. But, says O'Rear, setting highly reflective stone tile is less forgiving than ceramic tile because uneven surfaces are glaringly obvious. Some stone is uneven in thickness, which means it should be set in mortar instead of thinset. A medium mortar bed of up to 3/4-in. thickness can be applied without causing shrink cracks or damaging tile as it cures. For dense, nonporous stone, O'Rear says, the installer should use a high-quality polymer-modified thinset to improve adhesion.

Four-inch tumbled-marble tile starts at $10 per square foot, but prices can climb to $5 or $6 for each 4-in. stone tile. Dark colors are more expensive than lighter colors. Granite tiles begin at around $11 per square foot.

Grout is all but impossible to remove from untreated porous stone. So seal or make sure the installer seals stone like limestone or marble before installation for easier cleanup. O'Rear says water-based sealers, or grout releases, are generally a better bet in the kitchen than solvent-based sealers.

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