If porcelain is a mystery to you, it might not surprise you to learn it was a mystery to everyone outside China until the 17th century.
After centuries of being imported from the East, a German alchemist by the name of Bottger revealed its secret composition. In fact, Europeans had to buy porcelain from China up until then, having no idea how to manufacture it themselves. They were used to ceramics and earthenware that had been around for thousands of years, but porcelain was a relative newcomer.
Porcelain is a class of ceramics (which also includes earthenware and and pottery) and that's where the similarity between porcelain vs ceramic tile ends. For Europeans, who ate off of earthenware and even wood, porcelain was considered a magical material that was impervious to liquids, much harder than ceramic, and it did not stain. This made it ideal for dinnerware and porcelain tea sets, but it also found a niche in architectural design.
To discover the secrets of porcelain tile vs ceramic tile, and when to use each in your home or business, take a look at this quick guide.
#1 The Density Determines Where to Use Porcelain vs Ceramic Tile
Both ceramic and porcelain are created by a mixture of clay, minerals, and water, but porcelain ends up being much denser than ceramic due to the fact that it starts out with a finer, more refined, clay and is fired at extremely high temperatures.
The Chinese made porcelain with Kaolin clay, which was only available in China. When the Europeans took over the recipe, they experimented with other types of fine clay and even finely ground sand and glass particles and eventually ended up with a similar product.
It's the difference between the very fine clay versus the common clay that makes for a porcelain tile being far less porous than ceramic tile - almost glass-like. This makes it ideal for use indoors and out, unlike glazed ceramic tile which needs to be protected from watery elements and staining. Colors tend to weather unevenly with glazed ceramic tiles.
However, you can still use unglazed ceramic tile outdoors, if you prefer a rougher, less glass-like, appearance. Here is an example
of a bathroom done in porcelain tile.
#2 The Hardness Determines the Lifetime
Not only is the material for porcelain much denser, but it is also harder due to the fact that it is fired at much higher temperatures than ceramic tile. This hardness is what contributes to its longevity.
In addition, the color of a porcelain tile goes straight through it, and isn't just on the surface like glazed ceramic tiles, that makes them "wear-proof." Porcelain tiles work well in high traffic areas without ever losing their color or design, and even if they chip the color goes straight through so the chip is not as noticeable. Porcelain may be more brittle than ceramic tile, but when laid on a floor or wall, they can be said to last a lifetime.
However, ceramics offer a softer appearance that does well with certain types of décor, like the mural surround in this Tuscan kitchen.
Cucina Procne Fruit Mosaic Mural - View Details / Get Quote »
#3 Installation Can Difficult With Porcelain
Cutting porcelain and laying it is more difficult precisely because it is such a hard, brittle, material. Precise cuts can be difficult to fit into unusual-shaped spaces. The cost of installing porcelain also takes into account the fact that it is more difficult to do properly, and so tends to range anywhere from 25% to 50% more than the cost of laying ceramic tile.
However, with modern tools, like waterjet technologies, cutting interesting shapes out of porcelain tile is not as difficult as in the past, even if it still means you will have to pay more for it. Take a look how this Tapeti Catalina Mosaic
was installed with the finest of curves and swirls using waterjet technology.
Tapeti Catalina Mosaic Medallion - View Details / Get Quote »
#4 Water Absorption
In actuality, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has a very strict definition for what is porcelain tile vs ceramic tile and it all has to do with the water absorption capabilities of each material. To be considered porcelain, a ceramic has to have a water absorption rate of .5% or lower as tested against the C373 standards set up by the ASTM. It's the imperviousness to water that makes a ceramic porcelain, but only if it is highly impervious to water. That's why people like them in bathrooms with hexagon tile designs, similar to this design made with marble.
There are ceramic tiles that are somewhat impervious, particularly when glazed, but they don't meet the standard and so are labeled ceramics, instead of porcelain tiles. They also stain more easily due to their ability to absorb liquids. In addition, a freeze/thaw cycle can produce cracking in ceramics. That's why they are not recommended for outside usage, and in fact, even though porcelain can be used outside, many masons prefer stone tiles instead, like in this pool border.
Custom Reef Mosaic - View Details / Get Quote »
It can still have the look of ceramic, but it is far better for areas where water exposure needs to be taken into account.
If you've ever picked up a fine porcelain teacup and put it up to the light, you probably have noticed how porcelain has a translucent quality to it that lets in the light. This quality is also seen in porcelain tiles and makes for designs that almost seem like marble, in comparison to unglazed ceramic tile which have a flat, matte, appearance.
Compare this design in porcelain
with an actual marble bathroom
that offers the same sort of "living rock” appearance.
Carrara Basketweave Mosaic - View Details / Get Quote »
Durability, Longevity, and Imperviousness to Water
Porcelain tile is considered a high grade of fine ceramic tile that has more durability, a higher longevity, and a far more impervious nature to moisture. Porcelain can be used outside along with stone tiles.
Ceramics are less expensive, and work well as decorative features on walls and backsplashes and even floors, as long as they are not outside and subject to temperature variations and staining.
I hope this article helps explain some of the differences between these two types of tile and how to use them.