While builders have been installing ceramic tile for years, recently there’s been an explosion in design possibilities thanks to advancements in high-resolution inkjet printing. 

No matter the name—many companies have branded their own techniques—the overall effect of digital printing enables makers to scan any image and reproduce it on tile. Designs that look like wood, slate, marble, travertine, natural stone, and even fabric now can deliver the durability and reasonable price point of ceramic. Using more than 500 injectors to create nonrepeating production patterns for 180-foot spans of tile, the process allows for eight times more variation than the Roto-color machine developed in the 1990s, according to Lexington, Ky.–based Florida Tile.

Digital printing also has made way for more options with reactive inks and glazing processes. These new technologies allow for various levels and unique applications of polish, creating visual combinations that mimic concrete, veining, and metallics.

Improvements in tile manufacturing technology come at a time when designers are looking for solutions that deliver continuity in open floor plans and indoor/outdoor spaces. The updated textures also are more compatible with the modern palette, says Mark Larson, principal at Minneapolis-based Rehkamp Larson Architects. “There is a strong bias among designers that a material ought to look like what it is, but with porcelain now offering beautiful and fantastic textures, you can start to break some of those preconceptions. The challenge for designers has been how to express what the newer porcelains can do.”   

Ceramic tile offers variety, flexibility, and durability, Larson says. In 2013, ceramic was the most common flooring material installed in new homes in both kitchens (45 percent) and bathrooms (73 percent), according to the latest builder practices survey conducted by the Home Innovation Research Labs. In bathrooms, the past decade saw an increase of 40 percent in the use of the material, up from 52 percent in 2004. 

Kiln-fired ceramic tiles produce no volatile organic compounds, stand up to a lifetime of use, and are inhospitable to dust, mites, and germs. Porcelain, an impervious ceramic tile with a water absorption rate of 0.5 percent or less, may sway consumers with its grandeur of luxury along with its higher price point, but builders need to consider only two factors when choosing a tile: whether they like the look and whether it’s rated for their intended use. 

It’s important to understand the differences in ratings when selecting ceramic tile for a job. For light commercial use or for installations in areas that might freeze, tile should be rated ANSI impervious. In the U.S., this is the same distinction that allows a ceramic tile to be marketed as porcelain. Ceramic tiles rated slightly lower, as ANSI vitreous, are suitable for any indoor application including shower walls and floors. ANSI vitreous requires a water absorption rate from 0.5 percent to 3 percent.

In bathrooms and other areas prone to wetness, slip resistance ratings matter. Universal Design educator and long-time kitchen and bath designer Mary Jo Peterson of Brookfield, CT-based Mary Jo Peterson Inc., warns builders that large format tiles do not behave like small, mortared tiles in terms of slip resistance. 

Sandra Malm is an associate editor for BUILDER.