A Glossary of Tiling Terms

I always think it is useful to have a little bit of knowledge when making a major purchase. Then you won’t make a rush buy that you regret later or be swayed into making the wrong decision based on looks alone. This is true for the largest of purchases such as buying a new home but equally true of smaller, but still expensive, home renovations such as a new kitchen or bathroom. Even just buying tiles for any room in your house is one such major purchase. The last time I bought porcelain tiles for a new bathroom I spent several thousand pounds but 8 years on they still look great and, more importantly, are still doing the job for which they were intended.

You may not be willing to go so far as learning about the manufacturing process of ceramic or porcelain tiles but here at least is a glossary of the most common terms used in the ceramic tile trade so that you can have a basic understanding and also sound knowledgeable in the tile showroom. (With my thanks to the Association of Italian Ceramic Tile Manufacturers.)


Abrasion resistance

The degree to which a floor tile’s surface will withstand friction (the wear of foot traffic). Resistance is determined by abrasion tests, and tiles are grouped accordingly.



Any of the mortars or adhesives used to install ceramic tile. Choice of bonding material is determined by the selection of tile and requirements of area to be tiled.


Apparent joint

Decorative feature that simulates grout lines or joints on a single tile, so that a large tile, for example, may appear to be four smaller tiles.



Decorative technique in which design elements are sculpted or carved to be raised slightly from background.


Base tiles

Trim tiles with a curved edge used at a perpendicular junction for desired sanitary or aesthetic design.



Layer of mortar or other adhesive that covers the surface to be tiled and onto which the tiles are set.


Body (of tile)

The structural portion of a ceramic article, as distinct from the glaze, or the material or mixture from which the item is made.


Border tiles


Tiles of various shapes designed to meet the specific architectural or sanitary needs of a given installation.


Breaking strength

The ability of a material to resist breaking or rupture from a tension force.


Ceramic tiles

A flat, cladding or building material, of relative thinness, composed of clays and fired to hardness. The face may be glazed or unglazed.



Natural earthen material, plastic when wet, that is the basic raw material of ceramic tiles.



Contraction joint

Groove in concrete structure to regulate location of cracking resulting from dimensional change of different parts of structure.


Cove tiles

Trim tiles featuring one curved edge to tile inside corners.


Crackle glaze

Special glaze featuring fine-line ‘cracks’ for antique effect.


Crystalline finish

Extra thick glaze usually applied to small tiles for artistic effect, sometimes used on counter-top tiles for additional protection.



Process allowing new tile installation to set.



Transfer design used to decorate ceramic tiles.


Decorated tiles

Ceramic tiles that have been embellished by means of hand-painting, silk-screening, decals or other technique.


Dust-pressed tiles

Tiles formed by the dust pressed method in which the finely milled raw materials are shaped in molds at high pressure before firing.


Earthenware tiles

Tiles composed of raw materials producing a white tile body that can be coated with a transparent glaze and takes colour easily. Normally used for wall tiles.



Resin material used in mortars and grouts for thin-set

tile installations.


Expansion joint

Separation provided between adjoining parts of a structure to allow movement at stress points to prevent cracking.


Exterior tiles

Tiles suitable for outdoor applications because of their frost resistance.


Faience tiles

Highly decorated glazed earthenware tiles.



Textural or visual characteristics of a tile surface. For glazed tile this may be bright or high gloss, satin or matte. For glazed or unglazed tiles, examples would be a flashed finish, textured, polished, raised, embossed, dimpled, etched, scored, ribbed etc.


Fire resistance

Ability to withstand burning by flame. Ceramic tiles are fireproof at any temperature and will not feed a fire or release toxic emissions.



Final step of tile manufacturing process when raw material is “baked” at high temperature (up to 1250°C for porcelain tiles) to harden tile body and glaze, if any.


Floor tiles

Glazed or unglazed tiles of sufficient strength, impact and abrasion resistance to withstand the weight and wear of foot traffic.


Frostproof tiles

Tiles specifically designated by the manufacturer to withstand freeze/thaw conditions with minimal effect, hence suitable for exterior applications exposed to

high humidity and low temperatures.


Frost resistance

Ability of certain ceramic tiles to withstand freeze/thaw conditions with minimal effect. Frost-resistance of ceramic tile is dependent on the tile’s porosity and water absorption levels.


Glass mosaic

Mosaic tiles composed of glass, rather than ceramic, material; mosaic tiles coated with a layer of coloured or transparent glass.



Glassy coating fired on a ceramic tile.


Glazed tiles

Ceramic tiles with an opaque or transparent coating that has been fused to the tile body by firing, creating a smooth, impermeable surface that may also be highly decorated.



Installation material used to fill the joints between tiles.


Grout joint

Space left between tiles to be filled with grout. This space may be extremely narrow or wider depending on the required installation and/or its aesthetics.


High traffic tiles

Floor tiles with sufficient abrasion resistance to be used in areas of high foot traffic, such as hotel lobbies and airports.


Impact resistance

Ability of ceramic tile to resist breakage – either throughout the body or as surface chipping – as the result of a heavy blow. In general, ceramic tile is not a resilient material, and care should be taken to avoid dropping heavy or sharp objects on its surface. Glazed tiles are more susceptible to surface chipping than unglazed tiles.



Small, sometimes decorative tiles used in combination with larger or plain tiles to create patterns. Small square inserts are known as insets.



The process of bonding tiles to the intended surface; the finished tiled surface (also known as tile laying or tile fixing).


Installation bed

The components of a tile installation applied to the subsurface, including reinforcing or protective backing, bonding materials, tile and grout.


Interior tiles

Tiles suitable only for indoor installation.


Iridescent tiles

Tiles decorated with a lustrous glaze that contains many seemingly changing colours.


Majolica tiles

Tiles composed of raw materials that produce a yellow/pink body of relatively high water absorption level.


Matte glaze

Glaze that produces a non-shiny finish.



The setting material used to bond tiles to a given surface. Different types of mortar are suitable for different backing and conditions.


Mortar bed

The layer of the installation bed to which tiles are directly bonded.


Mosaic tiles

Ceramic mosaic tiles are defined by their size, generally less than 6” square.


Mounted tiles

Tiles assembled into units or sheets by the manufacturer for easier installation. Back and edge mounted tiles are bonded to material (mesh, paper, resin or other) that becomes a part of the installation. Face mounted tiles are bonded to a material that is removed prior to grouting.


Natural clay tiles

Tiles made from clays producing a dense body and having a distinctive, textured appearance.


Pencil tiles

Narrow rectangular tiles (e.g. 2x20cm) sometimes with rounded surface, used on walls as accent pieces.


Porcelain tiles

Dust-pressed ceramic tiles with water absorption levels <0.5% and high mechanical and chemical characteristics. The surface of these tiles may be glazed or unglazed.

Often specified for exterior installations. Also known as Fully Vitrified Stoneware.



Volume of pores relative to volume of tile body that are capable of absorbing moisture.


Quarry tiles

Traditional term for natural clay tiles with water absorption level not exceeding 6%


Rustic finish

Rough or uneven tile surface designed for an artistic effect.


Satin glaze

Glaze that produces a low-gloss finish.



Clear coating sometimes applied to unglazed tile floor to protect the surface from grease spills or to add lustre (also known as sealants).


Slip resistant tiles

Tiles treated to prevent slipping either by adding an abrasive grit to the glaze or texture to the surface.



Small plastic or wood pieces used during installation to maintain even joint width between tiles.



Traditional Italian raw material used to produce unglazed, red body tiles generally extruded and 1/2” thick of more. Surface may be rustic, smooth, polished, or waxed for lustre.


Unglazed tiles

Tiles which may be left untreated after firing. Unglazed tiles derive their colour and texture from their raw materials or may be coloured by means of oxides dispersed throughout the body.


Wall tiles

Generally glazed, non-vitreous tiles, for use on walls where mechanical strength and impact or abrasion resistance are not considerations.



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