The cost of every tile project is a combination of the cost of the tile and the cost of the labor to have it professionally installed. The purpose of the information here is to help you understand how the pattern, the size of the tile and the material of the tile can effect the labor portion of this equation.
Probably the easiest one to understand is how the pattern you choose will effect the cost of a tile installation. But, for the uninitiated, it can still be truly shocking to discover the time it really takes to do what appears to be simple. When we look at a beautiful and complex tile design, we see only the beauty in it. When a professional tile setter looks at it he sees all the extra work involved in all the additional planning, measuring, sorting and cutting. A grid or block pattern is the least expensive tile pattern to install, everything else adds higher costs, in direct proportion to the complexity of the design.
A less obvious factor contributing to costs is the size of the tiles selected. The standard size tile is now the 12-by-12 or the 13-by-13 (twelve inch or thirteen inch square tile). Switching to a 6 inch tile increases the amount of individual tiles to be handled, cut, set and grouted by a factor of 4 times!
Going even smaller will increase the labor cost even more. Glass tiles and mosaics in the two inch or even one inch size are on mesh or wet and release sheets, which means even on a floor almost every individual tile has to be nudged and twisted just a bit to keep everything looking good, on a wall the difficulties increase even more because of gravity wanting to pull all of these little tiles downward.
Based on this, it would seem logical then that going to a bigger tile would make things less expensive. However, unfortunately this isn’t so. Lippage or the issues of the edges of a tiles next to each other being higher or lower are dramatically increased in larger tiles, requiring more time in leveling of surfaces and leveling of each individual tile as it is installed. The margins for error get greatly reduced and it is not uncommon to have to reset an individual tile two or more times to get it right. Large tiles also require large saws, a 16×16 inch tile that requires a diagonal cut can’t be accomplished on most tile saws, special bridge saws become necessary. The issues are many and complex as tile increases or decreases in size, and the time it takes to complete a quality installation greatly increases with the differences of tile out side of the standard 12×12
And finally perhaps the most confusing, yet probably one of the biggest factors to effect tile installation costs, is the actual type of tile being installed.
Ceramic, made from clay and fired in a kiln, is the material that most people think of when it comes to tile. It’s the least expensive to install due to it is easy to cut, and the most forgiving of mistakes made by inexperienced tile installers. Since ceramic is very porous, it usually has a glazed finished surface. The porous nature of ceramic makes it very forgiving to install. Because ceramic absorbs moisture so readily, no special thinsets or chemical additives are usually required for installing it correctly. The ceramic will absorb and bond very well to the least expensive of setting materials making it very forgiving and faster to install.
Is a tile that is generally made by the dust pressed method from porcelain clays which result in a tile that is dense, impervious, fine grained and smooth, with a sharply formed face. Not only is the tile itself more expensive but there is an increase in the cost of setting it.
In order to qualify as being a porcelain tile the tile must be tested and found to not absorb more than .5% of it’s weight when immersed in water. This very property that makes porcelain so desirable also makes it more difficult to set properly. Normal thinsets do not bond to the body of porcelain tiles very well, the porcelain will not absorb the wet thinset as readily as ceramic does and without taking precautions in how you set it, how you apply your setting materials and what setting materials you use, you run the risk of a failed installation over time. Porcelain requires more expensive ‘modified’ thinsets, it also requires more careful installations, some tile setters will even go so far as to wet the back of each tile before applying it, or even to ‘back butter’ – apply thinset to the back of the tile instead of the floor and then setting the tile. This all adds up to more time being taken and an increase in labor costs to do it correctly.
Porcelain while harder than ceramic is also more delicate and brittle and susceptible to edge chipping with the normal handling you use with ceramic tile. More time is required to examine each individual tile before it is installed to verify it is perfect and without chips. Porcelain is also heavier than ceramic and harder on the workers over a long day and cutting down on productivity because of fatigue.
Porcelain is much harder than ceramic, it destroys tools, dulls blades and requires expensive specialty bits to drill.
Such as travertines, marbles and granites are even more labor intensive to install. These are now natural products, quarried from the earth, one issue that is a problem is the tendency of these products to vary in thickness and even in size. Much more care needs to be taken in setting them in order to avoid lippage issues, and keep grout joints uniform.
Natural stone does not offer bullnose edged tiles like ceramics and porcelain tiles. Every edge that will be exposed that will require finishing requires sending it out for finishing prior to installation or finishing it on the job site, using grinders and buffers. We are entering the realm of old world craftsman here. This becomes much more art than science and experience definitely counts.
Natural stone will absorb water and chemicals, so all natural products require an additional step of sealing them. Some require a pre-grout release to be applied so that the grout itself will not stain the stone!
Natural stones require double the strength in the floors they are set on. This is not because of weight but because of stones lack of tolerance for floor deflection. There are exact formulas of deflection used in tile setting, stone requires exactly 1/2 the deflection in the underlayment below it. This can require additional costs to strengthen the floor before stone can be applied.
Some stones will warp and some will bleed through the setting materials used on them. Special setting materials are often required and extra care is needed to guaranty long lasting installations.
Glass tile is the top of the pyramid when it comes to costs for installation. Glass is extremely unforgiving and extremely tedious to install. Once again glass tiles often come on wet and release sheets, meaning the front of the tiles are actually covered by a sheet of paper attached to them with a water soluble glue. You actually apply the tile by pressing it into the thinset and then wetting the paper with a wet sponge, (often causing the tiles themselves to move around and out of place), then you peel off the paper to discover how accurately you placed that block of tile and then to begin the tedious process of nudging around many of the individual glass tiles to get them to line up. Gravity also works against you during this process so your thinsets have to be mixed with little margin for error in open times
Because glass is often transparent the color of the glass tile is created by the thinset showing behind the tile, so special white thinsets are used and special tools are used to apply the thinset and make them flat.
Glass is not a porous substance. The very nature of it fights against anything adhering to it. The grout around the tiles often is as important as the thinset behind the tiles in keeping them in place. Glass tiles easily pop out and fall off walls during installation and great care must be taken with them to avoid this until they cure.