What is porcelain?

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Porcelain vs. ceramic tile: Is this a war between two vastly different types of materials or simply a war of words? The terms porcelain and ceramic are often used interchangeably as if they were the same thing. Tile shop salespeople often claim a world of difference between the two in order to justify porcelain’s cachet and its higher prices. Is there a difference between porcelain and ceramic tile?

Porcelain and Ceramic Tile Basics

As it turns out, ceramic and porcelain are composed differently and do behave accordingly upon installation, but with only slight differences. The chief difference is that porcelain tile is more impervious than ceramic tile and is thus subject to less water infiltration.

According to the industry group that decides whether a tile is porcelain or ceramic, everything boils down to whether the tile can meet a set of highly controlled water absorption criteria. Another standards group, this one independent of the tile industry, even pushes the definition further by stating that porcelain is dense, impervious, fine-grained, and smooth, in addition to the same water absorption criteria.

Porcelain and Ceramic: Both From the Family of Ceramic

Porcelain and ceramic tile are both are part of the larger category of tiles that can generally be called ceramic. For modern tile specifications, it is more a case of reverse-naming, whereby manufacturers take tiles that have certain qualities and then assign the ceramic or porcelain titles to them.

Add a healthy dose of marketing and branding, as the tile industry is prone to touting porcelain’s storied history. The word porcelain’s Italian etymology is porcellana, or cowrie shell. Fine porcelain-ware is white, translucent, strong, and it has a fine, dense body. Marketing materials often mention how fine china, which can be both rare and very expensive, is made of porcelain.

But little of that applies to the porcelain tile of today. This is a different ball game, a game of branding and certifying, and has few connections with fine china. Certification is more than just protecting manufacturers’ interests and limiting liability. It is a shortcut that consumers can use to quickly identify which types of tiles they are getting. And certainly, porcelain tile and ceramic tile can be considered close cousins when discussing other, wildly different types of tile such as quarry tile, glass tile, or natural stone.

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