A recent visitor to Porcelanosa’s Rockville showroom had real marble flooring in mind—until she got a glimpse of the marbleized porcelain tiles nearby. They ultimately became her first choice—not only because they looked like the real thing, but for other reasons as well. “Clients prefer the porcelain Carrara marble because you can control the look,” explains Porcelanosa’s regional vice president, David Carmona. “The veins aren’t random the way they are in real Carrara.”
And that’s only a part of the allure of porcelain tile. While a slab of Carrara or Calcutta Gold marble costs $20 per square foot, the same look in porcelain runs about half that—yet unlike real marble, it requires absolutely no maintenance against scratching or staining and doesn’t need to be polished or sealed.
Porcelain that looks like marble is only the beginning. Other look-alikes abound, including natural stone surfaces like slate, travertine and onyx, as well as leather, fabric and wood—all in the same lower price range and all maintenance-free. In fact, wood-like porcelain is now among the most popular porcelain surfaces available. “Interest in wood-like porcelain products really started up in early 2010,” says David Benson, store manager and co-owner of Architectural Ceramics, which has five area showrooms. It took a little while for the trend to get off the ground, but “now it’s a huge seller.”
Wood look-alikes are available in a wide assortment of finishes and “species.” Porcelain tiles now duplicate oak, maple, cherry, walnut, wenge, driftwood (Architectural Ceramics’ most popular PorcelainWood tile) and more, and come in both rustic and contemporary styles. “The manufacturing process actually puts indentations in the tiles so the texture even feels like wood,” Benson says, adding that the tiles come in planks, usually six by 24 inches (though Porcelanosa offers one in an eight-by- 47-inch plank) to give them the look of wood when the floor’s been laid; by contrast, porcelain tiles duplicating natural stone usually come in 12-by-24-inch rectangles.
According to Carmona, the large-format tiles contribute to a more minimalist look, as does a trend he’s noted towards solid hues such as gray, white and black. The marbleized colors create the exotic stone looks that mimic onyx and Carrara. “It’s inkjet technology that makes it all possible,” explains Carmona. “A computerized program prints the pattern you wish to achieve. It creates a stone look you could never achieve before.” For instance, he says, “The porcelain tile that looks like slate is identical to that stone in texture and look.”
While this new technology allows control over the marble-izing process, it also perfects the marble-like look of the porcelain, which, according to Benson, “was the hardest [surface] to imitate because of its inherently random veining. We now have a glazing method that doesn’t repeat the same pattern for 100 tiles, so the tile pattern is unlikely to reappear [on a single project].”
Aside from wood and stone, a wide variety of other porcelain look-alikes have joined the mix. Porcelanosa carries a product called Ston-Ker Ecologique that not only approximates the clean, contemporary look of concrete but is made with 90 percent recycled content—an increasingly popular alternative. Leather and fabric look-alikes, which have been available longer than wood and marble, are created by imprinting cross-hatching onto the surface of the tile during the manufacturing process, then glazing it. In all cases, the cost of porcelain remains about half the cost of the real material, be it stone, leather or wood. Porcelain products are not only appropriate for flooring and wall applications; they also enhance accents, backsplashes and more.