Geologically speaking, the number of different types of stone in the world is practically infinite – different minerals under different conditions form a huge variety of colors, textures, and patterns, often even within a single piece of stone. But for the purpose of home decor – or, more specifically, for stone tile flooring – for practicality’s sake the selection is limited to a few broad categories of stone tile. Each type of stone generally has its own characteristic appearance and physical qualities. If you aren’t sure where to start, this simple guide goes beyond the basics of stone tile to help you tell the different types of stone tile apart.
One of the most popular types of stone tile, marble has been used in interiors, exteriors, architecture, and statuary for thousands of years. Marble is a metamorphic rock (a rock transformed by heat and pressure inside the earth’s crust) derived from limestone or dolomite. The best known colors are white or off white (commercially referred to as Calacatta, Carrara, Bianco, Danby, Arabesco, or Crema Marfil, among others). Marble can also be found in a wide variety of other colors, including black, red, yellow, pink, orange, and brown, and is characterized by visible, often colorful veining. Because marble is largely formed by calcite, it’s a notably soft stone that’s both easily polished and easily scratched, and is very reactive to acids. Because of this, marble requires special sealing and care to maintain its appearance, but can be polished to a high gloss.
Travertine is a partially metamorphosed version of limestone that’s similar to marble in density, but with a more porous, irregular surface, often in a cream or beige color. This type of stone is quite popular in bathrooms, as it’s somewhat less expensive than marble, and can be honed or tumbled to have a more rustic finish that provides more traction and a better slip rating. For a look more similar to marble, the porous surface of travertine can be filled and polished, but it is more often used to create a rustic, spa-like ambiance.
Slate, too, is a metamorphic rock, but in this case it’s composed of clay, quartz, and shale. Unlike many other stones, slate forms in layers and is easily split along one direction, which means that slate is often cleft rather than cut, creating a wavy, uneven surface for a beautiful natural texture and pattern. Because it contains clay, slate is more water resistant than many other stones, making it an excellent choice for a bathroom. Slate stone tiles range from solid very dark grey to mixtures of greens and rusty reddish browns.
Limestone is a sedimentary rock and the predecessor of many of the stones on this list. Originally formed from sediment on the ocean floor, limestone consists primarily of calcium carbonate, and often contains visible fossils. Limestone is a coarser rock than either travertine or marble, but is soft, easily scratched, and reactive to acids, which again means that it may require more attentive care. That said, limestone is prized for its natural, earthy colors, and some homeowners appreciate the natural patina formed as the stone wears down with use over time.
Rivaling marble in popularity, granite has become something of a go-to stone in home design in recent years, especially for counter tops and floor tile. Unlike the other stones on this list, granite is a specific type of igneous rock called a plutonic rock which forms from cooling magma trapped in the core of the earth. This unique circumstance means that granite is formed from a wide variety of minerals that crystallize as the magma cools, creating a characteristic speckled look. Because granites form in unique conditions, each one is slightly different, and are available in a wide variety of colors, from light stone with dark speckles to pied pinks, greens, blacks, and greys, sometimes with flecks of reflective materials that sparkle in the light. Granite is considered highly desirable because it’s extremely hard (second only to diamonds) and non-reactive, making it easier to care for. It’s also commercially available in hundreds of different varieties, making it easy to get a custom look for your stone tile flooring.
The final look and feel of any type of stone tile depends on a multitude of factors, from whether the stone is cut parallel or perpendicularly to the finishing process used. The way a stone is finished will, in turn, determine the feel of the stone, how much detail is shown, and to a certain extent what maintenance needs to be done. For a quick overview, here are a few different finishing options.
- Polished – The majority of stone tiles are polished – meaning that they’re run through a series of finer and finer abrasives, leveling imperfections in the stone, smoothing the surface, and buffing it to a glossy finish. This shows the greatest level of detail in the features of the stone. (Best for marble, granite, and limestone)
- Honed – Honed stone tile is processed the same way as polished stone, but without the final polish, meaning it doesn’t have the glossy shine, but still shows a high level of color and detail while making it harder to see any scratches. (Works with: marble, limestone, travertine, and slate)
- Sandblasted – Sandblasted tile roughens the surface slightly, dulling the color and pattern (though not to the extent of bush-hammering). This technique is often used to create lettering or patterning on the tile (as with frosted glass).
- Bush-Hammered – Bush-hammered stone tile is tile that has been indented with a bush hammer, creating a distinct texture and a good non-slip surface. However, this type of finishing obscures the natural color and pattern and makes the tile somewhat more difficult to clean.
- Flamed – Flaming and water finishing are usually only applied to granites, and involves applying high heat or high pressure water to shatter the internal crystals and create a slightly abrasive textured surface (ideal for areas where slippage is a concern). This process can also oxidize iron in the stone, bringing out the red colors, or wash away softer minerals to highlight certain patterns in the stone.
- Acid-Washed – Similarly, acid-washed tile is treated with acid to create an etched, pitted surface with a more rustic texture that helps hide scratches. This is most often used on marble or limestone, which react strongly to the acid.
- Saw-Cut – A more rare finish, saw cut stone is simply that: stone that has been cut and finished only enough to remove obvious saw markings, but is otherwise an unrefined matte finish.
- Split-Faced – Split faced tile is hand cut or chiseled, leaving a rough and uneven (but non-abraisive) finish – typically used on stones that can be easily split, like slate.
- Tumbled – Tumbled stone tile is passed through a machine to, essentially, rough up the surface, rounding the edges of the tile and creating a dimpled or pitted surface for a more rustic look. Typically used with marble, limestone, or travertine.
- Brushed – Stone that is intentionally brushed and worn down to create the aged patina of wear.
Between the type of stone tile you choose, the color, and the finish, the selection of stone tile is nearly infinite, but knowing where to start looking is a good way to make sure you wind up with a tile you’ll be happy with for years to come. Which type of stone tile do you like the best? What room are you considering tiling?