What Is The Difference Between Natural Stone & Porcelain Tiles?
Natural stone and porcelain tiles are popular materials that have been used across kitchens, ground floors, bathrooms and outdoors for many years. Both offer various benefits and qualities, as well as beauty and charm. Many customers ask what is the difference between natural stone and porcelain tiles, so we felt a simple, but comprehensive guide, explaining some key differences would be helpful when it comes to choosing your stone floor tiles.
Starting with the basics, as the name would suggest, natural stone is a naturally occurring material that is quarried from the earth. Natural stone tiles are often, but not limited to, limestone, sandstone or marble tiles. Limestone and sandstone are sedimentary rocks, that can be formed over millions of years, whereas marble is a metamorphic rock, formed by the alteration of limestone by heat and pressure (thermal metamorphism) – with all processes creating naturally dense materials. Porcelain tiles are a man-made product that combines kaolin clay, finely ground sand and feldspar. The clay mixture is fired to an extremely high temperature, upwards of 1200 degrees, resulting in a very dense tile.
Aesthetics is something that is very subjective and often in the eyes of the beholder. However, it is important to understand the differences between natural stone and porcelain when it comes to the appearance of the floor tile to help you decide which might be right for you.
The beauty of natural stone is that no two tiles are ever the same, meaning a stone floor will be entirely unique. With this in mind, most natural stones have some degree of tonal variation and it is common for calcite veining, fossils, fissures, vents and crystallisation to be present in limestone and marble tiles. These features and characteristics within natural stone are often what provide the charm of stone tiles and why many love the look of real stone. There is also the option of different finishes applied to a stone, whether it be to create texture, tumbled and worn edges, straight edges, a sheened surface, matt tile or even a high polished surface. These finishes will each alter the tone of a stone slightly, providing even more possibilities of this natural product. External natural stone paving will appear darker in tone when wet.
Porcelain is a manufactured product made to mimic the look of stone, as well as wood. Some porcelains have higher variations to replicate a particularly tonal stone, whereas other porcelains may be plainer in appearance and more uniform colour. All stone effect porcelains have some level of pattern or print repeats – this could be anywhere from every 20 tiles to every 100 tiles, dependant on the product. We list the pattern repeat on every porcelain product page. Although porcelain is a man-made product, the developments in machinery and print quality means there are a number of very convincing porcelains on the market, even imitating fossils, veining and the tumbled edges of a real stone floor. The majority of porcelain tiles come in a matt natural finish, whilst textured finishes and gloss finishes are also commonly available for some porcelains. External porcelain paving tends to stay a similar colour when wet.
Tile Sizes & Formats
When it comes to tile sizes and formats, this can vary from product to product, but generally speaking, natural stone is often in a ‘Free Length’ (FL) or ‘Random Length’ tile size. Free lengths have a fixed width (normally 400mm, 500mm or 600mm) and varying lengths ranging anywhere from 500mm up to a maximum of 1000mm. This is a very versatile flagstone format that is laid as a random brick bond for staggered joints and a natural feel. The Dijon tumbled limestone flooring is also available in fixed rectangular tiles, square tiles and opus patterns, as well as Free Length (FL). Most natural stones can be produced with bespoke pieces, e.g. bullnosed steps, pool copings and skirting.
Porcelain tiles can be diverse in size and format, however unlike natural stone, porcelain isn’t available in the FL format but only fixed sizing. The most common tile size for porcelain flooring is a large format 900x600 tile. This can be laid as a staggered brick bond or a straight stacked bond, depending on the desired look. Smaller formats such as square, metro, brick or hexagon are also on the market, particularly popular for bathroom tiles. Metro tiles can be laid as staggered, stacked or in the popular herringbone laying pattern. Another larger format option is 1200x600 tiles which create big impact and minimal grout joints. The Hambleton Ivory porcelain flooring is also available in an opus pattern, alongside the rectangular 600x400 and 900x600 tiles. Most porcelain ranges do offer steps, coping or skirting on special order, but are manufactured in set sizes only. Read our FAQs for more on tile sizes and formats.
Installation & Maintenance
Whilst this may seem the least interesting part, knowing the difference between natural stone and porcelain regarding installation and maintenance is good knowledge to have - ensuring you have a floor that will look its best for years to come. First and foremost, both natural stone and porcelain tiles work very well with underfloor heating, following correct installation methods. Upon installation natural stone requires sealing and will likely need resealing every 4-6 years. As natural stone is porous, this sealant acts as a protective layer against water, oil and grease. Most porcelains do not need sealing and have a very low water absorption rate, with a porosity of under 0.5%. It is essential to use levelling wedges when installing large format porcelain tiles for best results as during the firing process, it is common for a slight bowing to occur. Read our full installation advice here.
Both natural stone and porcelain are very forgiving and easy to maintain, however, it is worth noting that natural stone requires a little extra care. It is important to only use stone friendly or pH neutral cleaners for natural stone as anything acidic can damage the surface, we recommend Lithofin Wash & Clean. Natural stone can be subject to staining, so it is worth spot cleaning as and when spillages occur. Read our full guide on cleaning and maintaining natural stone tiles. Porcelain is near enough stain resistant and the majority of cleaners are suitable to use, however we would still recommend a cleaner designed for porcelain such as Lithofin Conditioning Cleaner. Read our full guide on cleaning and maintaining porcelain tiles.
In terms of longevity, both materials offer a durable and practical surface, natural stone can be subject to surface scratches over time and exterior natural stone paving can lighten in colour overtime – many customers find neither of these factors are of concern and actually add to the authentic feel of the tiles. If you are wanting something more consistent and unchanging through the years, then porcelain is scratch resistant and is also UV stable so it will not lighten when used outdoors.
We hope this guide helps you in finding the right stone or porcelain floor tile that suits your needs and wants. As ever, we recommend a visit to one of our UK tile showrooms to see the beauty of natural stone and porcelain in person. If you’re unable to visit a showroom, you can order up to 4 free hand samples, or 8 hand samples for £5, as well as larger samples for a small charge – all delivered to your door. Our friendly and knowledgeable team are also available over the phone, live chat and email for further advice or to answer any questions you might have.