What No One Tells You About All Those Beautiful Cement Tiles

updated Oct 4, 2023
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(Image credit: Chinasa Cooper)

If you’ve seen some drop-dead gorgeous patterned tiles on Pinterest lately, there’s a good chance they are made of cement. These matte-finish, often bold-patterned tiles are absolutely beautiful. Historically more common throughout Europe than here, they’ve recently gathered major steam on this side of the pond. After days and weeks of scouring the internet looking for the perfect tile for our bathroom renovation, and not finding anything that was just right, late one night I finally found The One in a photo of a dreamy bathroom.

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Through the magic of the internet I tracked down the tile and found it at an amazing — for cement tile, anyway — price of $10.95 a square foot. (Luckily it’s a small bathroom!) I slept the sleep of the righteous, thrilled with my decision.

Then I started telling tile installers my plans. And the response from each of them was the same: a concerned look on their faces, the one that says clear as day, “I need to tread carefully here and be sure this person doesn’t make a horrible mistake.” The sentiment was the same with each as well: They’d do it if I insisted, but I’d be hearing “I told you so,” down the road.

What’s the problem? This New York Times piece on the growing popularity of the tile explains:

Ceramic tile usually has a layer of glaze on top and is impervious after being fired at a high temperature in a kiln. Cement tile is cured at room temperature, not fired, and the colored layer on top, usually about an eighth of an inch thick, is porous.

(Image credit: Chinasa Cooper)

Does that necessarily make it bad? I grilled the tile pro who did beautiful things with subway and hex tiles in our third-floor Airbnb bathroom. James Taylor has been tiling for almost 20 years and there were no ifs, and, or buts when it came to his feelings about cement tile. “I don’t even know why it was ever made, to be honest with you,” he said.

It starts with installation, he said. “It’s really inconsistent in size and that makes installation take longer because you’re trying to make up for the size difference. It’s not symmetrical in any way, shape, or form.” When it comes to grouting, even with using sealing products to prevent issues, “Oh my goodness it’s a pain — it’s so porous, it sucks the pigment of the grout in and it’s hard to get it off,” he said.

He’d do it, of course, though, “I would try persuading you not to, but I would have to charge you a lot more.”

But it’s not just the added expense and time with a tricky installation.

“It stains if you so much as look at it,” another tile installer told me. He sealed a floor five times for a client and it still stained, immediately.

And sealing isn’t a one-and-done proposition. “I don’t think there’s anything a manufacturer can put on it sealer-wise that it keeps, and it’s just very high-maintenance,” James said. “You have to continuously seal it — you probably want to seal it once a month.” No matter how beautiful, nothing is worth adding that extra chore in my book.

But I still wanted to convince myself it would be okay, so I pressed on. “I understand why you wouldn’t want it in a kitchen, where you can spill tomato sauce and coffee and wine,” I said. “But it’s not like you’re cooking in the bathroom.”

Maybe not, but bathrooms are home to lots of messy grooming products, Taylor reminded me, and even puddled water will leave marks. And, he pointed out, “I can’t promise you every guy who comes into your house is going to hit the toilet.” Eww, okay. No cement tile for me.

When I got to my local tile shop to pick out something in person, I couldn’t resist one last look. In my research, I’d learned all about “patina” that develops over time. Patina doesn’t sound so bad, even though I know perfectly well from my zinc countertop that patina is sometimes just a nice way of saying it shows every little mark and scuff for years and years until it’s old and then and only then is it actually a desirable thing. I admired the cement tiles on display, and asked the consultant working with me about them. Even she didn’t want to sell them to me, or to anyone, for that matter.

(Image credit: Dana McMahan)

To be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference between the cement tiles and the porcelain ones on display right below them. But basically? It looked just like the digitally printed, mass-produced porcelain tiles for less than half the price.

So I faced up to the reality that not all Pinterest dreams can come true and bought a beautiful, low maintenance porcelain. Renovation is nothing if not a series of compromises.

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: What No One Tells You About All Those Beautiful Cement Tiles

Have you installed cement tile? Was it worth it? Does it stain? Tell us your experience!