Handmade Tile Backsplash: CHALLENGES

When your tile is really expensive…

…then it’s important to not screw it up! This post describes the handmade tile backsplash challenges that come with using this very finicky tile for any wall install. These other blogposts describe how to plan and how to install this kind of tile for great results. But if you’re wanting a deep dive into why handmade ceramic tile is hard to work with in the first place, then read on for details!

These particular clients chose some really fancy handmade fireclay tile that featured a somewhat translucent ceramic coating and a really cool cracked glaze effect. You can see at a glance that this particular tile had a lot going on:

Now THAT’S some fancy tile!

Sometimes you’ll be working with a less complicated tile that is completely monochromatic, impossible to scratch, and perfectly uniform. Tile is rarely all three of these things, however.

In addition to being fragile and easy to scratch, this particular handmade tile really highlighted the size, shape, and flatness variation issues that can complicate any layout plan.

Irregular SIZE

Some tile types like machine-made square ceramic tiles are nearly perfectly uniform, which is why these tiles can be installed with really tight 1/16-in or even nearly nonexistent 1/32-in grout joint widths. However, most types of tile have at least some size variation between individual tiles.

Handmade tile is irregular by design. In addition to variations in size, most handmade tile has slightly irregular edges that make it impossible to get a completely flush fit between individual tiles. This means you need to jigger the grout gap width a bit from tile to tile in order to maintain overall level grout lines. A really tight 1/16-in or smaller gap simply doesn’t give enough space to compensate for this.

Irregular SHAPE

Again, handmade tile is not perfectly uniform by design. So, individual tiles will not only be sized a little differently but also vary in shape. Although these particular tiles all had an overall 2×8-in size and rectangular shape, they were not perfect:

Handmade is irregular by design!

Each tile was a little irregular around the edges, and none of the tiles were perfect rectangles. This is true to some extent for any tile, but especially for handmade ones. You’re simply not going to get perfectly uniform grout line widths with handmade tiles, since lining up any one side to be perfectly level or perpendicular means that three other edges won’t be exactly level or straight. You need to leave some extra room between individual tiles to even out these irregularities.

Irregular FLATNESS

This is something that’s often an issue with even machine-made ceramic tile. They’re usually not completely flat, and rectangular tiles are usually bowed the most.

All ceramic tile is made by putting a thin porcelain glaze onto a much thicker earthen clay base. When the tile is fired in a kiln, the porcelain melts to form a continuous hard coating and the clay bakes together to make a solid substrate that’s brittle but strong:

Ceramic tile is basically pottery with a porcelain veneer!

The problem is, porcelain and pottery clay heat up and cool down at different rates. This creates a lot of stress at the porcelain/clay boundary as the tile cools. For example, if the porcelain cools and contracts faster than the clay, then the tile will bow upwards as the contracting porcelain pulls at the still hot clay layer underneath. If the clay cools more quickly, then the opposite happens and the tile bows downward.

Tile manufacturers compensate for this by trying to slowly cool their tile batches from the kiln at a very precise rate to balance these different thermodynamic qualities in the two materials. But no industrial-sized oven is perfectly uniform. As a result, any batch of rectangular ceramic tile will have some that are slightly concave and others that are slightly convex.

This is why large rectangular tiles installed in a subway pattern with tiny 1/16-in or smaller grout lines often have overhangs and “lippage” that looks really bad.

An example of “lippage”, and NOT my work!

Rectangular handmade tile is often quite a bit more bowed than machine-made ceramic tiles. Also, handmade tiles often just straight up vary in thickness. So again, you need to leave extra room between tiles to compensate for these irregularities. Every tile doesn’t have to be perfectly flush with every other tile so long as there’s enough space between each individual tile to hide the unevenness.

Bottom line? Be REALISTIC!

If your subway tiles have individual variations in size, shape, and flatness, then how can you possibly make then look uniform all stuck to a wall together? The secret is space. Wider grout lines give more space to vary the placement of each individual tile with respect to all the tiles around it. Wider grout lines also give more space to hide subtle shadows cast by minor lippage.

The wider the grout line, the easier the install. It’s as simple as that.

It also really helps to have realistic expectations for whatever material you’re working with. If you’re wanting to use funky cool handmade ceramic tiles for your backsplash, then you can’t also be expecting a perfectly uniform result. For example, a backsplash with perfectly straight and flush 1/16-in grout lines will have to be made from solid porcelain or glass tiles with almost perfectly uniform size, shape, and thickness. On the other hand, backsplash made from funkily varied handmade tiles is going to have some crafty handmade variation in the result.

And, PLAN Carefully!

The trick to making a handmade tile install look good is to make any unavoidable variations in grout thickness or tile flushness look purposeful, not accidental. You can’t just decide on some arbitrary pattern and layout, start slapping tiles on the wall, and expect a great result. Working with complicated tile requires careful planning. You have to unbox a bunch of the exact tile you’re going to use and play around with it a bit to figure out what will work for the result you want.

Experiment and plan BEFORE the install starts!

You can check out this post for deep details on how to plan an installation that will take all the handmade tile complications into consideration. Or, you can skip ahead to this post if you’re just wanting deets on the actual install tips and final result.