Some Really, REALLY Big Tile—Ceramic Slab

Bring together tiles and countertops – not backsplashes, but kitchen work areas and vanity surfaces – and it’s often a case of love before the install and remorse long before the next remodel.

I know some people make it work, but it’s a rare job among the many that doesn’t go south quickly. Whether it’s the tile size (often 12” x 12” or smaller), or the eternally dirty grout, or the groutless installations that develop some nasty lippage over time … tile often ends up as a disappointment, whether it’s ceramic or natural stone.

The obvious choice is going with some kind of slab or continuous-flow material, with the choice of the usual suspects of natural stone, quartz surface, cast resin, concrete ….

There’s a choice, however, that brings you back to everything you might like about tile: Ceramic slab.

Haven’t heard of it? It’s been around for years but, for a variety of reasons, it’s not a surprise that few know about it. The challenge is in finding the material – but that may change soon.

When dealing with ceramics, the term large-format usually involve materials that stop with 24” x 24” squares. For standard tile, the weight and cumbersome handling make the larger pieces tough for individual tile-setters to handle.

Ceramic slab (or, in some cases, porcelain slab) aren’t meant for one-person installation. However, at sizes of 115” x 45” at minimum – and others rivaling the usual sizes of granite slabs – these big boys of ceramics fit a variety of countertop applications.

A few words of explanation before going farther: Stone terms are often intermingled with a variety of products in the tile world, and using “slab” here may alleviate some of the confusion. Tile manufacturers sometimes like to define ceramic products in stone-like terms (and even use the names of some stone varieties for non-stone products). Some in the stone and tile trades also affix the name of porcelain stone to a hybrid product that sandwiches a porcelain-tile back with a ultrathin natural-stone top.

Ceramic slab, however, isn’t stone. In previous years, the product came as a 3cm-thick piece of porcelain that matched and accentuated popular tile hues. As part of a trade-show booth, the slabs looked marvelous in mocked-up bathrooms and kitchens.

Actually finding the material, however, became a difficult – if not impossible – task. A 3cm slab of solid porcelain made for a hefty shipping bill from Italy, where most of the material was sourced. Much of it also came through the traditional tile market, where slabs didn’t fit well with the normal distribution of smaller-format goods.

The product also tried to break into the U.S. market in the mid-2000s, as hundreds of thousands of tons of granite rolled in and dropped the price of stone. Ceramic slab couldn’t gain any kind of foothold and all but disappeared.

In the past year, however, ceramic slab began popping up again on the U.S. market, with at least one Spanish manufacturer offering a peek at its products at the 2011 Coverings in Las Vegas. Other manufacturers will be on the hunt at this year’s Coverings in Orlando to literally get some purchase in North America.

This time, it’s a new set of industry players with ceramic slabs, and all of them think they’ve found the answer to past problems: They’ve put their slabs on a diet.

The processes for trimming weight range from high-tech lamination to a sophisticated press to variations on vibrocompression (the same base process for most quartz surfaces), but the result are large panels in thicknesses up to 5cm with a weight of less than 3 lbs per square foot. The impact resistance is equivalent to standard ceramic tile or stone, with strong stain- and scratch-resistance.

Manufacturers are sticking to light earth tones, whites and grays/blacks for most color offerings, although lines occasionally feature brighter colors or some simple stone veining patterns. Finishes vary, with most coming polished or honed (with the occasional bush-hammered look).

Fabrication and installation is basic Tile Handling 101, using blades and other tooling for ceramics and laying thin-set with resin-based mortars. The big difference is in size, since this isn’t laying 18” x 18” in the hallways.

Nor is the new ceramic slab aimed exclusively at the residential market. The lightweight material, with an emphasis on strength and resistance to stains, UV light waves and other elements, are being touted for exterior cladding jobs. There’s a lot more money in covering a mall entrance or a skyscraper than a kitchen, and that also may determine U.S. distribution channels.

For now, it’s a process of searching and calling – sometimes to Italy-based emails and cell numbers to reach U.S. representatives – but ceramic slab is available, and it’s going to try again to get a grip on the market. Today, it’s mainly on the coasts, but that should change to make it an interesting option in alternative surfaces.