Ceramics and Porcelain – Back to Basics

by Tania Wannenburg
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It is obvious that innovation is at an all-time high. The advanced technology that is driving the development of industries and products is advancing at such a rapid rate that there seems to be a continuous cycle of introductions in most construction sectors, especially the flooring industry.

Specifically, the tile flooring industry is working hard to inspire architects, designers and specifiers with new floor collections that offer more textured surfaces, larger formats and combining of environment-friendly qualities and unique shapes.

The History of Ceramic and Porcelain Floors

To appreciate the great leaps and bounds that have been achieved in the tiling industry one needs to look at the history of ceramic and porcelain to fully grasp all the advances in the industry. Through the ages, man has been looking to create beautiful and durable living spaces. With this in mind, ceramic and porcelain tiles have been manufactured for more than 4 000 years.

Ceramic techniques and trade secrets were safely guarded and handed down from father to son and master to student orally. Because of this only a few completed treatises on the art of tile work are in existence today.

Modern technology, methods and machinery used to manufacture quality ceramic and porcelain tiles have revolutionised the tiling industry forever. Tiles are made from components that are readily available in nature. Conveyors, storage tanks, mixing tanks, presses and glaze applications all form part of the technologically advanced measures available to us today to manufacture the end product – something they didn’t have 4 000 years ago.

“After all these years, it still makes sense to invest in ceramic tiles,” comments Richard Nuss, Marketing Manager at Norcros SA.

“Ceramic tile flooring holds a number of benefits. It doesn’t need any sealing, it is virtually maintenance-free, it’s durable, it’s waterproof and it is easy to clean, giving it an important advantage where hygiene is paramount,” says Nuss before adding that a quality ceramic floor can last anywhere from 10 – 20 years, which is a considerable lifespan for a floor installation.

“Ceramics are a great choice, purely for durability reasons,” adds Mitch Whayman, Director at M Squared.

Characteristics of Ceramic and Porcelain Floors

Ceramic and porcelain tiles possess many properties, with some being better suited for specific installations than others. To know which application will fare best for an installation, a greater understanding of tile characteristics is necessary. Tiles are composed of non-metallic and inorganic materials that have been subjected to heat treatment.

As Ceramics of Italy explains in a guide about selecting ceramic tiles, every type of material (like ceramics, polymers, etc) has a unique structure and composition, and hence also unique technical properties (relevant to performance and behaviour). The broad classification most commonly used, from this perspective, divides materials into two groups: “Hard” materials Typical examples: ceramics, natural stones, conglomerates “Soft” materials Typical examples: carpeting, vinyl, rubber, cork, wood

The table indicates the performances we are mostly interested in, according to the different materials. Ceramic materials, as well as non-ceramic materials, are building components; that is, they are part of the structure of buildings, being connected to them. For this reason, the tile must respond to the aesthetic, functional and safety requirements of all the products used in building construction. The table below shows the most important aspects:

Ceramics table

Resistance to abrasion: This refers to the surface mechanical resistance.

Resistance to chemical attack: This is the resistance that the material has to chemical aggression from certain foods, detergents and various liquids.

Hygiene: The easy-cleaning ceramic tile is proverbial and well-known. This is why ceramic materials are often used in environments where hygiene is of paramount importance.

Resistance to light exposure: Some materials change colour or can pale or yellow following long exposure to sunlight or artificial light. Ceramic material, like all inorganic materials, is not altered by light.

Fire resistance: Ceramic materials have already been “burned” (thermally treated) during their industrial production. Therefore they are inert, they do not burn or release toxic gases and they do not transmit heat.

Decorative application: Ceramic tiles can be coloured and decorated in a thousand ways. Few other materials have such huge decorating potential.

Top Installation Methods for Ceramic and Porcelain Floors

When you speak to designers, flooring contractors and industry professionals of varying skill and experience, you will soon learn that installation methods is a heavily debated topic among professionals. While quality products are essential for aesthetic purposes as well as visual appeal, you need to know how to do the actual installation as well.

“The difference between the tile and the finished tile surface on the floor is the same as the difference between a piece of fabric and a garment. Suitable, good-quality fabric is required in order to make a garment, but it is not enough,” reads a booklet by Ceramic Tiles of Italy about buying, installing and maintaining ceramic tiles.

With time and advancing technology, installation methods evolve and change, but there are a few methods that seem to remain steadfast in their popularity. These include the thin-set and thick-set methods that are still widely used in the industry today.

The thin-set method of installation for ceramic and porcelain floors is a popular choice because of its simplicity. While it is slightly more difficult than vinyl tile, it remains an easier installation than vinyl sheets or wood.

The subfloor preparation, layout and installation share many things in common with vinyl, with the only major difference being the grouting. Over the years new materials and methods have been introduced in the tile installation industry, but tile setting remains the same labour-intensive and hand-operated process that it has been since ancient times.

Ceramic tile can also be installed using the thick-set method. With this method, a thick layer of mortar is applied to steel-reinforced or waterproofed substrate – the tile’s foundation. This provides for a strong and flat base onto which the tile can be installed. The thick-set installation remains effective, but it’s a labour-intensive process.

It is for this reason that the thin-set method has achieved greater momentum in the industry. Using thinner layers of mortar, tiles are adhered directly onto a backer board that is nailed to the substrate. The backer board provides a water-resistant and supportive layer between the porous substrate and the mortar and the ceramic applied on top of it.

When asked about the telltale signs of poor-quality tiles, Nuss said there are a few things that contractors, installers and specifiers can look out for. “From a manufacturing perspective, we need to make sure that the tiles have the right shading, so it’s important to pay close attention to the shades of the tiles that you’ve bought. Also on installation be on the lookout for chips or poor cuts as this could jeopardise the integrity of your flooring installation,” adds Nuss.

“If it’s done properly the floor will be level, the grouting joints will be even and the general appearance will be good,” comments Whayman.

According to Ceramics of Italy, one can say that a tiling project is successful when it meets the following criteria:

  • Regular and harmonious: i.e. It is flat, with no bumps or hollows; the grouting is straight and regular; no appreciable differences in level.
  • Whole: Without adhesion failures of the tiles and breakages.
  • Long-lasting: It will perform its aesthetic and functional tasks for a long period without deteriorating under the stress to which it is subjected.
  • Safe: i.e. Safe from falls through slipping.

Trends at Revestir in Brazil

Innovation and creativity were well represented at the recent 2013 EXPO REVESTIR. The Expo featured a major trend that was noticeable to everyone. Sustainability and the use of technology to decrease negative environmental impact seemed to be on the lips of everyone attending the expo.

Urban design and contemporary architectural trends also made a comeback this year. This was evident in Design Industry’s new multi-material collection that includes two different surfaces offered in a wide range of colours and sizes. Their Larix collection came as a result of intensive research on the features of the natural material that was reinterpreted on ceramics.

With the popular trend of large-format tile continuing to snowball in the industry, tile producers from all over the world are working hard to develop new products to meet the demand. Large-format tiles are definitely a 2013/2014 trend and technology continues to drive the innovation in the industry.

Incefra Group launched its Incefra Design featuring a luxurious collection of ceramic tiles enriched by textures, patterns and themes that evoke colours and symbols inspired by Brazil’s beauties and cultures.

The Incefra Design trend puts together a great variety of ceramic tiles including strips, baseboards, panels and mosaic tiles and sheets in large formats to be used on floors or walls. Its launch draws inspiration from Brazil’s flora, fauna and folklore.

Silestone, a leader in quartz surfaces, illustrated its high-definition printing innovation and technologies. This sparked excitement at the event’s final edition and promises to be a strong trend for the next few years and foreseeable future. Digital print technology now allows for the reproduction of a wide range of materials such as stone and ceramic. With great textures, tones and grains, the reproductions mimic various materials and continue to amaze the industry with their colour and image – all adding to their popularity.

Cerâmica Porto Ferreira displayed their flowered ceramic tiles in high-relief Vitral Azul and Vitral Bege – a display method where the modelled tiles project from the background by at least half their depth. These tiles are manufactured using a mono porous base, ensuring an easy layout and perfect final result. Vetrozza alta is an enamel applied to the tiles to produce the shiny finish and beautiful light effect.

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to the following for information obtained for the compilation of this article: Richard Nuss from Norcros SA www.norcrossa.com and Mitch Whayman from M Squared www.msquared.co.za

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