At the beginning of this year, professionals in the tile industry were searching for a suitable name for the new type of ultra-thin, large-format porcelain tile. Now widely known as “Thin Porcelain Tile” (TPT), this distinctive product has been steadily rising in popularity — mainly because of its unique format and mechanical properties.
The material, which has been referred to as “thin tile,” “thin tile panels,” “thin porcelain tile,” among many other things, before finally being coined TPT, is characterized by its minimal thickness of anywhere between 3 to 6 mm and larger dimensions of up to 5 x 10 feet in length and width.
Discussions about what to name TPT only scratched the surface, as there are no current industry standards for the manufacturing or installation of the tile. “Standards for this product category are still being developed,” said Noah Chitty, technical director for Crossville, a manufacturer of porcelain tile. “The Tile Council of North America (TCNA), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) do not yet have a product standard for manufacturing by which the quality of materials will be evaluated. In the meanwhile, professional organizations are coming together to offer stated guidelines for best practices.”While there are no standards that are set in stone, Daniel Sanchez, sales director of TheSize, a tile and stone manufacturer based in Castellón, Spain, said there are certain recommendations regarding the variety of thicknesses TPT is available in. “Current standards dictate a 6 mm thickness for facades, cladding and flooring applications; 3 mm thickness for furniture application; and 12 mm thickness for countertops,” he said. “Whereas many thin, compact surfaces are easily broken and damaged during fabrication, Neolith is the first brand to offer a 12 mm thickness, which holds less residual strength, making it far less likely to crack or splinter while being cut. This resilience means that professionals do not need to look for thicker materials to meet their design needs — the 12 mm thickness can be easily fabricated to any desired thickness.”
Neolith is TheSize’s most prized product. When the company was formed about five years ago, it spent the first two years of its existence working on perfecting the material, which is now the largest sintered compact surface in the market, with different thicknesses and excellent mechanical properties. “Made from all-natural materials, including clays, feldspar, silica and mineral oxides, Neolith is a pioneer of sinterization: the high-pressure, high-temperature kilning process that forms the product,” said Sanchez. “This process creates one of the most resilient surfaces on the market, unfazed by sharp objects, extreme heat or cold, moisture and harsh chemicals. Its all-natural colors do not fade or change when exposed to UV rays. It’s also lightweight and easy to install, making Neolith suitable for virtually every indoor and outdoor home surface.”
Although not technically TPT, Neolith’s format and properties are very similar to those of TPT. “Neolith is not a ceramic or porcelain, but is a new type of surface,” explained Sanchez. “The brand is the outcome of the latest research and development processes in the industry and is incredibly durable.”
Neolith comes in several thicknesses — including 3 (1/8-inch), 6 (3/16-inch) and 12 mm (½-inch) — and the 3 and 5 mm thicknesses can be stacked to create custom thickness, as desired. “Slabs come in multiple size formats as well,” said Sanchez. “The 3.20 x 1.5 meter (125 x 59 inches) and 3.6 x 1.2 meter (144 x 48 inches) are considered full-size and are excellent for areas where tile is desired, but seams are not. Standard tile sizes of 1.2 x 1.2 meter (48 x 48 inches), 1.2 x 0.6 meter (48 x 24 inches) and 0.6 x 0.6 meter (24 x 24 inches) are available, as well as other smaller and cut-to-measure sizes.
“In September 2014, Neolith will be introducing several other large-format sizes,” he added.
While most TPT products can only be used indoors so far, products like Neolith can be used both indoors and outdoors. “Neolith’s particular brand can be used for virtually any application because of an extensive repertoire of technical properties,” said Sanchez. “The product can be used on the interior and exterior and for both commercial and residential projects. Neolith touts some of the most unique applications of its product category, such as hospital surfaces, swimming pools, yachts, fireplaces, fountains, benches, stairs and military RVs. The product can endure a variety of different circumstances, making it ideal for a wide variety of applications.”
Denver-based designer, Cindy McCoy, owner of Cindy McCoy Design LLC, has used Neolith for a range of residential applications, including walls, countertops, fireplaces and even sinks. “I’ve used it on walls in homes, and have wrapped columns in them, instead of using stone, which is really nice because the slabs are large, much lighter than a marble or granite, and a lot thinner,” she said. “When I use them for countertops, I’ll typically do a 2- to 3-inch face on it. They’ll miter the product, and you’ll get that built up edge to make it look thicker. I’ve also used the 5 mm product on a countertop, and what they’ll do is slightly polish the edge — it’s really neat. Now, with all of the contemporary design, a lot of people are doing a built up edge (3-inch or a thin edge), and it’s great for countertops because you can get it as thick as you want with that mitered edge. Whereas with granite, you typically have that seam you’re looking at. There’s a cleaner edge with TPT because it’s mitered rather than seamed.
“I do a lot of fireplace designs with it, too, instead of using tile or stone (such as ledge stone or slate), and have also made ramp sinks out of it,” McCoy added.
McCoy, who began using the product about three years ago, said the amount of colors offered has grown, as well as the types of finishes. “Up until now, all the finishes were just matte, however, polished versions will be available this fall,” she said. “It’s great to have the flexibility of polished shower walls and then use their matte finish on the floors. A lot of porcelain tiles, when they get wet, are very slippery and people can easily fall. Neolith offers the best of both worlds, polished and matte finishes, which are crucial when it comes to wet areas, such as bathroom and shower floors.”
Another upside to Neolith is the fact that it’s relatively bendable. Both the 3-mm- and 6-mm-thick full slabs can adapt to surfaces with some degree of flexion, allowing for interesting design choices. “Let’s say you have a radius wall that you want to tile; a lot of times you can’t do that with big tile and have to use mosaics — well this product actually bends,” said McCoy. “The whole slab bends. It’s really nice for those curved wall applications.”
“Designers and architects have been thrilled with the design versatility offered by Neolith,” said Sanchez. “The various sizes, thicknesses and colors make achieving a very specific design simple.”
Crossville also offers a TPT-specific line, known as Laminam. Laminam is available in two thickness options (3 mm and 5.6 mm) in three collections — Foundations, Natural Inspirations and Urban Influence — which each have two or three series that incorporate unique textures and looks.
“Laminam 3+ is for interior vertical and horizontal installations — no floor use, and is available in two sizes — 3 meter x 1 meter x 3 mm (3 feet, 4 inches x 10 inches with 3 mm thickness) and 1 meter x 1 meter x 3 mm (3 feet, 4 inches x 3 feet, 4 inches with 3 mm thickness),” said Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing for Crossville. “Laminam 5.6 mm is intended for interior floor installations — and is also suitable for walls; it’s available in two sizes: 3 meter x 1 meter x 5.6 mm (3 feet, 4 inches x 10 feet with 5.6 mm thickness) and 1 meter x 1 meter x 3 mm (3 feet, 4 inches x 3 feet, 4 inches with 3 mm thickness). Also, we can cut the panels to custom sizes in our plant.
“Designers are excited about the possibilities of this category, and that excitement is translating into specifications out in the field,” Waldrep went on to say. “We’re seeing Laminam by Crossville in beautiful use in residential and commercial applications — unique wall and vertical surfaces in retail environments, university cafeterias, coffee shops and hospitality common areas to residential bathrooms — even fireplace surrounds.”
Until proper U.S. testing is completed, Crossville is recommending its Laminam by Crossville collections only for indoor use. “Laminam by Crossville collections are offered in two thicknesses to offer the right technical performance characteristics for floor and wall installations,” said Waldrep.
“We are conservative in our installation recommendations to ensure best results in the field,” Waldrep added. “Until standards are in place and full product testing is complete in the U.S., we err on the side of caution so that users have the best possible experience with our products.”
San Diego-based Certified Kitchen Designer and author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work (Taunton Press), Jamie Gold, of Jamie Gold Kitchen and Bath Design, LLC, said she’s seen TPT used for both indoor and outdoor applications, and that they’ve evolved significantly since their introduction a handful of years ago. “When I started seeing these thin tiles emerge in 2010, they were hard to find domestically and in very limited neutral colors. Now, we’re seeing a full spectrum of wood, stone and artistic looks, and even the ability to supply your own image file to create something completely custom,” she said. “The leaders in this area have been the Ceramics of Italy and Tile of Spain brands, but American companies like Crossville are coming out with great products that deliver high quality and style domestically.
“I’m seeing a lot of excitement by architects and designers in the tremendous potential for these tiles, which will translate to more of them being used,” Gold went on to say. “Their low maintenance makes them a great substitute for natural stone in certain settings, and the fact that they can blend indoor and outdoor environments seamlessly makes them a natural choice for sunbelt projects. They work well on floors, walls and counters — both for new construction and remodels.”
Chris Hill, Southern UT/NV regional sales representative for Contempo Tile Corp. in St. George, UT, an exclusive distributor for Crossville, said Crossville is one of the leaders in TPT. “They currently offer 50 different colors, with some very new and exciting finishes on the way,” he said. “Technology has allowed them to reproduce veining to mimic natural marbles, travertines and gemstones.”
Hill explained that the product is “perfect” for commercial and residential environments; it just depends on the market, as to whether or not it will work.
“For Contempo Tile in St. George, UT, the product is taking a huge interest in residential, thanks to skilled and confident designers like Matt Marten and Athella Goodman of Kayenta,” he said. “They recognize the potential, and are able to create a vision for the homeowners to fall in love with. We recently completed a beautiful wall-to-wall shower application designed by Matt for G. Brent Construction. I worked on-site with Jeremy Jensen, who did a fabulous job on his first install. We have fabricators looking into TPT as an option to natural stone slabs in shower applications. Really, the possibilities are endless.”
When TPT was first introduced, many installers were quoting prices that were double, even triple, the price of a typical installation because of the inexperience with the product. However, companies like Crossville and its distribution partners have prioritized installer training to give contractors the specific knowledge to work with TPT and ensure best results in application. With the ever-growing resources, such as guidelines and training videos, contractors no longer have to fear working with these products.
“TPT is the new kid in school,” said Hill. “He is big and handsome, all the ladies want him, and the guys are intimidated by him — but don’t be intimidated. TPT may come across as a ‘threat’ or ‘bully,’ but he has a good heart — just wants to be appreciated like everyone else. So you don’t need to escalate your bids exponentially because of that fear or intimidation. There is actually an opportunity to make good money due to the ability to cover large areas in short time or even to install over existing materials in many instances. Again, treat TPT like any other porcelain tile in your given application. After your first job or two, you can look back and adjust where you need to, but there is no need to be excessively high.
“Plan for a little extra time for the first installation; this will allow you to learn the system without rushing,” explained Hill. “I fell in love with TPT because I very quickly overcame that initial intimidation, and realized how fast and efficiently it can be installed. A contractor can really cover a lot of area with this product in a very short amount of time. And if they jump on board the TPT train right now, they are guaranteed to be a step ahead of the others. This trend is here to stay.”
Advantages of TPT
One of the advantages and benefits of TPT is its mechanical properties. Most brands that companies have created are easy to clean, scratch- and fire-resistant, waterproof, and 100% natural and recyclable.
“There are numerous green benefits to these tiles,” said Gold. “They can be laid over existing floors if they’re perfectly smooth and level, reducing the material that goes into landfills. Their durability also means they’ll last longer, which is another form of sustainability. Their light weight means less fuel is required to transport them. And the material itself is considered green.”
“Many of the colors can be/are made from recycled materials,” added Hill. “This is part of the excitement that TPT, Laminam in particular, brings to the table.”
With advantages also come some challenges, according to as Chitty, since TPT is still a relatively new product in the industry. “Thin tile brings unique challenges to the market place,” he said. “One of these is obtaining trained, knowledgeable installers. Crossville has proactively developed a solution, bringing installers onsite to learn techniques and installation methods. These highly skilled craftsmen guarantee a designer’s vision can be brought to life beautifully.
“Crossville considers qualified labor to be a key component to any installation,” Chitty went on to say. “It is our duty as a purveyor of new products like Laminam to train installers the best practices in handling material.”
Since TPT requires very specific installation methods, Crossville has invested much time and effort into host training workshops around the country. “Crossville recognized a need for training when it brought Laminam to the market two years ago,” said Chitty. “The tech services team actively spent time in the field teaching installers and distributors about material handling and installation. Now, Crossville has developed a curriculum, taught in our Tennessee-based headquarters, designed to provide these installers with the information they need to properly install 3 mm and thicker porcelain.”
Installation training has taken precedence for the Laminam brand because Crossville understands the quality and stability of installations are vital to the future of this product.
Developing the proper standards and prices
Because of the lack of standards for TPT, certified tile contractors that have experience using the material have recommended some installation guidelines, according to Waldrep. “In recent months, the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), Tile Contractors’ Association of America (TCAA) and The International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers (IUBAC) came together to provide the recommendation that tile contractors not install thin porcelain tile panels in any thickness less than 5.5 mm for floor installations,” she said.
In addition to developing proper standards, manufacturers are also educating the market regarding pricing. “Thin porcelain panels are competitive in terms of pricing,” said Waldrep. “Because of the expansive dimensions of the panels, fewer pieces can cover much surface area.”
“Prices in general can be perceived as higher than low-range marble and granites, but they are definitely competitive in price to other exquisite stones, such as Statuario, Calacatta, Onyx, Travertines, Exotic Granites, etc.,” said Sanchez. “In terms of Neolith, prices run at or just a bit higher than the price of quartz, depending on the specific color and design specifications. Whereas a product like high-end marble is subject to delays and price increases because of raw material availability, Neolith Digital Design technology (NDD) allows Neolith to replicate these designs on a high-performing material without a fear of material shortages.
“Benefits are derived from thickness as well — the material is incredibly thin, requiring less raw materials,” Sanchez added. “Professionals using Neolith do not even need to extract existing surfacing when doing remodeling; Neolith can be easily fastened to pre-existing, stable surfaces, eliminating the need for costly gut remodels. These benefits save money and construction time — two important factors to consider when comparing prices.”