The use of large format tile can contribute to a minimalistic “monolithic envelope” look that is gaining popularity.

This article, the first of a two-part series pertaining to large format tile, will provide the background behind large format tile, and discuss the science behind the “trendy” and increasingly popular use of such products. In part two, we will discuss installation and the extra precautions that consumers should consider when dealing with large format tile.

How large is large?

Currently, a specific definition for “large format tile” does not exist. In the tile industry, the term “large format” has evolved over the last several decades. There was a time when 4”x4” tiles were considered large. Soon thereafter, 8”x8” tiles were considered large. In fact, the current 2008 TCA Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation includes the statement, “Large tiles are generally considered to be 8”x8” and greater.” While this is valid from an installation perspective, with the regularity that 12x12’s are used today, most would not consider 8”x8” to be very “large.” Tiles as large as 24”x48” are becoming common. Some manufacturers are even producing tiles measuring up to 1x3 meters! But generally, most would consider large format tiles to be 18”x18” and larger.

Large format tiles can open up small residential spaces, such as this condominium kitchen, making them seem larger.

How are manufacturers able to produce such large tiles?

Today, manufacturers possess a wealth of technological advances that allow for ceramic tiles to be produced larger and larger.

Beginning with raw materials, improvements in organic binders and advances in spray drying technology resulted in sturdier green body (unfired) tiles with more evenly distributed densities.

Pressing technology also improved. As tiles get larger, presses must get stronger to achieve the die pressures necessary for producing large format tile. Some manufacturers have presses with capacities as high as 7,000 tons. Advancements in large format isostatic dies also aided pressing technology.

Large format tiles provide a larger design “canvas,” and the opportunity for glaze patterns and designs to be big, detailed, and continuous. Designs of high resolution can be transferred onto larger surfaces and fired to achieve commercial-grade durability. With the use of automated and highly precise equipment, uniform temperatures throughout very large kilns can be achieved to aid in firing accuracy and shrinkage management.

Finally, tile rectification assists in the dimensional accuracy of large format tiles. By mechanically finishing all four sides, manufacturers can produce very large tiles within tight targets for facial dimensions. This eliminates the need for multiple calibers. 

In addition to traditional tile forming processes, some manufacturers are incorporating innovative practices that allow for tile sizes to increase facially, but decrease in thickness. In some cases, these very large but thin tiles are reinforced with fiberglass mesh backings to maintain high breaking strengths.

Why are large format tiles so popular these days?

With the increasing amount of manufacturers able to produce large format tiles, there is an expanding market. According to a 2007 survey of manufacturers producing 18”x18” and larger tiles, such tiles made up approximately one-third of their sales. According to a survey of distributors that same year, sales of tiles 18”x18” and larger were 35- to 40-percent of their business and trending upwards. Without a doubt, large format tiles are in style, and continue to increase in popularity. But why? There are a multitude of reasons.

For one, the use of large format tiles results in less grout overall. Having less grout generally appears “neater,” and can make cleaning -up and maintenance easier. Furthermore, with rectified large format tiles, where the edges are only slightly beveled or not beveled at all, the use of such tiles creates the perception of a narrower joint, less grout, and a generally “flusher” look. However, as we will discuss in the second article, this look can only be achieved if the appropriate installation practices are followed. If these practices are ignored, the installation of non-beveled edge large format tile, especially with a narrow joint, can be highly problematic.

Designers often enjoy using large format tiles in situations where the same type of tile on the floor is used to cover surrounding walls and/or ceilings. This “European” minimalist style, sometimes referred to as a “monolithic envelope,” is becoming increasingly popular.

The use of large format tiles can also make average-sized rooms appear larger and bring proportionality to large commercial spaces.

For exterior applications, large format tiles are becoming more popular for use on building façades. When used in conjunction with cladding systems, exterior tile façades create an air pocket that evacuates warm air in the summer, and keeps insulation dry in the winter. This effective thermal barrier is an energy efficient exterior option, though its use is not widespread in the U.S.  But regardless of whether or not large format tiles are used on building exteriors in this way, more and more architects and designers are considering large format tiles an attractive exterior option.

What should customers expect with large format tile Installations?

In many cases, large format tiles are inappropriately specified as if they were natural stone. Customers need to know that tile and stone each has unique advantages and drawbacks, and each requires different installation practices. In the next series, we will discuss the steps that should be taken when installing large format tile.