Ceramic tiles are the most popular kind of kitchen backsplash. They're available in every color of the rainbow and dozens of styles and patterns. But one of the most important factors in determining exactly how your new backsplash will work is the finish.

In this article, we'll talk about not only the look of different finishes of ceramic tile, but also how these finishes can affect the cleaning and maintenance of your backsplash. We'll also look into the long-term appearance of these finishes. But first—let's talk terms.

Porcelain vs. Ceramic Backsplash Tiles

See our in-depth comparison of ceramic and porcelain tiles.

When talking about backsplash tiles, porcelain and ceramic are often grouped together. And they are very similar. But there are some differences. Ceramic is any kind of shaped clay that is fired (heated in a kiln) until it's hard and solid. Types of ceramic used in tiles include earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. But because porcelain is so different, it's usually considered a separate category.

Closeup of a decorative ceramic tile amid bricks. The surface is glossy, but relatively flat in appearance. Photo by Steve Snodgrass.
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Closeup of a decorative ceramic tile amid bricks. The surface is glossy, but relatively flat in appearance. Photo by Steve Snodgrass.

Porcelain is made from a very special kind of clay that includes a mineral called kaolin. This helps the porcelain vitrify (turn into a kind of glass) when it's fired, giving it a translucent look that can brighten a room. This also means that the structure of porcelain is harder and, unlike other ceramics, nonporous. The upshot of this is that porcelain tiles are more durable and water resistant than other kinds of ceramic tile. They're denser and less likely to crack or scratch. But this also means they're heavier than ceramic, so they're a bit harder to install. They also tend to be a bit more expensive, though the price range varies widely for both.

See Merola Tile's Moonbeam Diva porcelain mosaic tile. The translucency of porcelain gives these tiles both shine and depth.
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See Merola Tile's Moonbeam Diva porcelain mosaic tile. The translucency of porcelain gives these tiles both shine and depth.

Glazed vs. Unglazed Tiles

Some ceramics have a glaze applied to them between firings. This glaze hardens in the kiln and gives the piece clear, bright colors and a shiny appearance. But looks aren't the only difference between glazed and unglazed ceramics. Glazed ceramics are lighter and less dense than their unglazed counterparts. The glazed coating makes these ceramics more resistant to stains, but the shiny gloss can make them more susceptible to scratches and chipping. The color of glazed ceramic matters too, since lighter glazes tend to be harder than darker ones. The more earthy, stony look of unglazed ceramics hides minor scratches well, but this also means this type of ceramic is available in fewer styles and colors. They're less resistant to stains and have a more textured surface, which may make cleaning more difficult. They're also denser, though, which makes them a little more durable.

Types of Ceramic Tile Finishes

The world of backsplash tile finishes can be confusing, especially if you're buying online. Really, though, you have four finish options to choose from: polished, glossy, matte, and textured.

Polished Ceramic Tiles

Polished tiles are double fired, the second firing being a clear coat to protect the color and pattern of the tile. The polished look is achieved, like the name suggests, with a polishing wheel. These tiles look a lot like polished natural stone, and this finish is particularly effective for marble-like patterns. This gives a kitchen a traditional, formal look and imparts a feeling of luxury to the space. Different tile patterns will give different effects. Since these tiles are unglazed, they can collect more dust than other finishes. Harsh cleaning chemicals can erode these tiles faster than other styles, and water spots may be a problem. However, long term outlooks are good, since the surface can be refinished. Regular sealing helps maintain these tiles for a long time.

Glossy Ceramic Tiles

Polished and glossy finishes produce similar effects but are achieved in very different ways. Glossy tiles are finished with a high-shine glaze that conveys a formal, clean effect to a kitchen. Your tile colors will pop with a glossy finish, so if you want something bright and clear, this is a good option. A glossy finish is smooth, making it usually easier to clean. A simple wipe-down will suffice if done often enough. Special care does have to be taken to avoid streaks, as in cleaning windows and mirrors. Long term, though, scratches and water spots will be more visible in the shiny surface of a glossy finish. Some manufacturers will refer to their ceramics as 'high-gloss'. This is generally a marketing term designed to emphasize a shiny surface appearance and doesn't refer to any particular finish or glaze. Look for the terms glazed and glossy to be sure you're getting the right kind of finish.

Matte Ceramic Tiles

A matte effect gives tiles a soft sheen that's achieved through a less shiny glaze. These tiles are muted and won't reflect much light. This gives a kitchen a contemporary, casual feel and can be a good contrast with modern, shinier-finished cabinets and appliances. A matte finish, though, can be harder to clean. The finely-textured surface collects more dust and grime, and small crevices mean that a simple wipe down won't always be effective. Long term appearance may be higher than glossy tiles as the matte finish will hide small scratches and gouges.

Textured Ceramic Tiles

Setting tiles into a mold can produce a textured effect. These tiles are glazed and fired to achieve a particular look, often mimicking natural stone. This grants a certain old world elegance to a kitchen at a fraction of the price of either stone or veneer. The uneven surfaces of these tiles may make them harder to clean. Long term appearance may also suffer, if they're not maintained. It's much harder to repair scratches on a textured surface. However, since these tiles are designed to have a naturalistic look, more minor scratches and gouges may not be noticeable.

DIY backsplash refreshing

Backsplashes look great in a kitchen, but it's easy for them to become dated. When it comes to tile, removal and replacement isn't an easy or cheap option, but so long as the grout is in good condition, you always have the option to refinish and paint it. It's a little labor intensive, but it can totally transform your kitchen! Check out the video below to learn how to tackle this DIY job.

References

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"Types of Ceramic Backsplash Tiles." Diffen.com. Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 16 May 2021. < >