Marble Tile

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• Characteristics of Marble Tile

- John P. Bridge

To understand the suitability (or unsuitability) of marble as a building material in the home, we don’t necessarily need to delve into the various types and species of the stone, which are myriad. To keep things from getting cluttered, I’ll lump all the varieties together and simply call them marble.

To say that marble is stone is not enough. It is actually stone that has been transformed from other stone, limestone specifically. Along the way, some marble picks up fossils (corals, for example) and incorporates them into its final makeup. From this we can judge marble to be very old, millions if not billions of years. Marble is not, then, a renewable resource for our purposes, but it is plentiful. There are marble deposits throughout the world.

Marble is quarried in large chunks, cut from the surrounding rock and brought to mills where the stone can be further processed. The largest slabs possible are sawn first, then smaller slabs, and finally marble tiles, which are cut in several sizes, most often 12 inches square and about a half inch thick.

So marble tiles might be considered leftovers. These “leftovers” will have been cleaved from a number of larger, more valuable pieces, and pronounced variations can be expected in color and veining from tile to tile. This variation is what makes a marble tile installation what it is. Do not expect the tiles to match one another. Many times they won’t even come close. Often, the final effect can be described as “scatter-quilt” or “checkered.”

Many varieties of marble tiles contain weaknesses we call “faults.” Faults run through the stone in random directions and at times appear to be veining. Often, these imperfections are filled with tinted resins before the tiles receive their final polishing at the factory. Some marble tiles are so inherently weak that fiberglass mesh is attached to their backs to strengthen them.

Marble, as stone goes, is soft, and it will scratch easily. It should not be used in areas of high traffic in the home. What starts out as a very elegant floor can become a dismal eyesore in very short order. Marble floors will also oxidize if not regularly cleaned and polished.

Marble, since it is primarily limestone, is extremely susceptible to acids, to include citric acid and vinegar. We can deduce, then, that marble would not be the material of choice for the kitchen floor (or the kitchen counters, either). For example, orange juice, if it is not wiped up instantly, will etch the surface of the stone. Many household cleaners will do the same thing.

For the reasons I’ve already mentioned, marble is not a good material to use in showers. It is almost impossible to maintain under the constant barrage of waterborne minerals and chemicals used in bath soaps and shampoos.

If you think I’m trying to talk you out of using marble in most areas of your home, you are correct. Granite, although usually a little more expensive, is a much better choice if your taste runs to natural stone.

But marble is beautiful and elegant. Nothing matches its allure. A front entryway would be a logical place to install a marble floor. In most homes the front door does not see a lot of traffic. Practically everyone uses the back entry. The floor will still have to be kept polished on a regular basis to protect it from oxidation, but this can be done easily enough.

• How to Maintain Existing Marble Installations

I cannot recall how many natural marble showers I’ve installed in expensive custom homes at the behest of builders and architects. I can, however, recall that in most cases the homeowner, at some point during construction, has asked me how to keep the shower clean. Well, fortunately, many of them have maids and other cleaning people available to them.

If I had a marble shower (I don’t), I would first of all wipe it down and completely dry it each time it was used. I would do this religiously because I am aware that even a little water left on the stone will contain mineral deposits which will begin to etch their way into the surface.

I would seal the shower just as I would a tile shower. I would do this periodically depending on the properties of the sealer. (See Ceramic Tile Showers.)

I would polish the marble once a week with polish obtained from a marble and tile supply house. I would first clean the marble with a cleaner procured from the same source. (There are kits available which contain cleaner and polish.) I would never use any other cleaner on my marble, and I would certainly never scrub it with a brush or any other scrubbing tool.

What would I do if all of the above techniques failed to maintain my marble shower in pristine condition? I would cry profusely, for there would be nothing else I could do short of not using the shower at all. There are people in this category.

4/11/2011 — When writing this article years ago I should have mentioned that “honed” marble and travertine tiles are much easier to maintain than polished ones since the honed surface does not show damage from cleaners and waterborne contaminates as readily as a polished surface. In 2010 I completed a honed travertine shower and bath installation in my own home. Each time the shower is used it is wiped dry with a towel, and this is what I recommend for any tile shower. Do this, and your shower will remain clean and serviceable for a long time to come.

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