David Meredith
Tile is made from a variety of materials and comes in several different colors and textures. Tile works well in many areas of the home.

When it comes to creating beautiful rooms, tile is a true MVP — that's "most versatile player."

In addition to the traditional ceramic and stone styles, tile is available in glass, metal and concrete in an array of colors, patterns and textures. It's tough and (mostly) low maintenance. Spills wipe up easily, scratches are often hard to detect, and many types stand up to heavy foot traffic. And tile can be used to cover a wall, top a counter or add a focal point, such as a mosaic over a kitchen range.

Which kind should you buy? Only a handful of rules apply. Above all, check to make sure that any tile you're purchasing is rated for where you intend to use it, such as in a high-traffic area or one that tends to get wet.

Ceramic tiles, made from kiln-fired clay, are the most varied of tiles — and the strongest multitaskers. They come glazed or unglazed, in solid colors or with hand-painted designs, and in sizes ranging from 1 inch to 24 inches. They can be used on virtually any surface in the home.

Glazed wall tiles are impervious to water and staining, making them an excellent option for kitchens and baths. Because glazing also adds color and texture, these tiles come in just about every hue and finish, from glossy to crackle.

For floors, you'll need either very dense porcelain tiles (extra-fine clay fired at extremely high temperatures) or unglazed ceramic tiles. Also known as quarry tiles, unglazed tiles should be treated after installation with a sealer to prevent staining.

Machine-made tiles, sold at home centers and hardware stores, can cost as little as a few dollars per square foot. Art tiles — fashioned by artisans with special glazes, hand-painting and relief work — cost much more (you might pay a few thousand dollars just to tile a bathroom). Sold primarily at specialty tile shops, they are usually made to order, which can take up to six weeks.

Stone tiles can be polished to a glass-like finish or left unpolished. Polished finishes are generally reserved for walls and kitchen countertops. A matte texture on floor tiles will make slips less likely. Like unglazed ceramic, many stone tiles are porous and should be sealed at least once a year, especially those in kitchens and bathrooms. Stone tiles are often used for mosaics, patterns laid down either piece by piece or mounted on net backing. The price of stone tiles is comparable to that of the best ceramic ones, but because they are hefty and hard to cut, installation costs may run higher.

Although glass tiles can be large, they are typically used for mosaics. Because they tend to scratch easily and are slippery when wet, glass tiles are usually reserved for walls. They can be used safely as a border accent around a stone- or ceramic-tile floor.

Manufacturers can mold concrete into any shape or size and add pigments to the mix to provide hints of color. They also can stamp patterns into the surface to enhance the texture and visual interest, making concrete a natural for decorative elements on walls. Concrete tiles cost about as much as premium ceramic and stone tiles. They are durable but also porous, so they require sealing.

Metal tiles — in copper, brass, bronze, zinc, as well as stainless steel — are available in a range of sizes and shapes and can function as accents in a floor, mosaics on a wall or decorative elements in a shower. The surfaces may be polished, brushed, hammered or otherwise textured. These tiles come as solid pieces of metal that are applied with a special adhesive or as thin metal sheets bonded to a plaster base and installed in the same manner as ceramic and stone tiles. Metal tiles can cost as much as glass tiles, but often you'll buy just a few accent pieces.

Grout, the material that will fill the spaces between the tiles, locking them into place, is usually cement-based and thus susceptible to staining, so it will need to be treated regularly with a penetrating sealer.

Because grout affects the overall look of the installation, consider its color and proportion in relation to the tile. In general, less conspicuous grouts are preferred, as they let the beauty of the tile speak for itself. Contrast, however, does have its time and place: Gray grout with terra-cotta tiles conjures a rustic charm, and black grout with white tiles looks modern.

It's important visually and functionally to keep the grout lines proportionate to the size of the tiles, especially when working with large tiles. Regardless of the width, plastic spacers should be used to keep joints uniform.

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