6 Tips for Tile on a Budget

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Pratt & Lambert's 'Classic Cream' subway tile gains dimension from a baseboard treatment and relief decos at top.

Pratt & Larson's 'Classic Cream' subway tile gains dimension from a baseboard treatment and relief decos at top.

Art tile is just that—art for the home. The price tag can be steep if your project calls for many square feet of tile. There are ways, however, to combine a Home Depot budget (and affordable production tile) with handcrafted tile for a custom look.

1. Get a bang for your buck

Remember that art tile is a beautiful accent, not just in kitchens and bathrooms (where you need a lot of tile), but also for fireplace surrounds, stair risers, or indoor fountains. If your budget is limited, the fireplace is a good choice for a splurge: it’s a public focal point, and the square footage is minimal.

If you don’t have the budget to do the whole tub surround, or a full kitchen’s worth of backsplash, “find a panel or a deco tile you like, and ‘picture frame’ it,” says Selene Seltzer, the ceramic artist behind Designs in Tile. Around the focus, “use less expensive liners, plain tile, more liners, and some molded trim to fill the space.”

Consider purchasing fewer of a manufacturer’s premium decorative pieces and surround them with plain field tiles. Randomly “float” the fancier tiles in the field, or create a repeating pattern. (Check out our article on tile patterns for floors). This was common in ca.1890–1920s subway-tiled bathrooms, where a majolica frieze was often set a few courses below the bull-nose cap. Another option is to use a bordered panel or tile mural assembled and sold as a set, and again use plain tiles around it.

You may be in love with a particular tile, but consider its impact once it’s installed. “If the shower has an opaque glass door or a shower curtain in front of it, don’t spend your money there,” Seltzer says. “Put the decorative accent in the backsplash of the sink vanity, and perhaps add a coordinating band of colored liners in the tub surround.”

In the kitchen, “use decos and borders where you’ll really see them,” Seltzer advises—“right behind the sink or cooktop. Use undecorated tile as the backsplash in areas that will be hidden by kitchen appliances.”

2. Buy at a reduced price

Every tile showroom, and even the small-scale custom makers, offer sales on discontinued tile and custom orders that were not picked up. If you’ve got time and can keep an open mind, a beautiful and appropriate set may fall into your hands at an affordable price.

High impact, reasonable cost: The decorative panel was purchased at a steep discount. White subway field tiles and a modern mosaic floor complement it.

High impact at a reasonable cost: The decorative panel was purchased at a steep discount. White subway field tiles and a mosaic floor complement it.

3. Use production tile

The big manufacturers make wall, floor, and decorative tile in sizes and styles that simulate historical tile. With some imagination, you can give installations of such tile a custom look—making big tile projects like floors and bathrooms affordable. Plan out a border for an otherwise plain tile floor. In the bathroom, create the look of a wainscot, fill, and border frieze by using two different sizes of production tile along with some liners.

Caveat: Mixing production tile with handcrafted decos gets tricky, because the tiles’ actual sizes (whatever the dimensions given), depths, and edge characteristics will be different. It can be done, but it’s wise to have an expert tiler in on the project from the beginning, approving purchases and the design. (Same goes for mixing tile from more than one studio.)

4. Go south of the border

Mexican tile is handcrafted and colorful, the product of a long history of craft. It’s also much less expensive that American-made art tile, at about $9–12 per square foot. If a Southwestern or Arts & Crafts Rustic look appeals to you, consider Saltillo floor tiles, or Talvera and Azulegos decorative tiles, which are brightly colored and feature geometric and floral motifs (perhaps to augment plain terra-cotta tiles).

5. Look to the past

Finding and re-using salvaged tile isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but it can be done. Dealers sell fabulous individual tiles, which can be featured in a “picture frame” arrangement, as well as panels of four to 10 pieces, and even entire reclaimed fireplace surrounds. The supply is finite, of course, and you have to design around existing sizes. Old mortar is difficult to remove without loss of some tiles. But the result is a truly unique and historic installation. (Note: L’Antiquario in Miami stocks a large selection of antique European tiles salvaged from churches and other buildings: lantiquario.com)

6. Do it yourself

The price tag for a tile project is materials plus labor; if you do the work yourself, you’ve got more to spend on the tile. Even if you don’t set the tile and grout it, you can do the prep: hang the cement board and mortar the seams. Tiling is taught at in-store weekend seminars at Home Depot; Taunton Press has good books and videos for DIY tilers. Still, it’s not quite as easy as it looks, and you may be risking expensive tile. If you have no experience, start with a small project.