Tile tie-up

Our kitchen tile backsplash moved in the day after the countertop install.  Selecting the backsplash proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the process for me/us, which I’ll explain below, including the results of my extensive searching for made-in-the-USA and sustainably-resourced tile.  To back up a step, we went from here:

photo 1

to here:

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Here is a close-up of the backsplash underneath the pass-through:

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The 3×6 white tile is Frost by Fireclay and the blue accent is an AlysEdwards tile called Gigi’s Groovy Glass in Nocturnal Sea.  While I now find myself just staring at the pretty backsplash, it was definitely not a pretty process to get here.  [And in case you don’t make it to the end of this post, please note that design was not exactly my creation.]

Lesson #1: I was not passionate about tile.  Bryan was not passionate about tile either.

Lesson #2: I am happiest with decisions where I can consider a number of options that meet certain criteria and lock quickly onto one as my clear preferred option.  This is what happened for the countertop, for example.  It is also how we got our dog and our house and how I chose my job and picked my undergraduate school and graduate school, but I digress….  The problem is that since I had no passion in this area (Lesson #1), it was very difficult for me (since Bryan checked out of this decision..see Lesson #1) to apply my usual (if not un-restrained) criteria.

Lesson #3: There is a HUGE selection of tile out there.  It is like choosing bratwurst in Bavaria or snowflakes at the north pole or pizza in Chicago.

For lack of other options, we started trying to narrow things down with our two themes: made in the U.S.A. and environmentally sound.  Our white cabinets + black counter can go with almost anything, so since we weren’t passionate about anything, there was no obvious choice for design right off.

Below are the brands of tile made in the U.S.A. I found that are (or are partly) made in the states (Lesson #4).  There are surely more companies out there, but I just didn’t find them via internet or phone.


  1. Fireclay Tile (which is actually locally handmade in San Jose, just a couple miles from my office.  You can order everything online, by phone, in person or at some distributors.)
  2. Florida Tile (guess where…this is a large company that works through distributors)
  3. Crossville Tile (Tennessee; ditto as far as size)
  4. Sonoma Tile (handcrafted in California, many distributors.)
  5. Dal Tile (actually a huge company that has products everywhere, but has a nice list here of which lines are made in the U.S.A.)
  6. Stonepeak Ceramics (didn’t feel quite right for our humble kitchen)
  7. Heath Ceramics (Also in CA, kind of the same idea as Fireclay, but I think it costs more so I didn’t explore – plus Fireclay already proved to be very helpful)
  8. Check this list, which has a couple brands that I didn’t explore,
  9. Modwalls sells a US made line that is actually made by Clayhaus in Oregon.  You can buy directly from Clayhaus (Modwall’s recycled materials are made in China apparently.)

I also explored how to get tile that is heavily recycled.  Ceramics and porcelain are extremely durable, which is great while they are in your house.  But, once tiles, toilets, tubs and trivets get thrown out, they do not decompose in landfills.  Once I thought about this, I realized that using recycled tile is an easy way to make a big impact.  It turns out that many brands have lines that are made of some fraction of recycled material and some companies actively try to have sustainable manufacturing processes (like recycling plant water for example).

green tile2*

Lesson #5: Recycled tiles can be from “pre-consumer” or “post-consumer” waste material.  “Pre-consumer” waste is easier for manufacturers to use and is typically scrap from within their own factories.  “Post-consumer” waste is much preferred, since this is stuff that is getting directly diverted from land fills.  However, it is much less common to find any and especially large amounts of this material in tiles.  And, the catch for the consumer is, of course, that harder to make + less common = more expensive.  In the end, more recycled content of any kind is better than no recycled content.

Lesson #6: Tile stores/showrooms/distributors have no idea if their tile is recycled or not.  Even in Northern CA, I kept feeling like I was the first person who had ever asked that question.  Here’s what I found out via phone & internet.

  1. Fireclay Tile – their Debris Series used over 70% recycled content, with over 50% from post-consumer materials.  This is far and away the best I found on the internet (although, if you find something better, let me know). I will continue to praise them below.  They also have a recycled glass tile line that uses 100% locally-sourced recycled glass.
  2. Florida Tile has at least 40% recycled content, but it seems to be pre-consumer.  They also monitor their resource usage in manufacturing.
  3. Crossville Tile has a variety of 5-50% pre-consumer content lines, but some lines have no recycled content.
  4. Dal Tile has a drop down menu where you can look up which lines have what type of and how much recycled content.  Note that when you do this (at least in Firefox), none of the links that pop up work, but if you open a separate tab you can search for the line and get function links.
  5. There are a few interesting links on this website, although the only one not listed here is 5-15% Ultraglas and the all-recycled, hand-made glass tiles from Bedrock in Seattle.
  6. Oceanside Glass Tile is made from up to 80% recycled glass content – it looks like this is post-consumer materials.  An informed source let me know that they manufacture in Mexico.
  7. Clayhaus‘s modern ceramic tiles are handcrafted in Oregon by a husband wife team (second generation ceramists).

This is all I have been able to find, although my suspicion is that many manufacturers do have recycled lines, but do not post the information prominently.

Lesson #7: The most sustainable tile was also handmade.  Are small companies more environmentally conscious?  Is it just easier for them to change materials?  Is it too expensive to recycle for mass production?  I just don’t know why bigger companies aren’t pushing the envelope for post-consumer ceramic recycling.

The good news for me was that the first list and the second list do overlap.  Most of the recycled tile that I list is made in the U.S.A., with the exception of some lines from Dal.  There are likely European tile companies with recycled content, but I haven’t had success in finding them.

Lesson #8: Fireclay Tile is far and away the most sustainable option and is made locally (or at least in the USA if you don’t happen to live in the bay area).  They were also very easy to work with and used to being accommodating since most of their customers do not live 5 miles away.  They offered to customize glazes for me.  If you aren’t local, they will send 5 free samples direct to your home!  Finally, while it is not the cheapest tile on the market, their prices for their high-quality, handmade field tile starts lower than some low-end (not to mention high-end) unsustainable mosaic tiles.  I found that, while I didn’t start out aesthetically-motivated, I actually can be pretty excited about tile.  (And no, they don’t have any idea that I’m writing this.)

Once I realized that we would still have to specify tile style from one of these lines, I started looked at tile in other people’s kitchens.  Both in person and on Houzz.com, I kept finding examples where it looked like a beautiful countertop was selected totally independently of a beautiful backsplash and the two rights make a wrong.  I won’t post examples here because that is insulting, but to each our own, the result of an over-zealous backsplash+counter is distracting and sloppy.

I found that the backsplash/granite combinations that I liked were simple like Centsational Girl’s white on white or House Beautiful’s accent colors or, better yet, the backsplash tied different parts of the kitchen together like Kelly’s slate.  My choices of white cabinets and black countertops made any creams or earthtones pretty much a no go.  It was looking like the only timeless backsplash left to me would be some form of white.

A little more Houzz surfing and, after all of my tile-sourcing research, the design decision was, once again, made in a split second.  Epiphany Kitchens had cleverly tied the blue accents in a blue-in-the-night granite countertop in with the backsplash while preserving timelessness of a white kitchen and adding a little interest to the wall.  So, Epiphany Kitchens, because you are far away in Michigan, I hope you don’t mind that I reused your design out here in California.

Lesson #9: Typically, tiles with high quantities of recycled content are not made in white since recycled materials are not necessarily white.  Fireclay has solved this problem.  Their recycled tile bodies are actually brown but they change the colors of their tiles by using different glazes –  the white tile in the photos is actually a brown ceramic!  I can’t even tell up close.  [And to pick that particular shade of white, I polled my office of engineers – a very discerning crowd of gentlemen it turns out.]

The decision was final: our kitchen backsplash would be made with Fireclay.  I won’t lie that I first had to come to terms with paying good money for the backsplash knowing all the while that cheap, porcelain-tree-killing, unpatriotic tile would have been less.  The blue mosaic accent in the picture cost 1.5 times the amount as the white tile, and if you stare at it too long, looks cheaper and less elegant than the 3×6 Fireclay tile.  (Plus, AlysEdwards tile is made un-sustainably in China.)

Each Fireclay Frost tile has just a little bit of it’s own character (see my goofy cartoons above for a close-up).  Although I never thought I would say this about white tile, the Fireclay tiles are beautiful, even more elegant and exciting in their simplicity than many far more expensive backsplashes I have seen.  My phone photos do not do it justice.

photo 5

(And this is from the girl who started out not caring about tiles…)

By the way, you’ll also have to pick grout type and color.  If you install it yourself, you will also have to pick a brand, which I can’t speak to as of yet.  But if you make it that far in the tile selection process, I don’t expect that decision to be an issue.

Update: a special thank you to the Fireclay team for reading my post and helping out with research on locally-grown, sustainable tile.  While the research was entirely my own before they saw it, they were able to contribute additional facts which I added.  The views presented here are entirely my own.

*Kermit the Frog and the Muppets were, of course, behind this observation


Rockin’ out in the kitchen

Or, rather, rockin’ IN.  Since the last update, we now have floors and countertops.  The countertops are definitely a rock.  The floors are hardwood and deserve a post on their own in time.  We did exactly none of this work ourselves, but I’ll elaborate below on how we picked the material – decisively and on the spot, my favorite kind of decision!

Here is how it looked before the counters:

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With the counters added:

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Note that we covered the cabinets with clear plastic for sanding and refinishing the floors.  Vacuuming saw dust out of new cabinets is no fun.  Here is a close-up of our still-dusty granite (see that area in the middle where I wiped off the dust?):

photo 2

The granite is called “Blue-in-the-night granite” and a better photo of it can be seen here or here.  At first glance, it just looks like black granite, but as you study it closer you can definitely see blue sparkles.  Before I had decided on granite countertops at all and certainly before looking at countertops, I actually saw this granite in the kitchen of our cabinet designer when I was over there ordering cabinets!  I was pretty much sold immediately since I’m a sucker for blue sparkles and it is subtle enough where you can still work it into any decor.  After the paint color debacle, I am staying away from shades of brown and tan in the expensive decor at least (except wood).  Blue-in-the-night granite is a middle-of-the-road granite in terms of price.  Without even entering an official decision process, I made that decision easily and went and bought a slab of granite on the spot.

Lesson #1: Granite is sold by the slab.  Our kitchen took almost exactly one slab so it was actually well priced compared to say, a kitchen that is 1.5x the size.  That kitchen owner, which would only need the area of 1.5 slabs, would still need to buy two whole slabs, losing the cost of the rest (unless you’re clever and use it for your bathroom or something).  In engineering terms, the cost of granite with kitchen size is a step function rather than a smooth increase.

Lesson #2: Contractors actually buy their own materials and receive discounts, so it is actually better to let them buy it.  They usually do recommend vendors, but most contractors receive price cuts at most stores.  As such, I ended up returning my slab so the contractor could buy the very same one for 20% off.  In the case of granite, I did not shop around (except one phone call to another store to make sure the price wasn’t totally off) since the largest part of the cost of granite counters is actually the cutting and install (75% of the total).  This was determined by the sub-contractor that our contractor works with and wasn’t negotiable – I tried.  We could have also hired our own sub for any part of the job, which we did for the floors, but it was not smooth scheduling and we opted to just deal with the cost on this one.

Lesson #3: Granite is not really “made” and it’s usually imported – although it will necessarily be cut locally.  I believe this particular granite was imported from Brazil but large granite slabs come from some really strange places (I saw Kazakhstan and Armenia for example).  It’s also not particularly sustainable for the environment.  Does anyone know what happens to old granite counter tops?  It seems like there is an opportunity for recycling kitchen counters to smaller area counters?  Granite countertops are pretty much the biggest fail in our kitchen from the sustainability and made in the USA front.  But, they are so pretty and practical…so we caved on this one.

Lesson #4: Some granite (like ours) is just speckled and pretty much consistent across a slab and different slabs are indistinguishable.  Other slabs have veins through them and are very different across and between slabs.  This means that there is usually a pre-lay, where you can see exactly where they will cut your counters and what features will be where.  Going to look at it was a giant waste of time for us 🙂 .  The granite cutting also apparently took 10 business days of down-time.  They could not cut the counter until it was measured and they couldn’t measure until the cabinets were in.  If there is unrelated things going on in parallel, you can schedule that in between, but otherwise the serial progress is on hold.  I’m sure we waited in line, but if you are selecting your own granite contractor, this is a conversation you want to have.  It was annoying to have everything held up for 10 days while we waited in line to get our granite countertop cut.

Lesson #5: I learned about recycled glass countertops way too late in the game (ie, after the granite countertops were in place), but it looks like IceStone in Brooklyn, NY makes them!

Not-so-hard hardwood bathroom vanity top

To review a little: Since already we had contractors coming in and out of our house for the kitchen, we decided to add a shower to the guest bathroom, which had a tub with broken handles, but no shower.  Since the tiling only went halfway up, this means retiling the tub, which also meant ripping out the matching countertop…or at least we decided to go this far down the rabbit hole.  The bathroom looked like this:


After buying all those cabinets for the kitchen, I was tired of spending money on new cabinets.  Plus, I actually didn’t mind this vanity, which fits the slot perfectly and has three little drawers on the side.  It just needs a little paint and maybe some hardware for updating.  To save the vanity, I decided that we (I) would make our own countertop.  Because this is a super long article, here is where we are now:

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You can read all about the first failure here, where I tried to make a concrete countertop via internet instructions.  I do not think that feather finish, which is very sandable, is actually that durable.  Generally, things that sand well also damage well – which is why we finish hardwood with protective coatings rather than just walk around on freshly sanded surfaces.

For the next try, I took this very approach and we made a countertop out of wood – which I then finished with poly-acrylic!  I don’t have a jig to attach boards adjacent to one another and I was too cheap to spend money on good hardwood.  I definitely borrowed a fair amount of detail and planning from addicted2decorating for this project, but I was creative enough to make several more mistakes along the way so that everyone else on the internet can learn from them.  For our approach, we needed one piece of 3/4″ plywood, 2 pieces of oak trim, several pieces of so-called oak “hobby-board” from Home Depot.  The hobby-board is about 1/4″ thick, often warped (choose carefully from the bin) and still probably a rip off for the quality, but was easier to deal with than the full 1/2″ boards sold as lengths of hardwood.  The reason that I chose oak is because the hardwood in the rest of our house is walnut-stained oak and I thought it would be nice to carry that theme into the bathroom.  I had also never stained anything before and I had read that oak accepts stain well.

photo 1

We had Home Depot cut the plywood to size after carefully measuring the vanity…plus we already screwed that up once here so we knew the size pretty well at this point!  The thicker oak trim piece is lying across the top of this pile.  Home Depot actually sells hardwood by the foot, but they also RETURN hardwood by the foot.  So, I had them cut the pieces for me, but took home the whole length in case I measured poorly (if it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough).  I lamely asked my husband to cut the thin pieces to size with a fine-blade in a Skilsaw donated by my dad.  Since our wood skills are akin to Laurel and Hardy, the thin pieces needed to be ever-so-slightly longer than the plywood.  Then I carefully glued the boards to the plywood, kneeling on them and nailing them down with 2-4 nails.  While the nails may not be strictly necessary, I only had one clamp, plus I was a little concerned about the warp-i-ness of the thin oak boards so I decided a nail or two would make me feel better…I later felt otherwise about these nails.

.Lesson #1: Home Depot lumber is labeled as a certain width.  It is never this width.  Note that, when buying plywood, when laid side to side, the width of your thin boards should be equal to or slightly deeper than the depth of the plywood.  I used three ” 6″ ” boards, three ” 2″ ” boards and one ” 3″ ” board…to cover an actual 22″ of depth – note the 5″ difference.  Here they are glued down:

photo 2

Next, we had to sand down those uneven edges we had since we didn’t want to gamble on being a bit overzealous with the Skilsaw.

Lesson #2: Hardwood is called HARD wood for a reason.  It is much harder to sand than plywood or pine.  Removing that 1/8″ you see in the bottom left took quite a while with my little Ryobi hand sander.  Alternatively, you can probably use a grinder if you have the right disk (and not only a diamond blade from sanding goo off of your garage floor).  But, the sander worked fine.  I have to strongly recommend this Norton sandpaper from now on.  It really is 3x as fast as other brands – and it’s color-coded!  I have used lots of sandpapers and polishing cloths in various walks of life and this stuff is pretty amazing.

After that, I applied some wood glue and nailed on the trim.  I (unnecessarily) filled in a couple gaps with wood filler.

photo 3

At this point, we should have cut the hole for the sink.  Foreshadowing…

Instead, I decided to sand the surface nice and level with my Norton sandpaper and hand sander again, then wipe the dust off with water.

Lesson #3: Not all nails are created equal!  I used finishing nails for this project, which were made of steel.  After I sanding the surface down, I wiped off the saw dust with a damp sponge, wiping only from the top to the bottom of the photo below.  This caused blue streaking marks to appear (do you see 4 of them below?).  At the time, I didn’t know what it was either, but apparently an iron reaction with wood tannins in moist environments is a common problem with exterior wood.

photo 4

Oh, you don’t have a clue what that means either or why it matters here?  Great.  Let’s straighten this out then.  (beware chemistry ahead) A tannin is a typical of phenol which is a weak organic acid.  This is why tannins are capable of etching the iron (or possibly zinc) that is present in the nail dust which I wiped down the wood with the sponge, simultaneously dissolving the tannins in water.  Dissolving the tannins in water created a weak acid, like vinegar.  This reacting with the nail dust resulted in a blue chemical compound (and it really was very bright blue, suggesting a transition metal compound) streaking you see in my wood.  Not knowing exactly what is in our very hard water or the nail, it could be anything from iron chloride to some zinc compound etc. (but it would be so much cooler if I had actually found out since that IS my day job!).  Had I not sanded, the steel would probably still have had a nice stable coating and prevented this reaction, but apparently my awesome Norton sandpaper is literally tougher than nails.  (Chemistry over)

A note on scary chemicals: The article above recommended cleaning this streaking up with NaHF2 or oxalic acid.  Anything containing HF is scary stuff!  In my day job, this is the last resort of chemical you pick only if nothing else works.  It etches glass.  It etches quartz, which is super resistant glass!  This is the stuff that etches your bone without pain until you are out of bone.  [And we used this stuff in freshman college chemistry laboratory – really, no college students should be handling anything stronger than weak coffee at 8am so who thought that was a good idea?]  Not to go too deep on this, but the chemical warning on the door of a Home Depot is scarier than many companies in Silicon Valley…so pay attention to what you’re buying!  And how to get rid of it later!

Instead of using anything scary, I skipped the chemistry and just sanded off the marks.  Good as new.  Then I used a dry brush to remove the sawdust this time!

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I used an oil based stain pre-conditioner to prepare the wood with a foam brush, waited for 15 minutes, then wiped off the excess with a piece of old t-shirt.  The Purdy brush pictured was just to remove the saw dust.  If you have a water-based stain, my understanding is that you can just use water!  However, I am relieved that I had the smelly oil based stain and pre-conditioner because other wise I’m sure the blue marks from above might be back!  Here’s after the pre-conditioner:

photo 1

Then I used a new foam brush and applied the wood stain in walnut.  I did this in an open garage with a Home Depot respirator on.  A little goes a long way.  I just wiped it on along the grain evenly in a thin coat, then waited for 20 minutes.

photo 2

I used another old t-shirt piece to wipe off the excess.  I really rubbed, not just wiped, to remove the excess.  A few of the wood defects actually continued to leach stain out for a couple hours to follow, which I kept chasing down with a rag to avoid dark splatter-looking spots, but the coating was overall quite even.  Any excess will result in a dark, sticky goo.  Let the stain dry for 24 hours.  Finally, speaking of scary stuff…dispose of the stain rags and foam brushes appropriately.

Lesson #4: Wood filler does not take stain very well.  Stain tends to emphasize the variation in wood.  The variation in wood filler just isn’t very pretty, so emphasizing is also not pretty.  It isn’t entirely wood so the stain is absorbed differently.  I’ve read here about using a stain pen on wood filler.  In my experience, the stained wood filler just looked like dirt caught between the wood boards and it would’ve been better left out.  Fortunately, by the time I’d screwed this thing up twice, most of the filler sanded away.

The next day, I came back to do my first coat of water-based poly-acrylic.  Does Home Depot have some kind of deal with Minwax?  It seems to be the only option.  For this, I used a nice Purdy brush and was careful to wash it with warm soap and water right after use.  the coating would start to dry within 10 minutes on either the brush or the wood.  I found that thin coats were best, but I did short but slow back-and-forth brush strokes to blend them all rather than long smooth strokes down the length of the table.  I went over the same small regions more than once, but covered the whole table in one pass going from one corner to the one kiddy-corner.  This is kind of what you do sweeping a floor or raking leaves.  I think this evened out the bubbles a little too.

After two coats, I remembered that the neighbor’s jigsaw had a little metal foot at the bottom and started to worry about damaging the surface.  So I said, “ok, I am ready to cut the sink hole since I have two coats of finish to protect the surface against gouging, but I can still repair it with the next coat.  Bryan, can you please use the neighbor’s jig-saw to cut this hole for me from the sink template?”

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Lesson #5: Finish cutting before you sand.  Before you stain.  And before you finish anything.  Duh.  Because the jig saw gouged my lovely finish.

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And it removed ALL of the finish under that spot.  No, I was not lucky and the over-mount sink did NOT cover the damage.

I resanded.  And got this:

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Note that the grain is still actually stained compared to the brand new board, which gave kind of a cool contrast.

Then I stained again.

And I finished it again, gently sanding each layer of finish before the next, as instructed by the can.  I’m not totally sure this made a difference.  It did make dust that I had to brush off every time.  I put on 4 coats of finish since this will be a bathroom countertop.

photo 1

Much better.

Finally, here it is installed again:

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Our contractor installed the counter top, sink (Kohler) and faucet.  Do not buy this Delta faucet.  Installed by a contractor and 30+ year experience plumber, the faucet would not turn off.  Hooray for Home Depot’s return policy.  Instead, we removed it, returned it and installed this lovely Moen faucet.  Murphy’s Law demanded that the first faucet was a lemon if only because my parents were coming to visit in two days, and we really wanted the sink to be working for their arrival.

Project cost:

  • $60 for the countertop, including my previous flop I think
  • $29 for the sink
  • $128 for functional faucet

This homemade guy is roughly half the cost of a cheap big box store vanity top and 1/10th of a granite countertop without a sink, if you already own the granite!

As you can tell, we have plenty more work to do in the bathroom, but I think I will be painting that cabinet white.  Chalk paint?  Or Ben Moore Advance?  Leave a comment.

Catch up on the bathroom saga:

Tiling: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Painting the bathroom