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:
Here is a close-up of the backsplash underneath the pass-through:
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.
- 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.)
- Florida Tile (guess where…this is a large company that works through distributors)
- Crossville Tile (Tennessee; ditto as far as size)
- Sonoma Tile (handcrafted in California, many distributors.)
- 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.)
- Stonepeak Ceramics (didn’t feel quite right for our humble kitchen)
- 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)
- Check this list, which has a couple brands that I didn’t explore,
- 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).
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.
- 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.
- Florida Tile has at least 40% recycled content, but it seems to be pre-consumer. They also monitor their resource usage in manufacturing.
- Crossville Tile has a variety of 5-50% pre-consumer content lines, but some lines have no recycled content.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
(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