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Wood Effect Tiles: Taking on the Timbermen?

Updated on August 18, 2016


From the late 90’s onwards, the tile industry experienced the benefit of technological advancements, better enabling it to compete against the wooden floor industry. Consumers now have more options to choose from than just those provided by the local timber floor merchant.

Aged Wood Effect Floor Tiles in Artist's Studio
Aged Wood Effect Floor Tiles in Artist's Studio

Digital Design Changes the Game

  • The older screen-printing processes became obsolete as digital printing replaced them as the primary mode of creating designs and patterns on tiles. The manufacturers soon became adept at exploiting the numerous benefits resultant from these advances.
  • Because tiles have a slight bevel around their surface, it had previously not been possible to print a design all the way to the edge. The new contactless method enabled the inks to follow the curve and cover the entire visible face. This improved the appearance of wood effect tiles, as they no longer had a “frame” around them.
  • Similarly, it became possible to successfully print on surfaces with a relief or texture. Tiles replicating riven slate, pebbles, or woodgrain would become far more realistic from this development.
  • Hand in hand with this was a superior high definition finish, as the printing became more accurate, and with less image instability as a consequence of pigment leeching.

Over only a few years, the manufacturers and designers had learnt to take full advantage of the new tools at their disposal. There is now virtually no discernible difference between the visual appearance of a wood effect tile, and the plank of natural timber it is striving to emulate.

Wood Effect Tiles in Hipster Apartment
Wood Effect Tiles in Hipster Apartment

Style Versatility

The positive impact of these new processes extended further than simply imitating existing wood flooring. Natural timber could be replicated with great accuracy, both in terms of detail and plank dimensions. However, it was the freedom of design, and the new opportunities afforded, that began to see the tile industry become style leaders rather than followers with their wood effect tiles.

No longer were customers restrained to choosing a common variety of timber, but a market opened up for variations on the theme. Before long, tiles were available that precisely replicated distressed wood. Different colours were being added to give the impression of worn paint. Others led the way in dyed wood type tiles. Fossilized effects could now be produced.

Where there had once been little demand for actual reclaimed wood, most factories now offer a variation on the theme, in several colour schemes. In fact, the only restriction on what can be produced lies with the designers themselves. The technological proficiency is such that any worthwhile concept can come to fruition.

Driving fashion is always a goal for any player in any industry that creates tangible products whose selling points are almost entirely aesthetic. No sooner does a design concept become successful for one manufacturer, then all others follow suit. It is this hugely competitive atmosphere that provides the breeding ground for creativity, ultimately to the benefit of the consumer. As a result, a wide variety of wood effect tiles is available in a multitude of styles, colours, lengths, and textures.

It’s difficult for the timber industry to strike back. There are inherent limitations on processes that can be applied to natural solid wood and engineered floors. Only laminate floors can offer more scope for design, and they certainly have their place at the value end of the flooring world. However, where budget allows, customers have always tended to opt for natural timber merchandise.

Where the tiles have a marginal disadvantage, however, is in the final appearance of a fully installed and grouted floor. To allow for expansion and contraction of the floor in accordance with fluctuations in temperature, a minimum joint gap of 1.5 millimetres is recommended. This is a characteristic not present with genuine timber floors, which are usually butt jointed.

Furthermore, the transfer of heat through glazed clay is quicker than woodgrain, meaning that tiles are cooler to the touch than a wood floor – although these relative insulation properties ensure that a ceramic or porcelain floor will become warm quicker when an underfloor heating system is present.

Aged Wood Effect Floor Tiles
Aged Wood Effect Floor Tiles

Maintaining the Floor

There is little left to do after tiles have been fitted in terms of maintenance. Because of the durability of the glazed surface, and its impermeability, the finish of the tile can last for decades. In the event of a major spillage, particularly of anything that is liable to stain, the only issue is grout discolouration. However, there are several products on the market which can restore grout to its original colour. They are generally inexpensive, and it is not a job that requires a professional to be hired.

From the point of view of daily cleaning, a hoover, a sweep or light mop is all that’s required. It’s this simplicity and lack of hassle that consumers are increasingly considering when weighing up their options before selecting their flooring product.

The same daily cleaning processes apply to natural wooden floors. It should be noted, however, that an excess of water when mopping can cause problems. Because it can seep down between the joints, there is a chance that some of it will be absorbed by the planks. This will eventually cause expansion of the wood, which may lead to upward buckling as the pressure becomes too intense for the floor to hold its shape.

It is highly recommended, therefore, that manufacturer’s instructions are carefully followed, and that any advice regarding the choice of cleaning products is taken.

Dyed Wood Effect Tiles in Modern Apartment
Dyed Wood Effect Tiles in Modern Apartment

Floor Restoration

One of the most important issues with regard to natural wooden floors concerns periodic restorative measures that need to be undertaken. With traffic, the surface will wear away over time, and become unsightly. Add to that all the scratches, dents, and stains that can damage the floor over time, and eventually there will be no alternative than to sand down the floor and reapply the finish.

How long before this needs to be done will depend on the levels of use, and to an extent, the hardness of the wood. It’s a costly undertaking, and must be factored into the final outlay for the product, taking into account the expected lifespan of the floor. Also, the depth of wood between the surface and the tongue and groove system will dictate how many times in total this can be done, give that up to 1 millimetre of depth of wood will be lost at every sanding.

Obviously, this is an issue that does not arise for wood effect floor tiles.

Madera Salvaged Wood Effect Floor Tiles in Restaurant
Madera Salvaged Wood Effect Floor Tiles in Restaurant

Price Tags

Aside from ongoing maintenance expense, the cost of some of the less ubiquitous types of woods can be prohibitively high for most people. Species that are indigenous only to distant locations, such as Brazilian Walnut, will find themselves at the higher end of the price spectrum.

Wood effect tiles all cost roughly the same to make, for any given size. It follows that there will be no price difference to a retail customer between, for example, a pine effect or merbau effect. In essence, this means there is no part of a range inaccessible to the final purchaser, which is often not the case when they are perusing a collection of natural wood floors.

Atelier Wood Effect Tiles in Modern Living Room
Atelier Wood Effect Tiles in Modern Living Room | Source

To Wrap Up

An expensive, well-maintained wooden floor is a delight in any home. However, more and more homeowners are opting for wood effect floor tiles as the modern, maintenance-free alternative. Visually, it is very hard to tell the difference between the two.

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