I think the search for finish materials is possibly one of the more difficult aspects of a bathroom renovation.

Yes, in spite of all of the other complex, planning, and pain in the butt items, I'm totally serious. When you look at even a "simple" overhaul, you're still changing just about every major surface in a bathroom, and all of those surfaces have to come from somewhere.

In our case, by the time we're done with the bathroom, we'll have had to source wainscoting, floor tile, shower tile, hardware, fixtures, wall panelling for the closet, a vanity, a tub (got that one done 10 years ago), shower glass, crown molding, trim details, and so many little odds and ends that it's hard to wrap my mind around the whole thing. (Wendy is now reminding me that list doesn't even include any of the accessories, curtain fabric, or the eternally important paint color.)

Overall, we've been pretty lucky. We've knocked out each selection step by step, in a sometimes last minute, but typically cost conscious manner that has ended up with pretty great results. The only thing we've had to grow to like was the bead size on the beadboard wainscoting. However, there are two major items still on our list that have been giving us some major heartburn, the shower tile and the vanity (and other misc) marble.

We've long been pondering our shower tile, but one thing has been certain all along, we want subway tile. The problem today is, subway is not always just plain old subway tile. Confusing enough?

You see, subway tile was popularized at the turn of the 20th century. It's sterile and no nonsense look adorned the walls of many floors and walls, from bathrooms to hospitals, and butchers to its namesake, subway stations.

The lines were simple, its glazing easy to keep clean, and the measurements were standard at 3" by 6" rectangles and 4" by 4" squares. Here's a classic Library of Congress photo of New York's City Hall subway ticket station showing the use of subway tile at the turn of the 20th century in all of it's subway glory. Amazing what you can do with two sizes of tile.

Over the years colors were added to the mix, as were alternate shapes and sizes. Today, subway tile is a generic term for any simple and usually rectangular tile. You've got beveled subway, stone subway, glass subway, crackled, textured, dimpled, concave, convex, and on and on and on. What ever happened to the simple porcelain and sterile white subway tile we've all come to know and love?

I mean, we installed "subway tile" in our guest bathroom shower, and it's 2" by 8". I loved it at install, and still love it today, but it feels like we've done something in our home we're not supposed to have done.

The subway we installed in our kitchen fits our stereotype of subway tile. Porcelain, white, 3" by 6", but I'm picky, and I didn't want to use it in our bathroom.

Why? Because I'm a bit of a snob. No really, I'm about to write one of the most ridiculously pretentious things ever. I don't like our kitchen tile because it's so obviously not hand made.

Ugh, I suck so bad. I feel like Ed Norton in Fight Club talking about his "hand-blown green glass dishes with the tiny imperfections, all made by the hard-working indigenous aboriginal peoples of wherever..."

But it's true. Our house is 125 years old, and it's imperfect throughout. There isn't a right angle to be found, not a straight or truly flat surface in sight, and anything "original" would have been either hand made or created in a more crude time of machinery and mechanical fabrication.

Perfectly smooth and consistent machine made tiles just don't really look right in our home. But the rub of this whole debate, handmade tiles are much more expensive than machine made.

After doing quite a bit of research the "accurate" tile for our subway bathroom walls would have been a square cut subway. The edges of these tile are not rounded like modern tile, but far more abrupt. Just look at a bathroom or kitchen that was put in before 1920 and you'll see the telltale signs of this old fashioned tile.

You can still buy this tile today from several places, such as Subway Ceramics, but it ain't cheap. You'll likely spend about $20 per square foot on this tile from the most inexpensive shops. Compare that to about $9 for our floor marble, and about $4 for the big box white subway. We're using about 95 square feet of tile in our bathroom, so this is not chump change.

So our search for a subway tile that was irregular enough to look hand made and appropriate for our bathroom without breaking the bank dragged on for quite some time. We looked online, in tile shops, in catalogs, and generally all over. It wasn't until we were both home in the middle of the week one day where we decided to drop into the Architectural Ceramics showroom on Union Street in Alexandria.

We met with Ashley and told her what we are doing and what we were looking for. As soon as we described it her eyes lit up and she said, "I have just the tile for you." She walked over, grabbed a few sample pieces, and put them on the table for us.

Ashley described the tile as "machine made, but it looks hand made." She was absolutely right. The subtle imperfections a pretentious a-hole such as myself expects from a handmade tile were all over the place, and not in a predictable and repeatable pattern. The tile totally looked handmade.

Certain we'd be paying an arm and a leg of we went this route, we asked her for pricing. We were shocked to learn the field tile would be just over $6 per square foot. It felt too good to be true!

We sketched out the whole shower area where this tile is being installed and put the estimation of quantity into Ashley's capable hands. She suggested the necessary bullnose pieces for the transition areas, total square footage, and put our order in for us. What was complicated suddenly became simple.

If you're calculating the amount of subway tile you need, there's a pretty simple rule of thumb for it. Take the total square footage of the space you're tiling times 1.15 (for a 15% addition to account for cuts and breakage), and you've got the square footage of the tile you'll need to purchase.

Last week, on a very rainy day, we took a quick trip out to the Chantilly, Virginia showroom and warehouse for Architectural Ceramics and picked up our tile order.

It was a quick and painless pickup and we used the trip as an opportunity to search for another material selection for our bathroom, the marble supplier that might ultimately make the top for our vanity. But that's another story for another time.

The tile we ordered is made up of the standard field tile, bullnose on the long side for the borders of the shower, and bullnose on the short side for an outside corner area inside of the shower.

Now we have our tile in hand and all we have to do is put all of it up on the wall. Work and life have been crazy the last week, so it feels like we have little time for anything, but we're trying to plug away. Let's hope this weekend brings good DIY karma from the renovation gods and we can get this show on the road. Fingers crossed!

Comments 14

Comments

Jan
8/29/2014 at 12:24 PM

Yay! I don't think you're being pretentious at all. Honor the history of the house and make it look awesome. And I totally understand the work craziness. Need to repaint garage door and front door. Maybe in 2015 ... or 16 Alt grinning

Alex
9/5/2014

I'd love to take a vacation where I do nothing but work on the things I need to work on. But I guess that's not much of a vacation, right?

Alex
9/5/2014

Alt smile

Gaidig
9/4/2014 at 1:10 AM

On the one hand, I totally get it. On the other hand, if you want to be totally period accurate, you're going to have to start using an outhouse and a basin.

Alex
9/5/2014

Hah, you're right. "Period accurate" can only go so far when it comes to modern conveniences. I think an indoor period accurate bathroom from the time our house was built would definitely smell a lot worse on account of the massive amount of sewer gas in the room.

9/5/2014 at 3:34 PM

Love this. I would use this for my bathroom. The walls are ugly, and don't worry about sounding pretentious. People change their homes constantly to suit their taste.

Kelly
4/30/2015 at 10:55 AM

I'm glad to have found your blog! You two sure have done a LOT of work. We are just beginning and it's daunting. And now I'm worried about which subway tile to choose in terms of quality. Aaaahhhh!

samantha
8/29/2015 at 9:56 PM

Wait - did you specify which tile you ended up using? I'd love to have the brand name and style # if you have them. We are in the same situation of trying to balance cost with authenticity. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

Heidi
10/28/2015 at 9:13 AM

Looking for specific info on tile

Wendy
10/29/2015

Hi Samantha. We ordered it directly through a company called Architectural Ceramics. (architecturalceramics.com) The invoice refers to the tile as "3x6 basics snow white glossy ceramic wall tile" and my guess is that they're reselling the product. The boxes themselves say "Casa Vogue" on them.

Jen M
10/22/2015 at 10:01 AM

I love the tile you chose. Can you please comment with the brand and name of the tile?

Wendy
10/29/2015

Thanks, Jen! We ordered it directly through a company called Architectural Ceramics. (architecturalceramics.com) The invoice refers to the tile as "3x6 basics snow white glossy ceramic wall tile" and my guess is that they're reselling the product. The boxes themselves say "Casa Vogue" on them.

amalia konstas
4/1/2016 at 10:00 PM

Can you tell me the tile you used for the listello?

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