Kitchen Backsplash Inspiration: Tile vs. Slab
In the next year or so, we’re re-doing our kitchen. This has me hunting for a backsplash to go behind our range, which is going to be giant at 56 inches wide.
We’re looking for clean, classic materials that will age well. Think British countryside home. No fake aging, no antique treatments, but materials that are tactile and will show their age, as they age, in a way that will fit in with the house. After much searching, this has left me with two primary candidates – encaustic cement tiles, or a soapstone slab.
Concrete tiles are having a bit of a moment. The matte look, imperfections (each is individually handmade), and variations in shapes and sizes goes very well in a antique like ours, where anything shiny and new feels out of place.
Above is my all-time favorite cement tile. I saw it in person (it’s from Popham Design, a UK company, but is carried by Ann Sacks), and it is gorgeous – a great size, and a unique shape. They have lots of colors you don’t see on the site, including a dark gray that is right up my alley. I love the idea of using stars with a modern edge in an antique colonial (nothing goes with an antique American home quite like stars). Plus, I could control how many stars and what size, so that the pattern still stays ‘quiet’ while being unique.
That said, I have a lot of reservations about using cement tiles as a backsplash. When we were in Miami on vacation, there were cement tile floors everywhere, including high traffic areas like restaurants. Here’s our hotel restaurant in Miami, with a fun, high impact yellow and white tile:
They stain, they wear, they age, and in general, this doesn’t bother me because they’re meant to. But over a range, I’m concerned that they won’t just age, they’ll have grease stains that will never even out, and will be difficult (or impossible) to clean, since they mark easily. A scrub brush could easily scratch or pit them. I cook every day. That means a lot of mess, a lot of oil, a lot of risk for gross.
Another warning sign – there’s some, but not much, inspiration out there for kitchens with concrete tile backsplashes. Examples are often busy patterns that might better hide stains, while I’m interested in something simple.
Does this mean that it’s just an unusual idea or simply not practical? Vendors will tell you that concrete tiles hold up great as a backsplash, contractors will tell you they replace the tiles (on floors – I haven’t found any who have done a backsplash) because owners don’t like an aged look, or how they scratch and become marked up when cleaned, and that no matter how well sealed, oil will stain them.
So, I decided to put wear and tear to the test with some concrete tile samples. They only come unsealed, so I knew it wouldn’t be a perfect experiment, but boy oh boy do they stain with even a teeny bit of oil. They appear completely porous. But, when I rubbed in the oil and left it to dry …
Turns out pretty nice! When I rubbed a tile with oil, and even when I added more oil, you can’t really tell that there are different ‘layers’ of oil, and the whole thing stays pretty. So maybe the best thing would be to install, seal, and once the seal is cured rub the tile with oil to treat it? A little like how some people rub tomato sauce on their new marble countertops to make them look aged, and so they don’t worry about stains?
I mean, it’s a risk, but could look really cool. It’s also such a small area of tile (about twenty square feet) that if I had to replace it down the line it wouldn’t be so hard on the wallet.
Now, the safer, but pricier, bet would be a soapstone backsplash.
I love the option above. It’s old world, but tailored. It has a lot that is similar to what we’re going for – soapstone counters, a large range, a hidden hood, white walls but darker base cabinets, and a patterned floor. It certainly convinces me that a nice, veined slab of soapstone is a safe idea.
We had soapstone counters in our old apartment, and currently have them in our home. We plan on putting them in the new kitchen as well. Clearly, we love them – soapstone completely spoils you. It ages beautifully, you can put the hottest of hot pots on them with no worry, and if there are (small) chips it only makes them look better. The one drawback, and it’s a big one, is the maintenance. In our old apartment, we had to oil the soapstone regularly or else it became chalky gray wherever it had gotten wet, rather than a nice matte black. It looked inconsistent (and messy) without upkeep. In our house, though, we haven’t needed to oil once and it looks fantastic. Based on my research, this varies slab to slab. Some just require more work.
One detail I also like from the pictures of the kitchen above and below is how they continued the soapstone detail not just behind the range but also under the window frames. With the layout of our kitchen, where the range sits between two windows, we could put a slab backsplash and simply continue the soapstone under the windows as sills, as done here. So reassuring to see it well done.
I would love to do something like this, only with a reverse color scheme (light walls, dark backsplash) using a very veiny soapstone:
This kitchen has basically broken the internet for a reason. It is timeless, can be styled so many ways, the use of dark green is so unique, but of course the centerpiece is that stone. And folks, I adore it, but I could never have it. First, I don’t think they have rules about range fans in England, which allows for much more gorgeous, open design, but I love a hood – not for looks but for getting rid of cooking smells, the inevitable smoke, etc. And marble. Oh, marble in the kitchen! You are so beautiful, but so, so silly. It doesn’t matter how many bloggers and designers claim it holds up fine – it does not. Even rubbed with tomatoes to pre-stain it, it looks pitted. I had a gorgeous marble island in our old place, and each little drop of wine, each spray of lemon juice, even a plant set on the stone, left an indelible etch and stain. Even honed, as it ages, I’ve never seen it anything but brand new or barely used, or sad and pitted. To channel my inner Dr. Seuss – it stains polished, it stains honed, in stains in every home I’ve owned. It stains with tomatoes, it stains with wine, it stains each and every time.
It just does. BUT, a wall-spanning slab and shelf made of soapstone? With a brass-framed shelf? I could certainly live with that!