Mother Earth Living

Make a Splash: Backsplash Options for Your Kitchen and Bathroom

Incorporate your personal style into your kitchen and bathroom by treating the backsplash as a work of art.
By Angie Pache
September/October 2006
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The backsplash is a perfect area to add decorative touches such as iridescent tiles from Oceanside Glasstile, made with a percentage of recycled glass.

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A backsplash’s basic function is to protect your walls and cabinets from water, grease and spills. It’s sometimes treated as nothing more than an extension of the countertop, yet this decorative surface can set the tone for an entire room. When you enter a kitchen or bathroom or view it from afar, the backsplash is often the first thing you see.

A backsplash is a vertical surface set back from the main work area behind a sink or stove; it catches cooking and cleaning splatters, so unless you’re willing to clean after each use, you might want a surface that hides minor messes. In selecting backsplash materials, consider your cooking and cleaning habits, as well as the tasks you usually perform near the range or sink. Factor in durability and cost, and remember that the backsplash is the place to add personality, bold color accents, subtle glimmer or souvenirs from your travels.

Soapstone Slab or Tile
Smooth, soft, nonporous stone

• Durable; won’t burn or stain
• Requires little maintenance
• Requires nontoxic sealant (mineral oil)
• Acids and alkalis won’t etch surface
• Nearly seamless joints possible
• Endures temperature changes

• Nonrenewable material
• Monthly mineral-oil reapplications recommended to maintain luster and color
• Can look worn over time  
• Only available in light gray, which oxidizes to dark charcoal

Cost: Tile (12x12-inch)--$8 to $12 per tile; Slab--$70 to $85 per square foot

• Install with conventional cutting and finishing tools
• Cut to size on job site

Care & Maintenance:
• Apply initial coat of mineral oil upon installation; reapply monthly
• Clean with damp sponge and cleanser
• Sand scratches out by hand
• Stains may dissipate and patina over time

Green Points:
• Natural, inert material
• Not polished or honed, so requires less off-site finishing, lowering embodied energy
• Nontoxic sealant

Find it:
• Green Mountain Soapstone; (802) 468-5636

Recycled-Glass Tile
Mosaic tiles containing a percentage of recycled glass

• Adds light and beauty to a small space
• Reflective surface adds texture
• Wide variety of colors that blend well with many materials (granite, wood, concrete)
• Easy to clean and maintain; smaller tiles means less grout

• Cost can be high for large areas
• Custom mosaics entail labor costs
• Some sanded or matte finishes inappropriate behind cooking range (unless properly sealed)

Cost: $45 to $100 per square foot

• Hire a qualified tile contractor experienced with glass tile installation
• Use sanded grouts
• Mastic (also called “organic” adhesive) isn’t appropriate for places that will get wet—and it can turn yellow behind clear or translucent tiles

Care & Maintenance:
• Requires little maintenance
• Clean with mild detergent and warm water; avoid abrasive cleaners
• Sealer recommended

Green Points:
• Uses a percentage of recycled glass, depending on style and color.

Find it:
• Oceanside Glasstile (up to 85 percent recycled content)
• Sandhill Industries (100 percent recycled content); (208) 345-6508

Handmade Tile
Handmade tile made from post-consumer and post-industrial glass waste

• Adds personality and character
• Wide range of colors and design
• Cost can be controlled by limiting intricate details
• Unique tile designs may not suit all aesthetic tastes
• Larger grout joints require more grout and frequent sealer reapplication

Cost: $13 to $90 per square foot

• Use sanded grout with acrylic additive
• Seal grout according to the sealant manufacturer’s instructions

Care & Maintenance:
• Requires little maintenance
• Clean with mild detergent and warm water; avoid abrasive cleaners
• Sealer recommended

Green Points:
• 100 percent recycled glass
• No pigments or any other material added

Find it:
• Blazestone Tile; (206) 283-7625

Vulcanite Tile
Large tiles made from slabs of volcanic lava that are fired and glazed

• Natural material with a variety of textures and finishes—from high-gloss to matte glazes
• Available in 20 standard colors with 200 shades available through special order
• Durable and easy to care for

• Is fired (twice) at extremely high temperatures, using lots of energy
• Limited sizes available
• High cost

Cost: About $150 per square foot

• Use a multipurpose thinset (available in hardware stores); pieces may vary somewhat in thickness
• Apply penetrating epoxy to adhere compound bullnose edges
• Sanding grout is optional

Care & Maintenance:
• Vulcanite is presealed; reseal twice a year with water-based sealant

Green Points:
• Stone is noninvasively harvested (lava boulders are collected from open fields in Mexico and cut into slabs)
• Glazes produced without lead
• All glaze overspray and waste is collected and recycled

Find it:
• Vulcanite Tile; (408) 275-1182

Recycled-Plastic Sheets
EcoResin Sheets from 3form are translucent, copolyester sheet materials made from 40 percent postindustrial, reclaimed plastic

• Variety of textures, colors and patterns
• Unlimited custom capabilities
• Easy to clean; chemical resistant
• Very durable; has 40 times the impact strength of glass

• Though inexpensive, cost depends on the sheet thickness; some textures only available in thicker gauges
• Limited sheet sizes (4x8 or 4x10 feet) can increase waste; custom cuts available

Cost: $10 to $17 per square foot (1/8-inch thickness)

• Install like composite wood-based boards with traditional tools (saws, drills, screws)
• Cut on site, shatter resistant
• Requires no finishing
• 3form offers a variety of custom-installation hardware

Care & Maintenance:
• Requires little maintenance
• Easy to clean; impervious to harsh products, such as bleach or citrus acids
• Sand scratches out by hand

Green Points:
• Made from reclaimed plastics
• Nontoxic, PVC free
• LEED certified
• Panels can be recycled through 3form and its partner companies

Find it:
• 3form; (800) 726-0126

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