Examining Porcelain and Compact Sintered Surfaces
By Jessica McNaughton

There is a difference between porcelain surfacing materials and the compact sintered materials that have recently come to market, that label themselves as sintered stones, ultra-compact surfaces and pyrolithic stone. The manufacturing differences are substantial, and there are also fabrication and installation differences, all of which should be noted.

First and foremost, porcelain materials have been around for centuries and have evolved over time from their initial manufacturing techniques. Alternatively, the new compact sintered materials are an evolution of manmade stone, typically rooted in the quartz surfacing industry, and were largely developed to build upon the strength of quartz materials. They have been on the market for just about a decade.

Lumping all of these materials as “porcelains” is incorrect. Surfacing companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the creation of compact sintered materials, which are not the porcelain or ceramic materials that you may think you already know.

The New Entrants

There are a variety of compact sintered surfaces that have entered the market. Probably the three most well-known of these are Dekton by Cosentino, Neolith by TheSize and Lapitec. Cosentino is based in Spain and is probably most well known for their Silestone brand of quartz surfacing. Neolith is also based in Spain and also offers a line of branded natural granite known as Granith. And Lapitec is based in Italy, and is the brainchild of Breton, one of the largest suppliers and arguably the originator of quartz manufacturing equipment.

These brands use similar technologies, but each boasts something that differentiates it from the others. Dekton uses special manufacturing techniques, has several finishes and was quick to market, forging relationships with Home Depot in the United States and paving the way for these materials that are designed to be harder than stone and quartz. Neolith was hot on the heels of Dekton, getting into Lowe’s under the name Duralosa and after gaining a foothold began exploiting the material’s potential for exterior cladding and the available surface area in that market. Lapitec, backed by the horsepower and technical knowledge of Breton, waited on the market and its competitors, and has just, within the past few years, started to push into the U.S. market with its through-body colors and textured options.

What Are Compact Sintered Materials?

Sintering is the process of compacting and forming a solid mass of material by heat and/ or pressure without melting it to the point of liquefaction. Sintering happens naturally in mineral deposits or as a manufacturing process during which the atoms in the materials diffuse across the boundaries of the particles, fusing the particles together and creating one solid piece. So, by definition, porcelain, ceramic and compact sintered surfaces are all “sintered” materials. However, there are some major differences between these products.

Porcelain tiles are typically made with very dense clays that have water absorption of 0.5 percent or less. Non-porcelain tiles (such as ceramics) use clays that have a water absorption greater than 0.5 percent. Ceramic and porcelain tiles are shaped clay that is fired at extreme temperatures in a kiln. There are both glazed and unglazed porcelain. Glazed porcelains are baked twice, giving them their durability and luster. Some people refer to unglazed porcelain as “through body” ( i.e., the color on the top goes all the way through). However, most porcelains made for larger surfacing applications have a pattern applied only to the surface (often during the glazing process), which gives them the countless pattern options, decreased porosity and increased durability.

However, with newer compact sintered surfaces, the initial manufacturing of the slabs use proprietary processes with varying temperatures and ingredients, so when the heat is applied, the material forms differently. Some manufacturers can form the slab in such a way that the material is uniform throughout — in color and pattern, whereas porcelain for larger surfacing options have the pattern typically printed only on its top, whatever the pattern may be. Also, some of these sintered surfaces were designed for countertop applications, meaning they are 2 or 3cm thick. So, the original design intent and engineering were meant to be for full-sized, durable horizontal or vertical surfaces.

Positioning Porcelain

Porcelain has been on the market for a long time, but in recent years, as sintered stone showed that countertops and cladding are not outside the realm of a high performing material, manufacturers have begun to scale it up to larger panel sizes.

One upside here is that the companies that produce porcelain are known entities, and porcelain is a very well-known material. As such, these manufacturers can often easily work to scale up to large-format tile sizes, often achieving dimensions that are viable in countertop applications. The underlying technology has often not changed, and durability and customization have long been positive features of porcelain and ceramic.

Brands like Porcelanosa, Crossville, LAMINAM, Stile by MSI and Dal-Tile (along with numerous others) are sporting large-format porcelain tiles that can be used for cladding, flooring and even countertops. Because they are thin, the materials are typically lightweight and can be transported flat and installed using suction technology. Thicker slab materials must be transported using heavier and more expensive equipment like that used with the transport and installation of natural stone.

Porcelain Pros

Porcelain has centuries of use. It has been around for a long time for a reason — it is incredibly durable. It is thin, lightweight and there are hundreds of suppliers around the world, including countries with lower labor rates, which helps keep pricing down. In addition to its attractive price point, it is typically available in thinner profiles and the tooling and accessories needed for its installation are known by many in the tile space. Its durability holds up well in both interior and exterior uses. It is important to note that because the pattern is printed on top, the styles available in porcelain are unbounded.

Also, unlike many compact sintered surfaces, most porcelain does not have surface tension, meaning relief cuts do not have to be made before further fabrication can take place, whereas this is common practice with compact sintered surfaces.

Porcelain Cons

Some of the same things that can be considered pros can also be cons. A product that has been around forever may be largely unchanged for the current market needs. Enduring doesn’t necessarily mean optimizing. However, some suppliers are working to improve the products to meet modern needs, but the base technology does have its limitations.

In the case of multiple suppliers, another potential con of the product, you can find yourself in a mass of confusion about what is the best option. Many suppliers don’t have large (countertop or island sized) formats, or they are only available in a thin profile. This means for traditional countertop thicknesses, edge mitering (or possibly lamination) would be required.

Thinner in some cases can also mean a more brittle material when dealing with larger dimensions. Stone fabricators are often used to cutting only thicker, hardier slabs that generally aren’t as fragile as thinner materials. And, while endless patterns can be a really great quality, with the patterns printed on the surface, any cut-outs, such as those for a sink, or edges will result in a severing of that pattern leaving unprinted material exposed, giving up some visual continuity. Miter edges could leave lines or require extra work to hide.

Setting the Stage for Compact Sintered

It is worth reiterating that millions upon millions of dollars have been invested into creating compact sintered surfacing. Designed as something of a successor to quartz by improving heat and ultraviolet light resistances, this is not some fleeting product but rather a new generation of materials. And these products are certainly not just a new name for a product technology that already existed. Compact sintered surfaces are made to fill in some gaps in the surfacing categories to create a more universal product.

Pros of Compact Sintered

Holding up to staining, scratching, etching and UV light, compact sintered materials boast a lot of attributes. They also have a wide thermal range, making them very resistant to heat (yup, set down that hot pot) and cold or frost. All of these are also generally inherent characteristics of porcelains, though never really highlighted until now. Most interestingly, the new compact sintered materials are designed to be thicker for more durability, easier for fabrication experts to handle without breakage. Some have integrated technology that kill bacteria, microbes and break down carbon dioxide — yes, actually breaking down pollution. Some of these materials exert biomimicry, a hot term in the green building movement, where the material can break down as much CO2 as 25 or more trees. These materials were designed for modern day needs: give the customers the performance they want and give back to the environment. Some compact sintered materials can also offer full body (all the way through) coloring and patterning, and many offer the elaborate patterning of porcelains but in a thicker, sturdier format.

Cons of Sintered

Lack of knowledge is a tough hill to climb. Bringing a new category to market is difficult. As it was with quartz when it was introduced, getting fabricators to change their mind and work on something new is difficult. Though it is often the first movers who reap the rewards.

Compact sintered materials, granite, porcelain and quartz surfacing all fall at or around the same hardness on the Mohs scale, at right around a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. However, hardness isn’t the same as durability or scratch resistance. That said, when fabricating compact sintered materials, machinery generally must operate at slower feed rates, diminishing throughput (which in turn must be incorporated into the fabricators pricing structure). Also, as mentioned earlier, many require relief cuts to remove surface tension to help eliminate breakage during fabrication and require special cutting blades and different bits for plunges and cut-outs. They can also be more expensive than mainstream quartz, porcelain and natural stone, so that can be a barrier as well.

The Brands

There are hundreds of brands of porcelains, though the number that make large-format tiles are limited. And, porcelain is manufactured in nearly every corner of the world, so it is worth doing your homework to find out from which location your porcelain is sourced. It is readily available and there are enough options that you can get price competitive. It is a proven technology with well-known brands and suppliers reintroducing it to market. It can certainly be a great product in your line-up of offerings.

The sintered materials are more segmented as they are newer to market and still under patent protection for that product category, with each having its own combination of manufacturing ingredients. While they are all durable, UVstable and suitable for countertops, flooring and cladding depending on the application, they tend to have more differences and must be weighed against one another. For instance, different brands offer different numbers of through-body colors versus colors with surface-printed patterns and not all of them make all sizes, with thicknesses ranging from 3mm to 3cm and a variety in between. They also have varying textures, lengths and widths. Additionally, some are designed to be anti-microbial and graffiti-resistant, as well boast biomimicry properties, as mentioned previously. The key to finding the product that best fits in with your offerings is to research each of the options, learn about their properties and develop the skills necessary to fabricate and install them well.

Moving Forward

The overlap between porcelain and compact sintered stone is noticeable and it is obvious why there would be some confusion as both rely on high temperature compaction in their formation, which is the definition of sintered. However, compact sintered materials represent a newer next generation of engineered materials and are likely to see major growth in the coming years because of their unique properties.

There will be resistance to the expansion of these product categories, as there has always been when technologies have reoriented themselves in the marketplace or innovative new products arrive on the market. However, the performance, the look, the longevity and the attention to the future of surfacing is what will continue to carve out their spaces in the market. There’s no doubt these materials have arrived, survived and been revived.

About the Author

Jessica McNaughton is president of CaraGreen, a distributor of sustainable architectural materials. She has more than 15 years of strategic sales and marketing experience including successful product launches and partnering with architects and designers. She co-authored “Understanding Green Building Materials” and is a LEED AP. For more information visit www. caragreen.com or email [email protected]