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Swimming Pool Tile 101: Pros, Problems, Cost, and Design Ideas

If you’re looking to install or renovate your existing swimming pool, then the design process can seem intimidating. Breaking it down into smaller parts can help. One of the very first decisions any homeowner or contractor will need to make before beginning your project is regarding materials. Are you installing a gunite pool? Fiberglass? Vinyl? And what about finishings like pool tile and grouting?

Swimming pool tile is one of the most common finishings for modern pool designs, but making a choice that suits your pool can feel overwhelming. Luckily, we’ve created a small guide on the pros and cons of the three most common types of pool tile. From luxury glass tiles, to stone and ceramic, here’s everything you need to know before making a choice for your backyard swimming pool.

What is swimming pool tile?

As the name suggests, swimming pool tile is tile that is used to finish modern pools. While it may seem like picking pool tile is a simple enough procedure, there’s more that goes into the process than meets the eye.

First, you will need to determine the type of pool tile you are interested in. From there, your choices may only seem to expand. From color, to design, to how much or how little tile to include in your space, the process can feel overwhelming.

Knowing a little bit more about the pool tiling process, and common problems that can arise before the process even begins will help you be prepared to make smart choices.

Where does pool tile go?

There are three main areas where pool tiles can be placed. While you can tile an entire pool, this can create issues that we will discuss later on. For this reason, most contractors and designers will stick to placing pool tile in three general locations.

Waterline Tile

The first place pool tile is commonly applied is at the waterline. The waterline of the pool can be thought of as your pool’s “fill line”. It is located at the top of the pool rim under the coping. The reasoning behind placing tile here is a two fold solution.

First, this waterline tile acts as a kind of “scum line”. The waterline of your pool is where most scum and debris will collect, creating what some refer to as a “bathtub ring”. Without a buffer there, it would stain the edge of your pool’s plaster. Plaster stains easily and is much harder to clean than a good quality pool tile.

The second application for waterline tile is aesthetic. Adding tile beneath your pool’s coping is a fun way to combine function with design. Tiles in this application can be subtle, or create a pop of color that draws the eye around the pool’s perimeter.

Borders and Steps

The second common area of pool tile application is around borders and steps. Orienting yourself in a pool would be difficult without any lines to help distinguish features. Without contrasting coloring, you risk steps disappearing, or sudden and uncalled for changes in water depth. Pool tile can help to call these features out, while creating a more visually interesting space.

Many pool designers will create bordering tiles for pool stairs. This helps pool goers and swimmers to see these features while underwater, or while looking from above.

Water Features and Feature Walls

While most pool tiles are function first, design second, there is one application where aesthetic choices become kind. For those creating luxury backyard pools, water features and feature walls are all the rage. From sheer descents, to jet and waterfalls, there are a dazzling variety of additions to elevate the usual backyard swimming pool.

Water feature walls need to be water-resistant by function, but serve a distinctly visual purpose. For this reason, contractors will often use these spaces as an opportunity to get creative with tiling. Fun colors, shapes, and mosaic tiles are all fair game for feature walls.

Fully Tiled Pools

Finally, some pool contractors will be willing to design fully tiled pools for their clients. However, this is not the most commonplace application of swimming pool tile, and for good reason. Fully tiled pools are visually stunning. This is hard to argue with. However, fully tiled pools present new and ongoing challenges for homeowners who have to maintain them as the years go by.

A fully tiled pool also means a fully grouted pool. And while well-laid tile is durable, with so many square feet of finishing, over time there are bound to be repairs needed. Whether tile begins to crack and shift, or pop out altogether, you will eventually be on the phone looking for a repair.

Not only can this be costly over time, but you may face unexpected design challenges. Tile that was available five years ago may no longer be accessible for replacement. A grout color may be difficult to match. And you may not be able to find a reliable contractor who is able to do the work.

For all of these reasons, fully tiled pools are less common, though they do exist. Before you commit to the idea of a completely tile-lined swimming pool, weigh your options. Are you ready to spend the money on repairs? Prepared for potential setbacks? If yes, ensure you have an expert doing your work to help minimize future complications.

The Three Main Types of Pool Tile

There are three main types of pool tile. We dove further into detail on each article linked below. But for these purposes, here is a quick overview.

As you likely could deduce from the name, glass swimming pool tile is made from silicate glass material. This is the same silicate glass that manufacturers use in a variety of other applications and products.

Unlike their ceramic or stone counterparts, glass tiles are often small. Most samples contain tiles that are two square inches or smaller. These small tiles knit together to create bright, sparkling, colorful designs, all in different textures and opacities. This action of many small tiles coming together to create one large effect is often why many contractors and marketplaces refer to glass tile as glass “mosaic” tile, for their overall mosaic effect.

Ceramic is a material that has been used in pools for as long as they’ve been produced. The ceramic tiles that pool contractors utilize begin as familiar clay. This clay is then fired in a kiln at extremely high temperatures until it changes permeability, becoming waterproofed. Most ceramic pool tiles are also considered porcelain. This means they are a ceramic that has been fired at even higher temperatures until the color of the ceramic has become resistant to sun and chemical exposure.

In the world of ceramics, not all ceramic is porcelain, but all porcelain is a form of ceramic. If you can wrap your head around that puzzle, then you will be able to distinguish which materials are pool grade, and which should not be used in the building process. In the firing process, texture can be added to make them more functional for underfoot settings, such as your pool floor, or pool steps.

Stone pool tile is any swimming pool tile that is manufactured using a natural stone type. Types of stone can vary widely, but popular choices include granite, limestone, sandstone, marble, slate, and quartz.

Depending on the cut of stone, a wide range of finishes can be achieved in stone tile. While most ceramic and glass pool tile is created in geometric shapes, stone tile is often found in more organic cuts.

Shape and finish of the tile varies depending on their application. For example, stone pool tile used for the waterline will differ from that used on a pool deck. Some smaller tile options may come attached to mesh.

Swimming Pool Tile—Common Problems

At the end of the day, people love the look of a well-tiled pool. But getting to the finish line in a pool design process can be a challenge, and one that clients are not often ready for. We know that anticipating challenges is key to avoiding them. Here are some of the common issues that go along with the process of tiling your swimming pool.

Too Many Options

When it comes to swimming pool design, clients don’t typically have that much autonomy in the design process. Sure, they can choose the style and size of pool they’d like, but beyond that, much is determined by the shape of their yard, and the rest of their overall design. At the end of the day, there are two main categories for homeowner’s to pick between: plaster, and tile.

Plaster is easier to pick between—there are only so many options available. But once you say yes to tile, a world opens with very little concrete direction. When clients begin to sort through the tile options available, it can become overwhelming. This is where it is important to slow down, and think about what matters most to you. Understanding your cost, upkeep preferences, and personal aesthetic taste will go a long way in turning a sea of pool tile into a more manageable puddle. This struggle is why working with a good contractor is so important. Bad builders will rush you through the decision process. Quality design partners will work with you to make the right choice.

Contractors Who Lack Design Inspiration

We’re not all designers. Even if you do have a vision for your swimming pool, you’re most likely hiring someone to help you bring it to life. This is why picking the right pool contractor is the most important thing you can do to ensure your project is a success.

Picking the wrong contractor or designer to help you build this already very expensive project can result in your feeling unsupportive. Examples of this will play out when picking materials such as pool tile. Bad builders want to work with easy clients, who choose cheap, available materials quickly. This allows them to get you in and out of their calendar on a revolving door.

They are likely to green light anything that is easy to find, without any feedback or design direction. And while this may feel like a hurdle-free process, the end result is a pool with a poorly thought out design, and the risk of choosing bad quality pool tile.

No Tile, No Pool

In the same vein of under inspired contractors, you have the reality that most pool builders won’t even begin work until materials are picked. That means you need to be committed to a pool tile before ground is ever broken. If you are in this position, are overwhelmed by choice, and have a contractor who is not helping you navigate the market, then you’ll be waiting a long time for your dream pool to ever materialize.

Overall, homeowners often enter this process assuming that the construction of their project will be the most stressful part. In truth, some of the most frustrating parts of swimming pool constructions happen before ground is ever broken.

Choosing a pool tile can be a frustrating and confusing process if you do not have all of the information you need. Help yourself by understanding the types of tile available to you, and working with a company you trust to assist you when challenges arise.

Where to Buy and Browse Pool Tile is one of the largest resources for pool materials available online. It is a go to for builders and designers alike looking to browse the market and view available options. Pick from glass, ceramic, mosaic, and stone varieties.

If you’re looking to browse from anywhere, online retailers like Amazon may have what you’re looking for. If you find a tile you like, we still recommend finding the parent company to ensure you are receiving a quality product.

If you’re looking to expand your options, don’t exclude resources like Etsy. Private sellers may just have what you’re looking for. Of course, take care to only shop from reputable stores with excellent reviews.

Local Distributors

Different areas of the country have different availability when it comes to material. Working with local suppliers will help you understand what is available close to your location, which may speed up your construction timeline.

Work With Your Contractor

We recommend working with your pool builder to ensure you are getting the best quality product on the market. Looking online for inspiration or examples of tile you like can be a good way to present these ideas to your designer, who can let you know the best way to source them.

Pool Tile Design Ideas

If you’re thinking about designs for your next swimming pool, or are looking to upgrade what you have, here are a few of our favorite pool tile design ideas. From matching your patio to coordinating with your greenery, these tips aim to seamlessly incorporate your swimming pool into the rest of your backyard living space.

Match Tile to Hardscaping

Most people want every area of their outdoor space to feel like it belongs together. Pool tile is a great way to create a design narrative between other hardscaping, and your swimming pool. Matching your pool tile to other hardscaping in your outdoor space will help tie the design together without feeling overwhelming.

For instance, if you have played with natural stone pavers, or steppers in the rest of your property, consider tying this together with stone pool tile. If you have stained your concrete a dark shade, consider mirroring this in the tile chosen for your pool. This concept can go beyond color as well.

Matching the shape of your tile with other hardscaping elements in your space can also help tie the place together. If you have long, linear lines throughout your yard, consider bringing thinner, more linear tile into your pool design. If you have played with geometric or organic shapes elsewhere, try incorporating a similar shape in your pool tile design.

Coordinate Tile with Furnishings

Love the idea of a pop of color in your pool, but don’t want it to feel out of place? Make brighter colored tile work in your space by bringing in similar shades around the pool. Outdoor furniture or even high quality pool deck furniture presents plenty of opportunities to play with bright colors.

A pop of red on cushions on your seating area can be echoed in the waterline tile of your pool. Deep blues in your feature wall look great mimicked in the upholstery of your couch and chairs. Small details like this will work together to give you an outdoor space that feels cohesive.

Play Off Of Plantings

Another great and subtle way to bring the tile design of your pool into the common space in a more meaningful way is to look to nature for your design cues. Working with a landscaper to incorporate more color planting around your pool deck can give you an opportunity to mirror those colors in your pool.

Flowers that bloom all summer long will help colorful waterline tiles to pop. If you have less opportunity for green space, incorporating raised beds or large container planters can be another way to tie the whole space together.

Pool Tile is Not One Size Fits All

When it comes time to finish your pool, picking the right swimming pool tile can get frustrating. But all processes are simpler when armed with the right information. Knowing what kind of tile you’re looking for, as well as having a reliable team of builders and designers on your side can help this sometimes painful process feel like a walk in the park—or a swim in a brand new, finished pool.

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