03 April 2009

Reader question: Can I paint tumbled marble?

Help! Is it possible to paint on tumbled marbled tiles with permanent pigment inks and seal it with a sealant? Can this then be used for a kitchen backsplash?  If yes, then what brand of permanent pigment inks are best to use and which sealant to use?

Hmmmmm. You aren't indicating to me whether or not these tumbled marble tiles are already on a wall or if they're in a box waiting to be placed on a wall. In either case, my advice remains the same. Sure you can paint tumbled marble tile, but just because you can doesn't mean you should. So stop right now and don't do it. Make some coasters out of that tile because that's about all it's good for.

Let me disclaim something here. I hate tumbled marble. I think it looks cheesy and cheap. There, I said it. Tumbled marble is made from marble and travertine that's not of sufficient quality to be used without the tumbled finish. In other words, it's made from the reject pile. It would be one thing if it were sold as a cheap material made from rejects, but it's not. People think of it as being some kind of classy addition to their homes but it's anything but. It's a spongy, soft material that sucks up whatever liquid gets near it. That's why it makes a good coaster but a really lousy back splash.

It's sort of like giving someone a fur coat only to admit later that it's a rabbit fur coat. It's a cheap imitation of luxury and it looks bad at the same time. Ugh. See these photos littering this post today? This is what bad kitchen renovations look like and what do all of them have in common? Cheesy, cheap tumbled marble, that's what. There are no shortcuts to character. Putting a rough finish on formerly rejected stone tile doesn't make it look interesting, it makes it look cheap.

So my advice to you is don't do it. Don't paint it, don't stain it and don't use it. If it's already on the wall, chip it off and start over. If you're itching to do something with your back splash and you don't have a whole lot of money to spend I can understand that. Frankly at this stage of the game I can relate to it too. 

A better idea if you're looking to tile a back splash is to just get plain, white 6" x 3" ceramic tiles and set them in a subway pattern. You can find those tiles for a quarter apiece if you're clever and setting tile is really easy. Install a white tile back splash and use white grout with it. It's a classic pattern and it's been around for more than 150 years. Don't get cute with it and it will look great forever. And by cute I mean by cutting in inserts and listellos. Just keep it basic and make your kitchen interesting with accessories, but just a few of them. Contrast the ceramic tile photo above with the festival 'o cheese above it. You know, the one with the red toaster. That kind of stuff makes my eyes bleed. Is that what you want? I hope not. Tumbled marble always ends up looking like that --cheesy. Don't do it. 


  1. First of all, Paul, I love your blog and I read it daily! Even though I slightly disagree with you about tumbled stone in the right size / setting.

    Second, if you haven't scared your reader away from using tumbled stone, I thought I might share that I had an artist client who worked with india ink. She really wanted to add some of her unique personality to her bathroom by painting some accent tiles, so we applied several layers of sealer to the tile first, and then she painted them with the india ink (all prior to installation). It was difficult because the marble was so porous, and she needed to apply several layers of the ink to make it dark enough. But eventually it worked and she was happy with it. We then added a couple more coats of the sealer on top of the inked tiles. I'm not sure if she needed to reapply any of the ink over time, though it's likely.

  2. Thank you Nicole. I am a man of extremes, I either love or hate things. I don't go much for in-betweens I've made peace with this over the years and in fact have learned to run with it. Sometimes I get carried away and run over people. Look, it's one man's opinion and I hope I can get a couple of laughs out of people as I rant. I still hate tumbled marble, but I do love self-expression in its many forms. Your story is introducing a grey area, an in-between that's making me sweat. I need extremes! So although I'm not crazy about the medium, I love the idea of painting in india ink. Painting in ink reminds me of Chinese ink-painted furniture from the Qing dynasty. Almost primitive but still really structured --beautiful stuff.

  3. Yikes, Paul... I used tumbled travertine in my previous kitchen and thought it looked great!! I'm sure you're right about these types of tiles being "rejects" - makes complete sense to me. I'll have to put some thought into whether I agree about the value or look of tumbled marble, though. I mean, the examples you posted are NOT attractive. But I've seen examples of where it really works (my old kitchen being one). What I like about the look is the juxtaposition of smooth surfaces with a more "natural", rougher surface - with stainless steel and rustic finishes. So maybe it's about doing tumbled marble/travertine properly??? IS there a properly?? Maybe not for you, a man of extremes ;-)
    Victoria @ DeignTies

  4. I think what bothers me most about tumbled marble is that it's a cheap imitation of unfilled and honed travertine. I like to juxtapose finishes too. A lot. In my mind, doing it properly would involve a rough stone of any kind, although being around honed marble, honed travertine, honed limestone, any of them --makes me lose control of myself. Honed a thousand times yes. Tumbled? Not on your life!

  5. You're always so insightful, and a joy to read. Let me add my two-cents here about the subway tile idea. (A) I love white subway tile for the same reasons you do, but (B) I have found that white grout is a colossal pain in the backside to keep white in the kitchen. Enlighten me as to some really permanent, truly impermeable sealers so I can recommend this crisp solution to my clients without condemning them to constant maintenance, especially around the cook top!

  6. It's all about nanosealers Jamie. Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrGxLnFGEF0&feature=channel_page

    Nanosealers are new and a lot of stone yards are starting to adopt them. They are amazing, long-lasting and they really work. Maybe I'll post about them later. They are truly an example of better living though chemistry. You should see what a nanosealer does to a frameless glass shower!

  7. * Gosh Paul, why don't you tell us what you REALLY think???

    Seriously, you certainly made mince-meat out of that poor, trusting woman in answering her questions... I was shocked to see you be so incredibly blunt, and I seriously doubt she'll ever get over reading all you wrote/said. I honestly felt sorry for her...

    I'm not trying to butt in, but rather share with you how this woman (or man) came to you for advice & well, kinda got kicked in the teeth... I don't think that's LIKE you...

    Maybe a note back to her/him would be in order??? "Just saying..." as "they" say...

    Linda in AZ *

  8. P.S. Since she/he was ASKING about painting the current tile, it would seem to me that money/funds are an important issue here for this person, and the attempt to save $$$ was the goal... Linda

  9. Calm down and please don't try to advise me on how to run and write a blog. You don't know the whole story here and you never will. What ends up in my reader questions columns is there to be entertaining and to be a platform for my opinion. I answer all reader questions privately and then with permission write a public answer that quite different from the private one. Feel better?

  10. I came to this site hoping to find an insightful answer to the posted question, not a tirade on what not to do. Thankfully one reader offered a suggestion, I shall shop for more. I don't care if tumbled marble is considered a reject, it is part of Nature's bounty, and I think it is lovely. It is sad that you seem so unappreciative of it and of artistic expression. I wish you hadn't bothered to address the issue, so I wouldn't have wasted my time reading this site and could have gone on to something more helpful. Sorry, but that is my opinion and it is your column.

  11. I found this by googling "I hate tumbled stone in the kitchen", so I guess that means I agree with you! I will say that there are cases when a gray grout color can look good with subways. (For example, if the countertops are gray.)

  12. I found your blog too by googling 'can i paint tumbled tile kitchen backsplash'. I feel like you are talking to me as I have 2 3x6 white subway tiles on the countertop leaning against the marble. And, my kitchen/walls look like one of your pics above. My husband says it will look like a hospital if we do the subway tile. :(


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