Regular tessellations

By Martin McBride, 2023-05-02
Tags: regular polygon tessellation
Categories: gcse geometry tessellations symmetry

A tessellation is created when one or more shapes are used to completely cover a plane, with no gaps or overlaps. An alternative name for a tessellation is a tiling. A tiled floor is a real-life example of a tessellation.

A regular tessellation is a special case where the plane is covered by shapes that are all regular polygons of the same size.

Regular tessellations also need to use edge-to-edge tiling, as we will see in a moment.

There are only three regular shapes that can form regular polygons. They are:

  • Equilateral triangles.
  • Squares.
  • Regular hexagons.

We will look at these cases, and also learn why no other regular tessellations are possible.

Here is a video:

Equilateral triangles

Here is a regular tessellation made up of equilateral triangles:

Regular tessellation of equilateral triangles

Any triangles will tessellate, but if the triangles are not equilateral triangles it won't be a regular tessellation.

In the scheme above, every edge of any triangle is joined to a complete edge of a different triangle. There are no edges that join two or more other edges. This is called edge-to-edge tiling.

The example below is not edge-to-edge tiling:

Regular tessellation of equilateral triangles not edge-to-edge

Here notice that the horizontal bands of triangles are shifted relative to each other, so the edges of some triangles do not line up. This means that in some cases an edge of one triangle meets two edges of other triangles:

Regular tessellation of equilateral triangles not edge-to-edge

Here the base of the red triangle meets the edges of two different blue triangles.


Here is a regular tessellation made up of equilateral squares:

Regular tessellation of squares

Rectangles, or any other quadrilaterals, will tessellate, but if the quadrilaterals are not squares it won't be a regular tessellation.

Regular hexagons

Here is a regular tessellation made up of regular hexagons:

Regular tessellation of hexagons

Why will no other regular polygons tessellate?

The only regular polygons that tessellate are those with 3, 4 or 6 sides.

To understand why this is, we will look at a couple of regular shapes that don't tessellate. First, regular pentagons:

Regular tessellation of pentagons is impossible

If we place three regular pentagons (5 sides) together, it leaves a small angle. The angle is too small for another pentagon to fit, so it is impossible to fill the plane without the shapes either overlapping or leaving a gap.

If we try the same thing with regular heptagons (7 sides) we see a slightly different issue:

Regular tessellation of pentagons is impossible

After joining two heptagons, the remaining angle is too small to add an extra heptagon. If we try this with an octagon(8 sides) or any shape with more sides, this will also fail for the same reason.

For regular tessellation, the vertices of the shapes must meet at a point, which means that the internal angles of all the shapes that meet at a vertex must add up to 360°. This table shows how this works for the three shapes:

Shape Interior angle Number of vertices that meet
Equilateral triangle 60° 6
Square 90° 4
Regular pentagon 108° 3.3333
Regular hexagon 120° 3
More sides >120° <3

For a tessellating square, 4 vertices meet, and for a tessellating hexagon, 3 vertices meet.

So for a pentagon, the number of vertices would have to be greater than 3 but less than 4, so it can't be an integer. So regular pentagons can't tessellate.

For a shape with more than 6 sides, the number of vertices would have to be less than 3, which is impossible. So regular polygons with more than 6 sides can't tessellate.

See also

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