There’s no denying that encaustic tiles are making waves again. From classic Mediterranean patterns to durable Victorian designs, this timeless flooring is enjoying a renaissance thanks to their longevity, durability and ability to enhance modern homes. Encaustic tiles combine old and new manufacturing techniques to create a unique range of products that combine the best of both worlds.
While the term ‘encaustic tile’ has come to be used to describe a broad variety of tile styles, true encaustic tiles are actually made with different layers of clay, each coloured by an inlaid pigment. The layers are hydraulically pressed together, creating the pattern and colour that distinguishes this style of tile from modern alternatives.
The technique is similar to that of inlaid porcelain, except that the tiles are not fired in a kiln, but instead cured by exposure to moisture and air. In order to achieve the desired effect, a thin layer of clay is dried to around 8% moisture content and then compacted in a screw press, which was originally hand-powered but later replaced by steam. The resulting patterned tiles are very strong and durable, with the pattern embedded within the structure of the tile.
As a result of their durability, encaustic tiles have long been favored by architects for church and public building restoration and were also popular with private home owners who wanted to add an authentic medieval feel to their living spaces. However, the popularity of these tiles declined with the rise of mass production and cheaper glazed ceramic tiles. By the mid-19th century, several manufacturers began producing encaustic tiles again, including William Godwin of Lugwardine, Hereford, who produced tiles with a more authentic medieval feel than Minton’s and had considerable success with architects for church restoration. In the 1860s, Godwin and fellow tile manufacturer William Boulton experimented with a more mechanical form of tile production using dust clay. The patterned tile was formed by one or more copper plates perforated to the required design and guided by pegs into the cavity of the screw press.
These tiles are ideal for adding a graphic element to kitchen splashbacks, hallways and entryways. They can be used as an accent or border tile or even as a whole room feature wall. The key to successfully incorporating them into a space is to make sure the pattern and colour palette matches the overall look of the room. Marish suggests picking a tone in the tile and carrying this through to any soft furnishings or other decorative elements.
The good news is that encaustic tiles are becoming more accessible than ever, with the resurgence of interest in handmade tile giving artisans who produce them a global platform to showcase their work. As a result, these one-of-a-kind tiles are now much easier to find, and their textured surface makes them perfect for pairing with natural materials such as wood and stone. They also pair well with concrete floor finishes and can be mixed with both solid and patterned tiles, but it’s important to limit the number of patterns and colors used in order to avoid overwhelming the eye.