M a s te rc ra f te d C e m e n t Ti l e sEver ything you wanted to know about: hydraulic, encaustic, mosaic, decorative, mastercrafted, French, Belgian, Spanish, Moroccan, Cuban, Nicaraguan, kitchen, bathroom, patio, concrete, cement tiles... but were afraid to askWritten by Melanie Stephens, Design and Marketing Director, Co-Chief Cook and Bottlewasher, Granada Tile, Inc.
What the X?! are we talking about?To avoid (or at least reduce) confusion, here are some pictures of what we’ll be discussing in this e-book: THEN (historic cement tile installation in Cultural Center, Granada, Nicaragua) NOW (modern installation of Granada Tile in Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Los Angeles)This tile was all the rage from the 1870s through the 1930s and is now experiencing a revival.
A tile in search of a nameThe problem in learning about this tile is that everyone calls it something different. Other tiles – terrazzo, ceramic,glass – don’t suffer from this renaming frenzy. So why this tile?My personal theory is that cement just didn’t sound sexy enough. Marketers decided that cement reminded people ofdrab, grey, industrial surfaces (e.g. parking structures), so they made up other names. However, these other nameswere already being used for something else or they just didn’t quite fit.Does hydraulic = encaustic = mosaic = decorative = mastercrafted = French = Belgian = Spanish = Moroccan = Cuban= Nicaraguan = concrete = cement TILE??? "Whats in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet."Was Shakespeare (or at least Juliet) right or wrong?Or what about Getrude Stein? "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." ASIDE: What is it about roses that inspires existential ponderings?
A guide to the cement tile Tower of BabelThe names in circulation fall into 2 main categories: confusing and wonky. (Some names manage to straddleboth categories and I have arbitrarily assigned them to one.)ConfusingMosaic/Mosaico – When you hear the word mosaic, what immediately comes to mind: THIS Roman mosaic or THIS cement tile?Assuming you picked the roman mosaic on the left,I rest my case.
Confusing ContinuedFrench Tile, Belgian Tile or Spanish Tile – First of all, there are many types of tile produced in France, Belgium andSpain, so this name doesn’t really tell you much. Furthermore, due to globalization, only a miniscule amount ofcement tile is still produced in industrialized countries. So, that “French,” “Belgian,” or “Spanish” cement tile wasalmost certainly made in Morocco, Vietnam or Latin America. Which is more authentically French? THIS hand-painted ceramic tile from Bretagne or THIS handpoured cement tile made in Morocco?
Confusing and WonkyEncaustic Tile – There is a debate raging (in very obscure circles) about whether cement tile is or is not legitimatelyencaustic. While tile connoisseurs may differ, dictionaries seem to be of one mind. The root for the work encaustic isenkaiein from the Greek meaning “to burn in.” The Collins English Dictionary states that encaustic means “decorated byany process involving burning in colours.”Now, given that cement tiles are not burned, fired or even slightly warmed in the production process, I don’t see howthey could qualify as encaustic. Even if I’m missing some key argument, it’s certainly true that the ceramic encaustictiles are much better known. Again, I think it helps that there were made by large companies that developed namebrand recognition: Boch Freres, Paray-le-Monial, Villeroy Boch and Sand & Cie. Ceramic encaustic Cement “encaustic” French ceramic encaustic floor from early 1900s Antique French cement floor tile from early 1900s (http://www.theantiquefloorcompany.com) (http://www.theantiquefloorcompany.com)
Wonky ContinuedHydraulic Tile/Hydraulically Pressed Tile– Most (but not all) of these tiles produced today are pressed using amachine powered with hydraulics. Some are still pressed by hand, resulting in variations in pressure and inconsistenttiles. picture of hydraulic press picture of hand pressThis term conjures up, at best, an industrial machine and, at worst, nothing at all. It’s sadly lacking in romance andpizzazz.So can’t we just call them cement tiles?We can and many of us do, though people in search of romantic appeal can’t resist trying to woo us with carreaux deciment (= cement tile in French) or lozas de cemento (= cement tile in Spanish).Now, unfortunately, the term “cement tile” is still not quite specific enough. There are a number of ways cement canbe made into tile to produce a dizzying array of appearances and functions: Terrazzo Rustico Mastercrafted“Handmade” or “Decorative” help to narrow the field a bit, but our favorite qualifier to date is “Mastercrafted.”
Making Mastercrafted Cement TilesYou will sound very knowledgeable about cement tiles if you bear in mind that they are: > > > > > > hand poured, not painted, and > > > > > > compressed and dried, not firedThese tiles are produced using an exacting process:Step 1: Take a very flat steel plate and a heavy steel casingStep 2: Insert a “cookie cutter” mold (also called a divider or divisional). The original ones were made from castbronze. When the tiles fell out of fashion, many of these original molds met their fate at the foundry. The modern cook-ie cutters are usually made by welding together strips of sheet metal carefully bent to the desired shape. This requirespainstaking attention to detail or the resulting tiles won’t match up the way they should.Step 3: Prepare color pastes by mixing iron oxide pigments, white cement, marble powder and water. Mix thoroughly orthe resulting tile will be blotchy. These pastes will only last a little while before they start to harden, so you’ve got towork fast.Step 4: Now it’s time to pour the colors you’ll see on the tile surface. (Think upside down cake.) Pour each color intojust the areas of the cookie cutter where you want it. Pour it to a depth of 1/8”. Don’t lose track of which color goeswhere or your finished tiles will look like mismatched socks. Oh, and watch out for drips!Step 5: Lift the cookie cutter straight up and out of the mold. If you don’t have super steady hands, this job is not foryou. Any wobbliness will cause the pastes - and your design - to blur.Step 6: Backfill the tile with a mixture of cement, sand and aggregate. Be careful not to put in too much or too little or
your tiles will be of different thicknesses and you will have a very unhappy installer to deal with.Step 7: Place a heavy steel lid onto the tile in the steel casing.Step 8: Press the tile. The old-fashioned way is with a hand press, but this is exhausting and produces variable, andoften unsatisfactory, results. The strength of the tile comes from this pressure (think sedimentary rock) so inadequatepressure produces a weak tile.Nowadays, every reputable tile producer has a hydraulic press with a manometer that measures the pressure. Typicallycement tiles are pressed to 3,000 psi (pounds per square inch).Step 9: Lift off the heavy steel lid and loosen the steel frame. Now you come face to face with your tile seeminglywelded to the steel plate. You have to carefully slide it off the steel plate without breaking it. The first few times, yourheart pounds and your palms sweat, but over time you develop a certain technique.Step 10: Cure the tile in a hot, humid environment. The tropics lend themselves well to this type of tile making. If youdry the tile too quickly, it doesn’t dry evenly (like trying to bake a cake in a broiler).Step 11: Let the tile dry for at least a week. Most cement reaches its maximum strength in a month.
How can I tell if this antique tile is cement or not?Remember the ceramic encaustic tiles? They were in head to head competition with cement tiles at the end of the19th century and beginning of the 20th. This clay-based encaustic tile was made using the very same “cookie cutter”molds as were used to make cement tile. However, instead of pouring pigments mixed with cement, they used pow-dered glazes and then fired the tiles in giant kilns. Sadly, when fashions changed, these giants of the tile world ceasedto produce encaustic tile.In turn of the 20th century buildings in continental Europe, you will find cement and ceramic tiles. The ceramic onesgenerally show much more wear and tear (in some cases revealing the underlying clay) than the cement ones. Old cement floor in stationery shop in Paris. Otherwise, to tell the difference between cement and ceramic tiles in old buildings, it’s useful to use a magnifying glass. With an experienced eye, you can see the difference in the surface texture between cement and glaze. Badly worn ceramic encaustic floor in flower shop in Paris.
Who are the Batchelders* of the cement tile world?How come you and I have never heard of a famous cement tile manufacturer? How come cement tile companies arenot household names?In the world of historic tiles, there are some big names: Batchelder, Malibu Tile, Catalina Tile... In France, there weremajor producers of the ceramic versions of these tiles. But the primary producers of cement tiles? Missing in action.Why? Since it was relatively easy to buy a few molds, a few “cookie cutters” and a hand press, every Tom, Dick andHarry started producing cement tiles in any old workshop. The equivalent ceramic encaustic tiles required a largeinfrastructure, including giant (and polluting) kilns.Because of the modest start-up costs, the technique of making mastercrafted cement tiles spread like wildfire to justabout everywhere except Australia and the Arctic. You find splendid historic installations from Amsterdam to PhnomPen, and from Los Angeles to Instanbul.In our world of big brands, the lack of a headliner cement tile company has probably slowed the revival of these splen-did tiles. However, the plethora of small factories throughout the world has also made it possible for the productionprocess to survive even through the famine years. Those big French encaustic tile producers I mentioned went belly upor stopped making encaustic tiles long ago.When relatively inexpensive mass produced Italian ceramics took over the flooring world, cement tile manufacturerscut back their expensive lines - the intricate, fancy ones - and stuck to producing solid color tiles. Also, they tendednot to make the blue and green tiles because the pigments were more expensive.* Ernest Allan Batchelder was a famous ceramic tile maker based in Pasadena and Los Angeles. He founded the Batchelder Tile Companyin 1909 and continued making tile until the early 1950s.