Exploring Encaustic Tile

Photography Courtesy of Ann Sacks

Boasting bold patterns that appear inlaid, encaustic tiles are made using multiple colors of clay through methods first conceived centuries ago. “The encaustic tile represents a part of history in the design world,” says Erica Puccio of TileBar. “The combination of multiple color patterns is not typical for a tile, which is the brilliance of the encaustic tile. Aesthetically, it is exciting to work with because it can be introduced into a modern or traditional design palette. However, the versatility of the tile does not mean it lacks beauty or a dynamic feel in an environment. The creation of the encaustic tile allows for endless design possibilities.” The information that follows explores the origins and characteristics of encaustic tiles.

Photography Courtesy of Sabine Hill
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Origins and Overview

The history of encaustic tiles can be linked to two periods of popularity. The first was during the 13th century. “Encaustic tile was introduced during two different time periods in history, the Victorian Era and the Gothic Era,” explains Puccio. “These tiles were mainly installed in religious settings in England, but also found in other parts of Western Europe.” Encaustic tiles were based on an ancient painting technique in which hot wax is combined with colored pigments and then applied to a surface. “Encaustic tile was first created with the process of painting beeswax-based paint and then heating it to fuse all the colors together, a similar two-part process to today’s type of production. Originally, craftsmen called this an ‘inlaid’ tile because of how each color pattern was carefully inlayed to the mold, and how it was installed in a space.”

Photography Courtesy of TileBar
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During the 19th and 20th centuries, the popularity of encaustic tiles resurfaced. However, the products began to be made out of cement instead of clay. Cement allowed for a more cost-effective and durable alternative that still lent itself to the same colorful patterns. “Encaustic tile developed in Europe in the mid 1800s were wildly popular and graced floors all over the world until about the 1930s when they fell out of favor,” says DeeDee Gundberg of Ann Sacks. “They have since regained popularity and are available in modern, graphic patterns very different from the more traditional patterns we’ve seen in the past.”

Characteristics and Composition

From complex and intricate motifs to more muted and minimalist designs, encaustic tiles are produced with multiple powdered colors that create a pattern. With pigment is pressed into the surface in a patterned mold, encaustics stand apart from other types of tile. “While encaustic tiles can be plain, they are often brightly colored and highly patterned, setting them apart from other tiles that are glazed or pressed,” says Gundberg. “The color choices are endless and include colors like red that are often difficult to get in glazed ceramics. Encaustic tiles are also matte, with a dusty finish and imperfect, organic nature that keep them in high demand.” The patterning is a product of the different colors of clay used, and these patterns comprise both the body of the tile and the design itself unlike glazed patterns, which remain only on the surface of the tile. Encaustic patterning is elemental to the makeup of the tile and as such it won’t wear down over time. The coloration penetrates the surface of the tile and will not be impacted by wear and tear.

Photography Courtesy of Ann Sacks
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Though they were traditionally made from clay, today’s encaustic tiles are most often made using cement and are also often referred to as cement tile. Encaustic cement tiles are composed of sand, cement, and marble dust, with a top layer that is colored with natural pigments. “Encaustic tiles are made with a steel mold or frame that is compartmentalized based on the pattern,” says Gundberg. “Generally, the tiles are made in three layers using cement, marble dust, sand, and natural pigments.” The mold is removed once the pattern is set and additional concrete can be added to give the tile extra strength. “The tile is pressed under high pressure with a hydraulic press,” adds Gundberg. “The tiles are not fired in a kiln, rather they go through a curing process.” Thus, the layers are hydraulically pressed to harden and then the compact tile is soaked in water and put on drying racks to be cured for several weeks. From geometric to floral, encaustic cement tiles tout durability and distinctive designs and patterns that can fit any style.

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