© Ian Evans

Back to Info-central listing

One of the tricks of the old house restoration trade that few people have discovered is the use of old floor and wall tiles when original tiled surfaces are being restored or repaired.

Sturdy though they are, old tiled floors sometimes have to be replaced - usually as a result of movement in the building which causes cracking in the rubble and mortar base on which they rest.

It's then that many people make the mistake of ripping out the old and replacing them with new tiles. Part of the character of the building goes out the door when original wall or floor tiles are removed. Old tiles will also enhance the appearance of new bathrooms which often have to be fitted into the structure of an old building. The new work will at least be sympathetic in style to the old.

Although reproduction wall and floor tiles are available, they are expensive and the average bathroom, verandah floor or garden path can swiftly consume many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars worth.

Several types of tiles were used when our old houses were being built. Perhaps the most common are square ceramic tiles decorated with attractive transfer-printed designs which were used for fireplace hearths or in the side cheeks of cast iron grates. These tiles are also used to decorate the 'risers' of front steps, or are set in panels on the facades of houses.

The most common paving tile, the tesselated tile, takes its name from the manner in which it is laid. The name comes from the Latin for a mosaic made up of many small pieces of different shapes. Tesselated tiles were used in great numbers in the Victorian and Edwardian periods and are frequently seen on garden paths and verandahs. Indoors, they are laid on entrance hall floors, bathroom floors and in service areas such as in or around the kitchen.

The recent advent of good quality reproductions has overshadowed the old tiles. However, these are still available and can often be picked up quite cheaply. Decorated tiles which are crazed, scratched or chipped can be revived by refiring in a small pottery kiln at about 1120 C. The tiles must be level or the glaze will run. Bleach will often remove stains from decorated ceramic tiles.

The major problem with old decorated tiles is that they are usually available only in small quantities. Most people have to settle for reproductions. But if you can find enough, old ceramic tiles will enhance any bathroom, kitchen or fireplace.

Tesselated tiles for paths or floors are the best bet for re-use. These are available from demolition sites or yards and can often be found in the restoration shops. Not too many people seek them out, because they are usually thrown into boxes and tucked away at the back of the store. But those jumbles, like the pieces of a giant-sized jigsaw puzzle, are easily pieced together and can make it possible to achieve great impact for the proverbial song.

There are two ways to set about re-creating a tesselated tile floor or verandah: by buying an old floor and working out the pattern, or by setting out to obtain the tiles needed for a preferred pattern. The latter course is best followed after you have obtained a good quantity of a tile that will form the basis for the area to be paved. You will then be looking for border tiles and other shapes to fill in the pattern.

The key to success in re-creating tiled floors is the realisation that old tiles came in a number of fairly standard sizes. Octagons, squares, triangles, rectangles and other shapes were all designed to fit together. The only catch is that trying to mix tiles by different manufactures can be tricky as they may vary slightly in size.

Traditional laying patterns can be seen on garden paths and. You will notice that they always consist of a central or body pattern surrounded by a decorative border. Our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors always liked to finish off the edges neatly. Just about everything that was decorated had a border and tiles are no exception.

If you choose a pattern and set out to find the necessary tiles, work out exactly how many of each shape and colour are needed before you go shopping. Draw a rough sketch of the design and then lay out a few of the tiles to see what area they cover. Estimate the total area required and calculate how many you will need.

The bargain-conscious shopper should be able to obtain the necessary old tiles for a matter of cents per tile rather than dollars. The price is highly variable and will depend on the quantity, size, condition, colour and appeal of the tiles, not to mention the amiability of the vendor.

If you have to remove the tiles from a house under demolition you should expect to pay a lower price than for tiles which are boxed and ready to take away from a restoration shop. It's usually wise to check that the tiles can be easily removed before making a bid for them. Tesselated tiles will usually come up fairly easily once you find an edge and can get them started. Slide a broad flat scraper under the tiles and start working them loose. A flat spade may also be useful. Be sure to take broken tiles as these can often be glued together and may be needed to fill out a pattern.

When buying from a dealer or restoration shop look for tiles in good condition. Try to avoid those that are badly worn, chipped, cracked or stained but bear in mind that you might have to compromise to make up the numbers.

No matter how nice they look they will almost certainly need a good scrubbing. Fill the laundry tub or some other large container with warm, soapy water and give them a good wash. Remove old mortar which may be clinging to the tiles. It's usually soft lime mortar and will come away fairly easily. Stubborn mortar may need to be softened by soaking tiles in a bucket of muriatic acid for half an hour or so. Muriatic acid will often remove stains and dirt and give the tiles a fresh, clean look. But take care when handling the acid and wear protctive goggles and clothing. Soak the tiles in fresh water afterwards to remove any traces of acid.

The most important aspect of tile cleaning is to remove any mortar attached to the edges of the tiles as this will make it difficult for the tiler to lay them out in a regular pattern. A bench grinder may help if the mortar can't be removed with an old file or scraper. Sort the cleaned tiles into boxes or piles, according to their shape and colour.

Provide your tiler with a sketch of the pattern you have chosen, indicating shapes and colours of the tiles. It will help if you colour it in appropriately.

Recycling tesselated tiles is a cheap way of getting a magnificent floor. It takes some effort but the result will be worth the trouble and will greatly add to the value of an old house.

Text and Directory ©Ian Evans 1998 | Drawings ©Ian Stapleton 1997
For information about listing a business or service, phone or fax 02 6684 7677 or write to PO Box 591, Mullumbimby, NSW 2482. E-mail ianevans@oldhouses.com.au