A Quick Look at Tiles for Floors and Walls
As a builder for many years, I’ve had the privilege of working with several outstanding tilers. I learned from them and while I am not an expert by any means, I have done a lot of tiling work on the houses I’ve owned. So, with my experience, I would like share what I know about the skill of laying tile.
One feature that has made tiles popular for hundreds of years is their durability. They have been used in all sorts of structures to include those that absorb high temperatures used on the space shuttle.
Another feature that makes tiles popular is how they have been used as a form of art. If you ever get a chance, visit the City of Ravenna in Italy. You will be amazed at the Bryzantine mosaics used in the churches there. The same holds for the Alhambra in Spain. The complex patterns laid by the great tile artists will leave you in awe.
People have told me tile stories as well. There was a good friend of mine who was telling me a story once while we were having a few beers. The story was about his visit as a boy to an archaeological dig site that was located in southern England. He remembers how awestruck he was when he saw the meticulously laid floor mosaics of a Roman villa that was about 2000 years old. The archaeologists had unearthed the floor and the tiles looked as new as the day they were laid.
The beauty of tile can be seen in Southeast Asia as well. For example, in Bangkok, Thailand is the “Temple of the Dawn” known as “Wat Arun” in Thai. One of its famous features is that when exposed to certain external light conditions it gives off a special glow that is both mystifying and beautiful. What is especially interesting is how the external stucco, with its embedding of a multitude of pottery shards, begins to stand out as you walk up on the temple. These pottery shards are broken pieces from dishes, tea cups, rice bowls, and plates. The people of the temple had donated all of these instead of incurring the expense of ceramic tiles and the result was spectacular.
The Manufacture of Tiles
My father liked to do amateur pottery when I was young. Part of his hobby was making ceramic tiles on his own. The way he did this was to take powdered clay which he purchased in bags and mix it with water. Once the mixture became malleable, he would pull out a lump weighing about 2-3 kilos and put it on his bench. Then, he would take a wire and slice the lump in half. After slicing, he would slap the two halves together.
It wasn’t just a slap. It was more of a crushing action for the purpose of removing air bubbles from the clay mixture. Then, he would slice the new lump again but at a different location. He would continue this process over and over.
Wedging is the name of this process to remove the air bubbles from the clay. It is repetitious when done by hand but today there is a machine known as the pug mill that takes the place of this manual process.
After the wedging was complete, my father would then roll out the clay on a sheet of glass. He would then use a rolling pin to flatten it out. Once flattened, he would cut it into the shapes desired and then leave it to dry.
Once dried, a mix of powdered glaze and water was prepared and used to paint the tiles. The final step was to place them in an electric kiln set at the correct temperature based on what type of glaze was used and the type of tile.
How did it all turn out? It’s safe to say that the results were mixed. Some came out perfectly while the majority were flawed in some way. We’ve seen tiles that twisted, cracked, could be bent, or were adhered to each other because the glaze ran. We also had to be careful not to open the kiln too soon because it would cause the glaze to totally crack.
Regardless of some of the bad luck we had with tiles, we still had fun. It makes me appreciate the work that goes into pottery made by hand because I know how much work goes into it. Those who are good at it have my utmost respect and admiration.
It also makes you appreciate what goes into an automated tile-making process within a factory. In a factory, the complexity is even greater as they make different types of tiles to include extruded and dry-pressed. Furthermore, different classes of tiles need different types of kilns.
Tiles for Different Home Applications
The list that follows are the types of tiles used in home applications that I am aware of. There are probably many more but the ones I know about include:
• Floor ceramic tiles
• Granite tiles
• Italian Monocottura tiles
• Mosaic floor tiles
• Nosing tiles
• Quarry tiles
• Slate tiles
• Volcanic rock tiles
• Wall tiles
Mosaic floor tiles are not as fashionable as they were in the past. These consisted of small tiles laid on a mesh backing that was cut to about 300×300. The mesh backing is used to keep them in place while they are laid. You will find that they were used where there were falls to the floor such as showers and bathrooms. Due to the small size of each tile, these are easy to set.
Very thick tiles used on floors are the floor ceramic tiles. Obviously, these have to be durable because they must handle floor traffic. Their thickness is usually from 8 to 12mm and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A commonly used floor tile was the 150 square however these days the trend seems to favour the larger sizes. Floor tiles are also cut for use in skirting applications. They also must be designed to prevent falls (such as when they are wet) so the glaze on the surface will usually have some texture.
To protect walls where there is exposure to water there are the wall tiles. These are found in areas such as showers, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and toilets. Without them, the wallboard would become saturated. You will also find them located in kitchens at areas subject to splashing such as around a sink. These are not as hard or thick as ceramic floor tiles. Sometimes, you will find them with dimpled edges to help with consistency in joint spacing. Some styles also have bull-nosed corners however these are not seen as frequently these days.
The next type of tile is not ceramic. Slate tiles, as the name implies, are cut from slate. Slate tiles are dark because of the nature of the rock itself. It has wider grout joints than you would find on ceramic tiles because slate tends to be irregular in the cut.
I have seen people want to use slate tiles in areas where one would think it would be too dark but the outcome was stunning. However, make sure that if you use slate tiles on walls indoors that you also have a skylight put in to offset the darkness. For example, it would be too dark in a bathroom without a skylight or some other external light source that illuminates the area. If using slate tile in a bathroom, several coats of sealer should be applied for water resistance.
Other Types of Tile
The large, expensive type of tile is the Italian Monocuttura. These are quite nice as the Italian manufacturers were innovative in making tiles that are hard to crack while at the same time large. An equivalent to this tile is the Monoporosa tile manufactured in Spain.
The quarry tiles come either lightly glazed with salt or in an unglazed style. This is how they get their earth-tone colours. The application for these is usually outdoors and typically on patios.
The nosing tile is one made with anti-slip grooves and edges that are curved. They are typically used on the edges of stair steps. Because they must be durable, their thickness exceeds the norm. This makes them difficult to cut and usually requires a diamond blade to perform the task.
From Indonesia come the volcanic rock tiles. They are extremely strong and hard. These come from lava rock which occurs naturally in the volcanic slopes of that country. They don’t require a separate face glaze because one of the faces has a semi-gloss look. They are consistent in thickness as well. Edges that are cut can be ground and polished if necessary plus small chips around the edges are not easily visible.
Finally, there are the ceramic tiles that are made to resemble various shades of granite. They have a consistent thickness as well as a semi-gloss face. Thus, you don’t have to use a separate face glaze. This allows you to polish or ground the edges if necessary.