Rich Miller says that tiles are a great first step into making in clay. Though they have their difficulties (mainly keeping them flat!), they can easily be made on the kitchen table and can be decorated using a 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional approach. Handmade tiles can simply provide a canvas on which to experiment with slips, oxides, underglazes or enamels, or they can be undulating, carved and embossed relief surfaces created with glaze manipulation in mind.
In 2005, I took over a tile company, having never made a tile during my ceramics education. To say it provided a steep learning curve would be an understatement but, 15 years on, handmade stoneware tiles continue to fascinate me. For many years, tiles have been considered the poor relation to other ceramics disciplines, purely a skilled craft tradition. More recently, tiles have had a resurgence in popularity, with interior designers and architects seeking ever-more interesting bespoke surfaces and finishes for a wide range of projects.
We all encounter tiles during our everyday lives in a multitude of situations. Applications as varied as external wall claddings, stove hearths and furniture, to more common functional schemes such as kitchens and bathrooms. The possibilities for creative projects with tiles are endless, and the only limiting factor is your imagination and perhaps the size of your kiln! As industry advances its production capabilities and the choice of products becomes larger and more interesting in its decorative appeal, it falls to hand-makers to offer something unavailable to industry. Sometimes this can simply be flexibility in production, for example being able to make smaller batches of highly bespoke tiles. Increasingly it is the ability of hand-makers to be able to draw on a diverse range of ceramic process to create exciting and dynamic products that industry finds more challenging to emulate.
Froyle Tiles in collaboration with…
At Froyle Tiles, we produce hand-made and mechanically pressed stoneware tiles on a made-to-order, bespoke basis. Over the years we’ve been involved in a great many projects for various clients. We have worked in collaboration with other makers, as well as on commercial schemes for designers and architects. Each project is different, and it is undoubtedly this variety that has kept me engaged over the years.
One project that was an absolute stand out was collaborating with Kate Malone and EPR Architects for a new building at 24 Savile Row. It provided an opportunity to work alongside Kate and her team at Balls Pond Studio as well as with architect, Stephen Pey of EPR. This project involved glazing and re-firing a German mechanically hung tile cladding system with Kate Malone’s beautiful crystal glazes. In all, we tested over 200 glaze variants through our kilns until a set of suitable finishes was obtained. We then applied the glazes to just over 11,000 tiles that were subsequently sorted and labelled with precise positions on the building. The level of detail was unlike anything I’d experienced previously and, to this day, I look at the building and spot tiles that I remember coming out of the kiln. It’s really rather satisfying to have been involved in creating tiles that sit in the public domain, and that will hopefully be around for many years to come.
We also manufacture tiles for the purposes of restoration and reproduction. These projects usually start with research. It’s important to establish the period during which the tiles were made and also to identify the clay body and glaze combinations used, which will have a bearing on the overall finish of the tile. Reproduction can prove tricky, as many of the materials used historically have changed over time, or are simply unavailable now. The additional challenge in re-creating an existing tile generally makes these projects more satisfying, particularly if an accurate match is obtained. It can be a little hit and miss, but having tests in the kiln always adds to the excitement of opening the door after the firing! An example of a restoration project was the re-creation of an Edwardian Station façade for Walford East Tube Station on the set of Eastenders at BBC Elstree. It was unusual as the tiles were being made for the life-sized set and still had to be a perfect match to the style and dimensions of a traditional station tile. For television purposes, they also had to have an aged appearance and the surface of the glaze needed to be matt so that it didn’t glare at the camera. This was achieved using ceramic enamels sponged on in layers until the tile looked old and grubby and non-shiny. Plan ‘B’ was to take the tiles out into the yard and rub them in the mud, but thankfully it didn’t come to that.
More recently we worked with Grymsdyke Farm, an experimental architectural workshop based in High Wickham. This was a true collaboration between maker and machine. An adapted robotic car-production plant arm was modified to enable it to extrude clay slip. The machine was programmed to produce models of a design put together by Grymsdyke, and we then cast and hand-pressed the tiles. The resulting tiles we stoneware fired and installed on the gift shop floor at the V&A Museum, London. Another project was to design a bespoke glazed, ship-lapped ceramic tile for the new pavilion at Tate St Ives, designed by Jamie Fobert Architects.
All of these projects had very specific requirements, with most of the process employed being drawn from the studio pottery world rather than the tile manufacturing world. It is arguable as to whether my background as a potter has made it more difficult to step into tile production, but I certainly find I draw on my potting experience regularly, and it definitely causes me to look at production in a different way.
Production methods and bespoke clay body
All of the production methods we use are carried out using plastic clay, rather than dust-pressing or slip-casting. We use a heavily grogged stoneware body that helps to keep the tile flat and the shrinkage between wet clay and finished tile to an absolute minimum. It became apparent that there wasn’t a clay available designed specifically with hand-made tiles in mind. Though many of the handbuilding clays available could be used to produce flat slabs, they generally have properties which have three-dimensional building in mind. The tile body we created, in partnership with Potclays, really has tile production at its core. It’s got a high percentage of good quality grog, which helps it hold itself together when it’s made into a tile, but it also has a very low shrinkage making it additionally resilient to warping and cracking. It would be equally good for use as a handbuilding body, but as a tile maker, this is simply a bonus, rather than by design! Mark Winkle at Potclays put a lot of time into getting this new clay body right, and the finished product is a fantastic clay for tiles. At stoneware temperatures, it’s an extremely pale buff off-white colour, which acts as a fantastic backdrop for coloured glazes and applied decoration.
This raw clay body is processed in a number of ways:
These are tiles created using a pugmill or extruder. A die plate that is cut to the profile of the outer edges of the tile you are looking to create is placed over the nose of the pugmill. When the clay is extruded through this, it produces a large block with the profile of your intended tile. This block is then put onto a tile cutting table, and individual tiles are cut from it, much like a bread-slicing machine might cut up a loaf into multiple slices. These are then laid out onto wooden racking, and the top surface is smoothed using a rubber kidney (to provide a clean surface for glazing onto).
Tiles made using a hydraulic ram press. The press brings together two metal rings that have plaster cast into them. The bottom ring produces the back of the tile, and the top ring makes the shape of the front of the tile. It’s a bit like a two-piece slip-cast mould, except you are pressing plastic clay. Unlike slip-casting moulds, the plaster has a perforated tube cast into it, which is connected to a compressor. The machine is used with the plaster moulds wet so that once it’s been through a pressing cycle and the clay has taken the shape of the mould, a pedal is pressed and compressed air is blown in. This pushes the water out of the plaster, purging the mould and releasing the clay tile from the surface of the mould.
Carving, plaster casting and pressing tiles
Tiles that have a relief surface and a fluid glaze applied to enhance it. The base tile is carved out at leather hard, then cast in plaster. We use Keramicast as it’s a strong, all-round potter’s plaster that generates a good level of detail from your model. Once cast, plastic clay is pressed into the one-piece mould, and the back is trimmed flat using a stick or wire. The tile is then removed from the mould immediately using a slug of clay to pull it out.
- Do not manipulate the slab too much. Clay has a memory and will warp and distort if it’s not treated with respect. Use canvas on both sides to allow you to flip the slab without bending it too much
- Try to avoid using a rolling pin when creating slabs. Less stress will be put on the clay if you use a harp and guide sticks to make slabs to a depth. Do remember to compress the slab using a rubber kidney once it’s at depth, otherwise, you may have problems with it cracking during firing.
- Selecting an appropriate clay will make tile making easier. Choose something that has a good percentage of grog added. If you’re not planning to carve into it, you don’t need to worry about the coarse particles dragging across the surface when using tools. When carving directly into the leather-hard surface, select a clay with finer grade grog.
- Always dry tiles evenly; they have a tendency to warp if the top is drying faster than the underside. There are two approaches to evening-out the drying. Either put the tiles on slatted racking or mesh shelving so that the air can freely flow to the underside, or you can put plasterboard underneath and over the top of the tile. Sandwiching the tile between plasterboard will slow the drying slightly as it will stop any airflow from getting to the tiles, but it will also pull the moisture out of the clay evenly, meaning they have a better chance of staying flat.
- Tiles will warp far more if they are exposed to drafts. They warp because the flat slab dries out unevenly and causes parts of it to shrink more quickly. If you can’t sandwich the tiles between plasterboard, consider putting plastic sheet or cling film over the top of the tile to reduce the speed at which it dries.
- Make sure you take note of the thickness that the glaze is applied; this will allow you to repeat any favourable results. The easiest way to do this is by using a pint weight. If you weight a pint of the liquid glaze (you could use an old milk bottle), you can record the weight that best suits your desired results. The water in a glaze weighs more than the raw materials meaning the lighter a pint weighs the more water there is in the glaze. The more water in the glaze, the thinner it is… I hope that makes sense!
- I use a ladle to apply the glazes to the surface of the tiles. It’s quick, efficient and produces a nice finish to the glazed surface. It’s just a large catering ladle with one side sanded down. You could also consider pouring them with a jug, dipping them, or spraying them if you have the facilities. There’s no right or wrong method when considering glaze application; they are just likely to give you different results.
- Tiles cover a wide surface area of kiln shelf when they are fired. This not only means you need lots of extra kiln shelves, but it will add to the mass of the kiln pack and the length and cost of your firings.
- If you are raw firing, you need to schedule in a slower temperature rise for the early period, up to around 600°C.
- Large flat tiles require a layer of silica sand between the tile and the shelf during firing. This allows the tile to move and shrink as it fires, reducing the risk of it pulling itself apart under its own weight. The silica sand will act like a little bed of tiny marbles underneath the tile while still supporting the tile’s shape.
Buy the Miller Tile Body: potclays.co.uk (stock code 153-5112)
Froyle Tiles: froyletiles.co.uk