What are encaustic tiles?
Encaustic tiles are striking, patterned tiles made up of between two and six colours. Unlike glazed patterns, which sit on the surface of the tile, the colours run through the tile itself, so they won’t wear off over time.
While encaustic tiles date back centuries, their bold, graphic patterns and rich colours make them an appealing choice for both traditional and contemporary homes. They can be laid on their own or combined with other types of tiles, such as tessellated tiles, to create a more intricate, decorative look.
Where did encaustic tiles originate from?
Encaustic tiles are a significant feature of Victorian architecture, but their history can be traced back far earlier. Inlaid (or encaustic) tiles were commonplace in monasteries and palaces built between the 12th and 16th centuries. But with the dissolution of monasteries, the skill largely disappeared until the Gothic Revival of the early 19th century.
During this period, a renewed interest in Gothic architecture and design saw a fresh demand for the medieval inlaid tiles. In 1835 Herbert Minton, with the help of Samuel Wright, unveiled a pattern book of 62 encaustic designs based on original medieval styles. In 1844 Minton & Co was commissioned to create an encaustic pavement for Queen Victoria’s Osborne House. This led to a surge in popularity for encaustic tiles, with architects using them to add decorative flair to public and private buildings around the globe.
What different finishes do encaustic tiles come in?
'Encaustic' tiles are generally made from fully vitrified porcelain, glazed porcelain or cement. While at first glance one encaustic tile might look much like another, what the tile is made from and how the pattern is printed will make a huge difference to its performance and lifespan.
One of the most fashionable types of 'encaustic' on the market today is the so-called "Moroccan" cement encaustic, where the pattern has been printed onto the surface of the tile after it has been fired. These printed cement tiles are moderately priced, but on the downside, they are very porous (making them unsuitable for wet rooms such as bathrooms), stain and chip easily, won’t cope with heavy foot traffic, and require regular sealing. Also, because of their porosity and the type of pigments used to colour the cement, they tend to fade fairly quickly.
Glazed porcelain encaustics
The most common form of 'encaustic' on the market currently is the glazed porcelain tile with a decorative pattern printed on the surface. The most common and popular size is 200x200mm, but there many different sizes available, from 150x150mm up to 600x600mm. While quality of manufacture can vary as much as quality of design, in general terms these products are robust, versatile, easy to clean, suitable for walls and floors, and some have an R11 rating, which means they can be used outdoors.
Glazed porcelain printed tiles ('faux encaustics' for short) can be used in a wide variety of situations, but if intending to use them outdoors, it is advised that you check the slip rating. Being a glazed porcelain, the potential for them to be scratched or chipped in heavy traffic areas does exist, but it is slight, as both the glazes and the porcelain body are very tough. This is the most affordable type of 'encaustic', but there is a huge variety of options in the market, as with anything, and price is a reflection of quality and country of origin.
Fully vitrified porcelain encaustics
Fully vitrified porcelain encaustic tiles cost more than cement and glazed porcelain encaustics, but they are far more versatile and hard wearing. The pattern is screen printed onto the tile using special inks and medium to ensure it penetrates the surface, then fired at high an extremely high temperature. Unlike cement encaustics this type is highly resistant to fading. Fully vitrified porcelain tiles have a very low porosity, making them suitable for wet areas such as bathrooms and laundries. They are also durable enough to cope with high traffic areas such as pathways, verandahs, entrances, shops, restaurants and any civic or commercial location.
Fully vitrified porcelain is highly resistant to chipping, in most cases does not require sealing, and will retain its colour and vibrancy for decades.
For high-traffic areas, such as hallways and pathways, you may want to consider pressed porcelain encaustic tiles. This method, the original and only true form of encaustic, was developed in England in the mid-19th century by Herbert Minton. Here, the pattern is made up of different coloured liquid clays, called 'slip', that are poured into indentations moulded into the main body of the tile. The tile is then fired at near volcanic temperature, ensuring that the different coloured porcelain clays fuse and becomes 'vitrified'. The resulting pattern is an integral part of the tile. It cannot fade or be scratched off, producing a surface that will last for generations, even in the toughest situation. Pressed porcelain encaustics are more expensive than all other options, but are a smart, long-term investment for heavy traffic or prestige locations.
Where can I use encaustic tiles in my home?
Encaustic tiles can be used to make a stunning style statement in many areas inside and outside the home, including bathrooms, kitchens, hallways, fireplace surrounds, patios, pathways and swimming pool surrounds. The key is to choose the right tile material for the job.
How do I choose the right encaustic tiles for a bathroom or laundry?
In heavy traffic, wet rooms such as a bathroom or laundry, you need a tile that is durable, safe, non-porous AND easy to maintain. Fully vitrified porcelain encaustic tiles are the best option, although they are at the higher end of the budget.
Glazed porcelain encaustic tiles are more affordable and can be used in most areas, including bathrooms and laundries, but they don’t offer the same durability or long-term performance as fully vitrified porcelain.
Cement tiles are relatively soft and porous, and stain easily unless sealed. Over time the colours tend to fade. These tiles are not well suited to bathrooms and laundries.
When choosing the colours and pattern of encaustic tiles for your bathroom or laundry, consider whether you want them to be the star of the show or to blend into the background. A graphic, brightly coloured encaustic tile floor, for example, is guaranteed to add impact to a bathroom or laundry, but is best balanced with white or neutral wall tiles (such as subway tiles) and simple fixtures and fittings – particularly if the room is small.
If you’d prefer to draw less attention to the tiles and more to other elements in the room, such as decorative tapware or cabinetry, opt for a design with a simple pattern consisting of just one or two soft neutrals.
How do I choose the right encaustic tiles for my kitchen?
In today's market there is such a wide variety of patterns, styles, colours and sizes when it comes to 'encaustic tiles' that it's possible to find something to suit your kitchen no matter what your taste, budget or design concept. Fully vitrified porcelain and glazed porcelain encaustic tiles make a great addition to kitchens – whether for the floor, the splashback, an island fascia, counter top or table top, and they are eminently practical. Both materials are scratch resistant, unaffected by heat and moisture, and are easy to clean. If used for a splashback, some fully vitrified porcelain products may need to be sealed, to avoid staining from hot oil splatter. A high quality sealer is recommended.
Cement encaustics are not suitable for kitchens as they are prone to chipping, stain easily and are not moisture-resistant.
If you’re new to patterned tiles, a small area such a splashback is a great place to experiment. Encaustic tiles with a simple, graphic pattern in a bold colour are perfect for adding punch to an otherwise plain, contemporary kitchen. Bright tones of blue, green or yellow will add a fun, cheery feel to your kitchen, while charcoal, grey or earthy neutrals have a more sophisticated vibe. In a traditional kitchen with decorative elements, consider encaustics with a botanical or floral motif in rich, heritage colours, which can be applied to a splashback, walls or incorporated into a tessellated tile floor.
When selecting tile colours for your kitchen, take your cues from the surrounding palette. In particular, consider the colours of the cabinetry, benchtop, tapware, walls and flooring. In an open-plan kitchen, you’ll also want to factor in the colours in upholstery, carpet and artwork in the adjoining dining and living rooms in order to create a balanced and cohesive look.
How do I choose the right encaustic tiles for outdoor spaces?
If you’re looking to up the style factor of your front path, back patio or swimming pool surround, eye-catching encaustic tiles are hard to beat. If chosen well, they’re also more than up to the challenge of withstanding extreme weather conditions and will look and perform beautifully for years.
In a wet-prone area with heavy footfall, safety is your first consideration. You’ll want tiles with a non-slip finish that are resistant to chipping and cracking.
They should also be durable, fade-resistant and easy to clean. Fully vitrified porcelain encaustic tiles tick all the boxes and are guaranteed to maintain their looks for years. For an exposed, high-traffic area, such as a front path or patio, it’s wise to opt for pressed porcelain encaustic tiles.
Lay encaustics tiles in a continuous pattern for a simple and striking look or, for a more complex decorative effect, use them to complement a tessellated tile floor or path. When selecting tile colours for your exterior, pick up tones from your home’s façade, landscaping or architectural features (such as metalwork or leadlight windows) to create a seamless sense of flow.
Also consider using contrasts to your advantage: if you’re looking to draw attention to a dramatic encaustic tile floor, try inverting the colour palette. For a rich brick or charcoal-painted façade, for example, create impact by opting for lighter tones in tiles for your front path and steps, or choose darker tile tones for a pale neutral or white-washed exterior.
How do I clean and maintain encaustic tiles?
Fully vitrified porcelain encaustic tiles don’t require any sealing or special maintenance to keep their good looks. Simply clean them every week or two with a mop or sponge, warm water and a small (no more than a teaspoon) of detergent. Scrub tiles firmly in a circular motion.
Cement encaustic tiles will require ongoing care. They will need to be sealed upon installation and then every year or so after that.
It’s also important not to let spills (even water) sit on the surface of the tile or they can stain and cause permanent damage. If you lay cement encaustic tiles in a busy spot, such as near a doorway, it’s wise to lay a floor mat to prevent wear and tear. Wash with warm water and a pH-neutral soap (not detergent, which can leave a residue) and dry well.
Most ceramic encaustic tiles do not need to be sealed, but it’s best to check with the manufacturer as some may require a light sealant every year or so to fill the micro pores on the tile surface. Clean with a mop or sponge, warm water and no more than a teaspoon of detergent.
Looking for encaustic tiles for your project?
As emphasised above, not all encaustics are the same. Go with the most hard wearing option - vitrified porcelain encaustics, to save yourself headaches down the track.