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What are encaustic tiles?

Encaustic tiles are ceramic tiles in which the pattern on the surface is not a product of the glaze but of different colors of clay. They are usually of two to as many as six colours. The pattern appears inlaid into the body of the tile. Typically they are square and less than 20 x 20cm in size.

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Modern ink-jet emulation of a selection of Portuguese encaustic tiles.

Encaustic is Ancient Greek meaning “burning in” which was also applied to a process of medieval enameling. Victorians thought that the two colour tiles strongly resembled enamel work and so called them encaustic. Despite the error, the term has now been in common use for so long that it is an accepted name for inlaid tile work. In both medieval times and in the nineteenth century Gothic Revival, tiles were most often made for and laid in churches. Even tiles that were laid in private homes were often copies of those found in religious settings. Encaustic tile floors exist all over Europe and North America but are most prevalent in England where the greatest numbers of inlaid tiles were made.

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Encaustic tile moulds.

Encaustic tiles are now more of historic interest than anything else. Although there are some demonstration production lines in living museums, the process is no longer used widely.

There are a very few encaustic tile makers these days and studios in the UK, US, Australia and Morocco are prominent. They use a two-part moulding process. The ‘inlay’ colour is moulded first. For multiple colours, a mould with cavities for each colour is used and the individual colours are filled carefully. This coloured clay is then placed face-down in a mould that is backfilled with the body colour. The tiles are then fired.

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Pouring the second layer of clay into the body then scraping smooth.

These days modern digitally printed ink-jet tiles are produced to emulate the look of encaustic tiles. These are often used for feature walls around fireplaces, kitchen and bathroom spashbacks, small wet-room walls or floors like showers or guest toilets.
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Modern ink-jet emulation – 16 tiles printed on one 60×60 body.

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