Heritage Crafts

Tile making (wall and floor tiles)

The making of clay tiles by hand or in small batches for walls and floors, for functional or decorative purposes. See the separate entry for tile making (roofing tiles).
Currently viable
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Area practiced currently
Origin in the UK


The word ’tile’ originates from the Latin ‘tegula’, used in Roman times to mean terracotta roof-tile. The earliest tiles in the UK were found in towns such as York and Winchester. Glazed tile making emerged in England from the Netherlands in the fourteenth century. Delft became famous for its pottery, known as ‘delftware’ or tin-glazed pottery, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with numerous skilled potters in the area. In England, the tile making industry rapidly increased during the Industrial Revolution leading to the mass production of tiles and widespread use of manufactured tiles inside public buildings. During the Victorian era, fireplaces were the most commonly decorated areas and were therefore decorated with more expensive tiles in comparison to other areas of wealthy homes.


Once the clay has been extracted from the ground, unwanted matter is removed and it is mixed to the right consistency for tile making. The clay is then shaped in a mould, and sand used to prevent the clay from sticking it. When moulding a tile, it is vital that no air is trapped inside the clay. Excess clay is removed by running over the mould with a wire. The tile is dried until it is ‘white hard’ and then fired.

In some cases, tiles were made in a mould with a pattern carved in relief to indent a pattern on the clay slab. The slab would be dried and the impression filed with white pipe clay. After further drying this would be shaved flat. A glaze of lead ore was sprinkled onto the surface and the tiles were then fired.

Encaustic tiles are made by mixing two types of clay: plain clay and liquid clay. The plain clay must be left with an impression which is then filled in with the liquid clay of a different colour, these are then fired together. These tiles were made from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. This skill disappeared with the dissolution of the monasteries but was brought back to life in the nineteenth century by Herbert Minton’s development of dust-pressing.

The colour of the tile is determined by the chemical composition of the clay, the fuel used to fire the tile, and the levels of oxygen available during the firing process. Iron oxide give the brick a red colour, very high levels of iron oxide give a blue colour, limestone and chalk added to iron gives a buff/yellow colour, magnesium oxide gives a yellow colour, and no iron or other oxides gives a white colour.

Issues affecting the viability

  • Market issues: The market for handmade wall tiles comes and goes depending on fashion, especially between minimalism and decoration. There is some bespoke work for bathrooms, kitchens and swimming pool surrounds, but there is a more lucrative market in large commissions for new public and commercial buildings.
  • Market issues: No-one could make a living that would support a family or a mortgage. If a realistic hourly rate were to be charged the market would not bear it. A wall tile is still only a wall tile however much thought and time has gone into it. It is very difficult to get over to the customer what is involved.
  • Market issues: Handmade tiles cost more than mass manufactured tiles.
  • Marketing issues: Modern electronic marketing presents a dilemma in that it is always time taken away from making. It must be done however as gallery space is disappearing. Even the remaining galleries will often not take wall tile panels because they don’t do ceramics, and ceramic galleries do not often have the wall space.
  • Training and skills issues: The next generation will not have the necessary skills because courses are no longer available at colleges. Ceramics needs a three year training rather than a short section of one year. Also people are no longer taught to draw as everything is done on a computer. The general quality of work now is much lower than it was fifteen years ago. Studio training is possible in larger studios, but not when a person is working on their own, as each job needs the total focus of the craftsperson, and trainees can’t be set to do a particular task.
  • Shrinking workforce: Numbers have probably shrunk in the last twenty years from 400 to around 100. Within that is a reduced number of skilled makers able to pass on their skills.
  • Supply of raw materials: Finished tiles are very specifically connected to the clay source – different regions have different traditional tiles which depend on the local clay. Some clay streams are at risk of disappearing.
  • Supply of other materials: Certain types of tile are coal-fired to achieve the right finish and there are currently issues in the supply of coal.

Craftspeople currently known


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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