Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Four hundred square feet of 1902 encaustic tile free for the taking. A beautiful multicolored boarder with a field of 2-inch hex tiles. All free and ready for the taking. The only problem is, someone repaired the floor with a Portland cement base grout.

The 2-inch white encaustic hex tiles were made by Cambridge tile. These are the same people who made my 1895 fireplace tiles. The boarder was made by A.E.T. (American Encaustic Tile). I think both companies are (or were) located in Ohio.

There is a building in Old Town that was recently vacated by a kitchen wares business. The new owner thought the floor was too far gone for the upscale dinner house he wants to open. I had mentioned to some friends about my bathroom and ideas for tile. They told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…, wait, that’s an old commercial. Anyway, anybody who has spoken to me the last two months knows I’m working on my bathroom and when word came that an old tile floor was going to be ripped out I got a call.

I had great hopes for this tile. The floor was in bad shape, there is no denying that. Still, there was plenty of good tile to be had. I only need 100 square feet, or less, for the bathroom and mud room. There should have been plenty.

In days of old, they laid tile floors in a mortar bed of a lime based cement. The lime cement is very forgiving. It holds the tile fine, but not to the point that the tile can never be recovered. The lime based mortar moves with the building as the building settles and ages. Portland cement based mortars are not forgiving at all. They will hold on to the tile until the end of time.

At some point, someone regrouted the floor with a Portland cement based grout. As I tried to pull up the tile it flaked and chipped at the edges when it tried to separate from the grout. This first picture is of the underside of the tile.

These two tiles had some writing in pencil on the bottom so I shoved them in my pocket. I didn’t clean them at all and that is pencil writing from 1902. The tile just lifts away from the old mortar bed with a little persuasion and is left in almost ready to use condition. The writing says “Seconds Della” on one and “Seconds {unknown}” on the other. I think the Seconds refers to the quality. I acquired a single 1902 subway tile from the Vance Hotel, also in Old Town, and it is stamped “Second” on the back. I think because of the cost of shipping from the east coast (all the way around So. America) second quality was cheaper and so that’s what we ended up with.

Anyway, above is a shot of the A.E.T. boarder with the Cambridge Field. Notice the narrow grout lines and notice the dark color of the grout. This is not original. That black grout is the Portland cement based grout that was added later.

Here you can see the side of the tile. There is the black grout on top and then the lime mortar on bottom. The lime mortar cleans up easily. The black grout chips the edges of the tile when its removed. And removing it is not easy at all. It’s really too bad. Encaustic tiles costs big bucks today. If that stuff could be salvaged it would go for upwards of $20 a sq ft. Encaustic tile is the same all the way through. It’s like the linoleum of tiles.

Of course, it's possible that the Portland cement based grout is original, but I don’t think so. In some places there were major repairs made to the floor - apparently this place was a saloon for many decades - when the repairs where made and the tiles were re-laid they use a Portland cement based mortar to relay the tiles. Those tiles disintegrated when I tried to remove them. In some cases they couldn't get the tiles to all fit back the way they came out and they used nippers to reshape the tiles. Then they filled in with this black grout. It was under the tiles in places, like they "back-buttered" the reshaped tiles before putting them in.


jm@houseinprogress said...

Oh. That made me so sad. Why? Why Portland Cement?

Patricia W. said...

Is there no way the cement can be ground off? Those are really pretty tiles.

John said...

This may be a stupid question, but what the hell: is there anyway you could grind the cement off of the tile without damaging them? It seems a shame to let tiles that nice get away.

Greg said...

It seems great minds think alike. It might be possible. It's a question of how much time it would take, and just how much work it is. I played around with a few tiles last night trying to get the grout off. Half of the time I would end up damaging the tile trying to get it off. It's also very difficult work. Each tile has 6 sides and each side needs to be dealt with. The percentage of loss is so high, I'm not sure there would be enough left even if I was able to clean them all. I'm going back over there again to today to have a better look. I was only working in one section yesterday. Perhaps other areas are better.

John said...

Here is another idea.

I did some quick research, and portland cement is very sensitive to acidity. From what I read, cabonic acid in a water solution is very effective at breaking the concrete's bond. It seems that I read rock masons use an acid solution to clean up "oops" where mortar dried on the face of stone marring the finish.

The one thing I couldn't find is whether carbonic acid would harm the tiles. Maybe you'll have to do an experiment with some of the broken tiles to see if they survive a soak in a carbonic bath (and whether this softens the portland cement).

In an ideal world, you'd be able to soak the tiles in a carbonic solution, fish them out, rinse them, and scrape to portland cement off with out too much trouble.

And, I think you can find cabronic acid on eBay or mail order chemical stores.

John said...

Sorry, since I'm a bit of dumbass, I thought I might mention that carbonic acid is just a fancy term for carbonate water or soda. Please ignore the whole bit about eBay in the previous comment.

So, I guess you just need to soak them in Coke?

Anyhow, I'll stop while I'm ahead and leave to science to those who actually know what they are doing.

Good luck.

Greg said...

It's worth a shot.

Angus said...

Wow! Great haul (if they can be used).
I was thinking along the same lines as John. I know cement has a high lime content, so theoretically you could use regular (white) vinegar to 'soften' the cement. I have no idea if that'd work, and if it did, if it would leave the tiles unharmed.

Encaustic tiles? I only know encaustic as a sort of painting with wax ... but that cna't be right here. Maybe is a method of laying a material down.

If regular vinegar (5% Acetic Acid) doesn't work, you could get hold of regular acetic and dilute it to 10% ...?

Maybe getting in touch with a cement manufacturer and see if the have a product which removes cement?

(Sorry, I just got a bit excited about something like this being saved and (maybe) reused). Nice tiles.

Angus said...

Okay, now I know what encaustic tiles are. My Aunt has ancient ones in her kitchen.

Because they're made of clay I don't know what vinegar would do to them but it still might be worth a try.

I also found a website where a handworker recommended "soak the tiles in water, overnight. hold the tile on its side at a slight angle, with one hand.....with the other hand chip away at it with a sharp wood careful of the angle or you will break the tile.....have been doing it this way for years......especially helpful in salvaging old tile that cannot be matched up.......good luck........"

And then I found this (non-acid) product:
or their homepage (in the US)

Maybe there are other "molecular cement dissolvers" out there.
It was also interesting that it's made of sugar cane...

(I will try to curb my excitement now and get back to work).

Jonathan said...

This could be a long shot, but it looks like the bottom of the back of the two tiles that you have say "19 ella es 05". "ella es" is spanish for "she is". 1905 could be the year they were manufactured, or the year they were installed. Have you found any tiles with similar markings?

Caveat emptor and all that stuff: This is definitely a shot in the dark. I just like mysteries. :)

Greg said...

Good guess, but it definitely says “Della”. I’ve found a half dozen more of them and they all say “Seconds Della”, only some are easier to read than others. Della must have been a tile inspector and the Cambridge facility.

Mike said...

I have worked with ceramic tile for years, I have never tried to save tile except for what I must save for a repair, if you can get enough off the floor, it would take a long time but a belt sander, with a very fine grit paper would do the trick, I did this with some 4x4 tile about 90 pc took 2-3 hours

Greg said...

I eventually did get about 110 sq ft of the tile cleaned and usable. It now covers the floor of my bathroom and mudroom. I did use a belt sander for a lot of it. I also worked with tile nips. Because these are encaustic tile I was able to soak them in bleach to clean them.