Friday, February 09, 2007

Tile Cleaning

Finally, being lazy and forgetful is paying off!

The first day I met the owner of The Oberon Saloon building to see about getting the 1902 encaustic hex tile he gave me a tour of the building. It’s not too big so it didn’t take long. Even though it was a short tour it lasted a lot longer than I would have liked. I was really only interested in the tile.

The floor did not look good the frist time I saw it. The tile was dingy and gray and there were some really bad spots where the tile was almost black where cabinets and counters had been. The owner told me he had tried everything to clean the floor when he first bought the building and nothing worked. He even mentioned a diamond disk on a orbital floor cleaner. I was leery from the beginning as to whether this salvage tile operation would be a big waste of my time but I decided to try anyway.

After I got as much tile as I could I started thinking about ways to clean it. Bleach immediately came to mind, along with things like TSP, Oxyclean, Zud, and Bar Keepers Friend. I decided to start with bleach and go from there. It is the cheapest by far and there was a lot of tile to clean. No matter what way I went it seemed like it was going to be a lot of work. It’s 2-inch hex tile so I figured 36 tiles per sq ft. I salvaged about 100 sq ft so that works out to around 3600 tiles to clean. This was not going to be fun.

Anyway, I started with the bleach. About 3 weeks ago I grabbed one of the worst of the worst tiles. This is pretty much what it looked like.

Now, a lot of that is surface dirt that can come off with a little elbow grease, but remember there are 3600 tiles. I filled a coffee cup with undiluted bleach and dropped in the tile. I put the cup on an out of the way table in the dining room and pretty much forgot about. This was supposed to be the first in a series of carefully planned tests to see what was the best way to clean the tile. Well, I started working on the plumbing in the bathroom and never got back to the bleach test.

Yesterday I finally remembered about it and I went and grabbed the cup. About half of the bleach had evaporated and at the bottom of the cup was pretty nice looking tile. I set the cup in the sink and ran water over for a few minutes and when it was done this is what I got.

No scrubbing or anything. Just soak in bleach and rinse. This is the kind of cleaning job I like. I have two big plastic tubs with lids and tomorrow I’m going to go buy a couple of more tubs along with 10 gallons of bleach. I just fill up the tubs with tile and bleach and put them out in one of the garages to soak for a few weeks.

The other issue is the grout but if I use black grout in the bathroom I will only need to worry about getting the really thick chunks of grout off. Fixer-Upper did the white tile with black grout in their bathroom and I thought it looked pretty good.


Trissa said...

Awesome! I'm so glad that it worked! It was definitely worth your time and effort to get the tiles. Is there still any "gunk" or grout left on the tiles you need to get rid of?

Anonymous said...

I have been told that you should never use bleach to clean pottery such as stoneware etc. That is causes the pottery to crumble or something. I hope that it doesn't do that to tile. Just a thought I had cleaned a stoneware crock with bleach and it started crumbling under the glaze. Tile may be different, maybe.

Greg said...


Yes, there is grout around some of the edges. It remains to be seen how much work this will be to get rid if it. As I said, if the new grout I use is the same color, then it won't be much work. I can just leave most of it there.


I'll keep an eye on it, but I don't think it will be an issue. These tiles are not stoneware or pottery. I use the term "encaustic" but I'm not even sure how accurate that is. The boarder tiles were made by American Encaustic Tile Co., but these were not the traditional multi-colored pattern tiles one normally thinks of when one hears the term “encaustic tile”. They are basically unglazed porcelain. The tiles are a half inch thick and they were the floor tiles of a commercial building for 104 years before I pulled them up. That building was a saloon and a restaurant for many years, along with just about everything else in it’s life time. If anything was going to hurt these tiles they would have been destroyed a long time ago.

StuccoHouse said...

You would have to work really, really, really hard to ruin those tiles with chemicals...or anything for that matter. I periodically wash my hex floors (old house & current)with Dreft laundry detergent & water and then rinse off with bleach water. Keeps them very white. I'd bet big money that they will outlive me. Only thing that I have seen affect them is torque from the subfloor which caused cracking.

You might consider a dark gray grout to replicate the old style concrete bed "grout." They will look so cool when you are done! One of those projects that will make you smile every time you see it.

Mark said...

The results of the bleach bath are awesome. To awesome to not do it. However I have found that once a surface that is not glazed has been bleached it is that much easier to make it dirty again. Might not be the case but certainly would be worth putting to the test before you lay the tile. If this proves to be the case you may consider putting some sort of sealer on the tiles to prevent them from being fouled up again. More over you may want to do it before the grout is laid to ensure better coverage and then seal again when done grouting. Just a thought. You are certainly going to appreciate that floor so much more with all the labour you will have put in into it.

Anna said...

Hi Greg!

My "wonder weapon" against all kind of dirt (calcium stains on tiles and faucet in the bathroom, urine scale, mold, heavily soiled vases, pans etc.) is denture cleaner. I dissolve some tablets in hot water and leave it for a couple of hours. Amazing results, not abrasive and really cheap!
Maybe not the right thing for the first cleaning of your tiles, but for the "finishing touch"?

Patricia W said...

That is incredible! Finally a big job that doesn't involve hours and hours of intensive labor. Good for you!

Greg said...

Good insights and advice. Thanks all!

Alicia said...

How are you going to maintain the tile once installed?

I had pre-war apt. in NYC for six years with unglazed hex tile on the bathroom floor, and it was just a mf-er to clean and to make look clean. I wouldn't mind doing a hex tile pattern in my hallway except for those rancid memories of cleaning tiles that never really got clean. And the grout added to that generally constant dirty feel. The slightly greyish hue of it all looked just like that settlement of dirt that falls in the bathroom when you don't wash it for three weeks.

Greg said...


That is a concern, but everything gets dirty. StoccoHouse seems to have a pretty good method for cleaning it, which she spelled out a few comments up. I think it'll be ok.