Maintaining old clay floor tiles

Maintain characterful and decorative floor tiles by regularly checking them to identify problems and following simple care techniques, as explained in this comprehensive guide

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Offering a colourful welcome in the hallways of many period homes, floor tiles date from medieval times when they were originally developed in monasteries. Looking to the past for inspiration, Victorian architects seized upon the design opportunities they offered and geometric and encaustic tiles soon became fashionable. More workaday quarry tiles were laid in kitchens and sculleries to provided an easy-to-maintain floor.

Old floors often have a rich patina of age and an attractive pattern of wear so time spent caring for them will reap rewards. Disturbing an original floor should always be a last resort but good tile suppliers will advise on repairs, cleaning solutions and suitable floor finishes.

floor tiles Handmade encaustic tiles; A traditional pattern on a tiled floor

Each handmade encaustic tile from Craven Dunnill Jackfield has its own unique tone; a traditional pattern on a tiled floor

Warning signs

Despite their apparent solidity, traditional floor tiles need to be treated with respect. Many tiled floors have been abused during building work and hidden under carpets or lino; there may be damage to the tiles, the materials used to fix them and possibly the subfloor beneath.

What to look for:

  • Loose tiles
  • Cracked, crumbling or missing tiles
  • Areas of unevenness
  • Bounce in the floor
  • Dampness
  • Ingrained dirt and paint

Identifying problems with floor tiles

Failure of a tiled floor should always be investigated and the causes resolved before retiling. Problems may be caused by poor bonding between the tiles and the surface, or related to the breakup or movement of the subfloor onto which the tiles are bedded. In the case of suspended floors this might be indicated by bounce in the floor and can result from rot or beetle infestation. More generally, damage to floors may be linked to impact from heavy objects, damp or structural issues within the building.

General care

Tiled floors generally require little maintenance but grit and debris will cause damage, and staining can result from objects standing on the floor.


  • Regularly sweep or vacuum.
  • Use a doormat to trap moisture and dirt before it reaches the floor and shake it out regularly.
  • Put pads under metal objects standing on the floor to prevent rust marks.
  • Wipe up spills promptly.
  • Avoid rubber-backed carpets as they trap moisture, causing sweating on the underside, and potentially mark the floor. The tiles are best left exposed, or partially covered with with mats made from natural materials, such as seagrass or jute.


Traditionally tiles would have been largely untreated or oiled, over time taking on a sheen brought about by the polishing action of wear. Never use linseed oil or beeswax to seal tiles as
the surface will yellow over time, dirt becomes trapped and the products are difficult to clean off.


  • Ensure the floor is clean and totally dry.
  • Apply products designed for unglazed floor tiles.
  • Exterior tiles, such as on steps or balconies, should never be sealed as it may reduce their resistance to frost.

Where floor tiles must be replaced, reproduction Victorian tiles are available

Dirt and staining

Although retaining the patina of age is important, floors can become discoloured or dirty due to general wear or tear, the use of inappropriate finishes or building work.


  • Protect any surrounding surfaces and test all cleaning methods on a small unobtrusive area
    and refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Sparingly, use warm water or a tile-cleaning product to remove surface dirt. Avoid soaking
    the floor and mop up while working. Carefully use nylon scourers to remove stubborn marks. Never use abrasives or wire brushes.
  • Use specialist tile-cleaning products to remove ingrained dirt and cement deposits.
  • Clean away spots of paint by carefully applying paint remover; scrape off using a plastic blade.


Floor tiles are particularly vulnerable when building work is being undertaken, so it is always advisable to cover the floor with sheets of hardboard or plywood, fixed at all the edges with duct tape, to avoid grit or building products coming into contact with the floor.

floor tiles original victorian

Loose floor tiles

Sometimes individual tiles become loose and it is important that they are not lost or damaged before refixing.


  • When necessary, temporarily secure loose tiles with duct tape, remembering that this is  not always easy to clean off if left for long periods.
  • When ready to refix, carefully lever the tile out using a knife, clean off the edges and underneath of the tile and the space it fits.
  • Re-lay with appropriate tile adhesive.

Missing floor tiles

Traditional tiles are still made so it’s often possible to obtain a match from a supplier. Alternatively, salvage yards can be a good source of original tiles.


  • Take an existing tile or good photograph, as well as the exact dimensions, when out searching.
  • Laying traditional floor tiles takes skill so, if unsure, get a professional to do the work.

floor tiles rochester original style

The Rochester floor tiles from Original Style are inspired by Victorian designs

Repairing floor tiles

Before rushing in and disturbing an original tiled floor, especially a very old one, think carefully about what is really necessary. Relaying should be a last resort.

Normally tiles were bedded in lime mortar and traditionally were butt jointed which meant there was no room for movement. Today a space of between 1.5mm and 2mm is often left as a grout line between tiles. Grey coloured grout is recommended because it minimises staining and is the most aesthetically pleasing and is a little less harsh than white.

Problems tend to occur with tiled floors due to the break up or movement of the substrate into which the tiles are bedded, so it is important resolve the problem before relaying the tiles. The reinstatement of large areas of an original floor is a skilled job and should be left to specialists.

Clay baked tiles vary in colour depending on where in the country the clay was mined from

Above (left-right): Simple baked-clay tiles began to be produced from local clays in medieval times; clays from different parts of the country display slight variations in colour and texture.

A floor tile glossary:

Unglazed tiles were often made from locally sourced clay and had a square edge to create a flat, clean junction with only a small gap in between. By laying together different shapes and colours of tiles patterns could be formed, sometimes of great complexity.

ENCAUSTIC: This means fused colours. Contrasting liquid coloured clays are inlaid into the indentations of a plain clay tile while it is still damp, and fuse during firing.
GEOMETRIC: Small, plain clay tiles available in a variety of colours and straight edge shapes which may be combined to create patterns and are often used in conjunction with encaustics.
MOSAIC: Smaller than other tiles, they were used to make pictures or designs and were particularly popular in early 19th century Regency and mid- to late-Victorian houses.
QUARRY: Square, plain clay tiles used widely from the 18th century. They were relatively inexpensive and were used for practical rather than aesthetic purposes so are generally associated with areas such as kitchens and sculleries.

The hallway in this Victorian cottage still boasts the original Minton floor tiles. Minton started developing encaustic tiles in 1830 and they soon became fashionable, especially for hallways

Preserving patterns

On a site where they were first manufactured in the 1860s, encaustic tiles are still made today by Craven Dunnill Jackfield within the Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire.

  • The first stage in producing an encaustic tile is to create a mould by casting plaster onto glass within a hardwood former.
  • With the glass and former removed, the pattern is scribed onto the smooth face of the plaster before being hand-carved into the surface. Once this is done the mould is put back into the former and clay is pressed into it by hand and then beaten with a mallet.
  • The pattern is 7 to 10 per cent bigger than the finished tile to take account of shrinkage and this varies depending on which clays are used. A huge number of secret clay ‘recipes’ have been developed for encaustic tiles and finding exactly the right one is vital in matching tiles for restoration work.
  • The clay is ‘struck off’ level with the mould and the back of the tile is stamped with the manufacturer’s mark and the date. The plaster mould, together with the clay, is removed from the former and left to dry for around thirty minutes before the clay tile is peeled off the plaster. The tile is laid on the bench with the raised pattern facing up so that slip clays of contrasting colours can be poured into the indentations of the pattern.
  • Some of the more complex designs produced at Craven Dunnill Jackfield require several colours and these have to be poured individually and allowed to dry before the next can be added.
  • Once this process is complete, the tiles are left to dry for around 48 hours until they are ‘leather hard’. At that point, the partially dried surplus clay is carefully scraped from the surface to reveal the inlaid pattern. The tile is then air dried for a further week or two before firing for three days at 1,000°C to 1,100°C in a kiln, where the tiles stand on ceramic racks.

Making clay tiles

Making the tiles: (1) At Craven Dunnill Jackfield’s Shropshire workshop clay is pressed into the tile ‘former’. (2) The clay is ‘struck off’ level with the mould and the back of the tile is stamped with the manufacturer’s mark and date. (3) The tile is laid on the bench with the raised pattern facing upwards so liquid clay can be poured in. (4) Once the tiles are ‘leather hard’ the surplus clay is scraped from the surface to reveal the inlaid pattern.

Making clay tiles