Restoring and cleaning encaustic floor tiles

DIY expert Helaine Clare offers a step-by-step guide to restoring and cleaning encaustic hallway floor tiles in Victorian and Edwardian homes

TODO alt text

Encaustic floor tiles, characteristic of Victorian and Edwardian hallways often need simple fixes to keep them well preserved. Whether you're in the process of designing a hallway, have noticed the odd loose tile that needs some attention or simply want advice on maintaining and cleaning your hallway floor tiles, DIY expert Helaine Clare offers a step-by-step guide. 

Spotting damage to Victorian tiled floors

original style tiles with an orange tone

(Image: © Original Style)
Subscribe to Period Living magazine

Get the best period home inspiration, ideas and advice straight to your door every month with a subscription to Period Living magazine

Traditionally, schemes were laid without grouting; butted hard against each other on a bedding layer. Over time, dirt and grit can become ground down between the tiles, or they can become loose or chipped. 

It's important to deal with this problem as soon as it occurs, as the tiles hold each other together and even a single missing element can cause major long-term damage.

Problems to look out for include:

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

Should I restore a Victorian tiled floor myself?

Victorian inspired original floor tiles

(Image: © Original Style)

Over time and as a result of underlying movement and heavy footfall, it's not uncommon for tiles to crack, become loose or go missing. While you can often repair original tiled floors on a DIY basis, if yours is in very poor condition we would advise seeking specialist advice, such as from the Tiles & Architectural Ceramics Society

When it comes to laying an entire tiled floor, it's important to remember that a concrete floor beneath may need screeding to level it, while a wooden floor will probably require lining with marine ply to strengthen it.

Equally, if you're working with unglazed tiles – which can be porous and need to be handled with care to avoid staining – it may be worth considering a professional tile fitter. Fired Earth's tiling service comes recommended. 

If there isn’t rot, subsidence or another problem in your sub-floor, you can restore old hallway floor tiles yourself by carefully removing the loose or damaged tiles (see below) and replacing them with intact originals or new tiles cut to match.  

If you need advice on how to choose floor tiles, or are looking to source replacement geometric and encaustic tiles in authentic period patterns, try specialists such as Original Features.  

To repair a tiled floor, you will need...

A step-by-step guide to restoring a tiled hallway floor

How to repair original tiled floors steps 1 and 2

1. Carefully remove any loose tiles

In the hallway of an Edwardian home (c.1909), this border tile is loose, but as the tiles were laid by being butted up hard against each other it can be difficult to prise them out without risking damage to the edges. Run a hacksaw blade or paint scraper around the tile to loosen it further, and gently ease it out.

Tip: If a large patch is in need of repair, mark each tile and use a photo or drawing to ensure each is returned to its proper place.

2. Clean up the area before getting started

Use a bristle brush or vacuum cleaner to remove dirt and grit beneath the loose tile. With a damp cloth, thoroughly clean the bed and back of tile. If the bedding has crumbled you will need to re-bed the tile in adhesive. Remove some of the old bedding evenly and apply tile adhesive to back of tile. In order to provide a good base for the adhesive, remove at least 6mm of the old bedding.

How to repair original tiled floors steps 3 and 4

3. Re-affix the loose tile using glue

Dampen the floor bed and back of the tile. Prime both with one part PVA diluted with five parts water. Allow this layer to dry. Next, apply neat PVA to the floor bed and back of the tile and firmly press back into place. Wipe away surplus glue with a damp sponge and place a weight on top. Leave for 24 hours until fully bonded.

4. Repair chips with epoxy putty

Repair small chips with modeller’s epoxy putty Milliput, available in various colours. Clean the chipped area first, then knead and roll equal amounts from both Milliput sticks for six minutes. Press the resulting putty into the chips. Smooth with a wet finger or finely woven moist cloth. Clean tools immediately.

How to repair original tiled floors steps 5 and 6

5. Scrape away paint splashes

Dried-on paint splashes can be removed with a scraper. Choose one that keeps the blade at an acute angle to the tile to avoid scratching or gouging it. Alternatively, use a plastic scraper or plastic scouring pad. Do not use metal scourers, wire brushes or steel wool to repair original tiled floors, as they can damage the surfaces.

6. Remove ingrained dirt from tiles

Give the floor a thorough clean with hot water and mild detergent such as conservation grade Vulpex Spirit Soap. Don’t allow water to pool on the surface as it may find its way down between the tiles. Sponge off the surplus as you scrub away. Finally wipe over the tiles with clean water, rinsing the mop frequently.

How to repair original tiled floors steps 7 and 8

7. Apply a natural beeswax finish

These unglazed tiles were traditionally left unfinished. Don’t apply a sealant or impregnator, particularly on a ground floor with no damp proof membrane, or you will trap moisture. If you like to see a slight sheen, apply Liberon Liquid Beeswax sparingly to the tiles using a soft cotton cloth.

8. Buff up floor to a soft sheen

After applying a scant layer of Liberon Liquid Beeswax, wait 24 hours for it to dry then buff the floor using a cloth or electric polisher. Sweep or vacuum regularly to prevent dirt and grit from being trodden in. Occasionally wipe over with a damp mop, rather than washing, which may allow water to seep underneath. A rubber doormat outside and a coir one inside will help capture dirt.

How to maintain old floor tiles

original inspired victorian tiles from original style

(Image: © Original Style)

Once you've repaired any damage to your old hallway floor, it's important to take steps to maintain it and prevent any future damage.

General care

Whilst tiled floors generally require little maintenance, grit and debris can cause damage while staining can result from objects standing on the floor.

To tackle this:

  • Regularly sweep or vacuum.
  • Use a doormat to trap moisture and dirt before it reaches the floor – make sure you 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 and can cause sweating on the underside which potentially marks the floor. Tiles are best left exposed, or partially covered with with mats made from natural materials, such as seagrass or jute.

Applying finishes

Traditionally tiles would have been largely untreated or oiled, over time taking on a sheen brought about by the polishing action of wear. 

Nowadays, we would recommend that you consider the following advice:

  • Ensure the floor is clean and totally dry.
  • Never use linseed oil or beeswax to seal tiles as the surface will yellow over time and dirt will become trapped.
  • 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.

Removing dirt and stains

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.

To protect flooring, take the following steps:

  • 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.

More information on hallways, tiling or both: