I have written about handmade ceramic tile before and will probably do so again. I recently visited one of my favorite handmade tile factories in Southern California and remembered again why the material is so special. First, it is all organic. Next, there are countless opportunities for customization, from the color to the shape of the trim. It seems that we are in a stone moment, but I don’t want to forget about the beauty of ceramic tile.

I love ceramic tile. I love the way it feels, the process by which it is made, and the end result which comes from the DNA of the tile maker. Individual tile makers manage the clay recipe to their own specifications combining ingredients including dry clay, talc and wollsonite with water (think cookie dough) as they see fit. After a thorough blending in the mixer large blocks of gray clay emerge. The blocks are put through an extruder and formed into long slabs which rest overnight and then hand-cut into tiles. Each tile is flattened, sponged and inspected before being left to dry for several days. Two firings–the first for drying the clay, the second after the application of glaze–and several inspections later, the finished hand made tile is ready for a box.

I have flown through the description. The actual process from end to end takes more that a week and 35 separate steps (clearly more difficult than making cookies). Because there are always so many variables in the process, from the humidity in the air to the careful weighing of the glaze contents, one is never certain that the finished product will look like the required standard. My favorite tile maker, Michael, talks about the kiln Gods who can be kind in the final process or not.

It is the glaze on a particular tile body that makes me respond to a tile. I love transparent glazes. I judge a glaze by its clarity rather than its color. The clear glazes give the tile an illuminated quality; when the tiles are fired the glaze melts on the surfaces and into the voids creating a lovely pooling effect.

But the final step to achieve the desired visual affect is the installation. The installation needs to be done by another skilled artisan. A good installation is a time intensive process beginning with the careful measuring of the space, dry laying of the material to manage the color variation, planning in advance for the cut tiles, and finally creating minimal grout joints and the selection of grout color.

When you are shopping for surfaces, be sure to look carefully at handmade tile and imagine all of the steps that have gone into creating that one square or rectangle. It will make you appreciate the material more!


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