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Making a Splash

Using antique tiles to great effect in installations



Using Tiles Offset


Using tiles offset or diamond-wise in a regular grid arrangement is a simple way to introduce a pattern in to a plain arrangement and different colours can be used to create a more dramatic effect. Scale has to be taken into consideration as the arrangement may only be suited for larger installations or with smaller tiles indeed 4 1/4" tiles have been made for at least a century and a half specifically because their diagonal dimension is 6".



An offset tile creates an optical illusion, it looks bigger, an offset 6" tile appears similar in size to an 8" tile square on, an offset 4 1/4" tile appears similar in size to a 6" tile square on. Briefly this is because our eyes scan the horizontal as the primary dimension, the world is horizontal, it soon runs out when one looks up yet is continuous from side to side. Our eyes are set side by side rather than one above the other to accomodate this need. With the benefit of this illusion offset designs can fill more space whether displayed on a wall or set in to a splashback.




At one foot centres a band of offset tiles appears near continuous which makes more of a frieze statement than emphasis of the individual tiles. Bold designs can be spread quite sparingly two feet centres look just fine or even greater for larger installations around larger kitchens, swimming pools etc. At eighteen inch centres there is just one decorative tile in three, at two feet one in four so it is a really economical way to create a great effect. These spreads are even great for smaller splashbacks if the designs are strong enough although I do think at least three decorative tiles are required.



A good proportion of antique tiles have offset designs, many were fitted offset but also as clusters of four and corners for wall and hearth borders. Many were specifically designed to 'look right' from two orientations and be so displayed to make pairs for example down the opposite cheeks of a fireplace. Collectors will usually still display square on as they were originally set in fireplaces and washstands yet their best use may well be for making a splash.



Many more antique tiles have designs that work equally well square on or offset, geometric designs in many tastes. From the 1850s onwards bright and pretty gothic designs by Pugin, many bold designs based on stylised sunflower motifs, pretty aesthetic movement styles in the 1880s and 1890s, classical, japanesque, celtic and even some art nouveau.




Using Borders


Borders are great for showing tiles off, borders like frames for pictures emphasise the subject, as with picture frames they are best relatively plain. Border tiles were made in a great variety of sizes and many, many more colours, the range is absolutely vast. It is not essential that border tiles match indeed frames are best different but complimentary, they should not dominate at all, they should provide a proportionate backdrop for the decoration. Very few originals come to market today for a variety of logistical reasons but they can add to the overall effect and period feel.

Supply of originals is very limited of those that come to market most were used in fireplaces especially for hearths but also for slabs. Hearth tiles are almost inevitably too scratched and worn to be reused at eye level where damage will be readily seen, light surface marks and scratches are usually acceptable for splashbacks and other situations where tiles are vertical for it is difficult for marks to be caught in the light. Tiles for table tops and trays really need to be in best condition for the relationship in respect of light sources, eye levels and viewing angles can not be predicted.

Recovery is difficult, mostly being long and thin they are more likely to be damaged upon attempted removal, with low values not much time can be allowed. Cleaning is often equivalent to a valuable 6" decorative tile, drying space is considerably greater, storage is also much more difficult. Quantities can be frustrating, there is little point in cleaning if the quantity is insufficient for a number of uses in many cases the likelihood of finding matching tiles to complete a required quantity is very low but one can't match colours properly unless cleaned so it is a catch-22 situation. When all is done even packaging small tiles takes disproprtionately longer than larger tiles, no wonder so few are found in the marketplace.

Multiple borders were frequently used, we see these mostly in fireplace slabs, the decorative tiles often first framed by a half inch border, then by a one inch, completed by a one and a half inch border. Fireplace slabs were made to widths of nine, ten, eleven and twelve inches as standards, other sizes made for specials. Borders as small as one quarter inch wide are not uncommon, the narrowest seen and very rare are one eighth of an inch wide. These days a gap that wide would be simply filled with grout but in victorian and edwardian times seeing grout was not acceptable, tiles were butted up and even filed down to make the best fit, grout is often only a fiftieth of an inch or half a millimetre, a tiny amount that can barely be seen.

Portland cement was used as grout with most coloured tile installations the neutral grey it presents fading in to the background and not detracting from the glazes. Grout should be stained down, when we did installations we always carried stains, brown, green, burgundy and black which could be mixed to roughly match the tiled with a colour that would fade in to the background, it can also be used to fill in tiny chips. Chips can also be touched in with spots of colour, regular gloss paint won't detract if a reasonable colour match, acrylics can also be used a small artists pack with mixable colours cheaply bought for the purpose.

The most popular colours for borders are greens and browns the most popular brown similar to mahogany and so called in original catalogues. These are the most predominent colours in nature and so best suited for borders as the beautiful and colourful flowers in nature are surrounded by green foliage and brown earth. There is also the vast range of blues, honey colours and rarer reds, greys, purples and other colours. White is quite rare being bright, borders should usually be darker than the tiles that they surround. There are also decorated borders, embossed patterns with majolica glazes of course, mottles and rarer finishes such as barbotine from Sherwin & Cotton and lustres from Maw and de Morgan.

Colours of border in one layout but surrounding different tiles do not have to match rather similar to frames on pictures where few people strive for the same frame on all of their display. Different colours adds even more to the visual effect of the installation it makes every tile displayed a uniquely presented artwork. As ever the more special an effect to be created the more effort it takes but the end result is well worth it.

Modern tiles can be found as borders but the range is very limited in sizes and colours, there are still companies that make bespoke tiles but they may well cost more than originals and the output from the kiln is not guaranteed and may not always match the samples. The glaze quality is different on modern tiles too they lack the brilliance of the lead glazes mostly used in victorian and edwardian times. But borders don't have to be a precise match in any respect their function is to emphasise the feature so with a good hunt around local tile specialists suitable borders may be found.

In most installations the precise width of the border is not critical, surrounding field tiles can be cut to size or they may be set in a wooden frame, polished oak, mahogany etc or painted softwood. I rather prefer two borders around a six inch tile, the first of half an inch the second of one and a half inches. This makes a ten inch overall piece requiring cutting of surrounding plain tiles in most installations where six inch or eight inch tiles are those most commonly used.

The simplest border to use is a group of 3" square tiles as no cutting is required and the maths is easier! A standard six inch tile set in the middle requires 12 3" x 3" tiles to make the equivalent of four 6" x 6" tiles so there's not much point having eleven. Most 3" tiles are sourced from washstands so condition is usually better than fireplace tiles but the quantity is even more limited. Condition of the borders needs to be at least as good as the decorated tiles that they frame, slight damage that gets lost in the pattern on a decorated tile can be obtrusive on a plain tile.



Most complex but potentially creating an even greater decorative statement are dado tiles, these will need to be mitred for corners. The relief adds the same three dimensionality as a moulded frame does to a picture, it can also be very useful to disguise tiles of differing thicknesses. Supplies of originals is extremely limited with rare exceptions only being found on walls and almost always in brown or green.

Prices for original plain tiles in the very fine or better condition required are high per piece but substantially lower than similar quality decorated tiles of the period. The cost of framing a single tile is well worth it if the feature tile deserves it, a tile frame for a single tile may cover the equivalent area to three 6" tiles so is more economical, a greater visual effect is produced for lower cost.



Handed (or mirrored) pairs of tiles can be used most effectively in installations, very few are found they are often the boldest of asymmetric designs.



Requires 12 3x3 tiles
Requires 16 3x3 tiles
Requires 20 3x3 tiles


Early 20th century tubeline tile with plain 3x3 from the original installation
A group of original William de Morgan tiles set in to a late 19th century table top.

We have a few groups of plain and border tiles for sale on this page.

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