History of Encaustic Cement Tiles – The ‘How and the What’ of Mazingira Tiles

We are using an age-old traditional method to create our cement tiles – a method which dates back to the 18th century – right here in South Africa. With our South African design feels we are leading the way in creating something true and unique to South Africa. ‘Handmade in Africa’ is what we are.

These encaustic cement tiles are typically known for their bold patterns and striking colours – used for both floor and wall treatments. They seem to have first appeared in Spain around the 1850s and then around the Mediterranean – Italy, France, Portugal and North Africa. These tiles were revolutionary because they were cheaper to manufacture and more durable than the glazed ceramic tile predecessors. They became commonly available for houses and allowed for plentiful decorative patterns. From the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century is when these tiles reigned supreme, before being displaced by newer, cheaper (but not nearly as decorative) technologies like terrazzo.

Encaustic tiles are not fired in a kiln, and there is no glaze on the surface of the tile. The strength and durability come from a combination of a finely ground cement layer, with a coarser layer of sand and cement. The 2/3mm top layer – which is essentially the colour/pattern layer is hydraulically pressed into the surface of the tile, thereby embedding it as part of the tile.

A cement tile mould from the 1920s
Cement tile mould, France, 1920

Encaustic cement tiles are made one by one, it is a process done completely by hand. Using cement, mineral pigments, a stencil-like mould and a hydraulic press, these tiles are brought to life. Because they are hand-made, there may be slight differences between each tile – which is to be seen as a beautiful characteristic of the product, and not a flaw. 

Although there are a number of cement tile manufacturers across the globe, the main difference seen in the tiles comes from the hydraulic method used. Smaller companies would use a manually operated press – and the quality of the tiles varies because of the varying pressure used with each tile. Bigger companies, using electric powered presses will achieve consistently better-quality tiles. The higher pressure from an electric press means that a thicker colour layer can be embedded into the cement layer. Mazingira Tiles have a pigment layer of 2/3mm thick. 

The overall quality of the tiles comes down to 3 factors:

  1. How crisp/clean the lines of patterns and colour are. This depends largely on the skill of the artisan. A skilled artisan will produce sharper details with less colour variation on the surface.
  2. The thickness of the colour layer. There are 2 parts to an encaustic cement tile: the colour layer made with white cement (the colourful layer) and the body later made with grey cement. The effects of weather, temperature and traffic which cause the layers to shrink and expand differently can cause hair cracks on the surface of the tile. But tiles with a thicker colour layer (2/3mm) can tolerate these effects better.
  3. The surface hardness of the colour layer. This depends on the quality of the white cement being used, the amount of water absorbed and the strength of the tile surface. A harder surface tile will be shinier over time, while a soft tile surface will become dull with foot traffic over time.

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