Watch any home improvement show these days and you're likely to see the throwback looks of encaustic cement tiles. These tiles often feature mono-chromatic gray, white, and black backgrounds with geometric designs but can also include colors from subtle to vivid. Walking around trade shows this year, the trend is very evident with many manufacturers capitalizing on the look, even if the tiles are of a completely different composition. In this article we will wade through the terms, then take a look at the practical implications for installation. Let's start by defining some terms.
Encaustic vs. Cement - True encaustic tiles are fired in a kiln, cement tiles are not. The word 'encaustic' refers to the process of adding color to wax (originally beeswax), pressing it into a tile, and then burning off the wax leaving just the color behind. For thousands of years, this method has produced intricate encaustic tiles like those in the picture installed in Topkapi palace in the 1400's. When cement tiles were introduced in the mid-1800's, the coloring process was similar (although it didn't use heat) so the term 'encaustic cement tile' has been in use ever since. The primary functional differences are absorption (cement tiles can have 10% or more, encaustic tiles usually are around 5% absorption) and strength (neither is as strong as porcelain, but fired tiles are stronger than cement tiles).
Patchwork - Many tiles made with geometric decorations are now made of porcelain. Instead of calling these tiles 'cement-look' or 'encaustic-cement-look', designers and even manufacturers are starting to refer to them as 'patchwork.' Strictly speaking, patchwork is a combination of patterns and designs, often on the same tile. The pattern may repeat or be mixed with other patterns. However, patchwork is starting to emerge as a catch-all for this category of tiles. For the rest of this article, we will focus only on true encaustic cement tiles that are made of cement. For porcelain versions, standard installation practices should be used.
Preparation - Consider where the tiles will be installed and make sure they are suitable. Often these tiles are considered indoor use only due to freeze/thaw and UV stability considerations, make sure to verify with the manufacturer that they are suitable for where you are installing them. To prepare to install the tiles over a flat, bondable substrate, wipe off any residual dust with a damp sponge. Dry-lay the tiles in the area where they will be installed to verify the desired pattern and resolve any issues with any individual pieces. Follow manufacturers recommendations for cutting. If recommendations do not exist, these tiles can typically be cut on a wet saw with a continuous-rim diamond blade. Do NOT immerse the tiles. Immediately prior to back-buttering the tiles with mortar, dampen them with a damp sponge. This will help keep the mortar from drying prematurely.
Mortars - Most cement-based mortars will work with encaustic cement tiles. Because the tiles are also cement-based, they tend to adhere well to the cement in the mortar. When installing light colored tiles, use a white version of the mortar. Darker tiles can be set with gray mortars. We recommend Ultraflex LFT for most applications because of its flexbility and non-slump performance. It comes in both gray and white versions making it the perfect choice regardless of the tile. Immediately clean any mortar from the face of the tile and any raised mortar between the grout joints. If you have questions about which mortars or other products are right for your situation, contact us, we're here to help.
Sealing - The absolutely most critical part of working with true cement-based encaustic tiles is to seal them before grouting. The tiles are very porous and the pores will absorb color from everywhere including the wash water. As soon as the tiles are set, dry, and the mortar has cured, use Ultracare Penetrating SB Stone, Tile, & Grout Sealer to seal it. If you don't want a solvent-based solution, Ultracare Penetrating Stone, Tile, and Grout Sealer will also work but you may need an additional coat. Seal until water beads on the surface. Be sure to seal the edges as well as the face (preseal before installation if necessary), color can 'bleed' from the grout into the tiles if you don't.
Grouting - Grout joints should be a minimum of 1/8" with these tiles. Often, larger grout joints are used when the tiles have size variation or when the grout is part of the overall pattern. Unlike most tiles where there are a range of MAPEI-recommended grouts, when working with true encaustic cement tiles, we recommend Flexcolor CQ. In addition to the sealing step, Flexcolor CQ gives an extra advantage to combat unwanted staining. The color for Flexcolor CQ comes from colored aggregate, not free pigments. The aggregate is too large to get pulled into the pores of the tile so there is no staining. Free pigment can stain porous cement tiles. Be sure to clean grout residue from the tiles as you go with plenty of fresh, clean water.
Ongoing Care - Your new encaustic cement floor or backsplash will require some ongoing care similar to natural stone. Once the grout is cured and the haze has been thoroughly removed, another coat of the same sealer used in the step above should be applied. Remove spills promptly to avoid staining and do not allow standing water to evaporate to minimize the likelihood of hard water deposits. Cement tiles are sensitive to both acids and alkaline cleaners, use neutral pH cleaners us as MAPEI Ultracare Concentrated Tile & Grout Cleaner per the product's Technical Data Sheet. Reseal yearly or when the tile no longer beads water.
With some preparation before installation and care once it is in, encaustic cement tile can add a dramatic flair to any room for many years to come.