Friday, May 21, 2010

Difference between Encaustic and Cement

Last week I had a little rant on Twitter. It made me feel better, so I decided to devote a whole blog post to the topic.

Maybe it's something about having degrees in writing and literature makes me a little persnickety about words and their meanings. I dunno. Everyone makes mistakes, especially me, but I'm not talking about accidental errors. What I'm getting irritated about is when someone calls something by the wrong name--on purpose. Things have names for a reason.

So, here it is, the scandal that I just can't keep quiet about any longer... Encaustic tiles and cement tiles are not the same thing! Yet, I keep seeing the very people who make and sell cement tile calling it "encaustic" tile. Of course, I know (and adore) many of the people who do this, so I hope I'm not stepping on any toes. Here's the deal:

Encaustic Tile
Briefly, encaustics are made of two or more colors of clay which are inlaid together making a pattern, then fired, sometimes more than once. This type of tile making has been around for hundreds of years and was popular during the Renaissance. Minton tile is a more recent type of encaustic tile. 

Here's a picture of the slip being poured into the tile:

     Photo by H & R Johnson Tiles

Cement Tile
With cement tiles, on the other hand, the color comes from mineral pigments which are set into a mold at the beginning of the process. The cement is poured on top, then the tile is hydraulically pressed and the tile is cured for about 3 weeks or so. This method was developed in the mid-19th century.

Avente Tile has a video on YouTube showing how cement tile is made, with the pigment being first poured into the mold and then the cement going on top. Avente Tile's video of cement tile manufacturing process.

Both cement tiles and encaustic tiles are usually patterned and unglazed--perhaps that's where the confusion arises? Either way, cement tiles are a perfectly lovely art form that don't need to borrow a name to make them sound fancier.

Whew! I feel better now.

For more info: 
Website describing encaustic tile history and manufacturing process.
National Park Service site on preserving encaustic tiles
The very excellent Villa Lagoon tile has a whole section on cement tile in the media including a link to an article I wrote on the subject. 
Not that I'm selling anything, but here's a whole Book on Cement Tile (which I edited.)


  1. Informative, fun post and great clarification on the difference between cement and encaustic tiles.

    Words and their meanings do matter. But, misnomers often stick. And these words have a sordid history.

    Some of the confusion comes because the tiles look similar when installed. We've all made that mistake. Furthermore, the use of the word "encaustic" is technically incorrect.

    Read the definition of encaustic and you'll be scratching your head. As you explained, encaustic tiles are created with an inlaid pattern of two or more different colors of clay. Hence, they were originally called inlaid tiles when first produced during the Middle Ages.

    Then along came the Victorians. They thought that the two-color tiles resembled enamel work and started calling them encaustic tiles after the process used to create enamel. And, because they've been called the wrong thing for so long it is an acceptable name for inlaid tile work.

    And, I'm sure you'll be relieved to know that you won't find the word "encaustic" describing any of our cement tiles at Avente Tile!

  2. Zoe - with your permission as blog wordsmith and tile savant, I 'd like to shed some light on the words at hand - well, the word "cement" in particular.
    Cement is an ingredient in concrete. The words are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different in function and utility. Cement is to concrete what flour is to bread. It is a binder - on its own it is rather useless. When mixed with water, cement hydrates to form crystals which envelope the aggregate with which it is proportioned, to make a solid matrix called concrete. The aggregate can be fine(sand) or coarse (gravel) or both. These particles give concrete its body and density, bound together by the cement paste.
    Concrete makes a great material choice for crafting tile, delivering great functionality and beauty for a very long service life. It holds its own in the gallery of tile options, with unique coloring and patterning characteristics sure to please the discriminating user.

  3. Thanks for your comments Bill and Richard. This is all very interesting.

    So I guess we should call encaustics "inlaid" tile, and cement tile "concrete"? That's fine with me, as long as people keep them separate!

  4. True - when it comes down to it, it is important to speak with distinction and accuracy, so that the matter is conveyed accurately. This is the whole point of you post on this subject. The cement/concrete situation is a very common misnomer or misunderstanding - dismaying to someone who spends most of their time dealing with the materials in question - as with any specialty. In the end, it does matter. It's all about the details. Tiles are made of concrete, which is made (in part only) of cement.

  5. Every type of tile is a craft within itself.

    As tile creators/lovers/marketers/sellers it is our job/duty/passion to educate as to the artistry and skill that goes into the process and not just the end product of the process. More understanding brings more appreciation. And more value.

    As a maker of historical style tile using historical processes, I really appreciate the straight story.

  6. Ok, I had to say something...... First of all the pigment that is poured into the mold of a cemen tile is already mixed with either white or gray cement (plus other fine agregates). The layer that is then poured on top of that one is also not 100% cement, as it has been mixed with other agregates as well. Now, regarding the terminology please keep in mind that I'm not a native English speaker, so I could be wrong. I believe that the word cement is used solely to differentiate it from clay tile, as cement is THE most important element in the tile itself. I think that it is technicallly correct to call them concrete tiles, but that doesn't mean that calling them cement tile is incorrect. On the encaustic matter I totaly agree with Zoe and I'm very happy that she hass made it clear to everyone. We, the manufacturers, thank you!

    Jorge Aguayo

  7. I'll admit, there probably are some liguistic barriers coming into play, since many cement/concrete tiles made in this hemisphere are sourced from Spanish-speaking countries. But even in Spanish, the two terms are discrete: concreto and cemento, although they seem to be interchanged freely, just as they are in English. These old habits persist (as Avente Tile agreed and as Zoe is addressing): there's probably not a lot to be done about them, but grin and bear it! They're still beautiful tile.
    It's more of a material science issue than anything and I guess I will let sleeping dogs lie. Nuff said!

  8. Hmmm, this is all very interesting. The more I learn the more I realize how much I don't know. :)
    Thanks for educating me!

  9. Right, so in Spanish the tiles are called "mosaico hidraulico" and in French they are "carreaux de ciment" (imagine an accent over the "a" in "hydraulico" and the whole thing in italics--darned blogger won't let me format).

    Just so long as they aren't called encaustic, which is something different altogether, no one gets hurt!

  10. Fantastic - I've been wanting to know all this. But what is a quarry tile? How is it different from cement?

  11. Sarah,
    They are different, and I'm going to address that in another post.
    Also, I'll be post more on encaustics soon!

  12. I think from now on I will go with the French (everything sounds better in French in my opinion)! Thanks for all the info Zoe. When I was researching some posts on tile, I did find that cement and encaustic were used interchangeably (incorrectly, I later learned from you.)

  13. Thanks for the clarification, Zoe and all those commenting! It is truly fascinating to learn about all different methods used to produce tile. I run into a similar misuse of the terms stoneware/porcelain/ceramic in reference to tile and while they are all VERY different materials, the are (incorrectly) used interchangeably.
    -Lisa @laNevaTile