Trials and tribulations of a ceramic tile maker
Before I left France to move back to London in 2018 I received a commission for a large tile splash back for a kitchen in a new build property in the north of England. The extremely beautiful, modern house was designed to blend in with the Cumbrian countryside, with a traditional dry stone walled exterior. The interior, however, was a spacious, bright and extremely contemporary space. The enormous kitchen had huge high ceilings and a floor to ceiling window displaying glorious views down the valley towards Lake Windermere. My tiles were to adorn the blank wall space behind a brand new double Aga. The clients had long been admirers of my swimming Koi carp design, so I set about producing a panel that was almost 2 metres wide and just under a metre in height.
Making tiles from scratch is a challenge to say the least: clay warps easily during drying, the clay ‘remembering’ previous forms, so the trick is to dry the tiles, once cut, very slowly and with weighted boards on top to keep them flat. Once the tiles were leather hard I painted them with cobalt oxide coloured slip. This then was left to dry to the leather stage before I began carving, free-hand, my fish effectively ‘swimming’ across the clay surface.
This piece, now installed in the lovely kitchen, was not completed without issues: the freezing temperatures in southern Burgundy played havoc with the cooling rate of my small electric kiln, so some of the pieces developed cracks during the final glaze firing. Then, of course, transporting them over 1000 miles to Cumbria… I am happy to say that all went well in the end, but lessons were definitely learned.
Not to be discouraged, I took on another tile splash-back commission last year: a couple of my dear friends had bravely taken on major kitchen extension and renovation during lockdown- not an easy task by any stretch, but good weather and determination helped them through. By the summer of 2020 their beautiful kitchen was complete, with a space left above their cooker hob for one of my tile panels, carved with my lockdown-inspired wildflower designs. Had I known, back in July, that there was plenty more covid-related nasty coming our way in the form of further lockdowns, I might have chosen a simpler, easier route to completing my task. But, me being me, I chose difficult: I wanted to use hard-wearing stoneware clay to make the tiles, and a mysterious but rather lovely glaze effect to achieve the eventual grey tones requested by my friends. As well as the main sgraffito-carved surface, I also had to produce a border with a ‘bronze’ glaze effect. The bronze glaze was a new one to me: I used a Stephen Murfitt recipe involving huge quantities of Manganese dioxide and tested and tested. The glaze was hard to control and I ruined a fair few kiln shelves with drips and stains…(sorry, Ceri!- my lovely studio technician and fellow ceramicist who patiently got out the grinder not just once…)
I made plaster moulds for pressing out the clay tiles, all 12 percent larger than the final required size to allow for shrinkage of the clay both in drying and double firing. These were allowed to dry a little before painting with a black stained slip (liquid clay). Eventually, when leather-hard, the tiles would be ready for hand-engraving, the scraping away of the coloured slip to create relief and reveal the bare clay beneath. This all took a while as I dried the tiles very slowly, keeping them covered in plastic sheeting and weighted beneath heavy boards. The first bisque firing was a success, and I then set about glazing the tiles with my own custom-mixed satin-white high firing glaze. All was going very smoothly until, just in the nick of time, I discovered that my digital scales- used to measure precise quantities of glaze ingredients into the final mix- were not working properly!!! Horror!! This then involved further testing, to make sure that the glaze would still work as it should.
I still had a bit of hair left at this point… The final result was 90% beautiful: I was very happy with the effect, but unfortunately 3 of the tiles were WARPED!! Such a heartbreak- there was no alternative but to carefully re-make those 3 tiles. I matched them up to the finished design and managed to scale up my decoration so that, on shrinkage, they would fit in perfectly. And it did. Phew!!! It was a good 10 months after we initially discussed options that I was finally able to return to Henfield to install the tiles. Happy to say that both client and maker were delighted with the results. More lessons learned. Next time I take on tiles I hope that I will complete them faster and with less mishaps- but I probably won’t!
Fresh tiles with and without slip. I used St Thomas oxidising stoneware clay.
I use watercolour paints to paint my design onto the tiles- the pigments in the paint burn away at the high kiln temperatures. I then use a selection of trusty old metal and wooden hand tools to carve away the slip, using a technique that I used to use to carve lino blocks for printmaking. It was only after years of practising this technique on clay that I discovered it had a name: 'sgraffito'.
The finished splash-back in place.