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Cement tiles are handmade, decorative, colorful tiles used primarily as floor coverings. Floors or walls covered with these tiles are noted for their multi-color patterns, durability and sophisticated look. These tiles are widely used in Latin America and Europe. Their popularity spread to the US, primarily in California and Florida through the 1930s and 40s.
Although sometimes mistakenly called encaustic tile, which refers to kiln-fired clay tile or commonly used ceramic tiles that have been placed in a kiln and heated, cement tiles are not fired and derive their durability from the combination of finely dehydrated ground Portland cement layer and a more coarse layer of sand and Portland cement. The pigment layer is hydraulically pressed into the surface and becomes a part of the tile, not a glaze or paint layer on the surface of the tile.
The tiles' colorful patterns, durability and versatility have been attracting the attention of architects and designers for large commercial projects such as restaurants and hotels. Private homebuilders and "do it yourself" home improvement consumers have driven a growing segment of the cement tile market.
Originally decorative tiles, known as encaustic tiles, were prepared from a pigmented clay base then heated or fired in a kiln. Tiles made by this method were very popular and can still be seen widely in Europe, Latin America and the US.
Following the discovery of Portland cement and development of hydraulic presses, cement tile, as we know them today is prepared without the use of clay or heating.
Cement tile appeared in the late 19th century in the south of France. Several sources say the first tiles were made near the country's first Portland cement plant. Around the turn of the 20th century, the tiles were very popular in the United States and were considered high-end floor covering. It was used in thousands of landmark public buildings and palaces. Their popularity began to wane in the U.S. sometime between the 1920s and ’30s and only started making a comeback in the 1980s and '90s.
Manufacture and quality
Cement tiles are made by hand, one at a time using a mold, mineral pigments, Portland cement and fine aggregate with a manual or electronic hydraulic press. There is no glaze or kiln. Cement tiles are cured by water and air only –just like ordinary cement.
The metal mold, containing the desired pattern is handmade from specific design drawings. The pigment composition is a mixture of high quality white Portland cement, marble powder, fine sand, and natural mineral color pigments.
Handmade cement tiles are each unique and are expected to have slight imperfections, which give them character and depth.
There are numerous cement tile manufacturers worldwide with the exception of the US. Presently there are no known cement tile manufacturers located in the US however there are several importers and distributors.
In general, the primary difference between manufacturers is the hydraulic method used in the production. Many small companies employ a hand-operated, manual hydraulic press in the process. The quality of these tiles varies due to inconsistent pressure, which affects the cement layers and attachment of the pigment layer.
Larger, modern manufacturers use electric-powered hydraulic presses that produce a consistently higher quality product. The higher pressure (1,500 PSI) permits a thicker pigment layer to be embedded in the cement layer, which produces a tile with a longer lifespan. The pigment layer is recommended to be 3–4 mm thick.
Another difference in manufacturers is the content of the pigments used. High quality producers use mineral-based pigments only. Non-mineral based pigments fade with age and normal wear. Another consideration is curing. Improper curing reduces quality. Tile should be cured for 2–4 weeks before installation.
Uses and applications
Cement tiles can be applied to concrete surfaces, any common underlayment, magnesium oxide wallboard or any appropriate surface.