You’ve surely seen some form of encaustic tile before — in the great cathedrals you toured on your honeymoon, in old Victorian mansions, maybe even in government buildings — but you may not have known you were looking at it. Sometimes called inlaid tile, encaustic tiles have a colorful pattern embedded into the tile, as opposed to painted on the surface. That’s why so many have stood the test of time; even as they are worn down from centuries of use, much of the design and color remains.

Where did the term encaustic come from?

Cascais White Ornate Tile bathroom backsplash example

The name “encaustic” — which means “burnt in” — is technically a misnomer. The term had been used to describe enamelwork painted with a beeswax-based paint and then set through heat, so the design was burnt in. To the Victorians, the colorful, eclectic Medieval tiles they admired looked like this enamelwork, so they called them encaustic. And the name stuck.

So, what is encaustic tile’s history anyway?

Traditional encaustic tile originated in Europe, unlike many other types of tile which have their roots in Asia. At first, to simulate the look of Roman mosaics, European craftsmen would etch patterns into stones with knives and fill in the holes with clay. Over time, this evolved into a tedious process involving hand-shaping clay or using crude wooden molds.

Bella Met Bathroom wall tile example
Design By: J. Steward Design

Yet the effort involved was well-worth it. The earthy-toned tiles, with their classic motifs of geometric shapes, simple flowers or stars, were livening up floors all over Europe by the 1100s and 1200s. Most of the tiles were produced in England, which is why even today, many English churches boast handsome floors from that period.

By the 1500s, encaustic tile had fallen out of vogue — but because of their durability, the trend never really went away. It was back around 1750, as the Gothic-Revival period took hold, and peaked in the middle of the 1800s. Herbert Minton’s factory — Minton’s — released a catalogue of medieval-inspired patterns in the 1830s, becoming the go-to manufacturer of encaustic tiles of the time. Minton tiles still grace the Palace of Westminster and the U.S. Capitol Building.   

What makes them so popular?

It’s easy to see why encaustic tiles have been so popular throughout the ages. Their simple elegance and unique character lend an old-fashioned charm wherever they are set down. Plus, their versatility earns them a place even in contemporary design — with striking shapes or softer lines, depending on preference and the design plan. Either way, they complement the overall decor of the space.

How much do they cost?

Though the process of making encaustic clay tiles has been streamlined in modern times, they’re still very time-consuming to produce — which makes them expensive. (Watch videos of craftsmen making the tiles on YouTube — and see how long it really takes!)

BRONTE tile bathroom floor example

So for those who want to capture the distinctive look of encaustic tile — but don’t have the budget — a better option is available: encaustic-look porcelain tiles. They’re digitally produced in a range of attractive designs and playful patterns, for a fraction of the price. The porcelain version is also less porous than true encaustic tile and, when sealed properly, resistant to water and stains. That makes them perfect for walls and bathrooms, and means they’ll last longer and look better with less maintenance — a homeowner’s dream.

What selection does TileBar offer?

The variety of designs is truly remarkable. For example, our Bronte tiles — a terrazzo-style, encaustic look line — come in 18 different patterns, each one appealing in its own right. The Bella line has 16 options to choose from. Our cutting-edge Modena line, with its matte finish and wavy texture, has two different eye-popping styles, as does the more dainty Amadora line. With our tiles spanning the spectrum from delicate to daring, the hardest part is choosing just one!

Are you a fan of encaustic tile? Are you looking to get some for your next home renovation? Comment below and let us know!

Written By: Shira Isenberg