Flat Tiles The Easy Way

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Recently, I decided to replace the aesthetically challenged house numbers on my abode with something that better fit the character of my 1930s house. I decided that I wanted to make individual tiles for each number. This got me thinking about the best techniques for making flat, uniform tiles.

I found this simple, tried-and-tested technique in an old issue of Pottery Making Illustrated and thought I would share it with you. It comes to us from ceramist Laura Reutter of Port Townsend, Washington, who has been making tiles for her business Ravenstone Tiles since 1998. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty editor.


 

Keeping tiles flat while drying and firing has often been a source of frustration for clay artists. Over the years, I’ve read a great deal about sandwiching wet tiles between drywall, flipping them, stacking them, turning them, covering them or weighting them.

Why spend countless hours fussing over tiles? I’ve developed a technique that greatly minimizes the amount of handling needed and is almost foolproof for making flat tiles.

The Clay

To begin making flat tiles you need to use a heavily grogged clay formulated for sculpture or tile – not a plastic throwing clay. I like my clay on the dry, stiff side as too much water makes it dry slowly and promotes warping.

The Process

Most of my tiles are press molded in plaster molds, but if you don’t use molds for your tiles, just roll out clay slabs directly onto a piece of drywall (drywall makes a great work surface – just make sure to seal all of the drywall edges with duct tape to contain that nasty drywall dust) using wooden spacers or dowels beneath the rolling pin for the desired thickness. I prefer half-inch-thick tiles.

Once you have rolled out the clay slabs, don’t move, lift or turn them. If you do move the clay, its “plastic memory” will kick in and it may warp, bend, or curl during drying and firing. Just trim the slabs in place, cutting them to the desired dimensions using a trimming knife and your pattern. After trimming, it is very important to allow the wet tiles to sit on the drywall for 8 to 12 hours (overnight is usually good). Drywall sucks a lot of water out of the clay and the tiles will really stiffen up.

By the next day the tiles should be pretty close to leather hard and stiff enough to handle without flexing. Test a tile to see if it can be picked up safely. At this point, trim and smooth the edges. If you wish to incise or decorate the green tile in any way, now is the time to do it. There is no need to score the backs of tiles unless you want to. Scoring has nothing to do with the warping or drying process, but it helps the tile adhesive cling to the tile and hold it to the wall or floor during installation. I only score my tiles if I know the customer wants them for an installation.

Once the tile is trimmed, place it directly onto a rigid metal storage rack. Because air circulates on all sides of the tile, it dries very evenly and no warping occurs. While your tiles dry, avoid direct sources of warm air like a register vent or portable heater that might dry one area faster than another. You want even drying from top and bottom. I keep tiles on the rack until they are completely dry and ready to bisque.

You should only handle your green tiles about three times: once to roll out and cut the clay; once to smooth the edges and place on a drying rack; and once to put it in a kiln for your bisque firing.


**First published in June 2009.
Comments
  • thanks so much, warping is a blooming nuisance and such a waste. Another new technique for the class.

  • Am anxious to try this technique as I have been frustrated with placing the tiles between drywall, flipping tiles etc. My previous success rate has been only about 1 out of 4!

  • my tiles dont warp in bisque fire, they warp in glaze fire….i go to cone 5…any suggestions about that?

  • What type of electric kiln would you recommend for tile making? I am a beginning tile maker—-tips please.

    Heidi

  • Could you please tell me what drywall is? I live in the U.K. and wonder if you know what the equivalent would be in England? Any info. would be welcome. Have never made tiles before, but am hoping to make my own tiles for a new fireplace and hearth, so would welcome any advice. Many thanks.

  • I like Joan live in the UK & would like to buy our equivalent of drywall, any ideas welcomed.
    Many thanks

  • Drywall for UK potters is a product name for plsterboard. You can look up local suppliers in yor areas for ‘Plasterboard’. If you are really lucky you might get free off cuts like I do. Just go careful with cut edges for loose plaster bits which don’t mix well with clay.

    Good idea to tape with duct tape down the newly cut edge. All oher edges should be sealed.

    Works very well and my students think it is great to work on.

  • Thanks for that Carol.After reading the article & writing the comment, I did Google it to find out exactly what you have said.
    Many thanks
    B.

  • A dual roller drive slab roller largely solves the warping problem, as the moist clay is evenly compressed, top and bottom. Another anti-warp tip: put a piece of newsprint under and on top of the tile when you make your ‘sheetrock sandwich’. That allows the tile to easily slide on the drywall as it shrinks.

  • One of the techniques I have often seen with many potters in India and have tried it myself is that we use water proof plywood. When rolling a slab, we place cotton fabric on the plywood and roll the slab over it. Once the slab is rolled we leave it open for 1-2 hours, cut the edges etc. and later place one more piece of cotton cloth on top of the slab and place another plywood on top of it. sort of like a sandwich…I have followed this many times while making tiles, coasters or murals and got good results.

  • I am wanting to sculpt 3D tiles with faces on them. So they are not bas relief, more sculptural. So since I will have to wet the leather hard tile in order to add the clay for scultping, what can I do to sry them without them warping and cracking into?

  • Sorry about the last sentence in the above message. I should have been…
    what can I do to keep them from warping and cracking into? I am starting out with a 1/4 in thick slab that I roll out on a slab roller. ThenI add the clay and sculpt.

  • Sometimes tiles are prone to warping and cracking because the clay body is unsuitable for tile making, or the clay body is being fired a little too hot. I have worked with several clay bodies rated up to cone 6, but found them to be best vitrified at cone 5, and what I would consider over-fired at cone 6. Also, I recently worked with a cone 5 porcelain from which tiles warped in a convex (bowed up) way if they were dried too quickly, which didn’t become apparent until the glaze firing.

  • I’m interested in making some tiles for my own use. I want them under my kitchen cabinets.,I did make a picture mural and it came out good for my first time..If anyone has any hints please e-mail. Thanks….

  • I’ve tried this but it doesn’t work for the plastic clay.

  • Would it work to run one of the drywall pieces through a slab roller, or should it only be used with a rolling pin??

  • I do a lot of slab work as well and bas reliefs, but heavily groged clay insn’t really an option. I have found a few things that have helped my warping problems – compress the clay by running a rib over it after every pass of the rolling pin or slab roller. Then when drying, I put wax resist on the edges to keep them them from drying out before the rest of the piece. This helps keep the edges from warping. I also dry very slowly, about 10 days, by putting sandwiching them between newspaper and mdf boards, and wraping the hole piece in plastic. I also weight them down and flip them once a day. It seems like a lot, but my pieces are quite large and therefore harder to keep flat. For my reliefs, I obviously can’t flip them, but I do weight down the corners that I can, and if I find that they are warping a little at the corners, I might even flip them when they are harder onto a foam.

  • Try using drop ceiling light grates. They look like cookie cooling racks but are made of a very heavy-duty plastic with a half-inch grid. They can be found at any hardware store that sells modular drop ceiling panels. Use 2X2 wood boards under the grate to raise it off of your shelf. Placing the leather-hard tiles on the grate allows air to circulate completely around the tiles without using anything to weight them down. I use 1/2 inch blanks for my tiles and they do not warp.

  • Joan, drywall is gypsium board, or plaster board. You put it on the walls of the interior of the houses and nail up to the studs. Then you can paint over it or wall paper.

  • How did she make the lovely oak leaves? They just appear in the last photo.
    I’m hoping to make a few decorative tiles for
    a fireplace surround & haven’t yet decided between
    carving & press molding.

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