Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez / Published by Dwell
Age-old techniques meet modern innovation at a handmade-tile company in California.

There’s a controlled bustle inside Fireclay Tile’s factory in tiny Aromas, California. Workers shuttle racks of dried but unfired tiles fresh from the heater, warming the air as they pass, while a 25,000-pound extruder nicknamed "the Junior" forces moist clay into ribbons that are then cookie-cut into perfect squares. A craftsman showers a fine mist of color over rectangular tiles in a graceful sweep, and painters deftly squeeze glaze by hand with breathtaking speed. 


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 1 of 13 - Pieces in Fireclay Tile’s Maze pattern are seen ready for their final firing in an electric Skutt kiln. The glazes will darken over the course of 10 hours, during which time temperatures will approach 2,000 degrees.

Pieces in Fireclay Tile’s Maze pattern are seen ready for their final firing in an electric Skutt kiln. The glazes will darken over the course of 10 hours, during which time temperatures will approach 2,000 degrees.


Founder and chief ceramicist Paul Burns takes it all in with a smile. More than 30 years since he launched the handmade-tile firm with three friends, he’s just as interested in turning raw materials into something useful as he was when he was 10, helping out his tile-maker uncle on weekends. "It’s the process. We take dirty stuff and make beautiful things that people look at every day." Humans have been exploring the properties of clay since at least the 14th century B.C. The manufacture of glazed tile flourished in Egypt before reaching its apogee in Persia and Central Asia from about the 13th to the 16th century. Though computers now enable precision tuning of things like gas and air ratios inside the kilns, at heart the process is still about earth, water, and fire.


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 2 of 13 - Senior glaze technician Mushtaque Khan sifts particles at the company’s factory near Salinas. All tiles at Fireclay are made to order by hand. The firm creates its own lead-free glazes in more than a hundred colors, along with custom shades. "We have trouble saying no to color," says founder and chief ceramicist Paul Burns. 

Senior glaze technician Mushtaque Khan sifts particles at the company’s factory near Salinas. All tiles at Fireclay are made to order by hand. The firm creates its own lead-free glazes in more than a hundred colors, along with custom shades. "We have trouble saying no to color," says founder and chief ceramicist Paul Burns. 


Making tile may require the soul of an artist and the brain of a chemist, but it isn’t for the impatient. At Fireclay, all tiles are fired twice, and by the time a hand-painted tile undergoes its final trip to the kiln, a week has passed since the raw materials were first mixed with water to form the clay body. To bind the ingredients into a unified product durable enough to be used for floors and walls, clay must be heated at temperatures high enough to trigger the necessary chemical reactions. After the wet clay is dried, it heads to the kiln. All tiles made by Fireclay are first fired in either an 88-foot-long gas-powered roller-hearth kiln or one of two massive gas-powered periodic kilns. The pieces are then glazed and fired again, with small electric kilns reserved for the hand-painted lines. The second and final round includes a lengthy cooling period. "Glazes crystallize when they cool," explains creative director Jamie Chappell. "The longer the cooling cycle, the more the glaze will mature and get those subtle variations." 

"Kiln firing reveals the level of craftsmanship achieved in all of the previous parts of the process." Paul Burns, founder and chief ceramicist


Burns, who has been incorporating salvaged materials into his wares for nearly 20 years, is committed to keeping his business flexible and sustainable. It’s what led him to begin selling made-to-order tile directly to customers in 2013, to make his own lead-free glazes for all his tiles, even to use recycled porcelain from toilets destined for the landfill. When the owner of the local quarry asked if Fireclay wanted the superfine particulate that was a waste byproduct from gravel manufacturing, Burns didn’t hesitate.  


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 3 of 13 - New this year, the Agrarian collection features eight patterns, including Maze, whose concentric lines evoke circle irrigation systems.  "Our techniques go back hundreds of years, but we’re constantly updating them," says Burns.

New this year, the Agrarian collection features eight patterns, including Maze, whose concentric lines evoke circle irrigation systems. "Our techniques go back hundreds of years, but we’re constantly updating them," says Burns.


"I spent a year trying to make a tile that was eighty or ninety percent recycled material, but it looked recycled," he recalls. Undeterred, Burns tinkered with his formula to come up with a product that had the refined appearance he wanted. Ground glass from postconsumer bottles also found its way into production, and today the company’s recycled clay body—its biggest seller—is made up of about 25 percent glass waste and 30 percent granite waste. Burns and his staff of some 65 craftspeople embrace the challenges of making tile to order. Last year, a customer in Texas requested a particular shade of maroon. "Normally," says Burns, "we ask for a paint chip, but when I opened the package it was an old T-shirt—the guy had sent his A&M T-shirt. Maroon is a hard color to do in ceramics, but that’s what he wanted."

Collective Effort

No fewer than seven people play a part in creating each tile produced at Fireclay, which was founded in 1986. Hand-painted patterns like the Agrarian collection’s Maze, whose steps are outlined here, require an extra human touch. 

Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 4 of 13 - Gathering Raw Materials: &nbsp;Fireclay’s most popular clay body is made of at least <br>55 percent recycled materials, which include postconsumer glass and granite dust. The crushed and sifted powders are stored in barrels. &nbsp;&nbsp;

Gathering Raw Materials:  Fireclay’s most popular clay body is made of at least
55 percent recycled materials, which include postconsumer glass and granite dust. The crushed and sifted powders are stored in barrels.   


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 5 of 13 - Adding Water: &nbsp;Water recaptured from a later phase in the process and then filtered for reuse is blended with the dry ingredients in a mixer for 30 minutes. Batches range from 1,100 to 1,700 pounds.

Adding Water:  Water recaptured from a later phase in the process and then filtered for reuse is blended with the dry ingredients in a mixer for 30 minutes. Batches range from 1,100 to 1,700 pounds.


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 6 of 13 - Extrusion, Part I: Mixed clay moves on a conveyer belt to "the Junior," a 25,000-pound extruder built by the Plymouth Locomotive Company in the 1940s. It pumps out enough compressed clay each day for an estimated 2,500 square feet of tiles.&nbsp;

Extrusion, Part I: Mixed clay moves on a conveyer belt to "the Junior," a 25,000-pound extruder built by the Plymouth Locomotive Company in the 1940s. It pumps out enough compressed clay each day for an estimated 2,500 square feet of tiles. 


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 7 of 13 - Extrusion, Part II: &nbsp;Wet clay is packed into the extruder and ribbons of compressed clay emerge continuously before going to the "cookie-cutter," which is connected to the Junior.

Extrusion, Part II:  Wet clay is packed into the extruder and ribbons of compressed clay emerge continuously before going to the "cookie-cutter," which is connected to the Junior.


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 8 of 13 - Cutting Extruded: Clay is trimmed into nine-by-nine-inch squares. The excess is sent back to the extruder by a conveyer belt, so no material is wasted.

Cutting Extruded: Clay is trimmed into nine-by-nine-inch squares. The excess is sent back to the extruder by a conveyer belt, so no material is wasted.


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 9 of 13 - Drying: &nbsp;Damp tiles go in an industrial dryer for about 12 hours to remove excess moisture before their first firing at nearly 2,000 degrees. Once fired, tile is called "bisque."

Drying:  Damp tiles go in an industrial dryer for about 12 hours to remove excess moisture before their first firing at nearly 2,000 degrees. Once fired, tile is called "bisque."


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 10 of 13 - Rectifying: &nbsp;The bisque tiles are then rectified—cut down to eight-by-eight-inch squares with a saw. The precise edges are essential for the next step: screen-printing.

Rectifying:  The bisque tiles are then rectified—cut down to eight-by-eight-inch squares with a saw. The precise edges are essential for the next step: screen-printing.


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 11 of 13 - Patterning: &nbsp;Using a method inspired by the cuerda seca technique, hand-painted tiles are screen-printed with a dry line formula made with oil or wax to keep glazes separate during firing.&nbsp;

Patterning:  Using a method inspired by the cuerda seca technique, hand-painted tiles are screen-printed with a dry line formula made with oil or wax to keep glazes separate during firing. 


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 12 of 13 - Mixing Pigments: &nbsp;The glaze particles—composed of silica, metal oxides, colorants, and opacifiers—are weighed, mixed, and sifted, then blended with water before they’re applied to each tile.&nbsp;

Mixing Pigments:  The glaze particles—composed of silica, metal oxides, colorants, and opacifiers—are weighed, mixed, and sifted, then blended with water before they’re applied to each tile. 


Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven Handmade-Tile Company in California - Photo 13 of 13 - Glazing: &nbsp;Glaze is squeezed onto printed tiles from needle-tipped bottles, a job that requires a steady hand to keep the color within the lines. The tiles then make their final trip to the kiln.

Glazing:  Glaze is squeezed onto printed tiles from needle-tipped bottles, a job that requires a steady hand to keep the color within the lines. The tiles then make their final trip to the kiln.