Go Behind the Scenes With a Process-Driven 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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.