What To Know About Vintage Tiles

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For many homeowners, vintage tile is a prized, yet challenging aspect of their home's design. Here's what to know about vintage tile.

I loved my mid-century modern home in Sarasota, Florida. But when I had to tear out some bull nose tile behind the toilet to make bathroom repairs, I faced a quandary. I had to replace four 4-in. by 4-in. aqua blue tiles original to the 1958 home.

Despite scouring resale and vintage shops in the area, I couldn’t find the vintage tiles I needed. My solution? I painted white tiles to try to match the blue and coated them with clear spray-on enamel. It wasn’t the best match, but it did the job, and wasn’t very noticeable behind the toilet anyway.

As it turns out, had I scoured the internet a little more diligently, I might have found dealers who specialize in selling and reproducing vintage tiles for kitchens, bathrooms, fireplace mantles and other parts of the home. We asked several to shed some light on what makes tile vintage, how to work with vintage tile, and why it’s worth trying to find the real thing.

What Is Vintage Tile?

Vintage” is a word that gets tossed around easily. There no a hard-and-fast cutoff point where tile becomes vintage.

Josh Blanc, artist and owner at Clay Squared to Infinity in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says “vintage tiles in America are tiles that were installed in homes built from the 1890s to the 1950s. Each period had distinctive styles and colors.”

Scott Wells, owner of Wells Tiles & Antiques in Los Angeles, says vintage tile can be a little younger. “In our 30 years of business selling tile, we’ve learned that the term ‘vintage’ is used very loosely,” Wells says. “We consider vintage tile that is approximately 30 years or older. Antique tile is 100 years old and, of course, much harder to find.”

The qualities that make tiles vintage include their dimensions, glazes and other aspects of manufacture. All eras used unglazed porcelain tiles, Blanc says, so the color went all the way through the tile. Victorian floor tiles, he says, typically had borders and highly decorative patterning.

Bungalow-style homes, including the popular Sears, Roebuck and Co. kit homes of the early 20th century, “tended to use unglazed porcelain hexagons and used more solid colors with florets and other smaller florets as their design tools,” Blanc says.

Blanc says mid-century homes “went to multi-sized patterns” and often used unglazed porcelain tiles as small as 3/4-in. by 1- 9/16-in.

Can Modern Tile Be Used to Match Vintage Tile?

If you’re trying to replace only a section of vintage tile, it may be tough to find a match.

“Modern reproduction tiles focus on a few iconic designs and mass produce them at a low price,” says Blanc. One example: hexagons tiles in white with black florets. “They look like a classic tile from the bungalow period,” he says, “but they offer little to no customization or variations in color choices and sizes.”

Additionally, modern tiles will simply not match up to vintage in many cases because of their different glaze techniques. Even if you can’t get an exact match, artisans like Blanc and his team produce reproduction vintage tiles that adhere to vintage patterns and color schemes.

Is Vintage Tile Better Made Than Modern Tile?

Many homeowners want to preserve or recreate a vintage style simply out of design preference. But beyond aesthetics, are there advantages to using vintage tile, or is modern tile better? Wells leans towards the old stuff.

“Most of our older tiles are approximately 1/2-in. thick,” Wells says, “Whereas today, most new tile is between 1/4-in. to 3/8-in. thick so I would say, not as durable.”

Blanc says “the [tile] industry expects homeowners to change styles and rip out what was put as the next trend takes hold.” But ceramic tile is extremely durable, he says, and “is supposed to be a 100 year product no matter what tile you choose.” Installation will make all the difference in how well a tile project holds up.

How To Clean Vintage Tile

“Grout needs to be redone on a semi-regular basis depending on use,” says Blanc. “It saves home owners lots of money and makes their tile installation look new again.”

If you choose to hire a professional rather than tackle your grout repair as a DIY job, he recommends The Grout Doctor, which has locations across the US.

If you go the DIY route for routine tile cleaning, Blanc recommends mixing a solution with these elements:

  • 1/4 cup white vinegar;
  • Two teaspoons borax;
  • 3-1/2 cup hot water;
  • Twenty drops essential oil (he prefers lavender or lemon);
  • 1/4 cup liquid dish soap.

Once mixed, put the solution in a spray bottle and spritz the tile surfaces. Then wipe clean with a paper towel or washcloth. A sponge or soft brush will work as well, but avoid any abrasive cleaning tools.

Can Vintage Tiles Be Repaired?

If a maintenance or repair job in your home broke a few tiles, you might piece them back together and reinstall them. But it’s unlikely the repair will be “invisible.” Unless you had clean breaks and retained all the tile pieces, cracks along repair lines are going to show.

And if a structural problem damaged the tiles, Blanc says you’ll likely need to chisel them out and investigate the problem.

Where to Buy Vintage Tile

“It’s always advisable to search for the old tile if one is trying to match an existing installation,” says Wells. “Even if the new tile has the same design, it would stand out noticeably next to the original antique/vintage tile.”

Wells says his Los Angeles store offers the country’s largest inventory of vintage tile. Even so, if you have a large tile job in mind and you’re set on vintage, be prepared for some flexibility. “It’s difficult to obtain a large amount of vintage or antique tile, so finding enough, especially from one source, for an entire room would be a chore,” he says.

Blanc’s studio and showroom sells vintage reproduction tiles. He also recommends Restoration Tile, another producer of historic reproductions. And he’s a fan of Retro Renovation, an online resource for vintage home restoration and materials.

Closer to home, you can scour thrift stores and architectural salvage companies for genuine vintage tiles.

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Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, culinary and lifestyle writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Frommers.com, TripSavvy and many other publications. Her guidebook, An Architecture Lover's Guide to Rome, was released in 2019. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, dogs, their unruly garden and their slightly less unruly 8-year-old.