English Spanish
Original Mission TileSearch:


Tile Dealer Magazine - Cement Tiles

One of the newest tile trends is one of the industry's oldest products.


If you have walked the show floor at Coverings or Surfaces in the last few years, you have no doubt noticed the growing number of cement tile manufacturers and options. Their broad color spectrum and traditional design seem at once familiar (as in, where have I seen that before?) and new. The cement material lends a unique texture and chunkiness, much different from the glass, stone and large format porcelains that have been grabbing the tile headlines. Colors can be bold or muted and the designs are often traditional and even geometric.



Interestingly, depending on the manufacturer, the origin of cement tile is explained differently. One thing is certain—the tiles were first manufactured sometime shortly after Portland cement was invented in the mid-nineteenth century. They were created and installed all around the world, accounting at least in part for their “Old world” appeal today.


Once introduced, cement tiles grew in popularity. Around the turn of the twentieth century, they were very popular in the United States. They lost popularity in the U.S. sometime between the 1920s and ’30s and only started making a comeback in the 1980s and ’90s. According to Wilhem Stevens, sales manager at Original Mission Tile in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, “For a while, cement tiles went out of style. In the 1970s, cement tile in Mexico was used in government housing projects and they were very cheap. Only a cloud pattern was made and the quality wasn’t always very good.”


Today thanks to a resurgence in the antique patterns and an interest in new designs and a newer color palette from some manufacturers that works well with the growing popularity of all kinds of tile, cement tile floors are enjoying a renaissance.


Despite this long history, misinformation—especially in the U.S.—abounds, perhaps because cement is such a humble material. For those who haven’t seen installed cement tile floors, it must seem inconceivable that a material used in road construction can also be manufactured into a floor that is sophisticated and elegant.


Tile importer Nina Long of Wholesale Tile in Tampa, Florida, has been importing cement tiles for 25 years. She’s heard all kinds of misconceptions. “People think they are painted, people call them encaustics, and when they aren’t polished, people say they are honed. Of course, they aren’t painted or honed at all. Technically, they aren’t encaustics either, as true encaustics are made of clay.”


“I think that sometimes dealers see some of the colors and patterns, like the wild pinks and greens, and they think, ‘I can’t sell this!’” says Long. “It can be hard to visualize, but cement tile offers a whole creative process. You can have any color or design that you can imagine. That is the most exciting quality of cement tile. People aren’t used to that with floors.”


Long has seen the floors on trips to China, Russia, Europe, Mexico, and all throughout the Caribbean. Cuban immigrants installed the tiles throughout Southern Florida, where there are still cement tile floors between 70 and 100 years old.


Melanie Stephens, marketing director at Granada Tile, has seen the tiles throughout Nicaragua, Turkey and France. “The more people have traveled, the more they are familiar with cement tiles. If they don’t travel and they haven’t seen it, it can be hard to understand,” she says. “This is a fascinating product, the way the tiles are made and the options that are available.”


Karen Witynski and Joe P. Carr’s series of eight books on Mexican design and architecture includes four titles that highlight cement tiles, most notably, Casa Yucatan and Hacienda Style. Many images prominently feature cement tile floors in appealing patterns and colors. Witynski says, “You can’t get away from cement tiles in the Yucatan—they are an important part of the design aesthetic.”


“In Mexico, there is a lot of humidity and with the warm climate, wood and carpets would not have held up well. The walls are very sparsely decorated, so tiles became the design solution to add color and interest to the rooms.”


How cement tiles are made


The process for creating cement tile is at once simple and elaborate. Simple because there are few ingredients and little equipment needed. The tiles are not fired or glazed; they air cure. Elaborate because the tiles feature intricate designs that require significant training to produce.


First a mold is created, which, depending on the pattern, could be simple or very intricate. Preexisting molds are antique or modern. The customer can also create a custom design.


To make a tile mold, an artist draws the individual design that will be created, keeping in mind the overall pattern. From that drawing, an artisan metalworker produces a single tin or copper mold. It depends on how elaborate the design, but according to tile manufacturer Jorge Aguayo, vice president of Aguayo Tiles in the Dominican Republic, “A design with a medium degree of difficulty usually takes about three weeks to make.”


Once the mold is ready, natural mineral pigments are poured into the compartments. Dry cement is sprinkled onto the color surface, then a mixture of damp sand and cement is dumped on top. Intense pressure compacts the layers and makes the tile strong. The drying and curing process takes 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the humidity and other factors.


According to Original Mission Tile’s Stevens, “To make good quality tiles, you must have well trained workers who love what they do.”


Usually, the workers who manufacture cement tile learn the skills as apprentices and pass the craft to subsequent generations.  According to Aguayo, “Our tile factory has been making cement floor tile for three generations. The artisans are very proud of their work and this shows in the finished product.”


Handmade cement tiles are each unique and are expected to have slight imperfections, which give them character and depth.  “It is interesting how everyone’s tiles are different,” says Granada Tile’s Stephens. “Each manufacturer makes choices. Everyone’s color palette is different. They use different formulas and pigments. The aggregates and other variables result in differences in the finished tile.”


Who uses cement tile


There is a bit of exotic flavor to many of the cement tile floors, especially in some of the antique patterns in bold colors. While this can be appealing to some customers, manufacturers sense that the American marketplace has been slow to adopt these tiles because of the preference for a more subdued look.


Simpler designs and mellow colors are becoming popular. Also, field tile can be used to unify designs throughout the house.  Because the tile can be made in virtually any color and pattern, the tile appeals to creative types who can design their own floors.


Kelli Naramore of Triangle Tile and Stone says, “The tile is gorgeous and timeless. It definitely has an old-world look. It could be used throughout a house much more than any other type of tile because it has a very warm feel.”


“A new floor will patina with age, so it looks like it has been a part of the environment for years,” adds Long. “If maintained properly, they get increasingly beautiful.”


Original Mission Tile’s Stevens explains the versatility of cement tiles. “We are seeing people [who] are looking to have their own personality in the spaces. They don’t want to have the same floor as their neighbor. Architects and designers prefer cement tile because they can do whatever they want with the color and designs. There are no limitations with what you can do with cement tile.”


“Perhaps the versatility of cement tile is one reason that the tile isn’t used as much as it could be,” says Michael Dowd, owner of Paramount Tile in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “Because if people don’t understand cement tile, they might not understand the creative process. Sometimes it takes a professional, like an architect or designer to guide the end-user to the tile’s creative potential.”


According to Dowd, there isn’t one type of design that customers choose more often. “I find that the use is evenly spread between patterning with all-over coverage as well as area rugs and lots of solid colors. In South Florida, neutrals, creams, beiges and whites are always very popular. Also, pops of color in the patterning.”


Who makes cement tile


Cement tile is made throughout the world, generally in small workshops that sell to the local community. The tiles are heavy, as are the materials to produce the tiles, so transportation is a significant percentage of the cost of the tiles. Long says, “Dealers should always make sure that they are quoted the price of tile landed in the U.S. Otherwise the shipping could be astronomical, especially if it is coming from China or somewhere else far away.”


Many tile fabricators have been in the business for decades, some for multiple generations. Large or small, one common thread seems to be that the factories are family businesses.


At the Original Mission Tile’s factory, Stevens’ family has been turning out cement tiles for four generations since 1900. Stevens’ great-grandfather, who was German and Italian, started the company. At the time, it was only the second cement tile factory to open in all of Mexico. He had to bring all the raw materials, the molds, and the machinery from Europe.


The Aguayo factory makes cement tile as well as pavers and blocks. “The tile factory is turning 60 this year,” says Aguayo, whose grandfather started the company. “I’m really passionate about the tile. I’m happy when I get to be creative, inventing new things.”


Granada Tiles started five years ago, although President Marcos Cajina has been making the tiles practically his whole life. “The company is a family business,” says marketing director Melanie Stephens. “We were inspired on a trip to Nicaragua, where we saw the most incredibly beautiful installations in big public spaces. I said to Marcos, ‘I would love to know how these tiles are made.’ And he said he knew, that he had made them as a teenager.”


Another small family-owned business is Sahara Designs. They import the tiles from their factory in Morocco. “Our designs and machinery came from France,” says co-owner Elizabeth Marsamane.


Quality issues


The fact that cement tile is made extensively throughout the world in both large factories and small workshops results in vastly different quality. “If the tiles aren’t cured properly, you are going to run into problems,” says Long, who has imported the tiles from many different companies. “I look at the factory very carefully. The facilities, machinery, skill and number of workers, how they make and cure the pieces of tile are all indicators of the quality. This is not visible in the finished tile, but the differences are there.”


Aguayo says, “The biggest difference between cement tile manufacturers is the mix of colors, and the amount of pressure used to manufacture the tiles. If the pressure is not always constant, it can cause problems later. Customers need to be aware about this.”


“Also, make sure that the colors are made with only mineral pigments. If other pigments are used, you’ll have a problem with fading colors,” says Aguayo. “The thickness of the color layer is important, so that the tile wears beautifully. If workshops try to save money, they won’t use as much pigment in the color layer and it will reduce the life of the tile. There should always be at least 3-4 mm of color on the tile.”


According to Original Mission Tile’s Stevens, “Small workshops are cheaper, but they can have lots of quality control problems. Of course, there will be slight variations, like with stone, but that is one of the qualities that make the tiles beautiful. So it can be hard to tell if there are quality issues from looking at a tile. We use a hydraulic press. Smaller workshops use a hand press and the quality is low.”


Installing, sealing and cleaning cement tile


“For installation, I’d rather see a stonemason install these tiles than a general tile contractor, because the installation method is much more like setting stone,” says Aguayo. “Butt joints and be careful sealing because the tiles are porous like stone. I would tend to think that a stonemason would do a better job, unless the tile installer had a lot of experience specifically with cement tile.”


Dowd agrees, “Stone setters understand cement tiles because they are very similar to stone. You have to allow for natural variation of the depth of the tile, use a mud setting, and the sealing processes are similar. Also, the tight grout joint is crucial.”


Stevens from Original Mission Tile says, “The tiles should be installed on a level and stable cured concrete surface. Water cut the tiles and use 100% coverage of thinset. The grout joint recommended is 1⁄16" to 1⁄8."
According to Suzette Dávila, a distributor in Puerto Rico, cement tile is very easy to clean. “You just clean with water and occasionally with a neutral detergent, and that is all.” Most people prefer this natural look but she suggests occasionally sealing and waxing for those who want a light shine.


Future of cement tile


“I’ve been amazed at the evolution of these tiles. People are coming up with really creative ways to express themselves using the tiles,” says Witynski. “In a renovation, they may honor the building’s past by salvaging what they can of the tiles and creating a rug pattern in the middle of the floor, then surrounding it with poured concrete.”


Stephens of Granada Tile says, “I don’t know of another floor tile that has as much pattern variety and depth, or has the longevity. Mass-produced tile is just not comparable at all.”


“We have found that the average order of tile in Nicaragua is larger than here in the U.S. Americans tend to use the tiles more daintily. This has to do with the way the tiles are used. In Central America, they will put the floor throughout the whole house. Here in the U.S., it may just be a bathroom or backsplash.”


“Architects and designers who’ve been stymied in the past by lack of choices in flooring love this product,” says Stephens.


Cement tiles are gaining a following in the US as well, however. Jorge Aguayo says, “We are starting to see large commercial projects in US, such as restaurants and hotels. People will see tile in public places and over time, awareness will increase.”


Concrete tile


Pavers are made differently than cement tile. For pavers, the cement is not hydraulically pressed; it is poured into molds and vibrated. These tiles are described as environmentally-friendly products because they aren’t quarried, glazed, or fired, and the materials used are natural.


Bill Smith, president at Smith-Laredo, explains, “Our concrete tiles are individually molded and handmade in the San Diego area. The tiles have full-body color all the way through.” The company manufactures two lines of concrete tile, Casa Monterey and Minimalist. These large format tiles can be used indoors and out.


One type of cement paver, Girstone, looks exactly like granite cobblestones. These are for outdoor use, and are cheaper and easier to install than stone. Although they were invented in France and are used extensively throughout Europe, they are manufactured by Aguayo and imported into the U.S. through the Dominican Republic.

Original Mission Tile By Mosaicos de Diseno
Wilhem Stevens, Sales Manager
Ave. Salvador Nava Martinez #3253
San Luis Potosi, SLP 78290 Mexico
Tel: (52) (444) 817 3929
Fax: (52) (444) 841 5946

This article originally appeared in the 2008 January/February issue of TileDealer magazine, www.tiledealer.org, and is reprinted here with permission.


Moisacos de Diseño F. Arturo Stevens
All rights reserved 2021