Restoring a vintage bathroom

A question from a homeowner in Saint Paul:  “I’m looking for tiles to repair/restore my 1907-1908 sanitary bathrooms.  I need 2 inch hexagonal vitreous china tiles from Beijing and subway wall tiles, originally made in England.  Where do I look?”

Here is my reply:  “To find any original tiles from that period, the only way I know to get them is salvage. Here in Minneapolis, the only up-side of this remodeling and tear-down craze is that there are many opportunities to find things, like your old tiles, being torn out of other historic buildings. If you don’t mind going through dumpsters, that is your best source. Unless, you can catch someone before they even start demolition – in that case, many remodelers are willing to let you remove tiles yourself if you don’t hold up their work. Usually they won’t charge you anything.

Also go to demolition sales. Don’t forget, even though many old bathrooms have been remodeled over the years, many times old tiles are just covered up with paneling or even drywall. Very often, when they have been covered up for years, they are in better condition than those that have been exposed – unless they have had other tile cemented to them.

The chance of finding new “old” tiles somewhere would be a stroke of luck, and not very probable. You are more likely to get struck by lightning in Antarctica or attacked by a shark in Lake Minnetonka!  Most architectural salvage places do not deal with regular old field tiles – only the fancy stuff.

If you find a salvage source through a demolition, don’t try to take out individual tiles on site. Just try to take whole large chunks of the floor (or wall) with cement intact. Then you can work on them later at your leisure. A diamond tile saw is a nice tool to help you cut them apart and get the grout and cement off.

Even if you do find modern tiles, they have several differences from the old. On most of the old tiles, all the edges are squared off and the tiles were set much closer together with a very thin grout joint. Newer tiles usually have slightly rounded edges. The best bet with newer tiles is to find a larger tile with as close a color and sheen, then cut smaller tiles from them to the right shape on your tile saw

I had an impossible time even trying to modern tiles in a 2″ hex to do a reproduction floor. I could find no manufacturer who makes them. Only the 1 inch hex tiles are available.

If you are doing an all new wall as a reproduction, 3 inch by six inch subway-type wall tiles are available, but again have the slightly eased or rounded edges. Also they have the usual tabs, which prevent you from setting them close together like the old tiles – unless you grind or cut off all the tabs of all four edges of all the tiles.”

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