You can seamlessly “repair” broken or chipped ceramic tiles with various painstaking conservation methods. That’s good news if your fireplace surround is less than perfect (and let’s face it, those gorgeous tiles may have been the whole reason you bought an old place with an asbestos-wrapped furnace and a leaky roof).
Fill in the blanks Steve Moon is the owner of the Tile Restoration Center in Seattle, Washington. He advises a thoughtful start: “Don’t rush. You cannot re-fire ceramic tiles, so when you fix a chip or a missing chunk, essentially, you’re rebuilding the missing piece with an epoxy and then faux-finishing it to match.”
Moon says there are excellent epoxy fillers for sale at woodworking and hardware stores, which provide a “flesh tone/wood base color; you knead them like dough and then work the filler into the missing area. The patch can be carved or sanded when dry.” Moon recommends keeping a separate chunk of the putty aside, as a practice piece when it comes time to create the finish color(s).
In living color As any artist or faux-finisher knows, any surface, especially an organic one, is composed of several hues that together create the perceived color of an object. “You’re trying to mimic the surrounding area—and the basic color undertone is the most difficult to capture,” says Moon. “Batchelder tiles, for example, are mottled and may have four or more colors, each ‘doing’ different things. We use artist’s acrylic colors meant specifically for ceramics.” The “texture” of the colors is another aspect to consider; often a speckled or mottled accent color covers 15 to 30% of the area of the tile.
“I’ve found that a natural sea sponge is perfect for varying the colors,” says Moon, “as there are different textures on same sponge and you can usually find a match. This is where that practice piece of putty comes in handy, because with it you can determine which colors are appropriate before you paint the actual replacement piece.”
Getting loose You may have a wiggling, loose tile (that may eventually tumble to the floor). For just one or two, scrape or grind out the old grout and gently pop-out the loose tile with a miniature crowbar or cat’s-paw. Moon advises: “The best method to re-adhere tile is to use thin-set mortar with a latex additive. But if you’re talking about only a couple of tiles, you’ll waste a lot of it. For small jobs, a vinyl or acrylic mastic, or even a construction adhesive like Liquid Nails®, is more economical. Also, when you’re matching the old grout, realize that the new grout will lighten as it dries; make a test-batch ‘worm’ to see what it looks like dry. Most stores have samples that you can take, and blend two shades together if need be.”
The acid test A condition that plagues old masonry is efflorescence, a bloom or haze of fine crystallization that appears on tiles, bricks, and cement in contact with exterior moisture. “It’s caused by recurrent water migrating in, via capillary action, through the foundation or from down the chimney, as with a leaky chimney cap,” Moon explains. “You can remove the haze and seal the surface—but unless you address the underlying cause and stabilize it, the condition will return.”
Warning: It’s the removal of efflorescence that often traumatizes vintage tile. “The worst thing you can do is to clean historic tiles with an acid, like muriatic acid, because the tiles are unglazed. Damage might not show up for a year or two, and then they start spalling.”
For general dirt, Moon recommends a baking-soda cleaning, or something like Soft Scrub® for stains. Always rinse with clear water and allow to dry.
After a repair is finished, Moon says: “Give it a few days to cure, and then wipe it down with a solution of baking soda and water to neutralize and clean the surface. Let it dry thoroughly—it’s okay to wait a few days. Then seal it.” Moon recommended an acrylic sealer, not a petroleum-based one.