Encaustic tiles were usually used as the decorative tiles within a floor that primarily used geometric tiles as the main tile covering. Encaustic tiles were more expensive than geometric tiles, owing to their much higher costs of manufacture.
Encaustic tiles were often used to replicate or reinterpret medieval tiles that were found in early churches. Those early tiles were the first to incorporate a thin layer of extra clay in another colour to impart the design in either geometric shapes or the designs showed stylized animals or plants.
The Victorians took the designs and applied mass production techniques to the manufacturing process. With encaustic tiles, they improved on the medieval tiles substantially. Medieval tiles were painted or had thinly laid on designs and the designs could wear off with heavy foot traffic. Victorian encaustic tiles were manufactured with the design running through the depth of the tile, so that if the tile wore down, so did the design contained within the tile.
The Victorian encaustic tiles were made in a moulded process, leaving carefully shaped holes in the tile that would later be filled with differently coloured wet – almost liquid – clay. The clay would be poured into the remaining voids in the tile. It would set, and then be scraped off level with the surface of the original tile, and then sent for firing.
Encaustic tiles were then used as decorative highlights – usually in a field of geometric tiles. Due to the hardwearing traits of encaustic tiles, they could be used in a variety of heavy foot traffic situations, either outdoors, or in public buildings and churches.
Encaustic tiles were sometimes used in residential buildings, but due to the cost involved, they were generally used as focal point tiles in grander homes of wealthy industrialists. However, in Scotland, you can frequently still see them as colourful walkways leading to the front door of a stone terrace house.
Keep your eyes down in older public buildings and in grand residential historic house museums! You may encounter more splendid examples of Victorian floor tiling.