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York Minster encaustic tile restoration

Here at York Victorian Tilers, we’ve worked on many heritage projects but one of the biggest was when we were tasked with refurbishing and restoring the incredible tiled floor in the Chapter House of the city’s cathedral. 


York Minster is one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe and to be asked to restore the encaustic tiled floor in its Chapter House was an extraordinary privilege. 


Around 800 years old the Chapter House is an amazing octagonal building with a massive unsupported ceiling and tiers of stained-glass windows. The encaustic tiled floor seems to stretch as far as the eye can see and the tiles feature various patterns and colourful designs.


How we restored York Minster’s encaustic tiled floor

Retiling the Chapter House was an exciting challenge to face. Restoring over 200 of the centuries old tiles was an involved process and the work took around 18 weeks to complete. Mark Taylor  explains how we did it.

Restoring the Chapter House - tile by tile

Although we were working in a building of national importance the restoration process very much mirrored the work we do in private homes. Albeit on a far bigger scale. After all, most private residences don’t have a vaulted ceiling stretching seemingly into the sky.


The first task was of course an initial inspection and survey to see how many tiles were damaged and the state of the floor itself.


We found many tiles were cracked and loose. Some could even be lifted by hand. Others were badly damaged and beyond repair. We were able to remove all of the tiles which we then sent to craven dunnill tile manufacturers. They hand carved a mould from the original tile, using traditional tools and techniques.


Making a tile mould is a painstaking process and takes around two days. Once the new tiles were made, they had to be approved by the Federation of Cathedrals. The FAC ensure that any restoration work is done sympathetically and to the highest standards.

While the new tiles were being made, we turned our attention to the floor itself. The substrate in the Chapter House is lime mortar and was in poor condition. The lime mortar was weak and had disintegrated over the years and before we could even think of laying tiles this old mortar had to be removed. We then strengthened the floor with steel and fiber mesh and laid new lime mortar screed.

Restoring the Chapter House floor


Restoring encaustic tiles

We began the actual restoration process in the way we always do. By using a lot of elbow crease, along with non-acidic chemicals to thoroughly clean the floor.  A coat of protective sealant was then applied to the tiles. This sealant helps the tiles to ‘breathe’ and prevents staining from the lime mortar.


After around twelve weeks the reproduction encaustic tiles arrived. These were approved by the FAC which meant we could move on to the next phase of the restoration project.


Fixing the new tiles in place firstly involves soaking them in buckets of water. This may sound very low tech (it is) but the water helps the tiles contact the lime mortar. All 200 tiles were then fixed to the lime mortar bed to blend in with the original tiles. 


Some of the cutting of the tiles was done by using a hammer and hardi. A hardi is a carbide chisel tool and is the way artisans have cut tile for centuries. When you’re restoring encaustic tiles, using traditional tools and methods brings authenticity to the project.

Once the new tiles were in place, we grouted them with a lime mortar specifically colour matched to the original pigment. A second sealant was then applied. The final step was another clean using specialist products to bring out the magnificent colour of the tiles.

Looking back at the Chapter House restoration

As you can see from the photos of the completed floor the colours of the tiles are stunning. One of my personal highlights was restoring the cross, in the centre of the Chapter House back to its former glory. Putting this amazing piece of art back together was something which gave me huge personal satisfaction. 

But the whole project, from start to finish, was wonderful to work on. Seeing the finished work and knowing that visitors from all around the world will take joy from it, is very satisfying for myself at York Victorian Tilers and the whole team at the York Minster.

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