French Encaustic Tile Floor, Vietnam

Vietnam’s French Encaustic Cement Tiles, What You Need to Know

Over 25 years ago I discovered these wonderful old French encaustic cement tiles when I was working in Nha Trang Vietnam to produce woven rattan furniture. The minute I saw these French encaustic cement tiles on the floors of many of the Vietnamese building I feel in love with them.

The French encaustic cement tile is a cement tile that has a design in clay on the top surface of the tile. The design is pressed into a layer so the cement tiles have two layers, one with the pattern and one bottom layer. The tiles have been manufactured and made throughout the world. The French brought the encaustic cement tiles production to Vietnam in the 1850s. Since that time, the Vietnamese have continued to manufacture these encaustic cement tiles, using many of the old French designs along with some of their modern designs. The Vietnamese manufacturers export the encaustic cement tiles around the world and use them presently in many buildings in present-day Vietnam.

French Encaustic Cement Tiles, Saigon, Vietnam.
French encaustic cement the ancient palace in Saigon, Vietnam.

Definition of French encaustic cement tiles

There can be some confusion about what exactly are encaustic tiles. The best definition for encaustic times is a tile where the pattern is not made by the glaze on top of the tile as on a ceramic tile that is fired, but an encaustic tile is a tile where the pattern is made by clay on the top of the surface of the tile. The cement clay mixed is pressed on top of the base tile In the pattern and color of the design using a metal mold for the required pattern. Therefore an encaustic tile has two layers a base layer of cement and then a top layer with is usually a marble powder, cement, and pigment color. It is this top layer where the pattern is made for the tile.

The term encaustic cement tiles, come from the world encaustic which is a form of metal art that was used in metal enameling in a specialized lost wax metal technique. Encaustic tiles are not painted as the encaustic painters painted with the hot beeswax, but the tiles essentially have a frame where the clay is inlaid with the colors and design.

History of French encaustic cement tiles

In 1850 the French started to make the encaustic tiles with hydraulic presses. At this time the tiles were thought to be the low cost and economical option from the ceramic tile that required a firing process by a kiln. They were a sort of revolution for tile production as they were a lower cost than the alternative tiles of the day, yet they were extremely durable.

These encaustic tiles were made from cement and did not require the firing process as their ceramic tile counterpart. This also allowed them to be produced with some very fine detail that could not be produced at the time with the alternative fired ceramic tiles.

As the French and Europeans colonized many parts of the world, they brought with them the making of the French Encaustic tiles, as these tiles proved to be quite easy to manufacture while at the same time being long-lasting. Add to this the tiles seem to do quite well in many tropical settings as Cuba, Vietnam, India, Mexico, Cambodia, and Morocco. Essentially they can be found on the floors in many places around the world.

Local materials define the French encaustic cement product

As the production of these encaustic french tiles spread around the world. the production also started to get more localized according to the types of materials that could be found in each region. Designs also started to get more localized to account for the local taste, colors or patterns of the tiles.

Since these tiles did not need to be fired in a kiln and could be aired dried using cement this also meant that they could be produced in many rustic or rural locations that were not able to produce the ceramic fired tiles. This gave the production of these tiles a lot of versatility. This is one reason that even today you can find these tiles on the floors, buildings, and houses in many remote places around the world. This speaks to how important the tiles were to the development of many of these areas.

Also as the tiles could usually be made locally, this allowed for their costs to be lower than imported tiles, allowing the smaller local craftsmen to be able to supply the tiles for his community. People also would not have to wait for an imported supply to come in by sea or another method.

French Encaustic Cement Tiles
A selection of some present-day French encaustic cement tile designs.

The Vietnamese French encaustic cement tile history

When the French colonialized Vietnam, they brought with them the French Encaustic tile production. Even today the tiles can be found to grace the floors of many buildings. and houses in Vietnam. One of the new Mc Donald’s Resturantants in Ho Chi Minh City uses French Encaustic tiles on the floor of their new restaurant. The french encaustic tiles have long been a mainstay for Vietnamese decoration and interior design.

It is believed that the French brought the first encaustic tile production hydraulic machines to Vietnam in the 1850s just soon after the first machines came to be used in France. This means that essentially the machines used in the French encaustic tiles In France were also be used in Vietnam soon after the start of their use in France. So early on the Vietnamese were using the French techniques and patterns to make the encaustic tiles in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnamese craftsmen quickly became very skilled in encaustic tile production. They proved themselves to be very highly skilled in working with their hands and making high-quality encaustic tiles.

Part of the reason was that the production of the French encaustic tiles was not very complicated as it just required a hydraulic press, and then the rest of the tiles could be made by hand. Because of the ease of production, under the French rule in Vietnam, many small producers started to set up some small shops to make these handmade encaustic tiles.

Eventually, the production of the encaustic tiles moved out of the smaller producers and into some factories. The first major factory for encaustic tiles was set up in 1910 by Brossard et Mopin, a Frenchman in Ho Chi Minh. In 1954 when the French left Vietnam, it was taken over by a Vietnamese owner.

The encaustic tile production went through some rough patches in Vietnam’s history. Right after the liberation of Vietnam in 1975, the production of the French encaustic tiles started to shrink dramatically. This continued throughout a large part of the 1980s and 1990s. Part of this could be some of the materials they used were not that easy to find anymore. And people who could afford the tiles usually preferred to have the ceramic version Part of this could be that the ceramic tiles had a smooth coat on them that makes them a bit easier to keep clean.

The start of the 21st century saw the rise and revival of the French encaustic tile production in Vietnam. The few small producers that were left producing the tiles, were replaced by some larger manufacturers who were able to take the skills from the old traditional production methods but use modern technologies to help streamline the production process. Where in the past they were many small producers making tiles just for their area, now several major manufacturers started to make the tiles for export and local consumption.

One of the wonderful things about Vietnam’s French Encaustic tiles is that you can find these tiles all over Vietnam. Today they are still in many older buildings, but you can also find them being used in a lot of new building construction. Many Vietnamese consider them to be an essential part of their cultural heritage. This sense of cultural pride has helped to revive this old French tile production.

French encaustic cement tile characteristics

They French Encaustic tiles are essentially two layers. The lower layer is a high strength cement, while the top layer is a marble powder, white cement, and the color pigments. This means that the tile very hard-wearing as the design runs through the tile surface, not just on the top surface of the tile.

Many of the French encaustic tile producers in Vietnam still use many of the older French patterns along with many of the new and modern patterns. Many of the designs and colors reveal French history in Vietnam.

In the past, the hand hydraulic presses were used, but today many manufacturers have changed to have a use electric hydraulic presses. The reason is that the electric presses will ensure the tiles are more consistent and they can press them at a higher pressure (1,500 PSI). The higher pressure allows the color pigment to be pressured more into the base or cement layer.

Understanding the French encaustic cement tile quality

When looking at encaustic tiles there are several things you would look at for the quality of the tiles. Here are some of the things you should consider:

  1. The sharpness of design – The design on the tile should be sharp, clean and clear. The clay color should not run between the design or colors have been bleeding.
  2. Same size between layers – The top and bottom layers should be the same size. Sometimes as there are two colors being used if the quality of the tile is not very good the top and bottom layer can be a different size due to the different shrinkage of the two layers. A good quality tile the top and bottom layers would be exactly the same size.
  3. The hardness of the colored layer – The top layer must be very hard and not soft. This is very important especially if It is to be used on a surface like a floor.
  4. The thickness of the colored layer – The thickness of the upper colored clay layer should be about 2.5 to 3 mm thick or thicker, especially if the tiles are to be used as a floor covering.
French encaustic tile designs
French encaustic tile designs with a cement floor, from the floor of a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

French encaustic cement tiles today

Today some of the local Vietnamese encaustic factories are willing to make or reproduce your tile design in the colors and design that you want. The reason is that to actually produce these tiles and set up a new design is not very complicated. This means that if someone wanted to use these tiles on a product or as a decorative element on a product it would be possible. There are some minimums which are required for each tile design and the minimums can depend on the design itself, the number of colors for the designs and complication of the design items.

Generally speaking, encaustic tiles can have up to six colors on one tile. Many of the tiles have 2 colors or 4 colors. Of course the more colors the more complicated the production can be.

Caring for French encaustic cement tiles

French encaustic tiles are highly absorbent and so they require some special care and protection. As the tile has two layers, they can be sensitive to acid or many of the newer cleaning products which can be harsh or damage the tile.

It is suggested that you try to use a mild or less harsh soap. Do not use any acids, white spirit solvents or ammonia as this could destroy the top surface of the tiles. A recommended brand for cleaning the tiles is FilaPS87. This cleaner is made for cement floors so it will not damage the surface of your encaustic tiles. You can find more information on the Fila PS 87 cleaner by clicking here.

You can put a sealer on the floor to help to seal your encaustic tiles against stains and other spills. You can put the sealer on with a paintbrush then dry and wipe off the excess. A very good sealer to use is also a Fila product. You can use a product called Fila FOB sealer, you can find out more about it by clicking here. Or you can also use another Fila product called Fila MP 90 Concrete sealer you can find out more about it by clicking here.

You can also put a protective coating on the French encaustic tiles by applying a protective coating like wax on them. This is similar to how you would apply some wax to a wood floor. For a more satin finish, you can use the Fila Stain Wax or for more of a shine use the Fila Classic or Glossy Wax. You can find out more about the Fila Stain Wax by clicking here. For the Fila Classic or Glossy wax which gives you more of a shine, you can find out more about it by clicking here.

French encaustic tiles are truly a beautiful and historic work of art. It is a technique that has lasted since the 1850s and has continued today. In many parts of the world, including Vietnam, the French encaustic cement tiles have become part of the cultural heritage of the country.

The French encaustic tiles are not only beautiful on the floors and walls, but they are also can be used for some wonderful home decor product inspiration.

Are cement or encaustic cement tiles durable?

With proper care, cement or encaustic tile are extremely durable. This has been proven many times in places like Vietnam that still have the original encaustic tiles on the floor of a building, even buildings that are in public spaces. These French encaustic tiles durability will outlive us all.

Is an encaustic cement tile slippery when wet?

Like any other cement or ceramic or marble floors, French encaustic tiles can also be slippery when wet. As they do absorb water, it is best if you can put a sealer on the encaustic cement tiles and also a wax coating to help to protect them. You can read our section above about caring for your French encaustic cement tiles.