A tale of three tileworks - artisan clay manufacturers

Clay Technology magazine
12 Aug 2013

While it’s tools down and closed doors for some less fortunate UK brick companies, a handful of small, single-site operators are thriving in the tough economic climate. Mike Driver tells the story of three artisan clay manufacturers that are seeing revived demand for their age-old crafts.

The development of the UK Government’s Green Deal, aimed at reducing carbon emissions from buildings, is likely to create a lively interest in the cladding of insulated façades. The simplest way to add insulation to a solid external wall is to apply it on the outside, finishing it with a render. However, it is likely that owners of a brick-made house will be reluctant to change to render, presenting an opportunity for manufacturers of brick cladding systems to find a substantial market for their products.

The industry has responded to the challenge of providing a brick cladding system, and brick-slip systems are also being imported from Europe. But behind this recent activity lies mathematical tiling – a traditional clay cladding system that has been enhancing buildings since the early 18th Century. Mathematical tiling has kept a tenuous foothold in the market, thanks to a number of independent manufacturers that have been providing products for restoration and renovation. However, these tiles are now also being specified for new build, to be used by discerning clients in combination with external insulation. While the basic process is similar across the clay industry, no two plants are the same and there is always a story waiting to be told. Such is the case for three small manufacturers in Kent and Sussex – the heartland of mathematical tiles.

A robust business
Take the M20 through Kent to Ashford, cut off north through Wye and then tackle the steep escarpment that overlooks Ashford and the Romney Marsh, and you’ll arrive at Hastingleigh. Tucked down behind this small parish is Evington Park – home to Clive and Rose Robus, of Robus Ceramics.

The couple met in 1980 while studying ceramics at Redruth School (now part of University College Falmouth) and soon after decided to start a Japanese-style pottery business aimed at the domestic market. Their search for a workshop building was answered by a farmer from the village of Acrise, just north of Folkestone. After aquiring the building they installed a gas kiln, sourced clay from Bretts, in Aylesford Priory, and started production.

In response to changing fashions, Clive and Rose moved into the market for large terracotta pots, gazebos and Chinese warriors. However, the key moment came with the Great Storm of 1987 that destroyed many traditional roofs and, as a result, created a demand for new Kent peg roof tiles. Clay floor tiles soon followed, and then the company began to concentrate on the building industry. In 1990, they moved to their present site at Hastingleigh, where the Robuses not only extended an existing cottage into a comfortable home, but also built three buildings to accommodate the thriving business and its 20 employees. But in 1996, disaster struck. A fire destroyed Robus’s production building along with all their moulds and equipment, forcing Clive and Rose to start over.

Today, alongside their production of mathematical tiles, an important component of the business is in decorated and applied glazes – not only on their own tiles, but also for rain-screen cladding and brick slips made by other manufacturers. Clive and Rose now employ four moulders, who each produce an average of 120 tiles a day from clay prepared in Stoke-onTrent. The tiles are fired in a pair of electric kilns with a capacity of two cubic metres. The company is now developing a dry mathematical tile, which lies flat to its backing and requires no bedding between tiles. Innovations such as this and developments of the glazing process will keep them busy for a long time to come.

Family values
Leave the escarpment and move west across the Weald towards Hastings, in East Sussex, and you’ll pass through the village of Bethersden, where Andrew and Jane Spicer have been manufacturing a range of floor, roof and mathematical tiles since 1989.

Prior to founding Spicer Tiles, Andrew worked for a roofing company and, in the aftermath of the 1987 storm, was surprised by the price of second-hand Kent peg tiles and the fact that no one was making new ones. The lightbulb moment came when he and Jane were walking through a coppiced wood one day and Andrew noticed how the clay lying underneath the fired earth had changed colour. Intrigued, the pair returned with a bucket to collect some of the clay and took it home to experiment…

Heating the clay under the grill proved a disaster – it exploded all over the kitchen – but doing so in the Parkray was more successful. Undaunted, the couple searched the Yellow Pages for clay suppliers and eventually identified Dennis Ruabon, who supplied in 25kg bags. After purchasing a one-cubic-metre gas kiln, they set up business in the Old Barn at Wittisham, under the name Spicer Tiles.

By 1998, a larger premises was required and the pair moved to Bethersden, where they set about converting a former pig-shed into a production unit, which is still in use today. Tiles progress from moulding to drying to firing through the entire length of the long building. Ruabon now supplies clay at 50t a month in powdered form, which is tempered and delivered to the moulders at 30% water content. The two machines produce sufficient product to keep the plant working at capacity, with two days allowed each for moulding, drying and firing in the plant’s one electric and two gas kilns, which fire up to 1,080°C.

True to its origins, Spicer Tiles remains a small, family business. The six-strong workforce comprises Andrew and Jane, their son Adam, his brother-in-law and two other friends. When visiting the tileworks, you get the impression that what started in the kitchen has still got the energy and determination to develop further.

Handmade in Hastings
Continue out of Bethersden towards Hastings and you will come across Aldershaw Handmade Tiles Ltd in Pokehold Wood, Sedlescombe. Tony Kindell’s enterprise sits at the end of a track lined with fields of black-faced Hebridean sheep on either side – a fitting scene for a business run on strict principles of environmental sustainability.

Tony purchased the business in 1999, having previously worked with Redland – then a major player in the clay industry – as well as Keymer, a company well-known for its handmade roof tiles. Unlike Robus and Spicer, this operation takes place entirely on-site. Wadhurst clay from the clay pit burns to a warm orange, but when combined with different sands produces a variety of colours and textures.

Clay preparation is a vital part of the process. The enthusiastic way that Tony describes how the components were purchased and assembled is proof that this business, like Robus Ceramics and Spicer Tiles, is more a way of life than a job. Four workstations feed into dryers and then a moving-head kiln, producing an annual average of 500,000 roof tiles (including mathematical tiles) and 2,000m2 of floor tiles. Glazing of the tiles is carried out adjacent to the main operation by a qualified shepherdess, no less, who at key times of the year divides her time between the unit and the flock.

Aldershaw does more than its bit for the environment, from generating its own electricity and recovering the heat for use in the dryers, to rainwater harvesting. In addition, the 670 trees on the site’s 27 acres of woodland sequester the equivalent of 1,325 tonnes of CO2 a year – six times that produced by Aldershaw’s manufacturing process, which totals around 200 tonnes a year.

Tony saves the best till last, ending the site tour at what looks like a fledgling building site but will in fact house a biomass boiler that will heat a dryer. It is clear he can’t wait to finish this latest project before turning his hand to another task in this multi-faceted operation.

For anyone working in the industry, the process of transforming clay into a ceramic is a perpetual source of fascination. While the three sites are very different, this fascination lies at the heart of each, along with the knowledge that, as Clive Robus ponders, ‘clay has made many a monkey out of man’. What the businesses share is a respect for the raw material. The fact that each is well placed to benefit from the renewed interest in mathematical tiles is a mere bonus.


Mathematical tiles: in a nutshell
Mathematical tiling is a system of overlapping tiles made with a brick-sized face and a recessed tail above it. The tail accepts the next course of tiles and provides a fixing point.

Each tile is bedded and the joints between are pointed to simulate brickwork. The tiles were originally used as a lightweight cladding system for timber-frame buildings, to give them the appearance of a brick building and improve their weather resistance. They may also have been used to provide a neat appearance to roughly laid brickwork, and in Victorian times were known to be used as cladding on new buildings. Originally their use was limited to southeast England, with Kent and Sussex showcasing the majority of existing examples, although in the 19th Century their use could be found further afield.