Going underground - tiling firm maintaining station appearance

Clay Technology magazine
10 Jun 2013

As the London Underground celebrates its 150th anniversary, Melanie Rutherford speaks to Fred Smith from H&E Smith Ltd, a family-run bespoke tile company based in Staffordshire, UK, which has been supplying tiles to maintain tube stations’ historical features for more than 25 years.

Join the millions of passengers pouring into London Underground’s 270 tube stations and chances are you won’t pay a second glance to the tile-clad walls. But it’s worth taking a closer look. Get close enough and you might just be able to spot a brand new tile sitting among its much older neighbours.

With heritage an intrinsic part of the world’s oldest underground transport network, maintenance of the existing tilework – from replacing a lone tile to complete regeneration – is key to conserving its history. That means sourcing tiles that exactly replicate the colours and finishes produced when the stations were first built – not an easy task. Bespoke tile manufacturer H&E Smith is one company whose traditional manufacturing methods have been helping London Underground do just that.

Fred Smith, the third generation of the family to be involved in the Staffordshire-based company, explains, ‘We started working with London Underground in 1988, just after I joined the company in 1986. We received an enquiry asking if we could make tiles to match existing ones at the heritage stations. We could, and so we got the job. Fundamentally, it was because of our manufacturing technique.’ While modern tile manufacturers have shifted towards fast-fire methods more suited to mass-production, H&E Smith has continued to work with the more traditional twice-fired method. Smith continues, ‘This allows us to create the glaze effects that were produced when making the tiles that were used on the London Underground 100 years ago.’

The company’s manufacturing method has played a key role in the conservation of tube stations including Arsenal, Bond Street, Camden Town, Covent Garden, Knightsbridge and Maida Vale – 23 in total. Twice-firing is a traditional way of making tiles with traditional types of body. The first step in the process is firing the biscuit – the unglazed tile substrate – from pressed clay dust. This is done on a long, slow firing with plenty of soak, to around 1,100°C. ‘After the biscuit has been cooled and selected, and has passed the first quality test, we send it down a dipping line where the glaze is applied,’ explains Smith. ‘The tile is put into a crank – a piece of kiln furniture that holds the tile so that the glaze doesn’t run and touch the sides of the kiln or any of the other tiles – before being re-fired at the glaze stage to just over 1,000°C, on a shorter firing.’ Once cooled for a second time, the tile is then checked for quality and boxed.

Sounds simple. Why, then, are more companies not manufacturing tiles in this way? ‘The main challenge of this method of production is raw material supply,’ explains Smith. Twice-firing requires materials that are not always widely available – including stains, oxides, frits, clay bodies and their constituent parts, and equipment to refine the body, which has to be in a spray-dry format. ‘Procurement of raw materials is always a difficulty,’ says Smith. ‘When they are no longer available we have to make adjustments and work with other materials.’

A significant challenge specific to the production of tiles for the London Underground is that of colour matching, especially when it comes to patch and repair. Matching new tiles to those that may have been in a tube station for several decades can take a long time, not least because it means working with different materials to those that achieved the original colour effect. Smith explains, ‘Most of the original tiles would have been made using leaded glazes, because at that time there was no control over the lead content in the glaze. But in 1924, factories outlawed the use of raw lead in glaze, so now we have to use lead in fritted form.’

Adding to the problem is the use of modern-day electric kilns compared to the coal-fired bottle kilns that would have been used to fire the original tiles for the London Underground. ‘Electric kilns tend to fire far cleaner than the old coal-fired bottle kilns, so you get different colour results,’ Smith explains. ‘And there are other challenges in the form of the substrate – the clay underneath the tile could have been different, and that sometimes has a bearing on the overall effect.’

For the majority of the heavy clay industry, advances in technology have revolutionised manufacture, but for companies such as H&E Smith, which does things in the traditional way, the new technology has had very little impact on production. While Smith admits that advances have helped the business in terms of administration, computerisation and data capture, ‘when it comes to the actual manufacturing methods there’s very little really, except maybe firing control’.

Keeping it in the family
With a history almost as long as the Underground itself, H&E Smith has kept it in the family. The company was founded by Smith’s grandfather, William Henry Smith, and his business partner William Warrilow, in 1926 when it traded under the name of Smith & Warrilow. The company was set up for the fireplace tile industry – ‘a healthy market at the time,’ says Smith. When Warrilow retired in 1947, Smith’s father joined the company and so H&E Smith Ltd was born.

Since it first started supplying tiles for the London Underground in 1988, Smith predicts his company has produced more than one million tiles for the network. ‘We have done an average of about 1,000 metres a year with them, so over 25 years that’s 25,000 metres. At 56 tiles per metre that’s 1.5 million tiles over that period.’ Though Smith adds that the work comes in fits and starts, with times when the company doesn’t get any commissions from the London Underground at all. ‘We found that we had a period of regular business from 2003–2009, then in the build-up to the Olympics everything closed down,’ says Smith. ‘But now that they are starting to continue their reservicing programme, work is trickling back in.’

While many companies expand over time, H&E Smith has bucked the trend, contracting in staff numbers since his Smith’s grandfather co-founded the business more than 85 years ago. ‘With the increase in wage costs and the decline in the market for fireplace tiles, we’ve had to alter our company accordingly,’ says Smith. ‘Now the business is relatively small, employing about 30 people. We see ourselves as a bespoke tile manufacturer, supplying to interior designers and clients who want to have something completely different.’ The client list includes some high-profile names, with recently completed projects including Harrods (for Christian Louboutin) and continued work for the Ben Sherman Group and restaurant chains such as Jamie Oliver’s, Nando’s and Zizzi.

This small snapshot alone is proof that demand is still out there for bespoke tile manufacture – and Smith doesn’t see that changing any time soon. ‘We continue to do it because we’re market-led,’ he says. ‘We don’t see the need to try and do what everybody else is doing. When it comes to volume tiling, we tend to source that tile from other people, such as British Ceramic Tile in the south west of England. There is no point in us getting involved in that particular market – you need a lot more space and you need to be a far bigger operation to make it viable.’

Back to the future
While H&E Smith’s production methods have changed very little over the last 85 years, the company is fully aware of environmental issues, and is working to increase production efficiency and looking at opportunities for recycling. ‘We take our responsibilities very seriously,’ says Smith. ‘We look to every opportunity for saving energy, and that is vital now energy prices are so high. We have become far more efficient over the last 10 years – we do not manufacture in old, inefficient tunnel kilns any longer and now use more modern, intermittent kilns that allow us to control our volume of production.’

Then there are the vagaries of the UK economic climate to contend with. ‘As the economy has grown, as everything has gone up in price and costs have increased, at times it has been difficult to make our part of the job viable,’ says Smith. The solution? ‘It means that we have to go upstream and choose to make far more expensive products. There’s no other way.’ Will London Underground still be relying on the company’s age-old manufacturing method for its unique, historical tiles another 150 years from now? Here’s hoping so.