In Wood-Fired Kilns as Big as a House, a Tilemaker Does Things the Old-Fashioned Way

One tile at a time. That’s the motto for Jim Fry, president of Seneca Tile. His philosophy may not set records for the number of tiles produced in a given year, but you can be sure he’ll produce some of the most distinctive clay tiles in North America.

Fry and his team of craftsmen in Attica, Ohio, use techniques long forgotten in the modern world of tilemaking. Each tile in their Handmold series is handmade with a red-bodied clay, not the white-bodied clay coloured with dyes that gained popularity in the late 1990s.

This white-bodied clay (also called porcelain) is mostly made from artificial ingredients, such as ground glass or other recycled materials. The addition of dyes gives each tile a uniform look.

The red-bodied clay, on the other hand, provides unique colour variations and natural spotting. Dug from the depths of the earth, the red-bodied clay is a pure form of clay. It includes all the specks of minerals found underground, including carbon, coal, and particularly iron, which gives the clay its signature red colour.

Each batch of red clay Seneca Tile purchases has different mixtures of minerals, meaning no two tiles will have the exact same look. Seneca Tile strives to ensure the colour is similar and matches, but the variations are part of the allure for its customers.

Tiles made by tilemaker Seneca out of red-bodied clay. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
Tiles made by tilemaker Seneca out of red-bodied clay. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
Tiles made by tilemaker Seneca out of red-bodied clay. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
Tiles made by tilemaker Seneca out of red-bodied clay. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)

“It gives it a certain look, a brick-tile look, with spotting coming through and a casual, comfortable appearance,” Fry says. “It is a different, selective, niche. It gives an unglazed tile floor a different appearance.”

Fry doesn’t have to look far to source the red clay that makes his tile so unique. Seneca Tile is located in the Midwest, an area rich in red clay deposits. Following in the footsteps of tile and brick makers decades before him, Fry sources his red clay two hours east of his shop.

Once the red clay is in house, it’s vigorously worked by hand and placed into wooden moulds for shaping. Fry says a few of the wood moulds they use today are the original ones used when they took over the St. Stephen Tile Company building in 1978.

Moulds used to shape tiles. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
Moulds used to shape tiles. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
An historic photo of the old St. Stephen Tile Company building, where tilemaker Seneca Tile now operates. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
An historic photo of the old St. Stephen Tile Company building, where tilemaker Seneca Tile now operates. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)

Once shaped, the tiles head to one of two wood-fired beehive kilns dating back to the 1940s. These kilns are as big as a house. Wood-fired kilns are rarely used in tilemaking today — the temperature is harder to control than in gas or electric kilns, among other reasons many have switched.

But the antique kilns allow the flame to directly touch the tiles, providing a fire-kissed hue that varies from tile to tile. The flames also react with the unique blend of minerals captured in the natural clay, showcasing darker and lighter spots and speckles in the designs.

“The way we set tile in these kilns, along with our flashing process, we can just get a different look that people just can’t get in any modern kilns,” Fry said.

Fry has kept the ancient art of tilemaking alive by changing very little during his 40 years in business, something that contributes to his success. His customers love the timeless and unique colour provided by the red-bodied clay and wood-fired kiln, but now they want to see it in more than just rectangles and squares.

Tilemakers at Seneca Tile load tiles into the kiln for firing. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
Tilemakers at Seneca Tile load tiles into the kiln for firing. (Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)

Seneca Tile is broadening its offerings to include intricate new shapes, such as the Valencia, Sophia, and Arabesque. Seneca has expanded its colour offerings to include vivid blues and greens, including Blue Lagoon, Waterlily, and Evergreen in its SenecaBrick collection.

“The world is getting very interested in design and doing different things,” Fry says. “It’s a very interesting time.”

(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)

He may have to build new wood moulds to satisfy the new demand, but for Fry, the timeless process will always remain.

“Everything old-fashioned still has a place in this world,” Fry says. “I feel like we are satisfying a niche that has a place in the market.”

(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Seneca Tile)

Seneca Tile will display its work at the Luxury Home & Design Show in Vancouver, May 6–8, 2018. The show is hosted by Magnifissance’s sister media, Taste of Life. Learn more about the Luxury Home & Design Show.