Ernest Batchelder was a tilemaker. In 1909 he built a kiln in his Pasadena backyard and began making architectural tiles by hand from local clay. Rustic at heart, Batchelder would leave the freshly made tiles out in the yard as they dried to be walked over by his chickens–unwitting contributors to his aesthetic of imperfection.
As building in Los Angeles boomed, so did the tile business. Soon, 150 craftsmen cranked out tiles for the Batchelder-Wilson Tile Co. The story goes: some workers were in charge of scratching each tile with a stick to ensure they were one-of-a-kind.
Batchelder’s tiles may be found in buildings across the country but a high concentration adorn Los Angeles’ humble fireplaces. It was for the fireplace, which “in a peculiarly intimate sense is the center of the home,” that Batchelder produced most of his designs. “In proportion, form and color, it demands thoughtful consideration,” he wrote, and his tile catalogue included dozens of plans for laying out mantles.
If you find yourself in possession of any of these tiles and wish to set them, there were included in the 1923 catalogue these instructions:
“SOAKING. Preliminary to setting, the tiles should be soaked for at least one-half hour in clean water. Wet thoroughly the rough brick or concrete base and prepare the bed with rich mortar. Butter the back of each tile with a thin coat of cement before placing it in position. Leave the joints open. The pointing should be left until the setting is completed.
POINTING. Pointing should be flat and smooth, just far enough back from the face of the tiles to expose the rounded edge. Pointing should be done with a flat tool. Mortar should NOT be smeared over the tile face and wiped off; this process leaves an undesirable scum on the surface and fills the figure tiles with cement which can never be properly cleaned out.
COLOR OF POINTING. Mortar for pointing should be toned to a warm neutral color, generally lighter than the tile body. Dry colors vary in strength but for average conditions the following mixture is recommended: One four-gallon bucket clean sharp sand, one bucket well slaked lime putty, three pounds dry medium yellow ochre, one quarter pound dry RAW umber. Mix with clear water to proper consistency and add about one part Portland cement to four parts of mortar as used.
CLEANING. On completion of the work, carefully remove all mortar from the material. Muriatic acid may be used if desired, about one part acid to six or more water. Results are better when applied with a rag than when merely brushed on the surface. Surface should be finally washed with clear water to remove an surplus acid.
OILING. When the work is dry, apply RAW linseed oil to the entire surface, immediately rubbing dry with cotton waste. Attention to details of setting will produce beautiful results. Slovenly methods of setting, pointing or finishing will bring disaster to any design.
FINISHING. The application of a coat of ordinary uncolored floor wax thinned with turpentine is desirable but not necessary. The wax should be applied and rubbed dry immediately with cotton waste. Do not polish. This surface will be dust proof. It also harmonizes with finely polished woods.”
Slovenly methods bring disaster. So true in so many contexts.