Tag Archives: stoneware clay

We Visit the Moravian Tile Works

My husband and I took advantage of a breezy sunny Sunday afternoon to visit the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, PA, on October 23. This combination museum/business/historic site was built in 1907-12 by Henry Chapman Mercer. It shares its site with Fonthill, Mercer’s home of the same vintage.

I won’t go into the history of the site or its founder – they are well-documented elsewhere. The important points are as follows:

1. Mercer created this tileworks as part of his efforts to maintain the craft of handmaking tiles. He designed the tiles and they were made by his workers in this building.

2. The building was purpose-built with a lot of thought about the manufacturing process. Remember that – it’s interesting to think about how such an enterprise would set itself up today.

3. The building, like Fonthill, was designed by Mercer and is built entirely of concrete. Yes, concrete.

4. I participate in the annual tile sale and show held here each May. Here’s a link if you would like to know more about that event. (And you’ll see some pictures of areas of the Tileworks that we didn’t visit today.)

5. I’ve never taken the tour of the Tileworks, though I’ve been through Fonthill several times and visited the Tileworks store, located in one wing of the building.

6. If you are in Doylestown, PA, take a day, yes, a day, and visit Fonthill, the Tileworks, and the Mercer Museum, another of Mercer’s creations. Doylestown is a nice town all on its own and there are plenty of good places to eat lunch.

All right, on to the visit! And I’ll apologize in advance for the photos’ quality – the building was dim and that affected some of the pictures.

The building is U-shaped and has two stories. We entered through the shop and then went on to a large room to see a tape about the Tileworks. The presentation was very informative and clearly explained the various tile-making processes done at the Tileworks. It may interest you to know that no new designs are produced here; everything remains as it was under Mercer’s operation, using the same forms and colors. So the people working here today are replicating the work done from the beginning of this operation, with modifications in equipment, in some cases.

Here’s a view of the room where we saw the tape. As a note, it is very reminiscent of Fonthill in its architecture and the array of objects and tiles all over the room.


From the introduction we went up to the second floor. This section is pretty much a museum exhibit now – it’s not where tile work is done today.

That brick protrusion to the left of the picture is the upper level of one of the old kilns (remember this when I show you downstairs). The racks are empty, but are meant for drying tiles.

We stepped out onto the balcony that runs all around the upper story. The overhang for the first level was intended to provide an outdoor working space. Today the area is hosting a pumpkin carving festival.

The chimneys vented the kilns and other heat-producers, such as stoves for warmth. They are my favorite feature of this building.

We went back inside and down to the ground floor. This area is where tiles are made. We talked to a craftsman about his work and watched him take clay, press it into the plaster mold, and set it aside to dry for a few minutes; he then pried it out and set it on a drying rack. This is the first stage of tile making; later they will be fired, glazed, and fired again before going on sale, or to an installation project. People still find these tiles desirable; they are attractive and very durable.

We took a quick trip to the cellar, which is where they store the bagged clay, ready for use. There is a dumb-waiter to lift it upstairs, which is good, because clay is heavy. Yes, it is.


We then made our way back toward the store and the exit. But, there was more to see – the kilns.

Now, they are not in use today. The Tileworks uses modern electric and gas kilns, in a part of the building we did not see. These huge kilns, though, are the originals. They were fired by coal. And, they are enormous. They go all the way through the ceiling, up to the roof of the second floor. A person can stand inside, easily. They were loaded through the door and the fuel fed on the side. I can only imagine how incredibly hot this area became during firings. And you can see why it’s good to have a fireproof concrete building around these structures.

We emerged from the building, quite impressed. It is truly amazing that the enterprise is still in business after 100 years (though with a break or two, between Mercer’s death and the county acquiring the place in the 1960’s) and still using many of the same techniques of its originator.

I wasn’t fond of the building as a workspace, though – I found it cramped and dark. Well, things were different when it was constructed; the needs and resources were handled in the context of the times. It’s very picturesque, though, and I certainly came away with respect for Mercer’s energy, willingness to experiment, and his desire to maintain and support the craft of traditional tile-making.

We Have A Nose For News, Maybe

Here are some more tile faces, about the same size as the ones in the previous post, but this time I shaped a nose on each face.

They were fired, and then I did the glazing with Velvet underglazes before a final firing at Cone 5.

Clay tiles - four faces in a group with noses 4-16 small

And here is a stray tile, orange disks orbiting a semi-cactus. One of them obvious a sentient being – I wonder if the others are just in disguise and haven’t let on their intentions yet…

Clay tile - painted - leaves and flower faces 4-16 small

What Was I Thinking?

I’m not sure. I was working on clay, some months back, with a couple of friends, and showing them various ways to do things. I made a couple of bowls by using an existing plastic bowl as my template – remember, I hand-build, I don’t use the wheel.

Now, I had a couple of bowls. Well, that was great, but I didn’t want any bowls. So I put a couple of little figures in them. Look here, a cat in a bowl. Cat in bowl - side view 4-16 small

The bowl won’t hold water because I put a couple of holes in it, so that I could demonstrate my hole-making tool. Well, everyone knows that cats don’t like water.

Next, I made this little guy and set him on an island.

I could put a little teeny bit of water in this bowl and he could dangle his feet in it. I am sure he would like that, especially if it were a hot day.

Well, that’s it. Bowl-making and where it leads. If you are me.

More Home Decoration

Here are the rest of those little clay house/room interiors. If you want to see the first group, look here.

Home Decoration

Here are some more little clay room vignettes I have been making. They are all about 3 inches or so in size, more or less.

I have another group to show and I’ll do that very soon.

Clay House Neighborhood

Here are some small clay houses I made recently. They’re maybe 3 or so inches tall.

I know you’ve seen clay houses like these before, but I changed the method I used to make these a little bit and I like it better.

Previously, I created the house, let it dry slightly, used Velvet underglazes for the colors on the still-moist clay, and then incised around the details of the house. That method allows the color of the clay to show through in the incisions but I found it hard to get a good level color on the houses – they were streaky. I also had some trouble seeing well enough to make the incised lines as I wanted them.

With these houses, I created the house, let it dry slightly, then I took a rubber pointed-tip tool and drew in the windows and doors and etc. I pressed hard enough to get a good deepish line. Then I fired them.

Next, I used the technique I follow with relief tiles – paint over the whole surface with Velvet underglaze (in this case, jet black) and wash it off – leaving it in the lines. Then I filled in the rest of the house with whatever colors I wanted.

I found this method easier and I liked the color outcomes better, too. Now I have two ways to make these little houses – that’s a good thing to have some choice.

Look here if you want to see some previous houses.

Relief Tiles – Cracks, Temperature

More tiles from the last kiln load. These are done in a relief style, with Velvet underglazes painted on and then washed off before the final firing.

And here is one black and white tile. I had a lot of trouble with this clay this time (it’s Standard 181). I dimly remember having problems with it last winter – a lot of warping and even worse, cracking. I lost more than half the white clay tiles I did this load because they cracked.

I think that the clay may be sensitive to drying too quickly. In the winter, my basement is warmer and drier because of the heater. In summer it’s very cool and damp. I did not have these problems with any of the work I did this summer. So…maybe that’s it? I’ll have to see.

Moon over the ocean.

Moon over the ocean.

Incised and Then – Color the Lines or Not?

I thought I’d go right into some of the clay work I just took out of the kiln. Incised tiles today.

These tiles are white clay, Standard #181, fired at cone 5. They are examples of working by incising lines with a ribbon tool, bisque firing, painting the tiles with black underglaze (Velvet Jet Black), rinsing off, and then brush- painting with other colors of Velvet underglazes. I’m happy with how these came out.

Here is the same white clay – but I left the lines blank and just painted with colors around them. I’m not as happy with these results and I found it tedious rather than relaxing to paint them. If you make a mistake and your color goes into the line area, you need to do some scrubbing to get it out. With colored lines, you just put on another layer of underglaze.

And here is a group of the two styles together.

group of three tiles 1-15

Finally, here are some tiles done in the same manner but in a different clay (Standard 308, I think, or else 108 – I need to check. But both are fired at cone 5, and are reddish in the final color). I like these the best of all. I find the way the natural color of the clay can figure in the composition is more pleasing to me than in the white clay. And the clay also affects the final color the underglaze produces – I find these less stark than what the white clay comes up with. Experimenting is getting me somewhere – developing likes and dislikes!

Did They Just Get Off A Tour Bus?

I have a finished kiln-load of clay that I will be unloading today. And these ladies have been waiting patiently since the fall (or at least they haven’t complained to me) for their turn here. I figured I’d better get with it.

When I see figurines in groups like this I think of situations where a large group of women would be found (all wearing what look like muumuus? I’ll overlook that part, as I know we’re not in Hawaii). For some reason I felt this crowd was posing for group pictures while on a package vacation (OK, maybe it was Hawaii?).

Here they are. Fresh off the tour bus.

Tiny Homes

I love dollhouses and tiny homes. I made some of my own earlier in the fall, in clay. Little vignettes of rooms. I got the idea while idly playing with some left over pieces from making tiles. I formed a couple of little half-rooms and then I decided to furnish them.

I liked making these and I’ve got some more ready to go into the kiln soon.

The technique is easy. I make the rooms, let them dry, and bisque them. Then I used black  Velvet underglaze and painted it over the entire piece, and then washed it off. The black adhered to the incised lines. I then painted the various colors as I wanted, using Velvet underglazes.  I fired these at cone 05 (for the terracotta ones) or cone 5 (for the stoneware ones).

They are all quite small, maybe 2-4″ at most.