It’s hard to believe that up until the early 2000s, Maltese tiles were being ripped out and thrown into skips all over the country. For many, the impracticality of smaller tiles with their porosity and tendency to loosen over the years made them a target of modernisation. In the decades after the 60s, the traditional beige, black or white terrazzo had replaced them as the de facto flooring option. Once Maltese trading links with Europe improved in the 80s, our options multiplied and the vast range of porcelain tiles we’re so accustomed to today were adopted en masse as the standard.
In the meantime, the traditional makers of Maltese tiles began to feel the squeeze. With so much more for local contractors to choose from, their popularity waned and many ceased to pass on their skills and businesses to younger generations. There were several in Hamrun which were bought up, tools, machines, moulds and all, by Hal Mann and besides them, only Colombo in San Ġwann remained. A few years ago, with the resurgence in demand for Maltese tiles, Malta Tiles opened in Fgura, giving us more choice for those wanting new tiles.
Thanks to many different factors, the popularity of Maltese tiles has returned. Thanks to artists like Maltatype and Stephanie Borg, with their designs that documented the endless patterns, our growing appreciation for the unique aspects of our local architectural vernacular and conservation efforts by local NGOs and architects, there’s a growing fanbase for the colourful 20x20cm cement slabs.
What’s so interesting about them is that, unlike many tiles, they are not fired in a kiln, but created through pressure. All local manufacture of the tiles is manual, which means that the average price per square metre is now around the €50 mark. Of course it depends on whether you’re after a plain colour, a pattern, blue dye or even a hexagonal base.
What’s great about this returned popularity is that old Maltese tiles have been given a value which they simply didn’t have ten years ago. Whereas most developers or homeowners would have chucked old tiles in a skip, today they’re more likely to try and reuse them or sell them.
If you’re doing up an old house and need Maltese tiles, I would definitely suggest trying to reuse old ones. They’re more work than buying new ones and definitely more hassle than buying standard 60x90cm porcelain tiles, but they are beautiful! They also have a history and are an intrinsic part of our urban heritage. I also find that many patterns have been lost over time and you’ll be getting your hands on something totally unique and very well made.
When tiles are removed, they will have cement attached to the bottom and the sides. These will need to be cleaned and the work that that entails varies wildly. The general rule is that the higher up the floor, the easier it is to remove the cement. This is because there is usually less humidity in the floors past the first and second levels and it’s this moisture that binds the cement and tiles together so strongly. When I started working on my third-floor apartment in Gżira, I needed to remove all the tiles to relay them in different rooms so that we could pass new water and electrics through the screed under the tiles. While this meant months of chipping away with a hammer and chisel at the tiles, the cement came away quite easily since the screed had been bone-dry. With my current project though, I rescued a few rooms-worth of beautiful hexagonal tiles from a house in Qormi which was very humid. I started trying to clean them myself but it was back-breaking work with my hammer and chisel. So I passed it onto the pros with the correct tools and my workmen used a chaser for the cement on the back and a grinder for the cement on the sides.
It’s important that you clean the cement off like this because the tiles are laid without grouting in between. Once laid, a water-cement mixture is spread over the tiles, seeping into the gaps between the tiles. They’re then polished using a heavy-duty sander which grinds off the top layer of the tile with water, bringing out the colour and leaving a smooth finish across the whole floor.
Below you can see part of my living space in my apartment. My friend Monique (the Indulgent one) was kind enough to give me the patterned tiles which were extra from a small project she’d done in her house in Cospicua. They needed a border and Colombo was great here, he matched the greys perfectly and the end result looked super.
So when enquiring after second-hand tiles, check whether they’ve been cleaned or not and make an offer accordingly. Tiles which aren’t cleaned will weigh double and with tiles already being quite heavy at 1.5kg each, you’ll be looking at 750kg-worth for a 10 sqm room.
If you’re editing an existing floor and have some tiles which are broken, consider making the pattern a little smaller and adding more white tiles to the edge of the room. You can also attempt to match tiles at the various tile-makers, but it’s very difficult to match the colours exactly. That said, Colombo in San Ġwann did an excellent job matching the colours to these four tiles which were right in front of the front door. I wanted to make the pattern larger and in this last photo you can see how well he matched the new ones (outer) to the existing (inner).
I’m the sort of person who would rather have a floor that’s a little scuffed and stained but which has a story than have something sparkling which has no soul. The tiles I walk on were made generations ago and have withstood the test of time. Through saving and reusing them, I hope that they may bring as much joy and colour into the lives of those who will come after me.
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