The Bow Den / Things we liked (and reviewed)

Having a Bad Natural Slate [Rant] kind of Day

Natural slate in one of the most beautiful additions to any home.  Its deep natural colours and earthy touch leaves adds an aesthetic sensation of peace and tranquility.  Natural slate tiling will not look out of place in and indeed, will enhance almost every room of the home.  Unfortunately, in as much as natural slate is beautiful it is also in my opinion one of the most delicate and difficult materials to work with.  While some people may disagree with me, I believe that slate tiling is a highly specialised endeavour.  I say this because e have experienced first hand the issues that natural slate tiling brings to a refurbishment.

It is hard to conceive of any future development that we will be involved in that will not include at least one element of natural slate.  In both Muswell House and the Bow Den we have used natural slate extensively.  Our experience in laying natural slate in the main bathroom of Muswell House was fraught with difficulty.  At present, with the Bow Den, our slate laying is currently work-in-progress – we are laying natural slate as our feature wall in the lounge room and fully on the walls in the bathroom.  We are also considering using whatever is left over in other parts of the property.
In Muswell House we were attracted to some beautiful riven style Indian natural slate floor tiles that were on clearance sale at Topps Tiles.  These tiles were the perfect floor tiling for our main bathroom and would match the wenge coloured furntiutre.  They were selling for about £12/m2 which is a bargain for this type of slate effect.
The first issue we encountered was the inherent brittleness of natural slate.  No matter how secure and stable you pack the tiles in your car, it is an absolute certainty that upon arriving at the project stie, you will find a good 10% of the tiles broken.  I lost count of the number of trips I made to and from Topps Tiles replacing broken tiles that I believed were purchased already broken (and therefore available for a refund).  I subsequently realised that the breakages most likely occurred in my transportation back to home.  You then become instinctively aware of every speed hump and pot hole, lump or bump that you hit in the road.  You wince every time you drive over a road irregularity as you know that your delicate art work in the back if the car is crumbling with every sharp move.
The second issue is adequately sealing the slate tiles.  Natural slate is a very porous material meaning that it readily absorbs any impurities it comes into contact with.  After tiling an area, a tiler will apply a sealant product to the tiles in order to protect or “seal” it from these impurities.  This sounds great in theory but in practice it is a delicate operation.  If an inexperienced tiler seals the slate without first making sure that all the grout, adhesive, and other impurities have been fully cleaned and removed, then these impurities will be sealed inside the slate forever (well at least until you submit the slate to a reversing process of unsealing, cleaning and resealing – which is a lot of work).  Not only should the slate be sealed after grouting but you should also apply the sealant once or twice before grouting (of course, after you have given the slate a proper clean) in order to prep the slate.  This can be done before or after laying the tiles depending on how your tiler works.
Any mistake or incompetence in this sealing process will ruin the natural look of your slate.  People usually buy natural slate because it looks expensive and luxurious.  Nothing ruins this image more than a milky, cloudy layer of impurities covering the surface of your slate tiles.  No matter how much you try and clean it off, this cloudy effect will stay with your tiles.  How do I know this?  I experienced this first hand.  Our first tiler in the Muswell House totally ruined our slate.  He plastered and painted the ceiling of the bathroom, and proceeded to seal the slate without properly cleaning it first from the impurities that the slate had been exposed to.  It took us weeks to work out what went wrong and to correct it.
Laying natural slate tiling is very different to laying your standard ceramic tiles.  While ceramic tiles have their own problems for tilers, it is the difficulties and the (almost) irreversibile after-effect of natural slate that keeps me awake at night.  As for the Bow Den project, we will keep you updated as to the results.  Fingers crossed.
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