Maintaining Historic Tiles

Many older homes have historic floor or wall tiles. This page provides information on how to clean them without damaging them. It covers:

Please note the methods below are NOT suitable for fragile or porous medieval or Delft tiles.

Image of rectangular blue and black tiles at Bristol South Baths.
Many older buildings have historic floor or wall tiles. There are multiple ways to clean these or to remove stains. © Historic England Archive

How should I clean my tiles?

Most old domestic floor and wall tiles are robust enough to withstand the low level of chemicals in ordinary cleaning products. It's not necessary to use deionised or distilled water unless the tiles are exceptionally porous or of high historical significance.

For the treatment of important tiles, see our webpage on the care and conservation of tiles.

We recommend that you pre-wet tiles before cleaning them. The water helps prevent the cleaning product from penetrating too deeply - but be careful not to add too much. If needed, you can use mildly abrasive non-scratch pads; but avoid wire wool or any hard abrasive material.

You can remove hardened substances on the surface of the tile, such as paint splashes, with tools like small blades or chisels. On unglazed tile, paint strippers or solvents can soften any paint-marks – but use these sparingly as they may just spread the paint further.
With glazed wall tiles, we recommend pH-neutral detergents. Trials are important as some acid- or alkali-based products can damage blue or red-lead glazes.

Image of someone scraping residue off historic tiles using a chisel
You may be able to use tools to scrape certain types of residue from tiles. © Historic England Photo Library

How can I remove stains from my tiles?

For targeted stain removal, find out the pH of the stain. You can do this by dissolving the stain in a suitable solvent and testing it with a pH strip. You can then use a cleaning product on the opposite pH scale to remove it (for example, remove acidic stains with alkaline solutions).

Here's a guide to common methods for removing stains on robust historic tiles. The list includes a wide range of products for cleaning tiles but it is not an endorsement of any product or material.

Please note that some of the products listed are toxic. Always observe health-and-safety precautions including protective gloves, goggles and clothing.

Blood

Chlorine-based bleach: Mix with cold water and apply the solution, then scrub the area using a natural bristled brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with clean water.

Baking soda: Mix the powder with water to a paste, then place over the stain and leave for a period of time; scrape excess and rinse with clean water; repeat if necessary.

Hydrogen peroxide (bleach): Use a small amount of the liquid on the stain and leave it for a few moments; lift the peroxide off with a clean dry cloth, then rinse with clean water.

Chewing gum, wax or tar encrustations

Ice cubes: First apply an ice cube to make gum/wax/tar brittle, then scrape off.

Paint remover: Apply the paint remover and leave for several minutes. Scrape off and rinse with cold water.

Colourful tiles in an entrance porch to a house.
Careful maintenance can keep historic tiles in use for many years. © Historic England Archive

Coffee

Baking soda: Mix the powder with water to a paste, then place over the stain and leave for a short time; scrape excess and rinse with clean water. Repeat if necessary.

Chlorine-based bleach: Mix with cold water and apply. Scrub the area using a natural bristled brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with water. 

Household cleaning products: Available as a powder or liquid, and can contain bleach or caustic soda; check the ingredients and follow appropriate guidelines.

Hydrogen peroxide (bleach): Use a small amount of the liquid on the stain and leave for a few moments; lift the peroxide off with a clean dry cloth. Rinse with clean water.

Food stains

Baking soda: Mix the powder with water to a paste, then place over the stain and leave for a period of time; scrape excess and rinse with clean water; repeat if necessary.

Chlorine-based bleach: Mix with cold water and apply, then scrub the area using a natural bristled brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with water.

Household cleaning products: Available as powders or liquids, many contain bleach or caustic soda; check the ingredients and follow suitable instructions.

Hydrogen peroxide (bleach): Use only a small amount of the liquid on the stain and leave it for a few moments; lift the peroxide off with a clean dry cloth, then rinse with clean water; or use 20:100 in poultice form.

Oxalic acid (for stubborn stains): This is a strong bleach and comes in powder or liquid form. Mix with cold water and mechanically scrub then rinse with clean water.

Grease or fat

10% sodium carbonate in water: Wash with sodium carbonate solution, allowing up to one hour contact time, and rinse thoroughly with water.

5% caustic soda (sodium hydroxide solution): Use 5% or less in cold water only; apply the solution, scrub the area using a natural bristled brush, then lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse the area with clean cold water and lift off. Do not mix a strong solution of caustic soda as it may cause the water to heat up.

Detergent: Best mixed with hot water. Scrub with a natural bristle brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with clean water.

Sal soda (hydrated sodium carbonate): Mix with water and apply as a coating; manual scrubbing is generally sufficient. Rinse with cold water and re-apply as necessary.

Plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate): Mix the powder with water to form a paste. Make sure it does not penetrate into porous materials because it can be difficult to remove. Scrape excess and rinse with hot water.

Ink

Chlorine-based bleach: Mix with cold water; apply the solution, then scrub the area using a natural bristled brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with water.

Hydrogen peroxide (bleach): Use only a small amount of the liquid on the stain and leave it for a few moments. Lift off with a clean dry cloth, then rinse with clean water.

Baking soda: Mix the powder with water to a paste, then place over the stain and leave for a period of time; scrape excess and rinse with clean water; repeat if necessary.

Lime

Diluted hydrochloric acid: Wash with 5% hydrochloric (HCl) acid; follow immediately with a thorough water rinse.

Mould

Ammonia: Mix the ammonia with cold water; apply and scrub manually using natural bristled brush, then lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse area with cold water.

Baking soda: Mix the powder with water to a paste, then place over the stain and leave for a short time; scrape excess and rinse with clean water. Repeat if necessary.

Chlorine-based bleach: Mix with cold water and apply the solution. Then scrub the area using a natural bristled brush and lift off with an aqua/’wet and dry’ vacuum cleaner. Rinse with clean water.

Iron rust marks

5% hydrochloric acid (HCl): Wash with hydrochloric acid (HCl). Immediately rinse with water.

Rust inhibitor containing phosphoric acid: Apply rust inhibitor in a poultice (not to be confused with a rust converter).

Copper marks

10% nitric acid: Wash with nitric acid; follow immediately with a thorough water rinse.

Citric acid in poultice: Poultice cleaning must be monitored closely in case it causes damage. Follow immediately with a thorough water rinse.

Further information available in the ‘Tiles’ chapter in the Earth Brick and Terracotta volume of Historic England’s Practical Building Conservation series (2015).

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