The secret to a fine tile is kept in a plastic-coated notebook with Piglet on the cover.
The notebook’s owner, Iván Serrano, 29, walks the grounds of Mosaicos El Castillo – a tile factory founded 35 years ago by his father – with a pen behind his ear and the notebook under his arm. Its pages are filled with “formulas” that read like recipes of sand, cement, crushed rock and ocher. The recipes are, more than anything, to create just the right shade of pigment – the most technical part of tile making, Serrano explains.
Among the pages of simple formulas for standard brown or blue tiles, written in neat cursive, is the seven-ingredient mix for the floor tiles of San José’s La Merced Church, a highly esteemed, century-old landmark of the capital city, now being restored (TT, Oct. 20, 2006).
Serrano can rattle off a list of restoration projects carried out by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports for which he has supplied tile: San José’s Liceo de Costa Rica high school, the soda at the historic Melico Salazar Theater in downtown San José and the Palmares Cathedral, in the coffee town of the same name northwest of San José, to mention a few.
While the projects are marks of distinction for the tile business, most of his clients are private parties or businesses, foreigners and upper-class Ticos looking for a more traditional, rustic look for their projects, or hotels such as the luxurious Los Sueños Marriott at Playa Herradura on the central Pacific coast, Serrano says.
After Serrano’s father, Dagoberto Serrano, passed away in 1994, his mother, Lidia Perraza, took over and now runs El Castillo with the help of Serrano and his three siblings.
“As far back as I have memory, tile is all that I remember,” Serrano says. “It has been difficult to keep the business going at times because ceramics have affected us a lot, but people are returning to the quality of these tiles.”
Cheaper ceramic tiles entered the Costa Rican market 10 to 12 years ago, taking a bite out of El Castillo’s business, Serrano says, but recent architectural trends celebrating Costa Rica’s history have come back to the individually made, concrete tiles his business is known for.
“This is an art,” Serrano says. “This is a product that lasts a lifetime.”
In a Tile Artist’s Studio
The open-air, eternally dust-covered factory is located down a nondescript and unmarked driveway in Alajuela’s Barrio San José, northwest of the capital. Past heaps of limestone gravel, bins of sand and crushed rock, and a low, concrete tank of lime-green water, four men hurriedly churn out a variety of tiles from hydraulic tile presses.
Oscar Trejos, 30, shirtless and covered in gray dust, bounces as he works to keep his rhythm of two or three tiles a minute. Trejos’ tiles are the most complex of the ones being produced today – bicolored, with a geometric pattern and an off-center flower design.
Starting with a square steel base, surrounded by a steel frame, Trejos lays down a plastic mold and fills it with what looks like green and black paint but is actually a mix of limestone (trucked in from a quarry in the northwestern province of Guanacaste), cement and ocher (a mineral used for creating pigment, imported from Europe, that is resistant to the sun’s damaging UV rays).
After pouring the pigment, he removes the plastic frame and covers the colors with crushed rock and sand, which help set the pigment. With a metal tamp on top, the frame and soon-to-be tile are slid under the tile press, which compresses the ingredients for a few seconds with a force of 2,500 pounds per square inch. Trejos pulls the frame out, flips the tile into his hand, sponges it off and lays it against several dozen others on a shelf next to his workstation.
After a few weeks of hardening, the tile will be ready for sale.
Serrano estimates that El Castillo can put out approximately 2,500 standard, 20-square-centimeter tiles a day, in a variety of sizes and shapes. In addition to standard floor tiles, El Castillo makes larger garden tiles and baseboard tiles, among others.
Plain, colored floor tiles run ¢3,800-7,000 ($7.30-13.45) per square meter, while multicolored, design-decorated tiles are ¢12,000 ($23) a square meter. El Castillo has an inventory of nearly 400 designs, but can also create molds from designs brought in by customers, or match the design and shades of existing tiles.
One of the advantages of his tiles, Serrano boasts, is their longevity. In addition to his Piglet notebook, Serrano keeps a computer database of every customer and the exact tiles (including the individual formulas) they order, so, if in a year or 10 years the customer wants to replace or add on more of the same tile, the recipe is there and ready.
The tiles, once laid, can also be treated with different finishes, such as glass or crystal, a process that involves embedding glass or crystal fragments into the microscopic pores in the tiles, leaving the surface with a glossy and reflective sheen.
“This is a product sought out by foreigners and people who want to give their project continuity and make it stand out from all the rest,” Serrano says.
Mosaicos El Castillo may be contacted at 433-8110.