Q&A with one of the UK's leading restorers of historic floors - Steve Sinnott of Heritage Tiling
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
In a little change from our regular posting pictures of beautiful buildings or customer projects, today we’ve a Q&A with Steve Sinnott, one of, if not the most experienced restorer of Victorian ceramics in the UK.
Steve runs his business, Heritage Tiling & Restoration, along with an ongoing roster of restoration work as he travels the UK and Europe. He is an inspirational craftsman and his work ranges from small restorations in residential properties to major, multi-year projects in Grade I listed buildings.
Steve, you’re recognized as a world class restorer with +40 years of experience in your field, how did you first get into restoration?
I started out as an apprentice stone carver, we had one job where a gorgeous mid-18th Century marble mosaic floor, was ruined by a tradesman pouring high strength acid on the floor, hoping to clean it.
All of you who have a basic knowledge of chemistry know that the calcium carbonate in marble reacts with acid – not good. I and 5 other apprentices were tasked with cutting marble cubes to repair the mosaic.
Luckily, the senior guy loved my work (or the others did a worse job!) and gave me the whole mosaic to finish off. Originally, the Italians from Ravenna who laid it over 100 years ago would have prefabricated it off site with a bigger team, ahead of fitting it on site. Aside the other jobs I was working on, all told, I cut nearly a million small cubes of marble and took nearly 3 years to finish repairing it.
This project, restoring real artisan’s work, gave me the bug that has seen me work on jobs all over the planet - from Alaska in the North and down to New Zealand in the South and more than 20 countries in between.
There must be many buildings out there needing your skills, how do you prioritise which gets your attention?
Having worked on so many varied projects and buildings, with my experience, I have the luxury of being able to choose a lot of jobs that add to my skills or stretch my existing ones.
If the building is listed, the options available to the project lead sometimes aren’t as flexible and as a conservator, I would always endeavor to restore a listed building tiled wall or floor.
Also, it’s important that these skills don’t die out so I’m happy to recommend other experts who may be more relevant than myself for a particular building or restoration.
How long does your average project take?
I’ve never had an ‘average project’! They are all different, which is part of the appeal, it can be as short as one week on a very small project or be a 9 month solid investment of time. There are also some jobs where after my initial work I may not be needed again for several years.
Picture: the restored Sculpture Room mosaic, The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral
You’ve done many, many restorations over the years, which was your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite as each project can be wildly variable. I do have a soft spot for the work we did on a mosaic in St Thomas Church on the Isle of Man. That was difficult and ended up turning out really well, being restored to a point that it was hard to tell it had ever been damaged.
Picture: before and after of the smalti (glass) mosaic in St. Thomas Church, Isle of Man
What’s the toughest project you’ve worked on?
My first job! I was new to the trade and didn’t have a clue.
What are some of the most famous buildings you’ve worked on?
I have worked on a few Iconic buildings, some I can mention some I can’t😊 . From small repairs on St Georges Hall here in Liverpool which has one of the best encaustic & geometric floors in the world, to repairs on tiles in the Houses of Parliament. I have been fortunate to have worked on many, many Grade 1 & Grade 2 listed buildings both here & abroad and witnessed some of the most incredible craftsmanship the world has seen.
What’s the most expensive restoration you and your team have worked on?
They can differ, a small project we worked on was comprised of Gold, Silver, Platinum and semi-precious stones and it cost £000,000s. One of the most expensive was simple to look at as it only had a few colours but because it ran into over 2,000 sq metres of bespoke tiling it was very expensive.
What advice would you give to someone who has a period property and wants to restore some of the original features in their home?
Decide on the features you feel most add to the heritage and ‘feel’ of the property. Then don’t rush into getting people on site based on cost only, do your research check, always check references, speaking to the previous clients as well as reviewing photographs of their work, if you can’t physically view the completed project.
Picture: Consultancy project, Uppsala University, Sweden
Finally, what should we be doing as an industry to ensure skills such as yours are retained and developed for the future?
Training! Training! Training! We are hemorrhaging people and their skills at an unrecoverable rate.
Death, retirement, lack of incentive and a proper training program are the main concerns. Proper training requires money and resources, if we aren’t prepared to see this and correct it, we won’t have people to protect our heritage!
For example, at the trade level, which is the first stage to becoming a specialist, ours and every country on the planet is not replacing or training enough trade skilled people at all.
Yes, we live in a Technological World but we desperately need physical skills and sadly, building skills are looked down on and it is an assumption but many see trades (and other essential work) as lesser a career path than investment banking or being an ‘Influencer’!
Even after nearly 48 years in the industry, I’m still learning and taking the opportunity to learn. The accreditation that I’m currently working on to build my skills will be judged by my peers to maintain the high standards and regulation of the Institute that bestows it. I’m in the middle of this accreditation and once attained I will pass these and other skills on to my mentees.
Also, I will be trying my best to get some of the key organisations in the field, to move the focus of some of their training into the physical skills that restore and develop heritage buildings.
I really fear that if we don’t change our part of the educational focus into this arena and retain these physical skills, then soon I and my colleagues will become museum exhibits, figures of the past.