September 11, 2023

Making Her Mark: Tiler

Tiler Sarah Dodgson Talks Historic Tile Restoration, and Master Craftsmen.

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“In other craft-based trades, master craftsmen teach the next generation of craftsmen. In theory, there’s an infinite chain of craftsmen dating back centuries, but of course, there are no master craftsmen for historic tile restorations.”

Just 3.69% of tilers in the UK are women, which means that Sarah Dodgson is one of the few tilers who has a female insight into the craft. Sarah’s road to becoming a tradie has not been a simple one. Having worked in children’s services in various roles for 18 years, she thought that her future career was already mapped out. 

A big life change was the trigger that Sarah needed to pick up tools and become a tiler. Now, Sarah runs Angel Tiling and enjoys working on everything from authentic Victorian flooring to a Royal Coat of Arms mosaic floor.

The only barrier in her way is the conservation community’s opinion (or lack thereof) on tile restoration projects. Organisations that have the power to protect and restore historic tiling are unusually quiet on the subject, but what does Sarah have to say? 

You’ve got quite a lot of experience in joinery, plastering, and roofing. So, what made you settle on tiling?

Well, I did lots of jobs after school. I even worked in children’s services for 18 years. Tiling was never in my orbit, but then something happened. My divorce led to a bit of a mid-life crisis, and around the same time, one of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you give tiling a go? I’ve seen what you’ve done in your own house.’ 

That got me thinking. I’ve always been hands-on and eager to give things a go, and that extends to my house. My ex-husband used to work night shifts, and while he was away he’d call me and say, ‘What are you up to?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing!’ but I’d pulled up the floorboards and removed a door from its hinges. 

“One day I was walking the dog, and I saw a contractor’s van in a driveway. I went home, typed up a letter and posted it, with photos of my work, through his letterbox.”

The man (who later became my first mentor and friend, Craig) got back to me the following week. He said if I could get my CSCS (Construction Skills Certificate Scheme) card, he’d take me on. 

Craig worked around my schedule with my kids. Bless him, he always picked me up after I dropped the kids off. That was in 2014, and we still keep in regular contact today. 

What made you focus on historic tile restoration?

I live in a property that dates back to 1918. Over the years, the history of the building has really fascinated me. 

“So, I put a post up on LinkedIn asking if anyone knew anyone who restored Victorian floors. Lots of people put Steve’s name in, and that was the start of another mentorship and great friendship. He said, ‘If you’re willing to commit and give it 110% I’m willing to take you on.”

We spoke for the first time four years ago, and we had a lot of big plans that COVID-19 made impossible. Even to this day, he sets me homework, projects, and tasks to work out and plan. He might ask me to research where a tile was first made, that sort of thing. 

When did you go out on your own and set up Angel Tiling? 

I’d only spent six months with Craig when I decided to go it alone. His work was going further afield than before, and I just couldn’t travel that far. 

I established Angel Tiling in 2015, but it was only part-time. I worked for myself on Mondays and Tuesdays and continued working in children’s services from Wednesday to Friday. When the jobs started rolling in, I handed my notice in.

Right now, Angel Tiling is just me. A few people have worked for me over the years, but they’ve left to start their own businesses. If I’ve got a big job on, that is labour-intensive like a stone project, I’ll call on trusted people to come and help me. 

How did you feel when you left your job?

Knowing that I didn’t have a safety net was daunting. And knowing that I didn’t have any paid holidays to fall back on was scary. 

In the early days, I partnered up with a plumber. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the person I thought he was. I ended up losing £1,700, which was basically my entire savings. It was an expensive lesson to learn, and since then I’ve not partnered with anyone else.

 

Have you faced any barriers at work?

The main barrier is the training because there just isn’t any. 

My mentor Steve is self-taught, and he’s been in the trade for 50 years. He wrote an outline for a PACR (Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers) for historic tile restoration, but ICON (The Institute of Conservations) have knocked it back because he has no ICON master craftsman. 

“In other craft-based trades, master craftsmen teach the next generation of craftsmen. In theory, there’s an infinite chain of craftsmen dating back centuries, but of course, there are no master craftsmen for historic tile restoration except for Steve.” 

We’ve applied for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship fund twice, and we’ve been pushed back by lots of other organisations. Victorian encaustic and geometric tile restoration isn’t recognised as a dying trade, but it should be. Heritage Crafts and Historic England are two of the organisations that have the power to put historic restorations on the red list, but they won’t.

Have you faced sexism at work?

“I’ve had the odd person call up and say, ‘Can I speak to the owner?’ and when I say, ‘That’s me’, they put the phone down.”

Apart from the odd call like that, I’ve not faced much discrimination. Really, it’s done me well. Some people phone and say that they want a female tiler because they think that women are more reliable. 

I’ve only had the odd comment, and it’s not been derogatory. The older tradies seem to accept me, it’s the younger people who are more surprised at what I do for a living.

What’s your day-to-day life like?   

Load the van, drive to work, and unload the van. That’s always the start of the day, but that’s where Groundhog Day ends. Every day is different. If I’m working on a restoration project, I could spend the day taking out a floor that has tented, sorting the substrate out, and then cutting new tiles by hand which have been colour-matched to the originals.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that no job is ever the same. That, and I get to restore some amazing historic floor that will live on for decades more for all to see. 

Do you do tiling work outside of your business? 

I take part in a lot of DIY SOS projects. Basically, these sorts of projects crop up when someone in the community needs a hand. A few years ago, a member of my local community was diagnosed with a terminal illness. A local tradie reached out to other tradies in the area, and we all pitches in to create a usable wet room for her. 

Another lady was a domestic violence victim, and Another lady was a domestic violence victim, and she contacted me because I’m a woman. I repaired her shower room for her.

“Most recently, I did a bit of tiling in a supported living accommodation for young people. I even taught two of the residents the basics of tiling! It was a nice balance of social work and craftsmanship, so it reminded me of my past career in children’s services.”

You were a finalist for ScrewFix’s Top Tradesperson of 2021. How did that come about?

It was very exciting, but unfortunately, Angel Tiling didn’t cinch the win. There’s always next year! 

What kind of tiling projects do you enjoy the most?

I love restoration projects because each one has its own uniqueness, and they all have their own challenges, but seeing the finished result makes all the hard work and late nights worthwhile.

My neighbour told me that I had an old Victorian floor in my hallway. I got my grinder out right away and dug it up, but unfortunately the owner before me had removed it and laid four inches of concrete over the floor. 

One of my clients thought they might have interesting floor tiles in their 1930s property, but there was self-levelling latex all over the floor. I took some corners up and saw black and white tiles. Steve was with me, and we both set to work chiselling the latex away. The floor underneath was gorgeous, and there was minimal damage! In the end, I only replaced three of the tiles. The best bit was not knowing whether the tiles were there or not. 

Is there a project that you’re really proud of?

Yes, the first project that springs to mind is for Lever House in Liverpool.

In the main entrance, there’s a Royal Coat of Arms and a beautiful mosaic Victorian floor. There was a wooden pole about the size of a 50p that went straight through the unicorn’s mane. It took me three hours to remove the pole and restore the section, but it was a very rewarding experience. Now, my work is a piece of history. 

Now that you work for yourself, how do you keep yourself creatively charged?  

Every day is a new challenge. If I wasn’t challenged, I’d be bored. It’s just part of me. If there isn’t a challenge, I wouldn’t want to get up in the morning. 

Do you have a dream project?

I’d love to travel the world and take my craft further afield. But to do that, I need my PACR. 

Tiling can be physically demanding, so how do you look after yourself?

I think the manual handling involved in the job speaks for itself. I’d love to say that I’m always on the go, but when I get home I just want to relax.

If you could rewind time, what would you say to yourself?

Life changes you, and your dreams change. At 16, I didn’t think I’d be doing this. 

“If I have to say one thing, it’s to get out of your comfort zone.”

We all get too comfortable. I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and it’s changed my life massively. Leaving my job was daunting, but I woke up the next morning and knew that I’d done the right thing and I’ve never looked back.

You can find Sarah and her company Angel Tiling on Instagram @angeltiling

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