It is the year 2004, and a 400-year-old firm in Sussex, England, has become mankind's last hope of resistance to the machine-made roof tile – but for how much longer?
In our 21st-century world of vast factories and mass production, Keymer Tiles is a small piece of living history. This small company, nestling in the heart of the West Sussex town of Burgess Hill, can trace its origins as a maker of roof tiles to 1588. It has been at its current site for the relatively brief spell of about 150 years.

But now the company's lengthy heritage is under threat: the triple threat of European legislation, an increase in cheap foreign imports and the company's finite reserves of the local Weald clay have cast a dark shadow over the future of handmade tiles at Burgess Hill, and ultimately across the UK.

The responsibility for keeping Keymer's traditions alive lies with managing director Neil Tobin, and he is keen to explain the difficulties facing the company. The first problem involves European legislation. The British Standard for making roof tiles, BS 402, has been turned into a European norm, BS EN 1304 – with one important difference. "When the standard for tile manufacture moved from a British to a European Standard, the reference to handmade was dropped," says Tobin. "At about that time, manufacturers introduced 'handcrafted tiles'. A handcrafted tile is made by machine to look handmade." He pauses to choose his words carefully. "I've got no objection to handcrafted tiles – Keymer may end up making them too. If people know how something is made and they choose to buy it, that is their prerogative. It's when the companies don't tell you that I get annoyed."

The second issue is the emergence of cheap foreign imports. Specifiers now have a choice of handmade tiles from Poland, Turkey, and even places as far-flung as India and Vietnam. Advertisements for the tiles don't mention their origin and they have reassuringly English names such as Ashbury and Cottage. Furthermore, the tiles do not have any marking on them to identify their source. Again, Tobin doesn't object to the imports in principle, but takes issue with the lack of information regarding the tiles' origin. "If you know where they are sourced, I've got no objection to that. But I do have a problem with people who put out advertisements for tiles with a crucial piece of information missing. If they are made in Turkey, why don't they say they are made in Turkey?"

Tobin has tried to tackle these problems. When he was chairman of the Clay Roof Tile Council, he was unable to get the handcrafted tile makers to define the term "handcrafted". Another handmade tile maker, Tudor, took the matter up with local trading standards officers. Both efforts were unsuccessful. "We are fighting a lonely battle," Tobin says.

If Keymer was slowly going bust then Tobin could be written off as just another embittered businessman facing failure. However, the company's turnover is actually increasing and currently stands at £3m a year. This is partly because Keymer has been forced to adopt an "if you can't beat them join them" approach.

Financial salvation has come in the form of the Shire tile.

Tobin says this is "not quite as handmade" as the Traditional range (see box) but costs two-thirds of the price. "Our sales have been increasing since we introduced the Shire range," he says. "We had to change our approach as prices are going one way – downwards. If Keymer was just making handmade tiles we would not survive." The Shire was introduced four years ago when it took just 10% of total sales. Today it is more like half.

In response to Tobin's comments, major tile manufacturers such as Eternit say their products are as handmade as they can be, given the constraints of health and safety. Eternit says pummelling the clay into the mould by hand can cause repetitive strain injury, so is now done by machine. The clay is still placed into the mould by hand, and the drying, firing and packaging stages are also all done by hand. Tobin concedes that most people couldn't tell the difference between handcrafted and handmade tiles. "I can, but a casual observer would find it hard to," he admits.

Given these trends, handmade tiles are likely to end up as a highly specialised, niche product. Keymer is already going down a less handmade route and wouldn't rule out joining the ranks of the cheap importers either. The company only has 10 to 15 years of clay reserves left at Burgess Hill. "The trick is to find a site with Weald clay reserves that is big enough – about 50 acres – where it is possible to get planning permission to build a factory," says Tobin. "If I need to move my factory, should I move it within the UK or should I move it to Poland? I wouldn't rule it out." The saddest thing for Tobin is that most people probably won't recognise the loss.

Made or crafted? The tile process

Once a year the clay is dug from the ground and piled up into a mound called a kerf. This incorporates layers of blue and red clays which break down over the course of a year. After this happens, the clay is mixed by mechanical digger and left for a week in the souring shed before use.

The first factory process involves breaking the clay down further and getting rid of imperfections. It is passed through a pair of giant concrete rollers to crush it, then it goes through two further sets of high-speed rollers to turn it into an evenly mixed, blemish-free material.

A machine called a pug squeezes out two continuous bands of approximately 10 mm thick clay. The bands are separated by an oil made specially for the company – its aroma pervades the whole factory. The bands of clay are then mechanically sliced into tile-sized pieces called batts and are piled 12-high ready for moulding.

For traditional tile moulding, the maker cuts off two of the corners of the rectangular pile of clay batts if they are to be a special shape, or simply starts moulding if the tiles are pure rectangles. The batt is dusted with sand. This alters the colour of the tile when it is fired. The batt is placed in the mould and pummelled by hand to ensure it is fully squeezed into the mould. A wire is used to cut away the excess clay so the tile is flush with the top of the mould, although a small area of the base of the tile is left standing proud. At this end of the mould, attached by hinges, is a punch, which is brought down smartly onto the clay to create the nibs for the nails that will hold the tile in place on the roof, as well as a unique code for the date of manufacture and name of manufacturer. The maker slams their hand down onto the mould so it sticks to the clay. They then lift the mould up and push the moulded tile out onto the drying tray.

The Shire tile is produced slightly differently. The clay batt has been cut to the right size so it doesn’t need pummelling into the mould and there’s no excess to be wired off. All the maker does is bring the punch down to create the nibs, lift the mould off and place the tile in the drying rack.

The tiles are left for 10 days to dry out – the drying trays are curved to give the tile the correct camber for when it is on the roof. The tiles are set – that is, put into a kiln car ready for firing. The person responsible for this visually checks each tile for cracks. The tiles are placed in a preheat kiln for two days, then into the main kiln. This takes seven days to heat up, fire and cool down. The tiles are then “drawn” – unloaded from the kiln car ready for dispatch. As this is done the tiles are shuffled. Any that sound “dead” are rejected.

Other makers’ “handcrafted” tiles are made in a similar way to the traditional tile, except the clay is mechanically pummelled into the mould. Accessories including valleys, hips and ridge tiles are made by slumping the clay over a shaped mould, then putting it in a special drying rack that has wooden battens to stop the tile slumping flat again.

The tile maker’s tale

Tile maker Bill Ward (pictured) has only being working for Keymer for 14 years. Many of Keymer’s workers are locals who have been at the factory for generations. “When I first joined, people said to me: ‘You are not related to anyone – how come?’” says Ward.

Tile makers are unusual in two ways. First, they are paid piece work rather than by the hour, which means they work flat out – while Ward was being interviewed he didn’t stop for a minute. The second unusual feature of tile making is that work starts very early in the morning – some workers start at 5am. This means they have done a day’s work by midday.

Ward says he likes this way of working. “I liked the idea of the early start as I could pick my daughter up from school,” he says. “I planned to do it for a year but have been here ever since. The job suits me because it’s close to where I live and the hours give me a reasonable amount of leisure time. You have to push yourself as its piece work – I make between 1000 and 1200 tiles a day.”

So, isn’t making tiles all day very repetitive? “I do enjoy it in a weird sort of way. When you come to work early there are little fox cubs playing in the yard – how many times do you see that? Working here is interesting. And you want to make a good tile – that’s the pride you get from working here.”