Three years ago, Paul Whitehill opened the doors to Images In Tile in Joplin, MO, a manufacturer of tile murals such as this piece for the Detroit Tiger training camp.

The company also produced a floor-to-ceiling mural for the Norris Community Center in Naples, FL.
With knowledge and experience in the sublimation industry and a specific idea in mind, Paul Whitehill started out three years ago to launch a new company, Images In Tile. Today, his operation in Joplin, MO, produces an assortment of tile murals, ranging in size from 1-by-2-foot backsplashes to commercial applications measuring as large as 900 square feet.

"We started with the idea to offer a new design concept for interior design and architectural applications," said Whitehill. "I spent eight years in the sublimation industry. I developed new products, and I was teaching people about marketing them. I worked with various manufacturers. It then led me on my own to recognize this market [for tile murals]."

The process was actually born from the gift industry, where pictures were being imprinted on tiles as decorative objects that could be placed on desks or bookcases, Whitehill explained. "I wanted to take that to the next level and use the tiles for actual applications," he said.

In order for this idea to come to fruition, special tiles and products had to be developed, and its durability had to be proven. A stronger tile coating that could be used for commercial use was created by Rich Neely of U.S. Photo Coating, according to Whitehill. "He has been in the coating business for over 15 years," he said. "The coatings that we use today have been specially developed by Rich. He is actually helping us now in developing a second spray line."

According to Whitehill, it took about a year and a half of marketing and getting the product in front of people for Images In Tile to take off. "We traveled all around the U.S.," he said. "We went to tile re-sellers and manufacturers, and really the most important [people], which are designers and architects."

The company owner explained that in the sublimation industry, images are put on a tile with small heat presses and printers. "When I decided to get into this, I knew we needed larger equipment," he said. "We took it more to a commercial level. We have quite extensive graphic and commercial heat presses, which enable us to produce more."

For a recent project, Images In Tile created a cityscape of Manhattan looking over the Brooklyn Bridge using 1-by-1-inch tiles for the Church of Scientology in New York City.

As the business grew, Whitehill began to expand his operation. "One year ago we installed a new manufacturing facility to make us more efficient," he said. "We installed a special coating facility, so we coat all the tiles here."

Processing the tiles

The process of making the tile murals begins when Images In Tile receives a photograph, digital file or artwork. "Usually on commercial projects, we are dealing with a design firm," said Whitehill. "They'll have a concept of what they want or a drawing, and they'll ask us to reproduce it to their specifications. We're not limited to any size."

The picture is then outputted on a large ink jet printer using sublimation dyes on carrier paper. The paper and tiles are then put on a heat press at 400 degrees for approximately 15 minutes.

The mural, which measures 5 feet tall by 28 feet long and consists of more than 20,000 1-by-1-inch tiles, was produced on one of three sublimation printers in the shop.

The special coating on the tiles allows the heat to open up molecules and the sublimation dies impregnate into the tile surface. Afterwards, the gases return to a solid state, and the image is imprinted in the tile. “The tile body is very important,” explained Whitehill. “It is like a painter’s canvas. All tiles are usually white or very close to white.”

According to the company owner, the tile needed for this process is widely available throughout the U.S. “Daltile is a big supplier of ours,” said Whitehill. “We are its national vendor for custom tile murals.”

Additionally, Images In Tile has developed its own glass tiles for this process. “Originally, glass tiles were only meant for vertical applications,” said Whitehill. “They were not recommended for countertops or floors. We developed our own glass tiles that have been approved for floor applications. We put the images on the back of the glass, and you can see it through the glass. It makes the image indestructible.”

Testing performed by the Tile Council of America proved that these glass tiles meet ANSI and ASTM standards for commercial wall and floor applications, reported Images In Tile. They passed freeze-thaw testing as well as resistance to chemical substances, including all common household and cleaning materials, swimming pool chemicals, hydrochloric acid solution and potassium hydroxide. Furthermore, the surface of the floor tiles have a coefficient of friction that exceeds OSHA standards and a breaking strength that surpasses floor standards by more than 700 percent, according to the company.

The exterior of this restaurant in Indianapolis, IN, was given a distinctive look with two decorative mural designs.

Customizing designs

Images In Tile has the capability to complete a broad spectrum of designs for both residential and commercial spaces. “We do multiple projects at a time - at least 20 at once,” said Whitehill. “From a 1-by-2-foot backsplash mural to a commercial project such as we are doing right now for Whole Foods in Florida - 500 square feet.” Additionally, the company recently completed work for a gourmet supermarket chain in Indianapolis, which was 900 square feet of tile mural.

Another recent commercial job for Images In Tile was the Church of Scientology in New York City. “It’s a cityscape of Manhattan looking over the Brooklyn Bridge,” said Whitehill. “They wanted it to look like a real mosaic, so we used 1-by-1-inch tiles. The mural measures 5 feet tall by 28 feet long - over 20,000 1-by-1-inch tiles were used.”

Images In Tile has developed its own glass tiles for this process.

In residential settings, the company can produce customized designs for areas such as kitchen and bathroom backsplashes to swimming pool and spa applications. The murals not only bring aesthetic value to a home, but they also are practical, durable and easy to maintain, according to Images In Tile.

For one residential project, a “Shower Waterfall” was created using 6-inch satin hard coat ceramic tiles. The waterfall mural, which measures 6 by 4 feet, gives the illusion of being outside.

Currently, Images In Tile consists of 12 employees. Based on the company’s growth since its beginning, Whitehill is confident that his business will continue to evolve.