Terracotta Tile – The Complete Guide
terracotta floor tiles - then & now
Terracotta tile lays the foundation for most Mexican food restaurants and Mediterranean or Tuscan style homes.
Interestingly enough, artisans make it in very similar ways now as our ancestors did in ancient times. So, let’s discover why clay tile continues to stand the test of time… and still looks good doing so today!
In this comprehensive guide, I tackle these questions.
- What is terracotta tile & its origins?
- What are some types of terracotta floor tiles?
- Is terracotta tile expensive?
- Is terracotta tile durable?
- How long will it last?
- Should terracotta floor tile be sealed?
- What are some cleaning & maintenance guidelines for terracotta flooring?
- What’s the difference between terracotta and clay?
- How to find terracotta floor tile near me?
Let’s jump in.
What is Terracotta Floor Tile?
and where it comes from
According to definition.com,
terracotta = unglazed, typically brownish-red earthenware, used chiefly as an ornamental building material and in modeling
And it’s so much more.
The word terracotta comes from the Italian word meaning “baked earth.” Of course, that makes sense because the clay goes through a hardening process through sun-drying, kiln-firing, or baking in the oven.
While this guide addresses terracotta as a floor tile, it’s noteworthy to mention that ‘terracotta’ is also used to describe a color (natural brown-orange), ceramic pottery, bricks, pipes, and sculptures.
Moreover, since terracotta flooring is made from clay, shoppers find many types throughout the world. The quality of clay tiles vary on many factors, but its origin & firing process directly impacts the finished product.
Some popular origins include Mexico (Saltillo tile, most common type for flooring), Italy & Spain (popular for reclaimed terracotta), Scotland & Ireland, China (check out the terracotta army figurines), Peru, Brazil, and other South American countries (popular for terracotta roof tiles).
These are only a few popular examples of terracotta tile origins!
Take a look at this quick video that shows how artisan’s hands have crafted terracotta (specifically Mexican terracotta) for generations.
What Are Some Types of Terracotta Floor Tiles?
patterns, shapes, & sizes
While it’s a crowd-pleasing choice for rustic or Spanish style interiors, terracotta floor tile (and it’s arrangement of colors) adds elegance to even modern spaces. As a bonus, it’s a flooring favorite that is made from natural materials!
Warm colors of terracotta floors establish a grounded aesthetic from which other design elements are determined.
While researching whether terracotta flooring is right for your project, consider 2 fundamental types – handmade or machine-made terracotta.
Clay terracotta tile that is machine-made is referred to as quarry tile. Some consider machine-made clay tiles to be more durable than their handmade alternative. (I challenge this ideology, however. Keep reading.)
Machine-made terracotta tile is ideal for projects calling for consistency in size, thickness, shape, and color. These are typically thinner than handmade tiles, which pose a nice solution when existing home or business structures require a low profile tile for architectural challenges. But while these floors demonstrate consistency, machine-made tiles lack the charm and rustic characteristics of handmade tiles.
”There's no comparison between machine-made vs authentic, handmade clay tile. Handmade tiles have a story to tell. They represent the hands of architecture.
Did you know that handmade terracotta tiles continue to be a popular choice throughout the ages? That’s partly due to cosmetics (but also durability).
Additionally, handmade terracotta floors patina with age – taking on rich color tones that are impacted by the level of maintenance choices (stains, wax, sealers, etc.). Many homeowners strive to create a relaxing escape at home, devoid of citified elements of monotony and monochromatic color through the placement of handmade terracotta tiles.
Famously, Italy and Spain boast beautiful handmade reclaimed terracotta tiles. These are iconic for Spanish homes that lean on Italian Renaissance, Mission Revival styles. Many Mediterranean homes influenced by Italian, Greek, or Spanish styles grandstand with reclaimed terracotta. While gorgeous and unique, true reclaimed terracotta comes with a hefty price tag.
Mexican Saltillo tile is the prominent choice through the US, Mexico, and Canada. Notably, the riverbed clay in Saltillo, Coahuila Mexico, is applauded for its formidable durability and low price point.
Equally important, while artisans have manufactured saltillo tile for many generations, color choices for Saltillo tile have expanded to include
- Traditional Saltillo tile (terracotta shades from red, orange, golden, & cream)
- Manganese Saltillo tile (varying brown shades of color with warm terracotta undertones)
- Spanish Mission Red Saltillo tile (terracotta shades excluding most yellow or cream colors)
- Antique Saltillo tile (a textured Mexican tile created to look like Spanish or Italian reclaimed terracotta without the expensive price tag)
- Learn more and view photos of these SALTILLO TILE COLORS
Now, let’s talk about patterns!
Some people say that terracotta patterns are making a comeback. From where I sit… they never went away. ☺
Being in the flooring business for many years, we’ve been “sold out” since day one. Not kidding.
Patterns have floated in and out of the decor scene since I got my feet wet in this space. Below are some timeless patterns embellishing homes, restaurants, hotels, resorts, and other businesses worldwide.
This classic shape ranges from 4×4 to 24×24 inches. A 12×12-inch Mexican tile usually buys the most bang for your buck. However, a rule of thumb is (almost always) to choose the largest size tile that meets a budget. Our extra-large 24×24-inch Saltillo tiles are a force of nature that demands attention.
There’s not a more timeless pattern than the hexagon terracotta tile, also known as the honeycomb pattern. It’s been around for hundreds of years and remains favored today. As a 1-tile pattern, the hexagon floor offers an affordable finding for decorative flooring.
This 2-tile geometric pattern demonstrates a classic look. Since the octagon pattern must have an accompanying accent tile, designers can be adventurous with colorful Talavera tiles for an artistic look.
Hands-down, this is the most popular for Saltillo flooring choice in the past decade. Nothing about this pattern is humble. A Riviera Saltillo floor commands attention as a focal design point in any space.
Another timeless classic is the Arabesque pattern, also known as the San Felipe pattern. Similar to the hexagon terracotta pattern, a San Felipe tile creates a 1-tile pattern making it an affordable option for decorative flooring.
This picket pattern is one of my personal favorites. It’s most commonly comprised of an 8×8-inch square tile and a 4×12-inch picket tile, but some other size alternatives are available. As shown in Antique Saltillo here, this floor replicates the pricier alternative of imported Spanish or Italian reclaimed terracotta pavers.
Is Terracotta Tile Expensive?
how to buy it on a budget
Clay tile is an affordable flooring choice compared to other handcrafted tiles like encaustic, certain marble or travertine stones, and even some basic ceramic tiles.
Typically, it costs between $3.00 – $9.00 per square foot. But there are some outliers like authentic reclaimed Spanish and Italian varieties pushing $40 per square foot.
How can you buy terracotta floor tiles on a budget?
♦ Consider the source. If you’re in the United States, consider a North American seller to avoid heavy import fees, tariffs, and ocean freight fees common to European tiles. For example, Mexican Saltillo tile is considerably less expensive (& superior quality) to sun-baked European terracotta varieties.
♦ Buy presealed tiles. Clay tile floors must be sealed since the clay is porous. A quality sealed tile has multiple coats of penetrating sealer soaked into the clay allowing for an efficient and worry-free floor installation.
→ It’s usually less expensive for the overall project value to buy presealed tiles vs. unsealed tiles. Most people don’t realize the amount of sealer required to DIY-seal terracotta floor tiles.
→ Learn more about Why to Buy Sealed Saltillo Terracotta Tile to save time and money.
♦ Geometric Shapes vs. Patterns. If you have a limited budget, compare prices for square and rectangular tiles with decorative patterns. Most 1-tile patterns and geometric shapes (square, rectangles, hexagon, etc.) offer lower price points than 2-tile patterns (Riviera, Octagon, Hexagon Fuego patterns).
Is Terracotta Flooring Durable?
how long it will last
Terracotta floors acclaim durability and longevity!
Did you know that the clay is naturally resistant to mold and bacteria? When properly sealed, installed, and maintained, terracotta floors outlast lifetimes.
Certainly, kiln-fired terracotta tiles hold up better than sun-baked tiles, so do some due diligence as you’re considering any purchase of terracotta. Start with a high-quality, sealed terracotta to ensure a fuss-free long-lasting floor.
I’ve been in the biz of clay Saltillo tile floors for many years. Since we receive questions and photos from homeowners who have beautiful, unique terracotta floors that are many decades old, I say with confidence…Yes, terracotta floors are durable and last a long time!
Take a peek behind the scenes during the manufacturing process…
Should Clay Tile Be Sealed?
cleaning & maintenance guidelines
Always, always, always seal (or buy presealed) terracotta tiles. It’s a no-brainer.
Terracotta clay is porous. Without the protection of embedded sealer or glaze, anything with color runs the risk of staining the clay. This includes a tumbled glass of wine, treks from muddy shoes, pet potty mistakes, and even dust and dirt from weather elements on outdoor floors. Without the protective coating of sealer, terracotta tile floors darken with stains.
Properly sealed terracotta floors mitigate the risk of stain, wear, and tear. Plus, ongoing maintenance is a breeze! With potential debris sitting atop the sealed surface, it’s easily cleaned, thereby preserving an original, clean appearance.
What about ongoing maintenance?
Again, the tile sealer steers the maintenance conversation. Upon installing presealed tiles, apply a finishing topcoat sealer. High-quality topcoat sealers add scratch-resistance, UV protection, and water-resistance to the floor. Ideally, apply this final coat across a “finished” floor, so it seals the grout synchronously.
Most high-quality sealers have attractive lifespans of 5-15 years, while lesser quality sealers may only last 6-12 months. Thus, the quality of the sealer determines future ongoing maintenance. So, budget upfront for a quality topcoat sealer to save flooring maintenance costs in the long-run.
Also, preserve the life of a sealed floor by diluting any cleaning chemicals. Or, better yet, consider a no-chemical approach through the use of vacuuming and steam mopping.
♦ Cosmetically, that last coat of sealer determines the overall sheen of a terracotta floor. Gloss or semi-gloss finishes are more popular than the chalky appearance of matte sealer finishes.
What’s the Difference Between Terracotta and Clay?
kiln-fired vs. sun baked tiles
You may have noticed that I refer to these tiles as terracotta, clay, Saltillo, reclaimed terracotta.
So what’s the difference?
Terracotta floor tile is clay tile. But not all clay tile is terracotta tile. Saltillo tile is a type of terracotta clay. But not all terracotta is Saltillo tile.
Got that? ☺
The manufacturing process determines the difference between the terracotta and clay tile. ‘Clay’ refers to the raw material dug from the earth. But terracotta is iron-rich clay that is modeled and fired to it’s finished hardened state.
Then, there’s sun-baked terracotta vs. kiln-fired terracotta. Upon forming modeled tiles, sun-baked tiles are moved into an area with direct exposure to the sun’s heat. Naturally, the tiles dry to their finished state.
In contrast, when clay tiles are kiln-fired, a chemical reaction occurs in the clay that transforms the tiles into durable, hard pieces similar to stone.
To muddy ☺ the details a little more… The finished (fired) clay tile is often referred to as ceramic tile. So there’s that.
Plus, that same kiln-firing process also changes the clay from its natural brown/gray colors to terracotta colors.
As a point of clarification, Saltillo tile is derived from some of the world’s most durable clay. The riverbeds in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, attract a generation-old process for handmade terracotta floors.
How to Find Terracotta Floor Tile Near Me?
getting it shipped
It’s really not too difficult to find terracotta tile near you or through online sellers.
Here are some tips for finding the best terracotta tile floor for your next project.
♦ Shop around. Compare local flooring stores with online offerings. (P.S. We ship worldwide! Get a price estimate today!)
♦ Terracotta tile is heavy (and that’s a good thing for durability) and must be packaged adequately for shipping. If you’re buying terracotta tile to be shipped to you, only buy from a seller who has experience with shipping the tile. The practice and methods for shipping terracotta flooring are just as important as finding a quality made tile.
♦ If you’re in North America, stick with locally made products – Mexican Saltillo tile being most common and most affordable. If you’re in Europe, peruse your local Spanish or Italian vendors. There are great tile options found worldwide.
♦ Also, remember that terracotta tile is referred to in many terms. When you’re googling, use all of the terms. This will expand your search. For example, try Saltillo tile, Mexican tile, Spanish tile, Terracotta flooring, Rustic clay tile, etc.
♦ Finally, ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. Only buy terracotta tile from a seller with whom you feel confident, even if that means paying a higher price. You will have maintenance and installation questions after your tile purchase. Find a seller who will serve you throughout the entire process.
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