The Ultimate Guide to Saltillo Tile Flooring
Facts, Myths, & a little bit of Geography
Want to know more about Saltillo Tile flooring?
Then you’re in the right place.
It’s REALLY tough to make flooring choices. These are permanent decisions (mostly).
This is your Ultimate Guide to Saltillo tile flooring. As it turns out, knowing some ins-and-outs of this Mexican tile can take some stress off your flooring decision… so you can move onto bigger decisions like paint colors.
So, let’s dive right in.
- Origins and family legacies
- How Saltillo tile flooring is made
- Choosing shapes, sizes, & colors
- Rustic characteristics
- How to buy it for the best value
- Installation & Maintenance
- … and Myths busted (or not)!
What are the origins of Saltillo tile flooring? Does it matter?
The origin of Saltillo tile flooring is important to appreciate the finished characteristics of handmade, rustic tile.
Let’s tackle the key facts.
- Saltillo tile is made in the town of Saltillo. The state of Coahuila. And the country of Mexico. Simply put, if it’s not from this region, it is not authentic Saltillo tile.
- In this area of Mexico lies a riverbed. This riverbed’s natural resource is clay. If Saltillo tile flooring is not this clay, then it’s not Saltillo tile.
- Also, this riverbed clay is known to be one of the most durable clays in the world. That’s what makes this Mexican tile an excellent flooring choice.
- Because it is clay, Saltillo tile is also known as Terracotta tile. (Not all Terracotta tile is Saltillo tile, however.)
- Families in Mexico have made this tile for generations. So, while manufacturing efficiencies have improved over time, the process of making this terracotta tile by hand has remained unchanged for generations.
- There is a hierarchy of family structure deeply set into the roles of making Mexican tile. For example, young men and women have the task of digging clay from riverbeds. Meanwhile, patriarchs supervise the overnight kiln-firing process. Thus, age and experience determine an artisan’s role in manufacturing.
- When the criteria prevail, you have authentic, handmade Saltillo tile – the good stuff.
How is Saltillo tile made?
Today Saltillo tile manufacturers produce this Mexican tile in much the same way it was created over 100 years ago. The integrity of its hand-making process preserves tradition and culture. Each tile tells a story.
If it’s not handmade, it’s not authentic Saltillo tile. The finished look and durability cannot be mass produced by machine manufacturing. In fact, it’s these handmade characteristics that make Saltillo tile rustic and unique. Every single tile is different.
To begin the manufacturing process, producers mine clay from the riverbeds of Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. Then, strong men and women mix water into the hard, compact clay. At this stage, it’s malleable and easy to handle. This process is laborious.
Next, craftsmen hand-press small portions of clay into the tile molds. They form wet clay versions of tile.
Now, each tile is set on the ground where it bakes in the sun. Producers leave these tiles baking in the sun until they are firm enough to be stacked into a kiln.
Kiln firing is a fascinating process. Imagine a vast hole in the ground. Tiles are stacked by hand layer-by-layer from the bottom of the kiln to the top. Large producers fill this oven with up to 6,000 square feet of flooring. Then, the kiln is set on fire and left to burn for 18-24 hours. (And yes, someone monitors the fire around the clock until firing is complete.) The firing process transforms sun-dried tiles into extremely durable tiles.
Finally, after tiles cool off in the kiln for another 24 hours, producers move each tile by hand to an area where they apply several coats of penetrating sealer. Some tiles are left unsealed for specific requests. (More on the importance of sealer below!)
⇒ And, here’s another relevant point.
Families of Mexico create these tiles by hand in an outdoor setting. When I refer to “large” producers, this represents a consortium of families who pass along skillsets and knowledge from one generation to the next. This is an authentic artisan craftsmanship.
Furthermore, when inclement weather strikes Saltillo, Mexico, it impacts the speed of production. As an illustration, producers must plan kiln-firing around rainstorms. Otherwise, they risk the loss of entire kilns of flooring if a significant storm occurs during the firing process.
⇒ Pro Tip: Due to weather and handcrafted product variables, allow for ample lead time when considering Saltillo tile flooring for your next project.
What are Saltillo Tile Flooring Shapes & Sizes?
Gorgeous Saltillo tile flooring exists around the world! Gone are the days of plain ‘ole square tiles. Today, home and business owners add value and beauty to their spaces with decorative shapes and Saltillo tile patterns.
Let’s look at a few points about shapes and patterns.
- Square, Hexagon, Octagon, Rectangle tiles are shapes and patterns that set the Mexican tile industry standard.
- But, there are also decorative shapes including San Felipe (Arabesque), Fleur de Lis, Riviera Pattern (a combination of San Felipe & Fleur de Lis), Botella, Star & Cross Pattern, and Rhombus.
- Interior designers and architects delight in the possibilities of custom-made shapes and sizes. Producers in Mexico are open to custom projects if enough quantity is required.
- Lastly, some people refer to Saltillo tile as Saltillo pavers. While most people think the terms are synonymous, there is a difference between a tile and a paver.
◊ For instance, most Saltillo tiles have an average thickness of 5/8”. But, large format tiles have a thickness up to 1” thick. During installation, set tiles on a concrete slab or prepared wood subfloor.
◊ Conversely, Saltillo pavers are approximately 2” thick and are usually unsealed. Also, install Mexican pavers in compacted soil as steppingstones or a walkway. There are limited shapes and sizes in Saltillo pavers.
When you’re in an area where Spanish style architecture is typical, keep an eye out for various styles of these timeless terracotta floors.
What are Saltillo Tile Color Options?
Color choices are one of the most significant differences between today’s Saltillo tile colors versus colors years ago. For instance, a couple of decades ago, buyers were limited to unsealed Traditional Saltillo tile. But now, we all enjoy a variety of decorative choices. And because this is natural clay, each color choice displays its range of color.
There are three color choices for Saltillo tile flooring – Traditional, Manganese, & Antique.
Let’s check them out.
♦ Traditional Saltillo tile is the most common color. It presents terracotta shades that range from brick red, orange, to yellow and golden hues.
♦ Manganese Saltillo tile is very popular. These floors are warm, earthen tones that include light and dark brown, occasional black swirling (from Manganese dioxide additive in the clay), tan and deep terracotta colors. Additionally, some people interpret a green hue in the Manganese Saltillo tile color range.
♦ Antique Saltillo tile came to be when reclaimed terracotta tile raised interest in old-world style floors. Antique Saltillo tile flooring is hand-textured in deep terracotta colors. In like manner, it is reminiscent of European reclaimed terracotta tile floors… but without the hefty price tag! Additionally, due to its textured surface, Antique Saltillo tile offers a non-slip surface area that’s ideal for outdoor or wet areas.
It’s important to point out that these color references are specific to presealed Saltillo tiles. Unsealed Saltillo displays pastel colors of raw clay in any of the color finishes.
Alongside these color choices, unsealed Saltillo tile is easy to custom stain to a specific color. While this is costly in labor, stain, and sealer materials, it’s a great way to get a precise color of Saltillo tile flooring.
What is the Difference Between Sealed & Unsealed Saltillo Tile?
I don’t have anything against an unsealed tile.
Except for the fact that it creates a plethora of issues. There are no savings of time and money by buying and installing the unsealed tile. Ever.
Please. Just don’t.
Hear me out on a few points.
Unsealed tile is less expensive than presealed tile at the point of purchase. But by the time unsealed tile is properly sealed and installed, the project is considerably more costly than it would have been had presealed flooring been purchased. Here’s why.
- Apply 3-5 coats of penetrating sealer to unsealed tile before installing it. Without this, Saltillo tile flooring stains from anything that touches the tile (lunch breaks that result in greasy hands, sloppy handling while setting the tile with thinset, grout stain, etc.).
- Many tile installers think one coat of sealer is adequate. This isn’t true. Saltillo tile is porous and requires multiple layers of sealer. If a homeowner has a partially sealed (primed) floor, stains happen quickly.
(It pains me to see this photo.)
An old method of installing unsealed terracotta tiles involves soaking the tiles before setting them with thinset. Don’t do this. It leads to efflorescence issues which are difficult and costly to fix.
⇒ Related: Check out these 5 Things Not to do with Saltillo Tile floors.
So, how do you avoid unnecessary problems and cost?
Buy presealed tile. It’s so much better for you AND your tile installer.
- Quality presealed tile has 3-5 coats of sealer penetrated into the clay. In fact, the precise quantity depends on the type of sealer. For example, oil-based sealers are optimal for color-enhancing and fortifying the clay. This is a BIG TIME quality indicator!
- Installers easily install presealed tiles without the added expense or time necessary to apply separate grout release products. Installing properly sealed flooring eliminates this step.
- Once Saltillo tile flooring is installed, apply a final topcoat sealer to protect the grout and for added scratch-resistance, UV protection, and water-resistance. Plus, topcoat sealer removes the scuffs that markup tiles while they are shipped, handled, and grouted.
- Like a glossy or satin finish floor? This last coat of sealer is the cosmetic coating for a desired amount of sheen.
Is there ever a time to purchase Unsealed tile? Yes!
Buy Unsealed Saltillo Tile for projects that require custom colors. Unsealed tile can be stained or glazed for specific projects or to match up to older Saltillo tile floors. This is a go-to technique when new flooring must be modified to match an older, existing Saltillo tile floor.
⇒ Pro Tip: Once unsealed Saltillo tile is stained to perfection, then it must be sealed with a chemically compatible sealer.
⇒ Related: Learn more about whether to buy Sealed vs. Unsealed tile.
What are Rustic Characteristics of Saltillo Tile?
Rustic décor is a timeless trend! Fortunately, Saltillo tile flooring is an ideal flooring choice for rustic style décor spaces.
Handmade, rustic characteristics are THE reason why this Mexican tile is sought out worldwide. No two tiles are the same. They’re durable, beautiful, and affordable.
The most common rustic characteristics include (but are not limited to):
- Variations in size, color, and texture. As you reference the section above about Saltillo tile manufacturing, it’s easy to see why these variations exist.
⇒ Related: Learn more about What to Expect in Saltillo Tile Flooring
- Lime pops exist. These are minimal white and gray deposits of alkali and minerals in the clay. When found at the surface of a tile, the deposits can pop (but not always) leaving behind a chip that blends into the floor. Lime pops are not defects. Instead, they’re rustic characteristics native to terracotta floors.
⇒ Pro Tip: Don’t pick at lime pops if it happens in your floor. It’s best to apply a coat of sealer over the exposed chip, so it blends naturally into the rustic style of the floor. If a specific lime pop chip really bugs you, replace the tile. I don’t recommend trying to “fix them.” Repair methods usually make the popped area more noticeable. My advice? Embrace the occasional lime pop for the rustic characteristic that it is.
- Efflorescence is a crystalline salt & mineral residue that is left behind from excessive water. (Hence, don’t soak unsealed terracotta tiles as part of the installation process. The added moisture activates chances of efflorescence.) It has a powdery, white appearance.
⇒ Pro Tip: How can you avoid efflorescence? It may not be completely avoidable in natural substrates like Saltillo tile, brick, and stone. But you can prevent most of it by installing quality presealed tiles instead of unsealed tiles. Also, mitigate the chances of efflorescence in outdoor or wet areas by applying a waterproofing membrane to the subfloor.
- Also, hairline cracks, bumps, and chips are rustic characteristics found in Saltillo tile flooring. These are not defects. Instead, they are part of the handmade nature of terracotta tile.
In summary, rustic and handmade characteristics are the reasons why Saltillo tiles are known as the “perfectly imperfect tile.”
What is the Most Affordable Way to Buy Saltillo Tile?
Now to the fun stuff. Shopping!
Not only is Saltillo tile flooring durable and beautiful… it’s affordable too!
Plus, you can get it shipped to anywhere in the world. But there are a few things to know about buying Saltillo tile flooring which saves $$$ in the long run.
First, order enough overage. For most standard project spaces, order at least 15% overage to allow for waste, cuts, and borders. If you’re purchasing a decorative shape tile, consider 20% overage because there are more cuts in decorative shapes vs. squares and rectangles.
⇒ Pro Tip: Measure, measure, and measure again. Don’t spend excess dollars due to short-ordering tile. Take an accurate measurement of your space. Then, add overage. Buy that amount.
Next, pick the tile pattern and size of the tile. Consider the size of your room and ceiling height as you shop for designs and sizes. By rule of thumb, buy the largest size that a room can handle. For instance, large format tiles give the illusion of an ample space. Conversely, choose small tiles for small spaces and accent areas.
Equally important is color. Choose a color finish that shoulders the weight of the design style of a room. And, recognize that each color finish (Traditional, Manganese, and Antique) represent a distinct range of color. So, if there are shades of color not suited to a room, buy an excess amount of overage to cull through colors on the job site. Many of our customers buy 20% overage, or more so they can have some control in the color outcome of their floors.
What can you expect with delivery of Saltillo tile? Freight shipping is the best method for Mexican Saltillo flooring. If a pallet of tile is packaged correctly and handled by a professional freight carrier, it arrives in good condition. There may be a few broken or chipped tiles upon arrival. That’s normal and expected with a shipment of clay tile. So, don’t discard them. Use those few tiles as cuts in the installation.
And remember, some waste is allowed as part of the overage that you purchase. It’s unrealistic to expect a freight shipment of Saltillo tile not to have a small amount of waste.
How is Saltillo Tile Installed & Maintained?
Saltillo tile flooring is a dream for any reputable tile installer. Because it’s handmade with variations in size, install it with broad grout lines that allow for a lot of flexibility.
Here are a few tips to safeguard the tile setting process.
- Use appropriate installation materials.
⇒ Prep your subfloor. Crack prevention and waterproofing membrane tremendously reduce ongoing maintenance. Also, these materials mitigate potential installation mistakes.
- High-quality thinset is a must. Thinset must have enough strength and flexibility properties to bond strongly to tile or stone with size and thickness variations. Don’t use cheap thinset. No one wants tiles popping up after-the-fact.
- Buy inexpensive grout. That’s right – save money here. Regular mortar mix is traditional grout for Mexican tile. Some other options for colored grout include sanded grout. Or add a concrete stain to the mortar mix for custom coloring.
- Invest in the best topcoat sealer available. Quality topcoat sealer protects Saltillo tile flooring and grout from scratches and stains. Plus, it makes cleaning easier!
- Clean Saltillo tile flooring with diluted chemicals or steam to preserve the lifespan of topcoat sealer.
What are some Random Facts & Myths?
We’re in the homestretch!
There are myths and random facts about Saltillo tile flooring that you need to know.
- Fact: Saltillo tile goes by many names including Mexican tile, Terracotta tile, Spanish tile, Mexican pavers, Lincoln Tile, Southwest tile… and my personal favorite, Saltilly-O tile.
- Myth: Saltillo tile has painted stripes. Nope, not accurate. While there are stripes on some tiles, these are a result of heat temperature combined with a tile’s placement in the kiln.
⇒ Pro Tip: If you don’t like the stripes, that’s ok. Consider installing them anyway because they blend into the overall look of color variation in the floor. But, if you decide against installing striped tiles, buy an ample amount of overage.
- Myth: Saltillo tile is soft. Also, not accurate, because of geography matters! For example, riverbeds of Saltillo, Coahuila represent the most durable clay in the world. And, the kiln firing process and multiple coats of penetrating sealer fortify an already durable clay. Saltillo tile flooring is very durable terracotta.
- Fact: It’s impossible to have complete consistency of color in this handmade Mexican tile. It’s natural clay, so color variations exist. Always.
⇒ Pro Tip: If you desire a consistently colored Saltillo tile floor, you have two options. 1) Buy enough overage to sort colors. 2) Apply stain to customize unsealed tiles.
- Myth: Saltillo tile is high maintenance. Reduce maintenance of terracotta floors by adequately sealing the floor. High-quality sealers have lifespans up to 10-15 years.
- Myth: Saltillo tile breaks easily. Once again, this isn’t true. The flooring is exceptionally durable. Even more so, with proper installation and maintenance, it outlasts lifetimes.
And here’s why…
- Myth: Paw prints are a sign of good luck. I’m not sure if this is a myth or if it’s true. Either way, random animals (dogs, chickens, cats, pigs) roam the fields where Saltillo tile dries in the sun. Folklore indicates that anyone who has paw print tiles is destined for good luck.
- Fact: Most importantly, Saltillo tile is AFFORDABLE! It’s known to be a low-cost flooring option. And the low cost is not a tradeoff in quality because as you’ve learned… it’s also excellent quality flooring!
In summary, reading this article makes you a know-it-all about Saltillo tile flooring.
I can explain each topic in detail. So, if there’s something else you’d hoped to learn, leave a comment below.
Know someone considering Saltillo tile flooring for their project? Share this article with them!
Which of these points do you think is most interesting? Leave a comment below!
‘Til next time… Make Every Space Count!
About the Author
Hi! I’m Melanie. I’m a skinny white girl who knows more about Mexican tile than almost anyone.
My husband and I own Rustico Tile & Stone. We are the largest manufacturer and distributor for handmade, Saltillo tile. Throughout the years, we’ve made many mistakes along our journey to becoming the leader in Mexican tile and stone. Those mistakes shaped us for any of the success that we reap today.
With our headquarters just outside Austin, Texas, we ship worldwide. Find our products on various tv shows, in celebrity homes and businesses, and on many notable online and social media outlets.