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Terra-cotta ... the great Western paving.

For indoors and outdoors, handmade or machine-made, genuine or look-alikes. . . here's how to choose tiles

RESEMBLING CRISP cookies fresh from a giant baking sheet, this array of earth-toned tiles illustrates the variety of terra-cotta and mock terra-cotta flooring choices now available.

The informal appearance of terra-cotta's warm natural tones is especially suitable for the West's casual, outdoor-oriented lifestyle. One expert advises, "If you're looking for something perfect, don't consider it. But over the long haul it can be easier to live with than colored tiles."

A diversity of shapes--typically a foot square or less in size--including the pointed picket and hexagon (below), makes these tiles adaptable to any size room or patio.


Thinking of terra-cotta floor tiles as gingersnaps-for-the-ages isn't as farfetched as you might think: terra-cotta means "baked earth" in Italian. More precisely, terra-cotta is fired clay.

Terra-cotta has been used underfoot for thousands of years, especially in countries around the Mediterranean. In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar walked over terra-cotta whenever he crossed the herring-bone-patterned tiles of the Sacra Via. France and Spain, as well as Italy, have long tile-making traditions.

In the American West, terra-cotta flooring enjoyed a renaissance during the 1920s as part of the vogue for Mediterranean-inspired architecture. California architects like George Washington Smith in Santa Barbara and Wallace Neff in Pasadena made extensive use of terra-cotta in many of their houses.


Visually, the differences between terra-cotta types are subtle. Natural colors range from chocolate through ocher to brick and are the result of the particular clay's chemical composition and the way the clay is fired. Traditional terra-cotta color is orange-red (iron in the clay burns red when oxidized). Some tiles are "flashed," that is, exposed to varying temperatures, to create a mottled look.

Different terra-cottas also have different physical properties, again resulting from the clay and method of manufacture. Tile fired at lower temperatures is more porous (less dense) and softer than tile fired at higher temperatures, which create a more vitreous (glasslike) and durable product. Porous tiles absorb moisture more readily than dense ones, and consequently stain more easily.


These tiles are made by pouring the clay into wooden or metal molds, removing the molds, drying or curing the tiles, and then firing them. (The shaping of the tiles is sometimes, in fact, done by machine.)

Most hand-molded floor tiles are referred to as pavers, and are soft and porous. They usually have a rustic, grainy, handcrafted look. Surface texture ranges from smooth to rough. Perhaps the best-known hand-molded pavers are Saltillo tiles (named for the city in Mexico where they are made). So-called super Saltillos have rounded edges. Dense, hand-molded unglazed pavers are also made in the United States, Europe, and Peru.

When laying these tiles, you need a wider grout to compensate for uneven edges.

In warm, dry climates, some experts advise allowing time for calcium and lime to efforesce to the surface of newly set tiles (it can take a month) before sealing them. Or, use a breathing sealer, which allows this process to continue without adverse effects. (A nonbreathing sealer can trap efflorescence, creating unsightly areas on tile.) In cool, wet climates, using pavers outdoors is not advisable: mildew and moss will become problems.


Also called quarry tiles, these are manufactured by extrusion--forcing the clay through a die (like toothpaste through a tube). Before curing and firing, the clay sometimes goes through a vacuum chamber to draw out any air bubbles.

It can be difficult to tell some machine-made tiles from hand-molded ones. The tip-off is a precisely scored back (a result of the extrusion process). Also, machine-made tiles are generally harder, denser, and more durable.

Europe, Mexico, and the United States are the main sources.


Extruded, glazed tiles are smoother, and usually shinier, than unglazed ones. Glaze is a thin, glassy coating bonded to the clay at a very high temperature in the kiln, producing a hard finish. Surface textures range from high-gloss to mat and pebbly. Even tiles with a rough texture are prone to slickness when wet, so experts advise against using glazed tiles outdoors.

Glazing makes tiles more stain-resistant, and there is no need to seal them. Europe, Mexico, and the United States are primary sources.


Some concrete tiles mimic terra-cotta in texture and color. These tiles, manufactured in the United States, are extensively used in high-traffic areas like Disneyland because they are extremely strong and durable. They are less porous than Mexican terra-cotta but still need to be sealed when used indoors.


Think about whether the tile you like is actually best suited to the job you want it to do. Softer terra-cottas can fracture and crumble at below-freezing temperatures.

When considering machine-made and concrete tiles, ask about strength--usually calibrated in pounds-force--and absorption rate, a calculation of how much moisture tile absorbs. High breaking strength and low absorption rates offer the best durability.

Generally, you will find wider variations in the tones of hand-molded Mexican tiles because fewer additives (silica, iron, and other minerals) are used, and because the tiles are cured in the sun and then hand-stacked in the kiln.

To find outlets for terra-cotta floor tile, look in the yellow pages under Tile--Ceramic, Dealers.


If you are installing tile yourself, remember that careful preparation of the base over which the tile will be placed is critical. It must be rigid, solid, flat, clean, and dry. Otherwise, grout and tile are liable to crack.

For step-by-step help, consult Tile Remodeling Handbook (Sunset Publishing Corporation, Menlo Park, Calif., 1990; $8.95).


All unglazed tiles and cement-based grouts need sealing. Some unglazed terra-cottas are sealed at the factory; unsealed unglazed tiles should be sealed with a penetrating sealer (which allows the tile to breathe) after installation. Sealers may darken the tile's surface or give it a shiny appearance.

Ask your tile dealer for a recommendation on the best sealer for your situation.

After sealing, unglazed tile floors may be waxed and buffed for additional protection and a glossy look. Routine cleaning involves washing with warm water and a mild detergent. Avoid bleach products; they can draw the color out of colored grouts. All unglazed tiles need to be resealed periodically.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes tips on reconditioning Mexican tiles
Author:Gregory, Daniel P.
Date:May 1, 1992
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