Most people are familiar with terracotta in some shape or form as there are plenty of uses for it around the home. The material is eye-pleasing and has a sense of rustic charm.
This ceramic material has been used since ancient times for the consturction of homes and buildings. Plus, it can be seen in the artwork of many cultures around the world. Mexico and countries in Southern Europe have a history with terracotta that dates back thousands of years.
Terracotta comes in many types, from glazed to unglazes, handmade or machine-made. The characteristics of the tiles will change throughout the different types. Some will be more durable than others.
Understanding Terracotta Tiles
As mentioned previously, terracotta is one of the oldest clay tile designs, and the world means “baked earth” in Italian. The tiles, seen throughout the architecture in Tuscany, are easy to spot with their traditional red coloring.
Terracotta is a very sturdy, waterproof material.
While the appearance of the tiles will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer because the tones are due to the clay used in their construction; for instance, if the clay used has a high iron content, the color of the tiles will be more red.
The hard-baked earthen tiles can be glazed and dyed to give a variation of colors, appearances, and textures. You may see tiles in a range of colors, from the natural earthy red and brown tones to yellow all the way to a vibrant dyed blue.
To create terracotta, manufacturers mold the clay into the preferred tile shape and heat it in a kiln at temperatures reaching 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The natural finish of terracotta and its rustic look makes it a popular choice for roofs, patio floors, and even restaurant decor. It is generally pretty easy to source terracotta from a local manufacturer no matter where you live in the world, and it can be a budget-friendly option.
It comes in both handmade and machine-cut versions. Handmade can be considerably more expensive than machine-cut, but it definitely gives you a more authentic look. However, they can be more difficult to install due to variations from tile to tile.
Understanding Saltillo Tiles
Since roughly 1580, The Tlaxcaltecas artisans in Saltillo (in Coahuila, Mexico) have been creating a type of terracotta tile known as Saltillo tile. The appearance is very similar to the tiles seen in Spanish Mission-style buildings. The color ranges from red, brown, orange, and yellow. The brown and reddish tones tend to be the most popular, and you will often see Saltillo tiles in kitchens or on patios because of their natural non-slip surface.
Since true Saltillo tiles are handmade, each one will be unique. There are slight differences in the shape, width, and height because the raw clay sourced from the local riverbed is hand-shaped or hand-pressed into a wooden frame mold.
The clay is excavated from the river and placed in a mixing pit to let it soften for a day or two. It is then mixed to fully combine and even out the clay. Newspaper is used to give the bottom of the tiles a smooth surface, and the artisans use a wooden trowel to screed it smooth.
The tiles have a truly rustic quality, and it is not uncommon to see bumps, lime pops, color striping, color variations, fingerprints, uneven patterns, and smudges on the tiles. Since the tiles are allowed to dry outside in the sun, you may also come across a tile with puppy prints in it or one with bird feet imprinted. Some consider these tiles lucky!
Once dry, the tiles are placed in a kiln using a honeycomb pattern. A fuel source like crude oil, diesel, or propane allows the artisans to fire the clay. The tiles are cooled and then packed for transport to the distributor. No machines are used at any point of the process — a process that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Are Saltillo Tiles and Terracotta Tiles the Same Thing?
Yes and no. While Saltillo tiles are terracotta tiles, not all terracotta tiles are Saltillo.
To be called Saltillo tiles, they have to be produced in Saltillo, Mexico using the method described above. It is the same as the difference between sparkling wine and champagne — it can only be labeled champagne when it comes from the Champagne area of France!
Terracotta is any natural clay tile that is fired in a kiln. Each will have slightly different characteristics. For instance, the lime pops that are found in Saltillo tiles are not as common in Italian terracotta tiles.
Plus, many French, Spanish, or Italian terracotta tiles are extruded in their manufacturing process, making them more uniform and a little more durable than their handmade counterparts.
Terracotta vs Saltillo
Both terracotta and Saltillo tiles are a good material for flooring projects. They pair really well with specific home styles like Mexican, Southwest USA, and Mediterranean, but they can also be made to fit with other decor types as well. Some people even choose to use it in log cabins!
Whether you choose Saltillo tiles or some other type of terracotta, they look excellent in natural settings or in more rustic designs, and the tiles are popular for enclosed porches because they have an earthy feel to the decor giving a warmer feel than stone or other types of glazed ceramic.
Pro tip: They are not recommended for some outdoor spaces, however. In climates that freeze regularly, the tiles can absorb water and then crack with the temps drop below freezing.