The Pros and Cons of Installing Saltillo Tile

NancyHugoCKD/FlickrSaltillo tile is very popular for flooring in Mexico and the southwestern United States. While it can be used in other areas, it also has its limitations. Here is a short guide to the uses and misuses of Saltillo tile.

What is Saltillo tile?

Saltillo tile is a rough-edged terracotta tile that is almost always found in shades of red, yellow and orange. The name refers to the Mexican city of Saltillo where all true Saltillo tile is handmade from the same regional clay. The tiles are then sun-baked and kiln-fired. The process is more eco-friendly than some other tile production, but it makes for a less durable product.

As it is unglazed, very porous, and easily stained, this tile must be carefully installed and sealed. Otherwise it will absorb grout, mortar and other materials. Installing Saltillo tile is generally not a rookie DIY job. Your best bet is to hire a contractor experienced with this type of installation.

Where can I use Saltillo tile?

Saltillo tiles are largely used for flooring in warm climates. They are inexpensive and provide a unique, warm look. They will need to be resealed regularly, particularly in high-traffic areas, and are harder to clean than some other tiles.

Unsealed Saltillo tiles are a nice option around a swimming pool. They absorb water and retain heat, making them a nice place to dry off.

Where can’t I use Saltillo tile?

Saltillo tile is sun-dried, then fired at low temperatures. It is not designed for freezing temperatures. It should not be used outside anywhere with potential frost.

Even indoors in cold climates, Saltillo tile should be used with caution to avoid freezing and cracking.

Saltillo tile is also not ideal for shower walls and other applications that are difficult to keep clean. The tile is porous and harder to clean than typical ceramic tiles. Moreover, the hand-made tiles are uneven and rough-edged, so they require more grout, which is also hard to clean.

What to keep in mind when considering Saltillo tile

Fans of Saltillo tile love the rough-hewn, homemade look. Some even consider it lucky to find foot or paw prints in a tile, which probably happened while the tiles were sun-drying. Keep in mind that it will always look rustic and informal, and could dictate the look of the room. It may clash with more formal or modern settings.

Carpenter Kevin Stevens says: "One very common problem with installing Saltillo tiles is [when] the backs of the tiles are not 'back buttered' during the install. Saltillo tiles are usually a bit concave and without this extra step will have a hollow space that sounds hollow when stepped on or tapped with something. The only way to fix it is to pull the tile and re-install with proper backing."

Finally, Saltillo tiles are up to one inch thick, which must be taken into consideration for thresholds and subfloors, particularly for applications where Saltillo is replacing other tiles of a more standard thickness.

Saltillo tiles are very popular for flooring in warm regions for good reasons. They are inexpensive, beautiful and eco-friendly. However, they are a less attractive option for colder regions and some other applications because they are harder to clean and less durable than some other tile options.

Steve Graham is a Networx writer.  

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