Terracotta – or literally “earth” “fired” is one of the most basic and oldest building materials ever made. Terracotta is essentially clay that has been fired in a kiln until it becomes hard and semi-vitrified and this material is used to make roof tiles, drainage pipes and floor tiles.
As a flooring material, terracotta has had to compete with a massive range of alternatives that are currently available on the market, ranging from ceramics through to travertine but it would be very difficult to find a material that is quite as “living” as this one.
Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Mexico are the main countries of origin for most of the terracotta flooring available today and they supply tiles of numerous colours, shapes, thicknesses and quality. The key to buying the best floor for you is to seek good advice. Despite selling this material, some retailers do not seem to know much about the product and this leads to poor sales or worse, bad advice – leaving a customer with a floor that is not what they expected – hopefully this article will help you make an informed choice next time you are considering an investment in a clay floor.
As already mentioned, terracotta tiles come from countries with a temperate clime – this is no co-incidence because many terracotta manufacturers use the sun as a means of air-drying their tiles prior to firing in a kiln. When first made from wet clay, the tiles have to dry naturally before they are put in the kiln, if they weren’t they would simply shatter as the water within them boiled off and expanded. Once the tiles are dry they can then be fired in the kiln – the time and temperature of which varies upon the type of tile being produced.
Essentially there are two basic types of tile, hand-made and machine-made, both giving quite different finishes to the floor.
Hand-made tiles are typically more rustic in their appearance and they display much more texture in their finish – some may even have paw prints or birds feet marks in them, where they have been walked on whilst drying outdoors. Hand-made tiles are exceptionally good at disguising dirt as their finish is so variegated and they very much lend themselves to installation in a rustic environment such as a barn conversion etc.
Very often, hand made products are made in a more basic way and kiln temperatures are not as controlled as some machine made products. Some kilns for instance, are fired by wood and often a brisk wind will draw the kiln flu, creating a fluctuation in temperature within the kiln, which causes uneven firing. A consequence of this is that tiles can be produced that have dramatic colour variation within themselves and from tile to tile and also salt-pitting – small pockets of mineral salts that erupt from the surface of the tile ranging in size from a pea up to a golf ball in diameter. Small fissures and cracks in the surface of these tiles is also quite common.
Some hand-made tiles are thrown in a mould that rests on sand, the wet clay is trimmed to size and the tile is pushed out of its mould ready for drying and ultimately firing – one of the accidental benefits of this technique is that one side of the tile is sand-textured and the tiles can be laid “upside down” to create a more rustic effect during installation if preferred by the client.
Machine made terracotta is a much less labour intensive process as much of the work blending and cutting the clay is done by machine – this does give a degree of uniformity to these types and the firing process is usually in electric kilns with a close regulation of temperature that produces a much more uniform and blemish-free product. Be aware that even machine made tiles can still have minor flaws such as bowing and minor salt pitting but these really are a characteristic of the material and should be seen as positives rather than negatives.
There are some manufacturers who combine both methods, forming the clay by hand and then firing in electric kilns – these tiles give the best of both worlds offering a rustic tile with a more uniform finish – notably San Genis in Spain.
So how do you choose? Well, firstly you need to take a look at your lifestyle before selecting any type of flooring. If you are the sort of person who wants (or needs) to be scrubbing or mopping floors everyday – then avoid terracotta – you are far better with a product such as ceramic. If you are not – read on…
If you are happy to live with a little dirt, then terracotta might be the right choice. The floor should not look pristine and many clays, particularly hand-made ones actually benefit from dirt and neglect. The type of room that is being tiled will also have an influence on your choice – your décor may not lend itself to the rusticity of some clays but may be better suited to a machine made product.
We’d recommend that your tiles are sealed using the traditional method of boiled linseed oil* followed by coats of traffic wax paste, this really does give your terracotta an authentic finish that will get better with age and a little dirt. There are alternatives but we would always recommend using oil as the primary sealer as it will give the tiles colour and protection – an alternative finish to wax can be any one of a number of proprietary finishes such as HG Cotto Finish – a water-based metallised emulsion that is applied after oil – this will give your tiles a wax-like lustre but they will not “weather” in as the dirt just will not stick to this type of sealer.
(* please note, linseed oil is an oxidising oil and it generates heat as it sets… NEVER put oil soaked rags in a bin or bag as they can spontaneously combust… always wash out or burn oil soiled rags/sponges)
So, if you have come to this point and decided to choose terracotta your next big step is to select your installer. Not all tilers are familiar with working with fired clay and so please check that your tiler is fully conversant in the topic, they should certainly know about its use, which sealers to use and how to care for the floor afterwards – if they cannot – don’t use them – find someone who can!
Looking after your floor… as we have mentioned previously, terracottas are pretty good at hiding or disguising dirt. We always recommend that our customers just sweep or vacuum their floors and if they really must break the mop out in anger, either use plain water or an alkali cleaner such as HG Superfloor – don’t use detergents as they remove your hard earned wax film! Most installers will also offer the customer a rewaxing service (after all they should have the commercial polisher to do this) and the fee is usually quite reasonable – particularly if the floor is well established – a 15 sqm floor would usually take just under 1 hour to rewax and polish.
So that’s it – we hope we’ve given you enough information to be able to make an informed decision about terracotta tiles and whether or not they are the right choice for you. If you do decide to invest in this type of flooring and it is installed correctly you can expect it to be with you for life.