Following is information about Saltillo tile, which we feel should be provided to you so that you will know exactly what you are buying and/or selling. Saltillo tile is one of our specialties at Mexican Tile and Stone Company. We strive for QUALITY material at all times and have always manufactured from only two families who have always produced beautiful tile and are prompt with deliveries. Over the years, we have stressed the importance of quality material to our customers. Saltillo sizes range from 4" to 20" in shapes and sizes.
What is Saltillo Tile?
What Makes Good Saltillo Tile?
Saltillo tile is an unglazed clay floor tile made in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. The tile is made from natural clay deposits from that region which is one of the finest natural clay deposits in the world. Briefly, this is the manufacturing process:
Clay is excavated from the earth, cleaned and sifted.
The clay is mixed with water
The wet clay is formed into tile shapes
The tiles are dried in the sun (if it rains, the process is delayed)
The dried tiles are fired in cave-like structures that become kilns.
The quality of the tile is partly determined by how “clean” the clay was before the tile was made. Unfortunately, because of the great demand in today’s market for Saltillo tile, there is a large amount of Saltillo tile out there, which is made with “unclean” clay. What in the world, you might ask, is “clean clay?” Our suppliers who make good Saltillo tile excavate clay from pure clay deposits in the high banks of the river and then sift it thoroughly in a huge machine before making the tile. Many other suppliers buy their tile from little independent tile makers who dig their clay out of riverbeds and do not sift it…so you can imagine what else might be mixed in with the clay! This is a lower quality Saltillo tile!
Each piece of standard Saltillo tile is made individually by hand with no modern machinery involved. For that reason each piece will have its own character. The tile is primitive. There are irregularities. You will find small chips, cracks, and bumps. These imperfections merely add character and rustic quality to the floor. If you are lucky, you might even find a few animal footprints in your tile!
What Causes Color Variations in Saltillo Tile?
The tiles are stacked in the caves (kilns) on end, slightly overlapping so that they will not fall over. Before firing, the opening to the kiln is sealed with clay to prevent heat from escaping. The fire is started at the bottom of the cave and fuel is added to increase the heat until the proper temperature is reached. As you know, fire will not burn without oxygen, and at sometime during the firing process all of the available oxygen in the atmosphere in the cave is used up. The flame then seeks the next available source of oxygen (which it finds in the form of iron oxide in the clay tile) and burns it, flashing the exposed surfaces of the tile. The light buff color in the tile is the area that was flashed; the peach color in the tile is the area, which is shielded from the flame by other tiles. You may hear many different stories about different types of fuel used in the firing of Saltillo tile. The original source of heat used for firing Saltillo tile was burning rubber tires. Wood is now used to start the process. In the past few years, a variety of fuels have also been used, such as propane, diesel, crude petroleum, etc. The type of fuel used for firing does not directly affect the color of the tile. Heat is heat, much like a gas or electric stove. The color of the tile is controlled somewhat by:
How the tile is stacked in the kiln.
How the flame/heat is controlled inside the kiln.
Whether or not a color additive is added to the clay during the manufacturing process (see the section on Moreno Saltillo tile.)
Sometimes a green hue is apparent from the firing process.
Types of Saltillo Tile
Hand-made, “Regular” Saltillo Tile: This is the original Saltillo tile. Mexican Tile and Stone Company imports the best hand-made Saltillo tile on today’s market (as described on page 1.) You may hear from other tile companies that, “Saltillo tile is no good.” This is because so many companies have recently imported bad tile without knowing the good from the bad due to the great demand in this market. There is a lot of inferior quality hand-made Saltillo tile out there, so be very careful. The quality of hand-made Saltillo tile is only as good as the clay it’s made with, and Mexican Tile and Stone Company’s tile is ALL made with clean clay! Hand-made Saltillo tile is made in two different ways as described below:
The “De Agua” Method: This is the original method of making hand-made Saltillo tile. “De Agua” in English means “by water.” In this method of making the tile, the natural clay is mixed with water to a very wet, almost pourable consistency. Wooden frames are placed on the ground and the very wet clay is patted into them by hand. The frame is then lifted up and a wet tile remains on the ground. After the tile dries in the sun, it is picked up and placed in the cave/kiln for firing. When this method is used, part of the ground sticks to the cracks of the tiles and the tiles should be thoroughly brushed before installation to prevent bond failure.
Also, when this method is used, the outside edges of the tiles tend to turn up (because of the action of lifting up the frame,) making them easier to tip over. In order to eliminate the loose clay on the ground from clinging to the back of the tiles, newspaper sometimes is placed on the ground under the wet tiles. This paper burns off when the tiles are fired. This type of “de agua” tile is usually called “paper back” Saltillo tile. Paper back saltillo has a smooth, non-dusty, back surface. Mexican Tile and Stone Company’s supplier uses a tool which we call a “cookie cutter” to trim the edges of the “de agua” tile, to reduce the chances of the edges turning up. This tool is utilized while the new tiles are wet and because of the shape of the cutting edge, the edges are forced to slightly turn down. After the edges are trimmed, the tops of the tiles are smoothed with wet hands to leave them nicely finished. While drying on the ground, before firing, the tiles are constantly watched and edges that might warp upward are tamped down with a heavy rubber instrument.
The “De Golpe” Method: To eliminate the problems of dirt clinging to the backs of the tiles and edges turning up, this method of making hand-made Saltillo was developed. This method also makes the tile slightly denser. When the Saltillo clay is mixed with water, less water is used than in the “de agua” method. The term “de golpe” in English means “by pounding.” The clay and water mixture is moldable rather than pourable. The wooden frame has a wooden bottom in it, so it is more of a mold than a frame. The clay is pounded by hand into the mold. The excessive clay in the mold is scraped off with a board. This scraped side becomes the bottom of the tile. While the tile is still in the mold, a little loose clay is sprinkled on the scraped side to prevent the tile from sticking to the ground while it dries. (This type of tile does not need to be brushed before installation, as very little loose clay will cling to the bottom.) The mold is turned upside down and the tile drops to the ground where it dries in the sun before firing. As in the “de agua” method, the tops of the tiles are smoothed by hand with water, the edges are trimmed with the “cookie cutter,” and the tiles are watched carefully and their edges tamped down before they are fired.
"Pueblo” Saltillo Tile: This tile is pressed into a metal mold. “Pueblo” Saltillo tile is made by filling the mold with wet clay and pressing it with a hand press. (The same mixture is used in the manufacturing of the “de golpe” hand-made tile) The molds used in the manufacturing of this type of Saltillo tiles cause the tiles to have rounded edges, rather than the square edges of the hand-made Saltillo tile. This type of tile is also known in the market as “Primo”, “Super”, “Premium”, “rounded edge”, and a variety of other names. Many people have reported being told that this type of tile is superior in quality to the hand-made tile. This is not true at Mexican Tile and Stone Company, where all of the Saltillo tile is good. Once again, remember that Saltillo tile of any shape, size, or edge detail is only as good as the clay that it was made from; and, although it may be true that some distributors’ tile varies in quality between the hand-made tiles and the pressed rounded edge tiles, that is not the case at Mexican Tile and Stone Company.
You will find fewer chips on the edges of the “Pueblo” Saltillo tile, so if you are looking for a Saltillo tile which appears less rustic, consider the Pueblo tile. Because of the rounded edges, the grout joints will always be wider at the surface of the tile than the grout joints of the square edged tile. If the square tile is installed with a ½ inch joint between each tile on the bottom of the tile, the width of the grout joint at the top of the tile will also be a ½ inch, because the edges are straight up and down. With the rounded edge, a tile installed a ½ inch apart at the bottom of the joint may end up with ¾ to 1-inch grout at the surface of the tile.
“Moreno” Saltillo Tile: The word “Moreno”, means "Tanned or Dark". To make Saltillo tile more of a taupe or brown color, a powder is added to the clay when it is mixed with water before the tile is made. This is a natural element; manganese dioxide, not an artificial colorant, which permanently alters the color of the tiles. “Moreno” tile can either be hand-made Regular Saltillo, or Pueblo Saltillo, and is slightly more expensive because of the cost of the manganese dioxide and the additional labor. The range of color is light to dark brown. Sometimes you may see some black swirls from the added powder.
“Old Colonial” Saltillo Tile: This tile comes in Standard Terracotta and in Moreno colors. It has a gently brushed finish, giving it an antique, classic European appearance. The rustic elegance is versatile for all interiors and also provides a nice slip resistant surface for exterior applications. Old colonial Saltillo is a perfect compromise between smooth Saltillo and the upside-down rough Saltillo.
Mexican Tile and Stone Company’s Answers To Commonly Asked Questions Regarding Saltillo Tile…A Low Maintenance Floor!
…Does it require a lot of maintenance? Absolutely not! Although the tile requires sealing as part of the installation, if the sealing is done properly the first time and with the correct products, the process should only require routine maintenance. From time to time, the topcoat of sealer will wear and require replenishing, but that only occurs in traffic areas. Reapplications will dry in 60 minutes. The topcoat should only wear off the floor, and as sealer goes into the tile and as the floor ages, the less top coating it will require. Quality Saltillo tile when properly sealed is the most “kick-around” floor in the world…it acts just like a floor should. Ask about our sealer- it works and there are many that don’t. Remember, you don’t maintain your tile; you maintain your sealer and topcoat.
…What is it? Saltillo tile is a hand-made, rustic, unglazed floor tile that is made in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. It is not made in Nogales, Tijuana, Guadalajara, Tecate, Mexicali, Mexico City, or in any other city in Mexico. It is not made anywhere in Europe either. It has been in great demand for over 50 years in the Arizona market and the demand grows! Saltillo Tile never goes out of style!
…Is it Soft? No. Saltillo clay is one of the finest natural clays in the world. It is fired to a very high temperature, which results in a very hard, durable tile. In comparison to other natural hand-made clay tiles from Mexico, it is much harder. You can drive your car on it when properly installed.
…Does it break? Saltillo tile is usually slightly higher in the center than around the edges. During installation, care should be taken to make sure that no space is left between the tile and the sub-floor. When no space remains, the tile will not break. When a concrete slab cracks, cracks will extend up through any tile, including granite! Dropping a heavy object on the floor might chip Saltillo tile (or any other tile.) Because of the rustic nature of Saltillo tile, a little sealer over the chip will blend that area successfully with the rest of the floor. (You can’t repair a chip on a glazed tile!)
…Does it have to be sealed? Yes, and only indoors should get a shine, and as mentioned above, periodically maintained. Indoors, the tile should be sealed for ease of cleaning. Sealing exterior installations is recommended for the following reasons:
The tile is like a brick and deterioration will not be an issue. However, preservation should be considered.
Cleaning up an occasional spill is easy, and exterior sealers do help ease maintenance, even if the exterior installation is under a cover.
Properly Sealed exterior Saltillo tile is not slippery.
Unsealed Saltillo tile is porous and will absorb water. Its character will also change over time.
The color of sealed Saltillo tile blends wonderfully with the color of earthtones and landscape.
Sealing will prolong character change, but is not full proof.
…What about pre-sealed vs pre-finished Saltillo tile? Because of some contractor’s continuous quest to avoid a drying time between grouting the tile and sealing and finishing the tile,Mexican Tile & Stone sells Saltillo tile that has been pre-sealed. The theory behind this is that grouting will be easier and drying time reduced. Presealed tile is not 100% finished. There is a lot of moisture involved in installing and grouting a Saltillo tile floor:
Cutting the tile requires a wet-saw.
Thinset mortar used to install the tile is mixed with water.
Grout is mixed with water.
Much of this water is absorbed into the porous sides and bottoms of the tile and must be allowed to dry through the surface of the tile. When moisture is trapped in the tile, it creates problems such as surface discoloration. Also, one of the purposes of sealing a floor is to seal the grout, which does not happen when the tile has been pre-finished. Pre-finished Saltillo tile is a gamble at best and Mexican Tile and Stone Company recommends installing pre-sealed tile. Once the proper cure has occurred, Mexican Tile and Stone Company recommends the final finish be applied 1 week after grouting the presealed installed tile. The difference is the pre-sealed tile does not have the finish product applied to it. The tile pre-sealed does allow a homeowner or contractor to install and grout with ease and still allows the tile to cure more openly than a pre-finished tile. Pre-sealed tiles are less likely to trap moisture as sealers breathe better than finishes. At Mexican Tile and Stone Company, we ship the final finish product with our pre-sealed tile to be applied one week after grouting. This still allows your floor to cure and the final finish will complete your installation and seal your grout at the same time. Pre-sealed tile is a great option when a time crunch is planned or one is not a sealing pro.
…What are lime pops? Even though Saltillo tile is one of the most serviceable and widely accepted floor coverings in the southwest, it can be problematic if it was made with unclean clay! Lime pops are white or gray deposits which pop through the surface of the tile, seemingly from nowhere. Mexican Tile and Stone Company’s suppliers excavate their clay from an area, which is free of river bottom junk, however, a natural occurrence in clay is alkali. To lessen the occurrence of lime pops, our suppliers also sift their clay thoroughly so no large particles of alkali remain. The alkali in clay when fired becomes, “quicklime.” Quicklime (remember your high school chemistry?) is an unstable molecule. In order to stabilize itself, it must join a compatible molecule and change its form. The most common molecule with which this quicklime reacts is found in atmospheric moisture (humidity, not water.) The quicklime particles grow when exposed to humidity. Little tiny pinhead sized lime pops are not a problem because they mostly will disappear when the floor is sealed, but large particles in unsifted, unclean clay can really be ugly. A lesser quality Saltillo floor can be very unsightly from excessive lime pops. Even in the very best Saltillo tile, lime pops might occur. There are ways to fix them, though, just ask us! There is a section in the Ceramic Tile and Stone Association’s “Specification Guide,” (used by the Arizona Registrar of Contractors’ for ceramic tile) which outlines Saltillo tile and the allowable tolerances for lime pops. Tolerance guidelines also vary by state. Mexican Tile and Stone Company uses Arizona guidelines. If you feel that you have a complaint about the quality of your Saltillo tile, this will help you if your supplier won’t. Note: The use of Muriatic Acid on a Saltillo floor will cause lime pops to be much worse…never use Muriatic Acid or vinegar on a tile floor of any kind! Use only cleaners recommended by your tile supplier.
We hope you enjoy your Saltillo tile floor! Please call us, or stop by, if you have any questions!
To ask a question, see the Header for "Ask Saltillo Joe"
Available in Terracotta, Manganese, and Old Colonial