The broad category of clay ceramic tiles contains several subcategories, and one of the oldest is terracotta. Terracotta translates from Italian as "baked earth," and as a category of ceramic tile, it refers to tiles created from a particularly porous and easily shaped clay with a high iron content that gives the tiles their characteristic reddish/brown color. Terracotta is fired at a relatively low temperature (600 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit), and its surface remains quite porous unless it is glazed. Terracotta tile is readily available and less expensive than many other forms of ceramic. Its popularity stems largely from its attractive natural colors, which are the very epitome of earth-tones.
When considering terracotta floor tiles, you will find a number of different options.
Low-Density and High-Density Tiles
Terracotta tiles are sometimes categorized as high-density or low-density materials, though it is the "high density" label that is more often touted by manufacturers. High-density terracotta will be more resistant to cracking and is a better choice for heavy-use areas. Low-density terracotta is usually a bargain material that may not hold up well under heavy use. Low-density terracotta also is more porous, so it is not a good choice for wet areas or areas prone to stains, such as bathrooms and kitchens.
Terracotta tile is a natural material with color variations determined by the location where the clay is obtained. Typically, terracotta tiles range from yellow to dark brown, with a wide range of reddish hues between the extremes. Saltillo terracotta is a very popular form, made from clay found in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. Saltillo tiles have a unique and identifiable blend of yellow and reddish tones.
Natural, Burnished, or Sealed Tiles
In their natural state, terracotta tiles are a lovely mix of red and earthen hues, which wash in swooping clouds of color, creating unique yet subdued images across the surface of every tile fired. But it is this attribute that makes terracotta very porous in its natural, unglazed state. That means that water and liquids can seep easily down into its core, causing mold or stains to set in. For this reason, natural terracotta is usually periodically treated with a sealant to protect it against those hazards.
Another process, known as surface burnishing, can also reduce the absorbency of natural terracotta. Burnishing is done during the manufacturing process and consists of rubbing or polishing the surface with fine abrasives to create a denser, smoother finish.
Glazed vs. Unglazed
As with any ceramic tile, terracotta can be glazed—a process by which a glass-like surface finish is bonded to the clay tile during a second firing process. This is how standard ceramic tiles obtain their color, through dyes that are blended with the glazing material. The process also creates a waterproof surface to the tile, making them impervious to stains. But when glazing is applied to terracotta, it also hides the beauty of the earthen colors of the tile. Consumers are left to weight the trade-offs when considering glazed vs. unglazed terracotta tiles.
It is also possible to buy hand-glazed or hand-painted terracotta tiles to provide some balance of appearance and function. Hand-glazed or hand-painted terracotta allows some of the natural beauty of the tile to show through, while also improving its stain- and water-resistance.
Machine-Cut vs. Handmade Terracotta Tiles
When buying terracotta floor tiles, you can choose between machine-cut or handmade products.
- Machine-cut tiles are produced by a factor-based process that fires, cuts, and offloads terracotta tiles into precise, computer-guided geometric forms. These tiles still retain the natural beauty of the iron-laced clay colors, but they are more consistent in shape and dimension, making it easier to install them. This also produces a more consistent look in the final installation.
- Handmade terracotta is an art form that is indigenous to several particular regions, including Mexico and much of southern Europe. This process is an imprecise method that produces pieces with slight irregularities that enhance the earthen appeal of the material. The drawback to handmade terracotta tile flooring is that it can be quite expensive, since handcraftsmanship takes far longer than machine productions. The results can also be a little erratic, and size discrepancies of the tiles can sometimes make installation difficult.
Uses for Terracotta Tile Flooring
Terracotta has a rustic old-world charm when it is used as a flooring material. The atmosphere is both rugged and subdued. It is also a good material when certain regional home styles are desired—terracotta is perfect match for Mexican, Mediterranean, or Southwest decors.
This material is a great choice for any rustic or natural settings, as well as log cabin style decors. It is popular in living rooms and for enclosed porches. Warmer than stone or glazed ceramic, terracotta is also perfect for a hearth-and-home or earth-tone decor.
Terracotta tiles can be used in some limited outdoor applications, but only in climates that do not get regular freezing temperatures. In colder climates, water absorbed into the terracotta can freeze and crack the tiles.