As part of our home refurbishment, Lou and I chose Terracotta tiles for our living room floor. This proved such a success with us that we went on to lay them in the hallway and are now doing the kitchen. Part of the attraction of Terracotta is the quirkiness of the tiles, with no two being quite alike in colour, porosity or thickness. As a result, we’ve learnt a lot as we’ve gone along and I felt it was worth sharing.
Which tiles do you want
The first choice is handmade or machine made tiles. Machine made ones tend to be very regular in shape and porosity. When sealed and polished, these will look very much like good quality ceramic tiles, but with the feel and warmth that only terracotta offers. If you want a very smooth, clean finish, these are the tiles for you.
Handmade tiles are quite different. They are irregular in thickness and size which makes them harder to lay nicely. They also vary considerably more in terms of colour and finish, some being so rough that they are condemned to the parts of the room that don’t show. Others are chipped and only suitable for the edges where the damaged part can be cut off. The worst, (of which there will be a few) are unusable. Despite these flaws, they are my preferred choice simply because of their quirkiness. All my experiences relate to handmade tiles.
There is a choice of traditional sealant (boiled linseed oil) or a modern acrylic sealer. The modern one is easier to apply and more resistant to stains, but it lacks the traditional feel of linseed oil. As I was working on an old cottage, the choice was always going to be the oil.
The first mistake I made was trying to use linseed oil straight from the can. I found this to be far too thick for the tiles to properly absorb and after some practice, worked out that a 50/50 mix with White Spirit worked best. Thinning the oil also makes it easier to wipe the residue from the surface when the tile can absorb no more. The really porous ones might need a coat of neat linseed oil or they’ll absorb it until it runs out the bottom. The rate at which they gobble oil is a good indicator. I sealed mine (in the back garden) before laying them and then gave them another going over prior to grouting. The golden rule is, you can’t seal them too much. Don’t bother buying expensive lint-free cloths to wipe off excess oil, the roughness of the tile surface at this stage just rips them up. I found an old towel to be the best cloth for the job.
Another mistake (a big one) is to leave linseed oil on the surface of the tile for too long. It’s a devil to remove and the only thing that seems to work is genuine turpentine and lots of elbow grease. (It has to be genuine turpentine, the substitute stuff is a waste of time.) I suggest not leaving oil on the surface of the tile for more than an hour.
Laying the tiles
Before laying them, try and categorize them. Separate the good tiles that you want to be most visible from those that you’ll cut or hide around the edges. Next look through the good ones and find the thickest. The thick ones should be laid first as they’ll gauge how much the others have to be packed with adhesive to achieve a level floor. If you don’t do this, you’ll be tripping over the thick ones!
I’ve tried various adhesives and paying the extra for natural stone adhesive is money well spent. My choice is Dunlop Large Format and Natural Stone tile adhesive. Once you actually get started and slap adhesive on the floor, the clock is ticking: This stuff sets quite quickly and you need to be well organised in order to get the tiles on the floor before it goes hard in the bucket, or worse, on the floor. Getting it up again isn’t fun. I’d suggest laying out a couple of rows (depending on the size of room) on a dry floor and cutting the edge tiles where required. Lift them off, apply the adhesive and put them down again. Take a breather and repeat until finished. Try not to tile yourself into a door-free corner!
Two options: Do it like a normal ceramic floor and spread grout all over it, pushing it into the cracks as you go, then wipe it all off afterwards. In my experience this is a major mistake. Even after sealing, terracotta tiles have a porous surface and grout gets into it causing bad grout haze. Getting rid of this is time consuming and expensive.
The other option is to grout as wall tiles would normally be done. Just fill the cracks with grout getting the minimal amount possible on the tile surface and wiping it off immediately. This is far more time consuming than option one, but worth the effort.
This is the fun part! Putting wax on is really easy, just spread it around and work it in with a cloth. At least for the first coat, I’d stick with low-lint J-Cloths; lint-free cloths are expensive and not really necessary. If I learnt anything from my experiences, it’s to get a floor polisher to buff the tiles afterwards. Doing this bit by hand doesn’t give anything like the finish the polisher does and the tiles seem to feel rough and look dull. Okay, it’ll cost a fair bit to hire the polisher and it will probably eat a pad or two until the polish bites and smooths the surface, but if it’s worth buying the tiles, it’s worth the polisher.
I’ll add a section on cleaning the tiles when I’ve had more time to build experience. At the moment a vacuum over every couple of days keeps ours looking good, despite having two black dogs asleep on them for much of the time.