I'm doing this post and including lots of tags along with it, so if someone searches the internet for terracotta tips, they may trip upon it. Misery loves company, so if you want to open a dialogue about your own tile and exchange ideas, please leave a comment.
I have a foyer that measures about 190 square feet. When we moved in four years ago, the existing ceramic tiles were cracking. Then, a couple months back, my husband stepped on a tile that transitioned to carpet and it crushed. There was actually a hollow space below the tile. I'm surprised this took so long to happen. So . . . no procrastinating at this point because someone could get hurt on these shards of broken tile.
I found a spread in Country Living magazine that featured an antique dealer's home in northern California. Her name is Sarah Anderson and I love everything about her style and home decor. This house had painted terracotta tiles in several rooms and I just loved it. I found a specialty store in Kansas City that carried the tile and it arrived six weeks later. This is where the difficulties began.
I am an artist and I love old things. I love imperfect things. That is why this tile appealed to me. Even in the store, I could see the imperfections and personality in this tile. However, it is very difficult to work with. Terracotta tile is about .75" thick. I got antique white 12 x 12's with black 4 x 4's to inset like diamonds into all corners of the white. This means every white tile had to have the corners clipped to accommodate the black tiles. The black tiles were often less than .75", requiring more thinset underneath to make them more (not perfectly) even with the white. These tiles are hand cut and there are many variations in size. Do not bother with spacers for this tile; there is no way to use them. Also, not all of the tiles are perfectly flat. They are dried in the sun and a couple in the lot even had little cat paw prints in them (which I like).
I made the mistake of hiring a tile guy who had done several jobs before, but was by no means an expert, let alone a terracotta expert, and this lead to many headaches. The variations in this tile really bothered him. He tried to use spacers and it just lead to frustration. Fast forward four weeks later and my floor still isn't finished. I have a tile expert coming in a couple of weeks to finish the job. I've already had a tile pop out of the thinset and you can see where only a small strip of the tile was ever adhered to the thinset. So here's my first piece of advice: hire a very experienced tile expert, preferably someone who has worked with terracotta.
Another headache that consumed many hours in research and dead ends was what to seal it with when it's grouted and finished. There is lots of information out there about what to do with terracotta tile, but not PAINTED terracotta. It was like this tile was from outer space; no one had ever heard of it. The tile shop where I purchased it was no help. I asked them to ask the manufacturer and the answer I got was that the tile was already sealed for stain and water proofing. This didn't tell me what I needed to seal it with once it was laid. Not getting an answer from the place where I bought it was maddening. Finally, I was able to contact the woman in the Country Living magazine who owned the home with the tile that inspired me to duplicate it, and she was kind enough to share with me that it was sealed with hard wax. I found a hull wax through Lustersheen and tested it out. I think the results will be amazing because the natural waxes produce a warm luster. This is different than a synthetic poly product that would sit on the surface and produce a sort of garish bright shine. That is, if you could even get it to cure. I tried a few on test tiles and could scrape it off with my fingernail. In fact, I spent about $300 on sealer that I can't use.
I'm including a few pics of the job so far. We'll use dark gray sanded grout to finish it. When it's finished, it will have a very European look - uneven grout lines, uneven surface, lots of imperfections and variations in the tile itself - all lending to a very old world feel. Although I'm excited about this, the ongoing journey to get there has been unpleasant. This tile is expensive and the thought that you have flushed thousands down the toilet makes you a little sick to your stomach. But I remain hopeful we'll end up with a beautiful, functional floor. I'll post pics in a few weeks when it's finished.
Like I said in the beginning, I'm writing this post in case anyone else out there is working with this tile, or considering it, so I can help with what I've learned so far. If I could do it over again, as of right now, I would not have chosen this tile. We'll see if that's still how I feel when it's finished!