Laying Saltillo (terra cotta) Tiles Outdoors

27 Oct


1. Seal first

2. Use a large grout joint

What I used & prices:

  • About 320 12” x 12” unsealed saltillo tiles from Home Depot (the maker is Ladrillera Mecanizada in Mexico.  I contacted them and the US distr. rep, no way they could beat the HD price of $1.19/tile.
  • 20 Accent tiles, $50ish
  • Sakrete Original Sealant, $20 to $30ish per Gallon at paint shops
  • 6 bags of thinset
  • 1/2 ” notch trowel, tile saw, sponges, cloths
  • 3 bags of natural grey grout with coarse sand (Saltillo Grout), $8 per bag

1.  Yeah, some say, seal before you grout.  I say seal before you lay.  We sealed most tiles  before laying them.    The ones that we forgot to seal were very hard to clean (even before grouting), and not all of the dirt came off.  Laying tiles outdoors is never a completely clean job, so it’s worth the extra time to seal at least one coat, or the extra money to buy pre-sealed tiles.

Although oil-based sealants are said to last longer and give a darker color, I used water based because it was cheaper, doesn’t smell bad, and dries faster.   It’s working like a charm so far.  I tested 4 sealants and ended up choosing the Sakrete original.

The first coat, we sealed with a garden sprayer because the tiles absorb a lot and you can saturate the top of the tile without causing buildups.  Then, using a sponge worked better.  Second coat you won’t need much at all.

ALSO, I never found this anywhere, but you don’t want to seal the sides, nor the back.  If you do, the grout won’t adhere.

The sealers I tested were:

Dupont High Gloss Sealer & Finish
Glaze’NSeal multi-purpose clear sealer
Ole Mexican Tile sealer in/outdoor Saltillo, Terracotta
Sakrete Original

Before (left) and after applying sealant (right).  It darkens the tile, makes it more reflective to the light, and of course, creates a water seal so water does not penetrate the porous surface.

Here are the results:

As you can tell, the differences between the four products were minimal.  They all apply white and dry clear.  Sakrete was least reflective of sun, so we chose that one.

The easiest method of application is a garden sprayer for the first coat.  If you apply too much, remove with a sponge.  Second coat, use a high quality sponge.  Using a brush tends to leave marks.

2.  I told my tile guy who helped me tile (he had the tools and experience) that I wanted wide joints.  Like 1/2” inch or more.  He looked at a few tiles and we went with about 3/8” to 6/8”. Well, after going through a few rows of tiles, we found out there was indeed a lot of variation in size of the tiles, and some of these grout joints are less than perfect.  If I’d start over, I would go with 3/4” joints.

Some other tips and useful things to know:

  • If you poured new concrete like I did, you should wait 28 days for it to cure
  • You can smooth edges of the tiles with sandpaper
  • When setting, first apply mortar to concrete, then back-butter the tile (very thin)
  • The trowel controls how much mortar/thinset is needed.  Rake at an angle of about 60 degrees to comb out the thinnest.  The larger the tile, the larger the notch on the trowel.
  • If the ridges on the thinnest sink flat, the mortar is too thin.  Add dry thinnest and remix
  • If one tile sticks up too much, use less mortar to lower it.  Concave Tiles – whose edges stick up – suck!
  • When you remove a tile you should see about 90% of the surface covered with mortar
  • A few accent tiles make a huge difference!

3 Responses to “Laying Saltillo (terra cotta) Tiles Outdoors”

  1. Chris March 21, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Has anyone found the ‘super’ version of this tile? I did our back patio using these and have to replace some due to a slab shift that split them. Home Depo no longer carries the super version. I have tried the manufacture’s site and they do not list their product line items.


  2. michael goldberg July 17, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

    Well done, thank you. I have a large cornet lot and the grass has been killed. Can I just use plastic & sand as a base to lay satillo tile? No one walks on that part of the yard.

    • isthisgoodorwhat July 18, 2015 at 12:54 am #

      the plastic, sand and tiles will keep weeds from going through for sure, and the sand will help you level the surface, but it sounds a bit temporary. If you just want decoration and not functionality (like wheeling heavy things across) your solution sounds ok (assuming no-one is interested to walk away with your tiles 😉 Another idea would be to use a self-leveling cement to create a thin layer that will at least hold the tiles down. Finally, you can also consider artificial turf. Typically under turf, you have a compacted layer of Class 2 road base or decomposed Granite which lets you nail the turf and if thick enough, will prevent gophers to come through. Good luck!

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