Install Saltillo tile on a wood subfloor

Do-It-Yourself Directions on How to Install Saltillo Tile onto a wood subfloor substrate are below. 

Every day we receive phone calls with questions about how to install saltillo tile.  There are many myths about the complexity to install saltillo tile and how to seal terra cotta floors.   We hope to help clear the confusion with this easy step-by-step guide on prepping your floor and laying this Mexican tile.

The directions below are recommendations for the process to install saltillo tile on a wood subfloor.  Many variations to these steps may exist for your specific saltillo floor and terra cotta tile.  Please consult with your experienced local contractor or installer for more precise advice relevant to your specific floor and tile purchased.  Installing a knock-off machine made saltillo or terra cotta is not the same process as installing an authentic handmade saltillo tile.  Due to the size, thickness, and shape variations, we recommend an “experienced” installer for authentic saltillo.  Rustico Tile and Stone is not responsible for saltillo installations not completed by one of our contracted installers.

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Wood Subfloor guide: If you have some type of wood subfloor, basement or 2nd story floor, you will first need to:

(A) Prep the subfloor.  Some options for prep include: hardi backer, lath sheet and concrete, or DITRA.  At Rustico Tile and Stone, we recommend DITRA over all other materials.  (Schluter-DITRA is a polyethylene uncoupling membrane with a grid structure of square cutback cavities and an anchoring fleece laminated to the underside.  In conjunction with the saltillo tiles installed on top, DITRA forms an uncoupling, waterproofing, and vapor management layer, while providing support/load distribution.  The combination of these four essential functions allows for the successful installation of terracotta tile over a wide range of subfloors including plywood/OSB, concrete, gypsum, heated floors, and more.  

(B) Once the subfloor has been prepped, you are ready to apply thin set to install saltillo tile.  Strong and elastic thinset is best for handmade tiles and stone.  We recommend the Prospec Brands of PermaFlex 500 or PermaFlex 300 Medium Bed thinset which can be purchased and shipped with your saltillo tile from Rustico.  ½” x ½” trowel is recommended for a basic 12×12 size saltillo tile.  Increased thickness of thinset is required for tiles larger than 12×12 in size.  For other sizes, consult with your experienced installer.  On average, a 50 lb bag of PermaFlex 500 or PermaFlex 300 will yield approximately 45 square feet of saltillo tile installed.  PermaFlex 500 is more versatile and has superior flexability and strength as compared to PermaFlex 300.  

(C) Install Saltillo tile (or Terra Cotta tile) (assuming it is presealed.  If it is unsealed, see tips at the bottom of this guide).  With a standard 12×12 size tile, a minimum grout line recommended is ½” (thicker for larger size tiles).   We do not recommend using spacers with authentic handmade saltillo tile to allow for the size/shape variations.  Your installer will need to pay attention to detail to keep the pattern of tile layout consistent.  This is not a complicated process.  The terra cotta tiles can easily and precisely be cut with a wet saw.

(D) Grout saltillo tile floor after thinset dries (usually overnight waiting period).  Recommended grout includes a sanded grout or mortar mix.  This can also be found at a local home improvement store.

(E) Clean saltillo tiles.  You will need to clean your Mexican tile floor very well to remove any grout haze or debris accumulated during the installation process.  Once the floor is thoroughly cleaned, allow it to dry for several days.  Our StoneClean 104 cleaner, water, and a sponge or brush can be used for cleaning the floor.  If you choose to you any other type of chemical cleaner, follow this step by a few mop-washings of 50/50 mixture of acetone and water.  Any residual cleaning chemical must be fully removed prior to applying your top coat of saltillo sealer.

(F) Seal saltillo floor.  Once your installation is complete, cleaned and thoroughly dried, you can now apply the top coat of tile sealer.  We recommend our long-lasting IndustraGloss GREEN or TERRANANO sealers.  Follow manufacturer’s instructions for applying tile sealer.  An ideal top coat sealer will last several years and can also be applied to the terra cotta grout lines.  Allow the terra cotta sealer to fully dry and cure.  Once cured, installation is complete.  Enjoy your Mexican tile floor!

A few tips:

  • If you are installing presealed saltillo tile (most common), we do NOT recommend soaking the clay tiles prior to installation.  Soaking these sealed tiles can create bigger efflorescent issues in the future if water is trapped in the clay for long periods of time.
  • If you are installing unsealed saltillo tiles, you can soak these tiles prior to installation OR apply saltillo tile sealer prior to installing the Mexican tiles.
  • Do NOT dry stack saltillo tile installations.
  • Make certain that top coat sealer to be applied is compatible with any sealer already on presealed tiles after following the process to install saltillo tile.
  • Accommodate for size and thickness variations by attending to detail of thinset and grout thicknesses.  An authentic saltillo tile floor is not a smooth, completely level floor.  The tiles are pillowed as part of their handmade characteristics.  This is completely normal and not considered a defect.  Larger tiles will have more of these levels of variations. Pay attention to detail in the level while following the process to install saltillo tile.


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