Saltillo Tile in Southwest-Style Homes: Design Tips and Considerations
Saltillo tile is probably the most common type of flooring you’ll encounter in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is a distinctive terra cotta flooring that is often associated with Southwest-style homes here in the United States.
This lovely Santa Fe home uses a grid of square Saltillo tiles throughout all the public rooms, orienting them in line with the front door, which then creates a diamond pattern throughout the other rooms as the walls orient towards the South. Image: Laurie Allegretti Photography
Most of the information online about Saltillo tile seems to originate from businesses trying to sell you tile. And there are countless videos of varying quality on YouTube about how to clean, strip, seal, install, and repair Saltillo tile—so that is not my focus with this blog post (although I do have thoughts about the challenges of trying to DIY Saltillo tile tasks, which I’ll get to later).
Instead, I want to provide you some tips about how best to decorate and/or remodel a Southwest-style home that has Saltillo tile. These are my insights from years of staging homes to sell, and years of helping people remodel their Santa Fe homes. But first, just a little background about this type of tile…
What is Saltillo Tile?
Saltillo tile (which is sometimes referred to as Mexican tile) gets its name from the city of Saltillo, which is the capital of the state of Coahuila in the northeastern part of Mexico. While plenty of flooring products attempt to mimic the appearance of Saltillo tile, true Saltillo tile only comes from the area around Saltillo (in the same way that true Dijon mustard must originate from Dijon). It has been used throughout Mexico for centuries and, for the vast majority of that time, has been made by hand using a mixture of clay and water that is then shaped in molds and left to dry in the sun before receiving a light kiln-firing.
This process naturally has many variables, from the mineral composition of the clay to the things that might make impressions in the tiles as they air dry (think dog paws). All these elements are what give the tile its unique appearance, with variations in color, thickness, and texture resulting in a flooring with real handmade character.
While some modern manufacturers have opted to employ machinery to speed up the process, many homeowners still prefer, and will pay a premium, for Saltillo tile that is produced traditionally.
Even at a premium price point, Saltillo tile is still considered a rather inexpensive flooring material, with the installation costs likely to be considerably higher than the tiles themselves. This may explain why generations of Santa Fe homeowners have opted to install Saltillo tiles on their own, with wildly varying degrees of success.
Saltillo Tile Basics - Colors, Shapes, & Textures
Being terra cotta, Saltillo tiles all fall within the warm color range, with everything from light yellow to deep rich brown being possible. Most of the floors I see fall in the red-brown range, which imparts a lovely tone to the room. Some tiles have a mottled appearance, with darker spots or streaks, while others have a more uniform color.
A section of Saltillo tile from a Santa Fe home showing the characteristic variations of warm color, organic tile edges, random chips and cracks, and slightly irregular surface heights. The type of sealer and top coat applied to such floors can also impact their color and durability. Image: Debbie DeMarais HOME STAGING + DESIGN
Because Saltillo is an earthenware tile it is quite porous, so it must be sealed properly to both preserve its color and protect it from staining. Naturally, the type of sealer used can also impact the final color of the tiles, as well as their relative sheen and the ease with which they can be cleaned.
As a general rule it is more cost-effective to buy pre-sealed Saltillo tiles as it can save considerably on installation costs. However, if a very specific color or tone is required for the tile, then buying unglazed tile will allow for customized staining and sealing to achieve the desired effect (albeit at considerably higher labor costs).
While the most common shapes of Saltillo tile I see in Santa Fe are squares and rectangles, the truth is that there are many, many, more options. There are octagons, hexagons, stars, and even more ornate Arabesque shapes of varying sizes:
From simple to ornate, Saltillo tile shapes can often be combined to produce distinctive patterns that can dramatically impact the character of a home. Image: JTB Imaginative LLC
The variety of flooring patterns that are possible with these different shapes is amazing! And while a standard grid might be the most widely-used pattern in Santa Fe, don’t let that limit your imagination. A home’s mood can be greatly impacted by a flooring pattern. Consider for a moment the difference between the angular nature of a repeating picket pattern vs the two-tile Riviera combination (which beautifully conjures up sunny haciendas of Southern Spain):
The orderly picket pattern (top) has a more contemporary expression, with the direction of the arrow points proving useful for suggesting movement and drawing the eye based on their orientation. As with fashion, if you have a narrow space that needs to feel wider, placing the tiles on the horizontal will create a feeling of expanded space. A great trick for making hallways feel larger! The intricate-looking Riviera pattern (bottom) evokes the warmth of grand Spanish-style homes that were inspired by the sublime beauty of Moorish patterns. Images: JTB Imaginative LLC
Or consider that there are opportunities to create a more complex floor pattern with combinations of simple shapes like in the octagon and square pattern below. I could even imagine switching the squares from Saltillo to a decorative Talavera tile instead if someone wanted bolder color added to their floor design.
Image: JTB Imaginative LLC
Now let’s talk about the texture of Saltillo tile, which contributes greatly to its rustic feel and charm. Being handmade there are naturally countless little differences between the surface of tiles: some have a smooth, almost polished surface, while others might have more texture. Being shaped and leveled within molds means that there can be settling at the corners, or high and low spots across a tile. Laid out in a pattern on the floor it is these variations that make it so unique visually, and a real pleasure to walk on in bare feet. It has life in a way that a manufactured high-fire ceramic tile just doesn’t. It feels closer to the earth and, without getting too metaphysical here, that helps ground a room—and the people within it.
A bold mix of Talavera tile with Saltillo tiles in a Santa Fe bathroom. Rectangular Saltillo in a herringbone pattern creates a wall surround, while a repeat pattern of San Felipe-shaped tiles connect the different areas of the bathroom. Image: Airs Cloud Media
What Rooms Does Saltillo Tile Work Best In?
First things first, Saltillo tile isn’t usually the solution for a whole house. There are plenty of homes here in New Mexico where that’s been done, but that’s not always a good idea, and here’s why:
Being less hard and porous, it is prone to chipping and cracking. Drop your cast iron skillet on it and you’re going to need to replace some tiles. Have a vigorous workout routine with a kettlebell? Don’t do that on Saltillo tile. Own a Saint Bernard that’s prone to knocking over things with his tail…um, better not to have Saltillo tile. Replacing just a few Saltillo tiles is a real headache because they are almost impossible to color match, so stick to putting it in rooms that are not high traffic.
And contrary to what other sources on the internet might tell you, it is not the best flooring for a kitchen. Unless you never cook in your kitchen. Or never spill anything. Yes, the natural color can help hide dirt on the floor, but should that really be your aim in a kitchen? If Saltillo tile is used in a kitchen, the homeowner must truly commit to regular cleaning and annual resealing of the floor, or it will soon deteriorate in appearance as it takes on chips, scratches, discoloration, dirt in the grout, and stains.
This home was designed to take advantage of passive solar, with the Saltillo tiles retaining solar heat during the winter months, and staying cooler during the summer months when the sun is higher in the sky.
It isn’t uncommon for folks to use Saltillo in very large rooms, like a living room, and there are certainly pros and cons to that. Because of its thermal mass Saltillo tile can be very good at supporting a home’s passive heating and cooling plan; that’s a plus. But Saltillo tiles are also prone to discoloration from light exposure, which can require a lot of work to rectify. That’s most certainly a negative.
So Saltillo tile works best in small rooms that aren’t heavily trafficked. Think bedrooms, home offices, nooks, and smaller family rooms. There’s nothing wrong with transitioning from one floor type to another at the threshold of a room, so it’s fine to consider using Saltillo on a smaller scale. And it really does add a lovely Old World feeling to a room, which can be especially welcome when trying to imbue an otherwise neutral space with more warmth and character.
Serious Advice About Remodeling and Saltillo Floors
If you’re considering a remodel and want to install new Saltillo tile, here are a few key things to know:
Really consider other shape options besides 6” or 12” squares. These are so commonplace (in Santa Fe-style homes especially) that they can almost disappear into the background.
When ordering flooring materials you’re often advised to order 10% more than is needed in case some of the material is damaged and/or the installer wants to be able to pick and choose the best materials when installing the floor to get you the best result. However, with Saltillo tile, I would suggest you consider a 15%+ additional amount because there can be so much variation among tiles. And if your plans involve a pattern with a higher level of intricacy (like the Riviera pattern) then 20% is probably wise. Even if you’re left with lots of extras, those can be a saving grace if you ever need to replace a few tiles or a small area of tile for some reason.
Similarly, never piecemeal your Saltillo tile order. Order all that you need (and more) in one order so that it all arrives as one lot.
Don’t consider using Saltillo tile in places that might freeze. This can lead to damaged tiles. If you’ve got an unheated breezeway, even if it’s covered, that is no place for Saltillo tile if you live anywhere that gets truly cold in the winter.
Just because you buy glazed Saltillo tile doesn’t mean that no further sealing is required. Quite the contrary! Once the tiles have been set and grouted you’ll want to plan for a quality top coat as a way of protecting the fresh grout and adding another layer or protection to your beautiful tiles.
And for those wanting to remodel who already have Saltillo tile in their home that they want to preserve, here is some food for thought:
Those tiles are delicate! Construction crews (generally) are not. Make sure you protect your Saltillo floors with Ram Board or some other barrier that can withstand demolition debris, dropped tools, and appliances being moved across them.
Trying to replace sections of Saltillo tile can be a real nightmare if you don’t have extra tiles from the original lot. They can vary in color, thickness, surface texture, and finish—all of which is going to make for a pretty obvious patched area, even if you’re amazingly lucky at the tile store and find some replacements that appear close in tone and texture to the original.
If you are wed to the idea of just patching an area, consider ways you might actually emphasize the difference rather than try to minimize it. Could the patched area be enlarged to feel more like its own special space? Could it be surrounded by some other type of decorative tile to create a transition between the two areas of Saltillo tile? I realize that might sound counter-intuitive, but if you can’t effectively hide a repair it sometimes makes more sense to lean into it so it feels like an intentional design decision.
It is easy to spot the recently replaced Saltillo tiles in this updated Santa Fe home. While the fresh grout will eventually darken, getting the tile color to match without having access to any of the original tiles is very challenging. To minimize the differences, a large area rug and decor can be strategically placed in the room (and would likely cost less than re-flooring the entire space in new tile). Image: DeMarais HOME STAGING + DESIGN.
And perhaps more important than everything above…hire pros to clean, repair, replace, or install your Saltillo tile. It is simply not worth the heartache to try and DIY projects with Saltillo tile—it's too specific a skill-set to rely on YouTube or how-to books if you want a good result.
Decorating Ideas with Saltillo Tile
When it comes to decorating rooms that have Saltillo tile don't limit yourself by thinking you must decorate in a Southwest-themed, or rustic style. That simply isn’t true.
While there is no question that Saltillo tile looks amazing when paired with white-washed adobe walls, wooden furniture, and historic folk art, it can also work just as nicely with contemporary furnishings and modern decor.
A great place to begin thinking about furniture and decor in relation to Saltillo tile is to identify the base tone of the tile. Is it more yellow? Orange? Ochre? Pink? Once you’ve figured that out, you can then identify some neutral tones that compliment that base tone, and a few complimentary color contrasts that might be used for some bursts of surprising color (I’ve written in detail about this process in this past blog post on identifying a color palette). Armed with all that color information it is then possible to start looking for furniture and decor that have those tones, and are well scaled to the space.
For homes with huge amounts of Saltillo tile one of the best things you can invest in first are area rugs. These can help create places of heightened visual interest in tiled rooms by bringing in new texture, pattern, and colors. They also offer a practical way of visually defining zones of activity in large rooms with one type of flooring.
Don't underestimate the importance of area rugs to add color and texture in a room with Saltillo tile floors. As this glimpse into Santa Fe-based Boorju Rugs demonstrates, there are no end of rug styles, and most can work with Saltillo tile: so long as you can identify the primary tones of the tile correctly. Image: DeMarais HOME STAGING + DESIGN
If you’ve figured out your specific Saltillo tile's color palette, then the style of the rug you choose isn’t really all that important. Want a bold geometric design? That could work very nicely with the tile. Prefer the look of a vintage kilim rug? Great! That'll work beautifully too, so long as its colors are complimentary to the tile. Once you’ve obtained a rug (or two) you can use it as a foundation for sizing and selecting your key pieces of furniture.
As you can see, there are countless considerations that go into any sort of home project. While I’ve focused on Saltillo tile here, the truth is that all the elements of your home’s interior are inter-connected, so flooring is going to impact room color, and that’s going to have an effect on the emotional feeling of a room, which can be further modified by the style of decor and furnishings…and on, and on it goes.
That’s why Santa Fe homeowners seek me out: to help them cut through all that complexity so that they can more easily arrive at a plan for their remodel or new decor that reflects who they are, and how they want to live. If you call Santa Fe home (or will soon) and are thinking of remodeling or restyling your house, give me a call at 505-699-4989 and let’s chat about how to turn your dreams into reality.