Terracotta is Italian for ‘baked earth’ or ‘baked clay’. Since the earliest of times it has been widely used in building and construction. For example; tiles, water pipes, and in the manufacture of household pottery and ornaments. In its simplest form terracotta is moulded clay that is left to dry in the sun until it becomes hard. Terracotta in its unglazed form is very porous and for this reason when used as flooring it needs to be sealed. Glazed terracotta is produced when the surface is subjected to intense heat that changes the structure of the clay. This gives a ceramic like appearance to the tile and makes it far less porous. Depending on the type of clay used and on the minerals present, the colour of terracotta can vary from rich red to light brown with many shades in between.
Terracotta tiles give a rustic character to a room, and it looks more authentic against an exposed stone or roughly plastered wall. For a this reason it is often the flooring of choice in the refurbishing of older buildings, or where maintaining an authentic ‘country feel’ is desired. The rich amber tones of a terracotta floor provide a warm and inviting focal point to any room. It is hard wearing, and with proper care and maintenance, will last for many years.
The amount of maintenance depends, firstly, on the type of terracotta floor you have. As mentioned previously, rough terracotta is very porous. Therefore, each time you wash the floor, the dirt and dust will soak down through the pores and become ingrained in the terracotta. Spills of cooking oil, wine and other liquids will also leave deep stains that may be impossible to remove. Over time your terracotta floor will become dull and dirty looking.
To prevent this from happening it is essential that rough terracotta is sealed.
The traditional method of sealing rough terracotta is to apply several coats of a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine. There are many opinions as to the correct ratio of each but 50:50 seems to be the most widely accepted. The turpentine helps the oil to penetrate deep in to the tile, so the first coat at least should be 50:50. Subsequent coats could have a higher proportion of oil. It is important that each coat is allowed to dry before the next coat is applied. In warm weather several hours might suffice, but in cold and damp weather it would be advisable to leave a full twenty four hours between each coat. Each successive coat will darken the colour of the floor. Eventually, the floor will become saturated with the mixture. You will know the tile is fully saturated when water beads on the surface. Applying further coats will only result in the mixture remaining on the surface where it will act as a magnet for dirt and dust. It is advisable to remove all excess using a cloth and white spirit.
When the sealed floor has had sufficient time to dry, the next stage is to apply a layer of wax. Traditionally, bees wax is used. Apply thin coats of wax one upon the other. Buff each coat before applying the next one. Repeat several times. The result should be a beautiful, natural look to your terracotta floor.
Although the traditional method will achieve the desired look, there are disadvantages to consider. First and foremost is the time involved. This may run to many days and even weeks. During this time it may not be possible to walk on the floor for fear of leaving foot prints, or carrying the linseed/turpentine mixture all over the house. Another thing to bear in mind is that bees wax tends to gather dust and dirt. It also turns yellow over time. Eventually, the floor will become rather unsightly, and the only course of action available will be to strip the floor and repeat the whole process.
For this reason most people opt to use modern synthetic sealers and waxes. These significantly reduce the time and effort involved and when applied as directed achieve similar -and in some cases better – results than the traditional method.
Before sealing a terracotta floor, or any natural stone floor for that matter, it is essential to get the surface as clean as possible. If the floor has been down a long time there is likely to be ingrained dirt and stains. There may even be the remnants of previous sealer and wax. The best way to remove these is by applying a chemical stripper to the surface. If it is known what previous sealer was used, it would be a good idea to contact the manufacturer to find out what stripper they would recommend. In most cases the sealer will be water based, and a normal floor stripper from your local hardware or tile shop should do the job. However, if a urethane treatment was applied then something stronger may be required. As this type of chemical stripper can be hazardous to use, it may be advisable to employ a professional floor cleaning company to undertake the work.
The stripper is left on the surface for about thirty minutes to take effect. The floor must be then washed using warm water and a stone detergent. It would help if a scrubbing machine were available. If not, use a scrubbing brush and lots of elbow grease. Use a wet vacuum to suck up the sludge from the floor. Repeat the process a few times and then rinse with clean water. If some marks and stains remain, the application of a 10:1 bleach / water solution to the affected area may help. The end objective is to have clean bare terracotta tiles.
Once the cleaning is completed It is very important t to allow the terracotta to dry out before proceeding to the sealing and finishing stage. Applying sealer to a natural stone floor before it has dried out can result in moisture getting trapped underneath the sealer. This will manifest itself as white blotches on your floor. How long it takes to dry out depends on the ambient temperature, and on the thickness of the tile. In the case of rough terracotta it could take two or three weeks for a floor to dry out completely. So, allow as much time as possible! Rushing things will only create problems down the line.
When the terracotta is dry, remove any remaining dust and grit from on the surface. Then proceed to seal the floor. Usually two or three coats of natural stone sealer are required, but this varies with the porosity of the tile. The drying time for each coat will depend on the ambient temperature and on the brand of sealer used, so read the instructions carefully. It is important to point out that natural sealer does not change the appearance of the stone to any great extent. It may darken the tile, but only slightly. However, ‘colour enhancing sealer’ which highlights the subtle tones of the stone is available in most good tile stores and is worth considering.
Once the floor has been sealed and allowed some time to ‘cure’, it is now time to ‘finish’ the terracotta. This can be done by applying a terracotta wax. These are available in solid or liquid form. They are easy to apply and long lasting. Good quality ones do not ‘yellow’ as is the case with bees wax. They are usually available in matt, satin or gloss finishes.
All things considered, the range of products currently available makes the care and maintenance of terracotta flooring a much easier task than ever before. Your floor may not have that classic ‘antique look’ of the traditional sealing method, but application and maintenance is much easier and any surface protector can be topped up without having to strip everything again.
A terracotta floor that has been waxed or synthetically sealed should be cleaned with a Ph-neutral stone cleaner. Never use off-the-shelf cleaners which contain acid or alkaline as they will strip away the protective wax and sealer and dull the appearance of the floor. Spray the cleaner on to the surface and leave it for 30 seconds then wipe off with a clean damp cloth. Repeat as necessary. When mopping, ensure that all the dirty water is removed from the surface. Use of a wet vacuum is recommended.
The major difference between glazed and unglazed terracotta tiles is their appearance and durability. Glazed terracotta tiles are protected and hardened by the coat of vitreous glaze that gives them the shiny finish. On the other hand, unglazed tiles have no protective coating. This leaves the porous tile vulnerable to weathering and wearing. Unglazed terracotta also tends to be a bit more fragile and more easily stained than glazed terracotta. Moreover, unglazed tiles tend to deteriorate quicker in colder climates. However, with glazed tiles one has to be careful because a smooth surface can be slippery when wet. Today, glazed terracotta is much more popular than unglazed. There are literally hundreds of colours and shapes of tile to choose from and ‘anti-slip’ surface finish is becoming the norm.
Glazed terracotta resists moisture and staining to a far higher degree than unglazed. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to apply a sealer and a finishing product to protect it. There are several manufactures supplying products specifically designed for glazed terracotta so inquire at good tile and hardware stores. Finally, to clean glazed terracotta it is advisable to use a neutral Ph stone cleaner.
THE DO’s & DON’Ts IN THE CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF TERRACOTTA FLOORS DO’s