"Talavera" is a name often associated with
handmade glazed tiles
of Mexico. Much has been written about the history of Talavera tile, which
will be briefly covered in this article. Sadly, the practical and aesthetic
considerations that go into the selection and use of this exuberantly
beautiful tile are seldom presented in an easily understood and useful manner.
This article is an attempt to rectify this situation.
A Brief History
The name "Talavera" comes from the Spanish town, Talavera de la Reina.
It is reported that artisans from this town traveled to Mexico in the 2nd half
of the 16th century during Spain's colonization of the Americas. Their initial
destination was Puebla, the city now most closely associated with
and ceramics. The unique skills that these craftsmen brought with them, however,
can be traced to influences Italy, North Africa, Asia and Northern Europe.
As commerce and travel increasingly interconnected different parts of Mexico
during this colonial period, the products of these Spanish ceramicists from Talavera
became both well known and desired throughout many parts of Latin America. It was
during this period that the name "Talavera" became synonymous with the unique tile
and ceramic designs flowing from the hands of these skilled craftsmen.
The Spaniards directing the work in their studios in Puebla brought indigenous
people into their shops as laborers. With time, this brought about a blending of
Spanish sensitivities with native aesthetics to give birth to a wide variety of
tile motifs as well as a growing group of potters with ethnicities as varied as
the designs they were producing. This led to a deterioration in both traditional
design purity and consistent tile quality. The Spanish Viceroy responded to the
growing outcry from the Spanish potters in Puebla by issuing the Decree of 1653,
which strictly controlled many aspects of the ceramics trade in Mexico. These new
regulations created an exact classification system for three levels of pottery,
precise clay mixture formulas, specific glazing colors and design criteria for the
use of these glazes, and limited the practitioners of this trade to being only pure
Spanish. In 1682 an addendum was enacted to extend this control. Two of the results
of these decrees were a noticeable increase in tile quality and a tightening of the
range of design patterns of Talavera tile.
Eventually, forces of history, such as the stirrings of independence from Spain
and increased importation of inexpensive ceramics from China, created excessive
price competition to Puebla's Talavera tile trade, leading to a sharp decrease in
both demand and manufacture of this pottery.
The decline continued until a resurgence of interest emerged approximately 25 years
ago. It is reported that a specific event that was part of this renewed interest was a
chance discovery of an old box of Talavera tile by a person who was inspired, by this
discovery, to start their own tile importing company. 25 years later, their name is now
synonymous with high quality tile of many types including Talavera tile, which is now
manufactured by a number of studios in Mexico. Talavera tile is now readily available
through reliable importers, much to the delight of all of us in the design community
who appreciate the beauty of this unique, historic artistic expression in ceramics.
Talavera Tile Use
The appropriate use of Talavera tile results from comprehending its specific
- Handmade and thus no two pieces are exactly alike in both design and
dimension and, quite often, not perfectly flat.
- Glazed and thus resistant to both wear and moisture penetration but
can be slippery when wet.
- Colorful in design but diminutive in size with typical sizes being in
the 4" x 4" to 6" x 6" range.
- Slightly crazed surface glazing, giving it a "faceted" look under the
right lighting conditions but also rendering it not completely "waterproof"
- Designs and colors are bold and definite and thus do not tend toward
pastels or subtle edge-blending of softer glaze colors
- Individual tile designs that, when joined together, form a new and
larger design pattern.
These qualities suggest specific usages, especially in architectural styles that
would be considered more "Spanish", "Mediterranean", or "Latin American". Stair risers,
door and window surrounds, countertops and splashes, shower walls, accent bands, and
wail panels are just some of the many uses to which this tile can be put that will
enhance the overall character of the buildings in which they are used.
Talavera Tile Selection
The use to which Talavera tile will be put dictates the correct selection of the particular
tile being used. For example, if the tile is being used on food preparation surfaces, it is
prudent to verify that the tile, in both its bisque form (fired but unglazed clay) and glazed
form have been fired to a temperature appropriate for food contact. This normally means that
the bisque has been fired to a cone 03 temperature. This temperature varies as per the type
of testing "cone" system used in the kiln temperature testing process, but ranges from 2014°
to 2068° F (1101° to 1131° C). Also, for food preparation areas, verify that the tile has been
glazed with a food-safe glaze.
Because tiles, fired at this higher temperature, exhibit decreased surface crazing, use of
these tiles is more appropriate where water and significant temperature variations occur such
as inside showers and exterior walkway and patio accent tiles. Please note that I do not recommend
large areas of Talavera tile on exterior walking surfaces because of the potential for slippage
when the tiles are wet. Tiles used for backsplashes, wall panels, stair risers, and other interior
and exterior vertical applications can be of a lower temperature firing with little concern.
Talavera tiles act in a wonderfully synergistic way with terracotta handmade clay floor tiles.
Handmade terracotta tiles of a high quality (high-temperature fired and made from clays and topsoils
rich in minerals that produce a rich range of color when wood fired) both complement and are
complemented by Talavera tiles that are placed artistically within the walking surface design.
The vibrant colors and smaller scale of the Talavera tiles blend and accent beautifully with the
range of warm earth tones found in high quality handmade clay tiles. When used in an exterior
application, care should be taken in keeping the amount of glazed Talavera tile to widths narrow
enough to minimize the possibility of slippage when the walking surface becomes wet.
Talavera Tile Design Considerations
Sensitivity to the architectural "look" of the installation is an absolute necessity when using
Talavara tiles. The scale, mass, and general character of the space or object being enhanced by the
use of these tiles will dictate what particular pattern, color, quantity and size of Talavera tile to
use so as to maximize the aesthetic impact of this particular architectural element. For instance,
certain Talavera patterns lend themselves to a single tile height linear placement where other
patterns are most effectively used when 4 or more tiles are placed together, forming a larger pattern.
The Viceroy Edicts of 1653 and 1682 are no longer in effect. Thus, a wider variety of patterns,
designs, and colors are now available in what is still considered Talavera tile. Many of these more
contemporary patterns are of a whimsical nature and might be more appropriate in spaces where a greater
informality or lighter "touch" is desired such as a child's bathroom. Also, numbered tiles in a
variety of graphic styles are now available that can be effectively used as house, building, or office
numbering systems. These number tiles can be enhanced by surrounding them with solid colored tiles cut
to 1 to 2 inch widths. Many studios now produce solid colored tiles that are coordinated with the
standard hues found in traditional Talavera tiles.
Because of the availability of these coordinated solid colors, an exiting design possibility now
exists to combine panels of traditional Talavera tile with accent bands of solid colors, cur to widths
whose smaller scale gives a more elegant touch to the overall installation. I often use solid color
tiles under standard sized tiles as stair risers, where riser heights vary from project to project.
This allows me to use a standard size tile with the solid color cut to fit the specific riser height.
This riser tile blend is normally placed under the bull nosed handmade terracotta clay tile stair
tread. This combination of two hand crafted clay products yields a rich combination and contrast of
colors mentioned above.
Talavera Tile Installation Considerations
Keeping in mind that usage dictates selection, the use to which the tile will be put dictates specific
installation considerations. These considerations, in installation sequence, are:
Prior to beginning an installation, inspect each tile for cracks or other deformities that make its
use inappropriate for the appiication intended. For example, a cracked tile that might unuseabie for a
countertop could be used on a decorative vertical surface. Once placed in a wall panel, the crack may be
unnoticeable and, thus, does not detract from the overall appearance of the installation. In some cases,
such a crack can actually enhance the antique quality of the tile panel.
If the tile is going to be used in a constantly moist area, it might behoove you to dip the tile in a
water repellant. I use a clear, proprietary, water repeliant that, when dry, gives no sign of its presence
yet creates a barrier that minimizes moisture migration in either direction.
Surface Receiving Tile
The surface receiving the tile is either vertical or horizontal. Tile placed on a vertical surface is
generally subjected to much less impact or abusive environmental wear than horizontal surfaces. Thus,
conventional tile installation practices are appropriate most vertical surfaces.
Horizontally surfaced tile installations require increased care. Carefully inspect all horizontal
surface that will receive tile, if the surface is a concrete stab, look for surface cracks wider than the
thickness of a business card. Such cracks are indicative of a lack of or inadequate reinforcing steel in
the concrete. These cracks, if they continue to widen, will ultimately transmit through to the tile. If
cracks of this width are detected, the use of a crack isolation membrane is highly recommended. When I
detect cracks of this size or when the slab is over an interior space, I specify an epoxy-based crack
isolation membrane that both minimizes crack transmission into the tile and provides a waterproof membrane
that protects the space below from moisture intrusion.
If the horizontal surface receiving tile is a walking surface supported by wood framing, attention must
be given to deflection occurring in this framing. As the floor is walked on, a downward bowing, or deflection,
occurs which can place stress on the tile, which can cause it to crack. Tile, being a brittle material, does
not deflect well!
Verify that the structural members carrying this floor load are sized to carry both the live load (the
people and things moving across the floor as a dynamic load) and the dead load (the weight of all building
materials, including the tile and its grout bed). This structural flooring system should include a floor
sheathing designed for minimal deflection between its supporting floor joists. This sheathing should be a
minimum of 3/4" thick tongue and groove material for joists that are spaced 16" on center. If both the floor
thickness and budget allow, I prefer to use a 1 1/4" thick tongue and groove subfloor.
The subfloor should then be covered with a mortar bed conforming to specifications found in the Dimensional
Stone Design Manual, published by the Marble Institute of America. These specifications, in part, call for a
"slip sheet" or "isolation membrane" to be placed" directly on the subffoor, covered by a mortar bed reinforced
with 2x2x16/16 steel mesh onto which the tile is placed.
The surface to be finished, whether concrete slab or mortar bed on wood subfloor, should be swept clean of
all debris. A Portland Cement-based thin-set adhesive should be applied to both the receiving surface and the
back of the tile with a notched trowel. The back of the tile should be fully covered with the adhesive. Place
the tile onto the grouted surface, verifying that the direction of the grooves of the adhesive on the tile are
laid perpendicular to the groove direction on the floor surface adhesive. Tap the tile into place. This process
minimizes air pockets under the tile and maximizes adhesion between the tile and subsurface. If the Talavera tile
is being used in tandem with handmade clay tile, as suggested above, attention must be given to the varying thickness
of two tiles. Install the thicker tile first, using the method described above. Fill in the surface on which the
Talavera tile is to be placed to a level such that, when the Talavera tile is placed on the adhesive grout bed, the
surface of both tiles are at the same level.
Give design consideration to joint grouting. Such consideration includes grout joint width, grout color, grout
composition, and grout texture. Grout joint width can be varied to adjust tile alignment with adjacent handmade
terracotta tiles or other architectural elements that are more pleasingly incorporated into the overall architectural
design when the tiles edge is aligned with these elements.
Attention should be given to the grout color as relates to the color of tile chosen. There may be a desire to
accentuate the tile with a border of contrasting grout color. To more closely connect each tile with each other, use
a grout color in a hue that approximates the colors found in the tile.
Grout composition refers to a sand/Portland Cement grout compared to a piaster grout. Generally, the wider the grout
joint, the more the tendency to use the rougher sand/Portland Cement grout. Since Talavera tiles are handmade and thus
somewhat irregular, a thicker grout joint can accommodate this irregularity more easily. Plaster grout is used when a
thinner and smoother grout joint is desired.
Grout texture, even when a sand/Portland Cement grout is used, can be kept smoother by using a "tooled" joint. A
slightly rounded smooth metal tool is used like a miniature trowel as it is drawn over the joint, creating a slight
indentation that is made smooth by the use of this instrument. A rougher texture can be achieved by using what is referred
to as a "sack rubbed finish", achieved by gently rubbing the grout joint flush with the surface of the tile with a burlap
sack cloth after the grout has become somewhat firm.
If Talavera tile is being installed along side handmade clay tile, apply a grout release to the tile prior to installing
the grout, this keeps the fine particles of Portland Cement from becoming imbedded in the tile which will dul! the rich warm
tones of the terracotta prior to finishing.
Sealing And Finishing
Sealing and finishing is done after the grout is fully dry. DO NOT attempt this process until both the tile and grout
joints are completely dry otherwise moisture can become trapped in the handmade clay tile and cause a milky film to form on
the tile after sealing and finishing.
I first apply a thin coat of the clear water repellent mentioned above in "1. Tile Preparation". This creates the initial
protective barrier that penetrates both the tile and the grout and on to which is applied the final finishing coats.
The final coats of sealer/top coat are more for the benefit of the grout joints and terracotta tile than they are for the
Talavera tile which has already gained its resistance to the elements from its glaze. Apply as many final coats as is necessary
to achieve the finish and texture desired. These coats should be thinly applied to minimize "blushing" (a milky white forming
within the coat).
Much more could be written in each of the above segments of this article however it is my hope that this limited
presentation has given you a greater appreciation of this wonderful tile called "Talavera" and directed you on a path
that helps you use it in an optimum manner in terms of both aesthetics and function.
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