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Mexican Tile, Glazed Handmade Tiles of Mexico, History, Use, Selection, and Installation Considerations

Edward Paul Skibitzke, Architect
President, BarroNica Building Products, Inc.

"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 Talavera tile 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 qualities, namely:

  1. Handmade and thus no two pieces are exactly alike in both design and dimension and, quite often, not perfectly flat.
  2. Glazed and thus resistant to both wear and moisture penetration but can be slippery when wet.
  3. Colorful in design but diminutive in size with typical sizes being in the 4" x 4" to 6" x 6" range.
  4. Slightly crazed surface glazing, giving it a "faceted" look under the right lighting conditions but also rendering it not completely "waterproof"
  5. Designs and colors are bold and definite and thus do not tend toward pastels or subtle edge-blending of softer glaze colors
  6. 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:

Tile Preparation

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.

Surface Preparation

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.

Joint Grouting

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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