Tile 101: Zellige Tile

Our Most Charming Tile

By Clay Imports

Designers worldwide have named handmade Zellige tile as one of the trendiest tile right now. We know why: it’s one-of-a-kind. The imperfect charm, unconventional finish and unique installation techniques make this product stand out. Zellige derives from the word for “faience, ornamental tile”:  زايج. 

Where and how is Clay Imports Zellige tile made?

Zellige Tile - How It's Made | YouTube VideoClay Imports Product Developers visited several Zellige-making workshops around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fez in Morocco. We were intrigued with the techniques Moroccan artisans passed down from generation to generation. We encountered countless similarities between tile making in Mexico and Morocco. Surprisingly, it wasn't the glazing techniques that coincided. It was the much more simple and unrefined Saltillo tile-making process. Similar to crafting Saltillo, Zellige tiles are made of clay mixed with water. Then hand-shaped, dried, and lastly kiln-fired. Artisans hand stack the tiles in the simple kilns and then fire. Look at how similar the firing pits look!


We also found a similar sense of pride and admiration of the Mexican ladrilleros and Moroccan maâlems for their historical craft and how it connects them to the earth.

The main difference between Saltillo and Zellige tile is glazing. Ceramic glaze is an impervious layer or coating of a vitreous substance that has been fused to a ceramic body through firing (thank you, Wikipedia, for breaking that down so simply).

Glazing has never been done in Saltillo. Why? Because it seemed impossible. That is before Clay Imports developed an understanding of how Zellige tiles are glazed.  

Backsplash design by Samantha Packham of Zebedee Designs
Zellige Noir Black—Backsplash design by Samantha Packham of Zebedee Designs


But there's another important reason to start making another type of Zellige tile in Mexico: LEAD. Many Moroccan glaze compositions are lead-based, which can be detrimental to the tile makers. The use of lead-based glazes is prohibited in Mexico, for the well-being of those who create our decorative tile and pottery. The “advantage” of lead-based glazes is the shimmering, high gloss finish it gives the tile. The same effect is just not achievable with non-lead glazes.

What is the visual difference between Zellige tile and conventional clay tile? 

The most prominent difference between Zellige and other clay tiles lies in the beveled edges. The beveled edges of Zellige tiles allow for extremely narrow and tight grout joints, which lets you create the oh-so desirable, artisan handmade look.

More conventional clay tiles, such as our Talavera solid squares, are not beveled. Zellige tiles, are more unpredictable than regular clay tiles because variations in size and thickness are more common.

Both Zellige and regular clay tiles are suitable for the same areas, such as backsplashes, showers, and other wall and floor applications with low to moderate traffic.


Why and where should I use Clay Imports Zellige?

Our zellige tiles are sustainable, use non-lead-based glazes, 100% handcrafted, and support a growing community of tile artisans in Mexico. When you purchase our tile, you're supporting better work conditions and safety for tile makers. Our tile is also made from recycled clay material and made to order. Which means less waste for the planet!  

Our Zellige is also very high quality and durable. You can install Zellige tiles inside and outside, as long as they’re not exposed to heavy freezing. They are also suitable for wet areas, such as shower applications and steam rooms.

High variation is an undeniable characteristic of zellige tile
High variation is an undeniable characteristic of zellige tile | Design and photo by Cary Paul Studios.


Do I need to grout Zellige tile?

At Clay Imports, we recommend grouting every tile application for a long-lasting and durable installation. For the best look we recommend minimal grout spacing between 1/16”-1/18”.

It is possible to just “butt joint” Zellige tiles, without grouting in areas that do not experience moisture, but we’d like to be on the safe side and recommend minimal grout joints.

What grout color is recommended for Zellige tile?

Zellige tiles themselves are a showstopper of your space. This is why we’d recommend neutral grout colors, such as light or medium gray, to steer all the attention to the stunning pieces of art. We recommend Mapei Ultracolor Plus FA grout or Mapei Flexcolor CQ for our Zellige tiles.

What are my size and thickness options? 

Our classic Zellige size is 4”x4”. In addition, we offer 2”x6, and 2”x8.” Zellige tile thickness is approximately ⅜”. Since this tile is 100% handcrafted, expect variations in size and thickness from piece to piece. Keep in mind that these variations will require more time and skill in installation.

Can I use Zellige tile in a pool?

Original Moroccan Zellige tiles have been used to decorate water features for centuries. However, due to the fragility and unconventional nature of Zellige tile, you must be ready for quite some maintenance and precautions during installation.

To err on the safe side, we do not recommend installing Zellige tile in a submerged or waterline application. Zellige tiles are not high-fired, and, although the glaze makes them impervious to water, it is the unglazed sides, chipped edges, and back that can get damaged by exposure to water.

How do I install Zellige Tile?

Due to its handmade nature, Zellige tiles require a different level of attention than conventional materials. The fragility and unconventional nature of Zellige tile requires much more time and skill for installation. This can result in significantly higher installation rates. We recommend hiring a professional tile installer, well versed with handmade tile for Zellige tile installation.

However, we have developed an easy to follow guide on how to install your Zellige tiles DIY style:

Before installing

  • Open all boxes and inspect the materials. Please note that this is a handmade product, so edge chips, surface fractures, and irregular thickness are all inherent characteristics of Zellige tiles. For best results, blend materials from all boxes prior to installation.
  • Clean all tiles with a cloth to remove any clay residue before installation and make sure the installation area is clean and dry.
  • Confirm you have an adequate tile amount for your project; arrange your tiles in the desired pattern to determine the amount of tiles, the cuts needed and the spacing for grout.
  • Zellige, as a product of clay and natural materials, is subjected to color and shade variations and it is recommended to mix the tiles from the different cases, in order to blend them in the most appeling way possible.
  • If installing tiles in an exterior, wet location or in a cold climate, proper installation is crucial. This entails specialized waterproofing, a topcoat sealer, and regular maintenance to ensure durability and longevity.


  • Prepare your grid. Use pencils, chalk lines or lasers to determine how to best design your layout and draw a grid on the installation surface.
  • Using a 1/2” Trowel, begin spreading adhesive evenly to the installation surface. Spread adhesive in small sections.
  • Apply a small amount of adhesive to the back of your tile. Depending on the type of adhesive you are using, you may need to dampen the back of the tiles (the unglazed clay side) to prevent the adhesive from drying too quickly.
  • Begin pressing the tile onto the surface. Adjust the tile as you apply pressure to ensure that the contact is solid and uninterrupted. Do not let the tile contact the setting surface directly. Ensure that the material completely fills the space between the tile and the setting surface, while eliminating any air pockets. Quickly remove any excess glue between the tiles.
  • As the tile is being installed, use wedge spaces to secure the spacing between the tiles. Zellige is traditionally laid by hand due to size variation but can be installed using flexible 2 mm (1/16in) tile spacers. Due to tight grout joint spacing, adjustments may need to be made by hand.
  • Once the tiles are bonded, clean the surface with water, using a sponge or cloth. Remember to wring the sponge every time while cleaning. Allow the glue to dry for at least 24 hours before continuing the installation process.
  • Prior to grouting, apply a coat of grout release to the surface of the tile with a clean sponge or non- fibrous cloth. This will ensure an easy grout clean-up. 

How to grout your Zellige installation

  • Grout should be applied to the tile within 1 hour of applying grout release. Always apply grout to a loose sample tile prior to full application. Once you have confirmed that the grout is suitable, begin applying to the surface. Note that this method of installation will result in grout filling any surface pits of the tile.
  • Following grout application, clean the tile surface thoroughly with a damp sponge. Grout should not dry on the tile surface for longer than 10 minutes. Keep cleaning your tiles until only a mild residue remains on the surface.
  • Allow 24 hours for grout to dry. Allow the entire installation area to completely dry before drying or covering the surface.

Regularly cleaning your tile is essential to maintain its beauty and prolong its lifespan. We recommend taking a look at our Clay Care products. These maintenance items have been carefully tested with our products, and they are designed to preserve your tiles' beauty, ensuring their longevity and durability. From sealers to cleaners, purchasing these maintenance items together with your tiles not only simplifies your order but also prepares you to enjoy your tiles for a long time.

Kitchen backsplash with white zellige tiles

Design by Hippie Design Studio | Photo by Cate Black

How do I order Zellige?

Please know that Zellige tiles are considered one of the most distressed, irregular and unpredictable materials available within the tile industry. These variations in color, texture and sheen are not defects but rather a natural part of the product. We highly recommend ordering samples before making a final purchase to confirm and appreciate these natural variations in each tile. Embrace the variation, even from sample to full order!

Once you have samples on hand, position them in your space. Since Zellige tiles are of high variation, the lighting in your space will directly impact the look. 

Ready to order your full amount? You can order directly online. Just input your needed quantity and include at least 15% overage. Questions? Email us at contact@clayimports.com

Disclaimer: since the installation of tile greatly determines the integrity of the project and the tile itself, Clay imports does not warranty this product and is not responsible for dissatisfaction of material following installation. Please inspect all tile upon receipt and notify us immediately if you have any quality concerns. This guide is meant to serve as a general resource. Because each project is unique, consult your tile installer before installing your tile.