Tile 101: Zellige Tile

By Clay Imports

Our most unpredictable, charming tiles


Desert Pink Zellige at the Queer Eye Austin Headquarters (Season 6) 


Designers worldwide have named handmade Zellige tile as one of the trendiest tile right now. And we know why: it’s one-of-a-kind. The imperfect charm, the unconventional finish and 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?

The Clay Imports Product Developers visited several Zellige-making workshops around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fez in Morocco. Deeply intrigued about the techniques and lifestyles that artisans have passed down from generation to generation, we found many similarities between tile making in Mexico and Morocco. Surprisingly though, it was not 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 how similar the firing pits look!

Zellige clay kiln Morocco Zellige clay kiln in Fes, Morocco

Saltillo kiln in SaltilloSaltillo kiln in Saltillo, Mexico


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

The main difference between saltillo and zellige tile, however, 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 we, at Clay Imports, developed an understanding of how zellige tiles are glazed. 

Backsplash design by Samantha Packham of Zebedee DesignsZellige Noir Black - Backsplash design by Samantha Packham of Zebedee Designs

But there was another reason to start making a type of “zellige tile” in Mexico: LEAD. Many Moroccan glaze compositions are lead-based, which can be detrimental to the makers. The use of lead-based glazes is prohibited in Mexico, for the well-being of those who create our decorative tiles and pottery. The “advantage” of lead-based glazes is the shimmering, high gloss finish. It’s just not that 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 grout joints, which lets you create that desirable, uber-handmade look. More conventional clay tiles, such as our Talavera solid squares, are not beveled. Zellige tiles, are more unpredictable than regular clay tiles, meaning that the variation in size and thickness is higher. 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.

Zellige Snow White - Photo and Design via Van Heuven Properties. Zellige White Gloss - Photo and Design via Van Heuven Properties.

Casey Dunn's Studio bathroom featuring the Desert Pink Zellige tile.

Why and where should you use Clay Imports Zellige?

Our zellige tiles are free of lead, handcrafted, and support a growing community of tile makers in Mexico. Furthermore, they are of superior quality. 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 tileHigh variation is an undeniable characteristic of zellige tile.
Design and photo by Cary Paul Studios.

Do you need to grout Zellige tile?

At Clay Imports, we recommend grouting every tile application for a long-lasting installation. For the best look and easier installation, 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 also here, recommend minimal grout joints.

What grout color is recommended for Zellige tile?

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

@clayimports #zelligetile ♬ Love You So - The King Khan & BBQ Show

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 create challenges to installation.

2_x6_-Natural-Zellige-Matte-Sealed-l-Clay-ImportsNatural Zellige 2"x6"

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 air 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 water.

How do I install Zellige Tile?

Upon receipt of your tile, open all boxes and inspect the materials. Please note that this is a handmade product. 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. Due to its handmade nature, zellige tile requires a different level of attention than conventional materials. The fragility and unconventional nature of Zellige tile require that much time and skill be invested in the installation, resulting in significantly higher installation labor rates. We recommend hiring a professional tile installer, well versed with handmade tile for zellige tile installation.

Zellige Snow backsplash for Caila Quinn.
Installation by The Tile Press.

Zellige_Snow_Zellige Tile_Clay Imports_Design by Caila Quinn_Install by The Tile Press1 Zellige_Snow_Zellige Tile_Clay Imports_Design by Caila Quinn_Install by The Tile Press2
Zellige_Snow_Zellige Tile_Clay Imports_Design by Caila Quinn_Install by The Tile Press3 Zellige_Snow_Zellige Tile_Clay Imports_Design by Caila Quinn_Install by The Tile Press5

How to order?

Glad to hear that you are considering ordering this handmade product! First things first, we recommend reviewing samples prior to purchase. Here is how. Please know that Zellige tiles are considered one of the most distressed, irregular and unpredictable materials available within the tile industry. 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 the 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 or chat with us.




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.

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