A number of months ago, you might recall our epic battle to re-landscape our front yard. This battle not only pitted me against tons of dirt, stone, boulders and sod, but also against two other online media types foolhardy enough to undertake such endeavors. This was all featured in a “Yard Wars” competition on Family Handyman, and was sponsored by our friends at Husqvarna. In this war against nature and fellow online media, despite heroic efforts, we came in second place. I’m not bitter, but I have my eye on you Ron Hazelton! (Shakes fist at sky). Our yard transformation was under a tight deadline, and one portion we couldn’t finish was our front entry walkway makeover incorporating Spanish tiles. Join us as we walk through the involved process of transforming a boring, ugly and slippery entry path into a architectural feature congruent with the home, all while melding form and function.
The Walkway Before the Walkway Makeover
What we started with was likely the original concrete work on the 1936 home. It consisted of a very small landing by the door, a few concrete steps, and then a perilously sloped and slightly arched straight path. This design presented a couple problems. The few times a year it actually rains in San Diego, the sloped portion of the path became like a slip and slide. We had to walk like ice-skating ninjas carrying trays of champagne. That’s just not a comfortable way to walk.
The other problem with the original design was it created no sense of privacy between the public sidewalk and our front landing. From both a security standpoint, and an aesthetic perspective, the direct line to the front door was not attractive, and not ideal. We needed a little bit of buffer from the sidewalk and from some pesky doorbell ditchers and potential porch pirates.
The Point of No Return – Walkway Demo
With a detailed plan from our talented landscape architect Jennifer Phelps with Todd Fry Landscape Architects, we embarked on this journey the way most Home Fixated readers would prefer to – with a big jackhammer! Armed with a Makita that weighed about as much as I do, the decades-old front walkway was reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes. There was no turning back now, unless we wanted to walk through dirt and then hurdle up into the front door.
Taking Shape – Forming Up the Walkway
Chuck and his crew from LM Stoneworks (the same team that did our Concrete Block Wall project), set about forming up the area for the new stairs and front entry walkway. Rather than a straight shot, the new entry would feature a larger landing by the door, curved upper steps, a mid-level landing, a couple more steps and the ground level landing, to be flanked by to stucco columns.
While this design accomplished our goals for the front entry walkway, it was also much more complex, intricate and, as a result, more expensive than a simple and direct entry. The graceful curves of Jennifer’s design made forming up the concrete a challenge. However, with lots of metal stakes, kerf-cut boards to provide the curves and many screws to keep it all together, the forms were laid out for the pour.
Pouring is Never Boring – The Concrete Pour
One advantage to having the walkway right by the sidewalk was that the concrete truck could pull right up and pour with the truck’s chutes – no concrete pumper needed. Chuck and his team made sure the concrete was properly distributed and any bubbles were worked out. Once the concrete had hardened up enough, the forms were removed to reveal the path and steps that would serve us for many months before the finishing touch of tiling was started.
Ordering the Spanish Tiles – Arto, and Their Many Hand-Made Tile Options
Our landscape architect Jennifer recommended we use Arto tile for the project. Full disclosure, we reached out to the Arto team regarding this project and article and were provided with a discount on the tile we ordered from them. Although they have some tile in stock, most of their products are made to order. The lead time can vary, so we recommend contacting your Arto dealer or Arto directly for an estimate, and then maybe adding to that time frame. If your project is under a really tight timeframe, Arto may not be a good fit.
According to their website, “ARTO was founded in 1966 by an Egyptian/Armenian immigrant, Arto Alajian. Now his two sons, Armen and Vod Alajian run the business. ARTO is known for making rustic and elegantly handmade ceramic and concrete tiles. ARTO makes a wide range of styles. Since ARTO’s products are made to order, ARTO can customize their tiles to their customer’s tastes. Not only are the tiles made in Los Angeles and their raw materials sourced locally, but the glazes, molds, and even their shipping pallets are all made at their factory.” Pretty cool, right? Aside from all that, their tiles just look gorgeous, and they have a huge variety of styles to choose from.
The Spanish tiles we used are from their Artillo cementitious tile collection. It mimics the look of traditional Mexican Saltillo Spanish tiles, but offers more color and style options, along with greater expected tile longevity and durability. We settled on their “Spanish Cotto” color blend, which is actually a mix of Cotto Dark and Cotto Gold colors. This turned out to be a perfect mix of color for our project, with the colors perfectly complementing the terra cotta on our roof, and the recently added boulders and stone work from our Yard Wars landscaping project.
We consulted heavily with our tile guy before the concrete was even poured so we knew what sizes and types of tiles would be used, and their corresponding dimensions. We used Arto’s “Step on Stairtread” to provide a rounded over finished edge to several parts of the walkway and stairs. We also utilized their “Stair Tread” tiles on the stairs (duh) and also around some of the perimeter of the raised area for a more finished look. Our tile pro also used several Corner Stair Treads to create a very clean look at the corners, avoiding having to miter two tiles together at the corner, with a conspicuous grout line. Here’s a look at some of the Arto Artillo options:
Also on our shopping list with Arto were two pier caps to crown the entry columns that would soon grace the entry point to the new walkway. The inspiration we used for the actually stairs and risers was taken from another project from our landscape architect.
Prepping for Tile Work
For many tile pro’s, this would be the point where they slap some thinset on the concrete and start laying the tile. Concrete pours, especially on more intricate projects with curves and multiple levels, are rarely perfect. This pour was no exception, and our tile pro Juan would not settle for anything short of perfection. Juan used Quikrete Deck Mud to level out and fine-tune the concrete. Deck Mud is a Portland cement based underlayment mortar for leveling floors and countertops.
Juan used thinset between concrete and the Quikrete Deck Mud since concrete on top of already cured concrete doesn’t make for a good bond. Then more thinset was applied to the leveled surface, making our walkway look a bit like a winter wonderland.
As with many things home-related, moisture and water are the enemy. Juan explained that with the tile installation, we’re concerned about moisture coming from two directions. One source of moisture is the ground itself. Moisture can wick up into the concrete and work its way outward towards the tile. The other source is from surface moisture from the air, rain and the occasional spray of a hose.
Enter the Dragon(skin)
The product Juan and Chuck from LM Stoneworks like to prevent this unwanted water migration is called Dragonskin, by Omega Products. At around $40+ for a gallon or $150+ for a five gallon bucket – Dragonskin is not cheap. But then again, neither is our tile installation, so the product is welcome insurance. Dragonskin not only prevents moisture migration which could work its way up through the tile, it also helps stabilize the surface from non structural cracking under 1/8″.
Here’s a quick blurb on Dragonskin from the manufacturer Siena. Spoiler Alert, there is a terrifying dragon in the intro:
Once our purple Dragonskin coating was applied, we started getting a lot of jokes from the neighbors (and a few nervous questions) about our new purple entry path. If you’re going for the Alice in Wonderland look, I suppose you can stop right here and not worry about the tile. Since our goal was more Spanish style than Alice in Wonderland, we plodded onward with our mission to tile the entry.
The Devil is in The Details – Layout and Planning
Naturally, some of the layout needs to be done early in the project, before the concrete is poured and the tile is ordered. That pre-planning is what enabled us to have a perfectly sized pathway for four one foot tiles (plus their grout lines), along with risers sized to accommodate Arto’s 4″x4″ Deco Tiles on the risers. However at this point, it was time to start laying out the tile and start cutting and grinding.
Every single tile was laid out dry, section by section. Juan didn’t rush this process, and his attention to detail definitely showed in the finished result. More on that later, we’ve got some tile to set in the meantime!
Juan spread high quality mortar onto the substrate first using a notched trowel on the mortar where the tile was to be set. He then did the same thing, including the notched trowel, by back-buttering the tiles before pushing them in place. He said with that full mortar to mortar bonding, there’s no way those tiles are coming up in the future (other than in pieces).
Juan was checking for level constantly, and periodically would pull up a tile to add more thinset when tile height needed to be adjusted to accommodate variations in the slab and the tiles themselves.
It should also be mentioned that because Arto tiles are hand made, they are not perfect machine replicas of each other. That’s true of many Saltillo Spanish tiles as well. While I think that some of those variations made Juan a little crazy in the tile-setting process, ultimately those imperfections and variations contribute to the character and old world look and feel of these tiles.
Juan used the mortar shown below due to the weight of these tiles. He said with lighter, smaller tiles normal thinset works fine. This particular mortar is able to stand up to the additional tile weight, rather than just oozing out from under the tile.
Having the Nerve to Curve – Working with Curves
One of the trickiest parts of this project was working with the curves on the upper stairs. As pretty as the curves are, they presented some challenges. Juan put a screw in the center of the door sill at the top of the landing and then tied a mason’s string to it. As Juan laid out the tiles, he used the string as a guide for the cuts to help the previously square tiles to function in a smooth radius.
Juan’s Makita grinders with a couple different diamond blades got quite a workout. He used them to smoothly round and fine tune tiles cut on the tile saw.
A transition was created between where the squarely laid out tiles from the landing met the tiles on the radius. Again, each tile was custom cut and dry fit before being set in place.
Even the raised sides of our walkway and stairs were treated to Arto’s tile. Although we could have gone with a stucco finish on the sides, we felt that tile on the sides would result in a much more finished and cohesive appearance. We used Arto’s step on step on stair tread again on these edges. I suggested we hide the grout lines with them when viewed from the front of the house. The step on stair tread (in this case used vertically) provided a bullnose finish on the side of the platform edges for a nice, clean look.
Bring the Bling – Arto Hand Painted Deco Spanish Tiles
One of the most distinctive custom details to this project was the use of Arto’s Hand Painted Decos. These colorful Spanish tiles come in 25 traditional designs and are available in 3″x3″, 4″x4″, 5″x5″ and 6″x6″ sizes.
Many of the installations I have seen using deco tiles on both interior and exterior risers look incredibly busy. We opted for a pattern using two standard tiles and then one deco tile to make for a more unique and less visually overwhelming design. Each deco style we selected repeated once or twice somewhere in the project, but we picked enough styles to have quite a bit of variety and minimize repetition in the overall design.
We tried to pick deco designs that were complementary to the plain Spanish tiles, but also the overall color scheme of our home and landscaping. Picking designs online is tricky though, and I eliminated a couple styles that we ordered when I could see them in person. We wanted a variety that blends in nicely, so I pulled a couple tiles that were just too white and bright. As with the overall project, I recommend over-ordering. We had to place a second order to cover some additional tiles and that set our project completion time back significantly.
The 4″x4″ deco Spanish tiles we ordered retail for around $19 each. The decision to add deco tiles can definitely inflate your costs, but they also make the difference between a project that looks bland to one that looks completely custom. I definitely recommend the use of deco tiles on a Spanish style project – the decos from Arto are mini works of art.
Do Not Pout – Bust Out the Grout!
Once all the tile was set, Juan bowed out for a week or two to let the mortar cure and a storm or two pass. It was then time for the finishing touch of adding grout to the rather sizable joints in this project.
Arto highly recommends applying a sealer to the tile BEFORE grouting. This helps prevent the grout from staining the tile, and the sealer makes cleaning off the grout during the grouting process a little easier as well. We followed their advice and applied two coats of sealer prior to grouting. More on that below in the “Final Seal of Approval” section.
We had a bit of rare rain prior to grout day, so we busted out the blower. The blower was dual purpose. . . partly to dry off the surfaces, and partly to blow any debris or excess thinset that had been scraped loose in preparation for grouting. Once we had nice clean joints, it was time to get grouting!
Arto also recommended the use of a masonry grout bag to minimize scratching the tile surface with the sanded grout commonly used for spanish tiles with wide grout lines like ours. The first batch of Paragon Saltillo Grout wide joint grout mix Juan whipped up was a bit on the soupy side. Getting the right consistency for the grout to flow from the masonry bag can be tricky.
Once the grout was applied to the joints, Juan carefully removed the excess, again avoiding a float or pressure that could cause scratches to the Spanish tiles. Once the grout was finished off, Juan went through three cycles of removing the grout haze from the surface of the tiles. This process isn’t one to cut corners on, or you’ll find yourself with Spanish tiles that look like they are having a permanent cloudy day.
The transformation from pre-grout to post-grout was pretty dramatic. The grout literally and aesthetically ties everything together.
The Final Seal of Approval
Earlier, we talked about using Dragonskin to prevent moisture from coming up through the concrete and up to the tile. Sealer is used on top of the tile which prevents moisture from coming in from above. The folks at Arto suggested applying one coat of sealer prior to grouting, and then after the grout has cured, applying a second coat to seal the grout lines and provide more sealer to the Spanish tiles.
Penetrating sealer such as Smith’s Nature Shield and Master Seal by Desert Brand were the two products suggested by Arto. We went with Smith’s Nature Shield since their MSDS seemed less terrifying. The odor from Smith’s Nature Shield is very minimal, and we hear Master Seal has a lot of odor and vapors when being applied. Of course after we selected Smith’s, we found a blog post from Arto recommending Master Seal. We may try Master Seal in the future.
Smith’s Nature Shield was applied simply with a rag. When it goes on, the color on the tile pops a little bit, and the tiles take on a slightly glossy look. However, as a penetrating sealer, that wet look is short lived, and the Spanish tiles return to very close to their original, natural, pre-sealer appearance. The goal with a tile sealer like this is to prevent or minimize stains, efflorescence, and moisture intrusion into the tiles.
A Quick Peek at the Columns
We also added two columns flanking the walkway entry. Once the landscaping grows up a bit, they won’t look quite as conspicuous. The columns will be covered a bit more in two future articles we have coming, one on the in-column mailbox installed on the left column, and the other on a wood gate we’ll be installing between the columns. Stay tuned!