New/old reclaim bricks, cotta tiles and chestnut/oak

06/07/2012 - 13:05

Having lived in a 400 year old cottage in the Midlands which we renovated we know exactly where to find really good repro' or genuine antique building materials in the UK but are starting all over again in Italy in the Lazio region with a 300 year old casale. There are many 'posh' Italian mags with ads for VERY expensive looking repro cotta and bricks etc but i wondered if anyone who's a bit of a nerd about these things like me knows where there are really authentic looking repro materials which don't cost a silly amount? We also need to find a source of really thick roof beams to rplace our rotten ones - I am hoping to use chestnut/oak if we can possibly afford it and also chestnut floorboards. A friend suggested that I should buy this stuff in France and get it delivered. Seems perverse. is it really so difficult/expensive in Italy or do I just not know where to look? I am really happy to drive out to pick up good materials out of our region. Grateful for any thoughts!



The best solution here is to ask your local builder, as he probably knows where new beams can be obtained and he may know of  a source of cotto tiles etc from jobs he has worked on, as many Italians get rid of old materials preferring a more modern look.

There's a very good Italian magazine called Casa Antica which you can get at most bookstalls. It has lots of adverts for this kind of material + an index at the back. A link is here: For the old materials, you can contact Lacole or Sestini Corti (which you will see on the A1 motorway at Bettolle next to the exit for Asciano and Lago Trasimeno). They will email you with prices - so you can use that as a comparison. Good luck!

For some of the stuff you mention - cotto flooring, chestnut beams - in my opinion you buy new. It's how you treat the floor/beams which determines how it looks, not the age of the clay or the wood. If you want a glorious genuine brick palazzo floor you buy the handmade 35mm thick bricks locally (should run at about E20/m²), get them laid and grouted (another E20 ish)  get a specialist in to plane them perfectly flat with a terrazzo machine (another E10-15/m²) and then finish with a lot of wax (DIY or E12 or so). Max spend under E70/m². You can easily pay this for fake gres look alike tiles, and more for ímported hand made cotto from some magazine advert - which still depends on your finishing it appropriately. You should be able to find a timber merchant locally who will be able to do chestnut beams (up to about 25cm² section) reasonably: they get a bit pricier for larger sections. Chestnut flooring may be more of a problem, but worth getting a local quote. Again, it's the finishing which makes the difference. (Has the building got timber floors at present?) Bricks are not so easy, (because wysiwig rather than finishable)  although there are a lot available second hand. Get an idea of prices from the sites which robbiemarche mentions, or try and track down the big s/h materials place on the main road near Sorano del Cimino (?spelling) near UnoPiu.  Stuff which is probably worth buying as 'repro' is ironmongery - there are quite a few firms eg. which may make bits you like at affordable prices.

Fillide,  really heartened to hear of a thinking person's approach! We have already found the cotto tiles infact from the local builder's yard @ €22 M2 so it's good to hear how they will be finished. If we are happy with them as they are without grinding them perfectly smooth with the terrazo machine would you just finish them them=n with a wax buff (coloured wax or neutral?) and also would you advise sealing them with an invisible matt seal before laying?   Thanks     Rachel

I love planed floors, once cleaned and finished they are as easy to keep clean as polished marble, because effectively they don't have any joints. Posh floors were always planed - even very ordinary farmhouse floors done with cheap machine made hard clay tiles (or terazzo tiles) were planed up until the 1970s.  I have a whole selection of brick floors - the hall is done in tiles I reclaimed from the first floor, which had been planed probably 200 years ago. I didn't get them replaned, and some of them were worn, so they were not the same thickness at all edges, thus the floor isn't entirely flat, and they have narrow joints. It's polished up and greatly admired by all - almost nobody recognises the floor as other than entirely original. Then I have some floors done with E20/m² bricks, just laid and effectively unfinished. (Actually they are sealed with a Geal product called Protect, put on after the floor is finished, which is invisible. They also get an occasional polish with one of the easy to apply non buffables, Geal Woplus satinato is my choice.) They're fine, lots of people think they're wonderfully rustic and genuine looking, but I regard them as a bit second class - they are in unimportant rooms. (An aside, there is a sort of heirarchy of tiling pattern, herringbone with borders for the best rooms, catspaw for next class down, ladders for cantinas, etc!) Then I've got planed WOW brick floors on the main floor - throughout - totally flat, blindingly shiny (well, most of the time!) They need another hundred years really to look at their best - Italian visitors think they are to die for, Brits don't absolutely get it. It is essential to have extremely good lighting when the floor is being planed - despite the size and weight of the terrazzo machines it is basically a job done by eye, and tricky corners have to be hand finished with an angle grinder. What I haven't got, and I might try one day, is raw bricks sanded (rather than planed) - then finished with Geal stuff. There are people who do this sanding - it's a machine like a timber floor sander - rather less messy, cheaper and quicker than planing.  Re Badger's comment on new beams cracking - yes, they do that - they always have, it doesn't bother me. However, it is a good point to bear in mind when thinking of less than well seasoned chestnut flooring, where shrinkage might get aggravating.

Dear Filidde, Esme said you'd be the person to ask. I am trying to work out if our builder is being unreasonable or not in his proposed price in laying rectangular cotto tiles. The untreated 15x30 tiles cost €22 and I had thought another €20 to lay and grout. He is now saying it'll be more to lay because they are a bit smaller than average, plus another €7 to acid treat for salt problems, plus more for impregnating to stop staining plus more fore sealing plus more for grouting as he says small joints require individual grouting with a gun. I thought €20  per M2 was for laying and grouting. If he lays them untreated but leaves then clean maybe I could seal them against stain penetration, get him to grout and then do the finishing seal myself right at the end. I think we won't grind them this time as they have a smooth ish but clearly hand finished surface on one side which we are happy with but this sounds interesting for future rooms. When you mention sanded/polished 'bricks' do you mean literally handmade bricks used for walls or do you mean a floor tile? I'd love to see some pictures of your floors - they sound fabulous! Thanks

Be careful of using new beams, as they only appear to be seasoned for 1 year. We checked with the wood yard and they confirmed this as demand was high. Result has been large cracks in the beams as they are still drying out. They are chestnut.

As Fillide says,  there are two levels of smoothing: carteggiata (takes off the surface roughness and reveals the colour of the cotto) which is a dry process and lucidatura (makes the tiles perfectly smooth, uses water and hence makes more mess - lower area of walls will need to be masked if already finished, brings up even more of the colour). It's a matter of personal preference - for me, the first is a more rustic look, the second is an elegant finish. Some new tiles have a rough surface which is intended to be smoothed after laying, which also removes cement and other construction stains. If these tiles are left unfinished, it's impossible to mop the tiles because of the rough finish. I visited one of the long-established terracotta tile makers and asked about their recommended finish for their various tiles that don't have a factory finish. I was told to apply two coats of Geal Base (or Barrier - more expensive but gives higher water and stain resistence) the two or three coats of Woplus, either opaco or lucido, depending on whether you want a light, wax-style sheen, or a matt finish. This was most gratifying as it is exactly the process I had used to refinish old tile floors in the past, with very good results. These Geal products are environmentally friendly, and very easy to apply - just wipe or brush the milky liquid over cleaned, smoothed tiles and leave to dry. Wash with a dash of their neutral cleaner CB90 and about once each year, depending on traffic, apply another finish coat. Unlike the traditional wax finish, these products don't build up over the years, and don't attract dust - instead they are gradually worn down and replenished when necessary.   The product Base is also great for sealing exposed stone walls, new or old - scrub them down, remove the dust (I use the vacuum cleaner, probably not recommended by the manufacturer!), and paint on the Base. It is completely invisible and doesn't change the colour of the stone but it stops the stone from shedding dust and grit and protects it from staining. I had to use new chestnut beams - couldn't reuse the old beams because their size didn't meet the building code. I wanted a light, aged look so I applied a coat of anti-borer (time will tell whether it has been effective) then sanded them and applied a coat of well-diluted limewash. I then removed most of the limewash, once it had dried, with a fibre pad that substitutes for sand paper, leaving some limewash in the grain of the timber. Then two coats of a clear, low-sheen timber finish. All of this was done before installation of the beams. With hindsight, I think I should have applied the timber finish to the upper, unseen side of the beam as well because any moisture that gets into the timber during construction brings tannin to the surface. Removing some tannin stains that have appeared is our current challenge - anyone out there have suggestions? Now I understand why beams are so often dark-stained.

Thanks Belvedere for passing onthe advice given to you by there terracotta manufacturer. Did they mention anything about pre-sealing before laying to cut out efflourescence? Our builders seems to think the cotto we thought we'd have should be treated with what he calls 'acido' first to remove salts. Did you lay the tiles untreated, then apply two coats of base , then grout and then apply the top finish seal? It seems to me doing it this way, especially if we leave our tiles un-ground/polished is much less labour intensive than our builder would have us believe! Also, any thoughts on colour of grout?

Dear Belvedere,   I am going to follow your advice and use the Geal base/barrier and then Woplus after the tiler has laid the new cotto. I was just wondering if you perfected a method for brushing the treatment on and what sort of brush/broom/mop/sponge you found was best for this purpose? I know it soulds daft but in my experience you try and few things and hit on one which is really good! I've got 100m2 to seal and add a finish to so can't go down the hand waxing route and anyway I don't want to be maintaining them every 6 months. As long as they look natural, have a slight sheen and are easy to clean I'll be happy. Also, did you need to use a cleaner on your new tiles before applying the base/barrier?   Thank you

Dear Belvedere,   I am going to follow your advice and use the Geal base/barrier and then Woplus after the tiler has laid the new cotto. I was just wondering if you perfected a method for brushing the treatment on and what sort of brush/broom/mop/sponge you found was best for this purpose? I know it soulds daft but in my experience you try and few things and hit on one which is really good! I've got 100m2 to seal and add a finish to so can't go down the hand waxing route and anyway I don't want to be maintaining them every 6 months. As long as they look natural, have a slight sheen and are easy to clean I'll be happy. Also, did you need to use a cleaner on your new tiles before applying the base/barrier?   Thank you

We had a 500 year old timber framed cottage in the UK and had to repair and replace some of the oak beams. This was done with green oak (on the advice of the conservation surveyor) which also developed cracks called "shakes". It is a natural part of the settling in process and doesn't affect the strength of the beam. The house would have been built with green oak originally. I imagine it would have bee the same here and new fresh chestnut would have been used.

We had a 400 yr old cottage also with oak beams, but they were probably well seasoned, as they did not need replacing for the renovation. Has just gone up for sale again, as presume the person who won it on the Daily Mail competition did not like the insurance costs!!! Anyway, new chestnut beams/flooring do shrink as well as crack. We have found the battiscopia tiles opening from the floor by a few millimetres, which is a real pain to re-grout. If had known that would happen, would not have had them for a few years.

Some great information on cotto tile floors.  Can anyone tell me the best way of getting what I'm presuming is floor paint off our cotto tiles?  Would paint stripper or 'cementone' damage the tiles?  Thanks 

In reply to by JanJ

Since you aren't too sure whether it is paint, I think perhaps you have a lot of rather nasty red coloured stuff covering your brick floors - which for some reason people thought was a modernising beautification some years ago! It is probably paint, almost certainly an oil based paint, although it could be a heavily pigmented wax based compound. Paint stripper won't do any harm to the brick - though it will need thorough rinsing, and then let the floor dry, before thinking about any new finish. I'd suggest you experiment: maybe aquaragia (turps) or a diluente sintetico (paint thinner) from the ferramenta will work, perhaps even try cellulose thinners (well ventilated and no smoking!) I'd not recommend doing this when the temperature is high - the solvent will evaporate before it has had a chance to soften the 'paint'. If none of these products make any impression, you could try a product designed to strip old wax (though that's often just an expensive way of buying turps!) If you do choose to use something sold as a paint stripper you can cover (obviously, small areas at a time) the treated floor with clingfilm to give the stuff more time to eat the paint. If absolutely none of the above make any impression, maybe it's a rubber based 'paint'? An alternative, probably much less messy and unpleasant solution, assuming your floors are solidly supported and in pretty good nick, and reasonably flat, would be to seek out some local company with a floor sanding machine. Again, you could experiment a bit yourself, even with something like a Black and Decker mouse, to get an idea whether sanding would be a good idea. Good luck - do let us know what worked for you! (I don't know what you mean by cementone).

In reply to by Fillide

Many thanks for your very comprehensive reply Fillide.  We will follow up the suggestions next time we're over there and see what works.  It's great to have the Italian names for things as I have spent many an hour in the local DIY store (Brico) with a dictionary trying to work out what I need and even then being rather apprehensive as to whether I've got the right thing or not! We've got 1950's green terazzo tiles downstairs that I can do nothing about (it's not worth going to the effort of replacing them) so I'm looking forward to revealing the cotto ones upstairs!  Will let you know how it goes. Jan

In reply to by JanJ

Here is a link to a product which claims to get paint, or anything else, off brick floors.  Scroll down to the ''scheda tecnica'' link for a detailed description. It is called Service Solvent, by Geal. If you struggle through some of the Italian just about every word you might need should be in there somewhere. You probably won't be able to pick it up off the shelf, but if you track down a local stockist (which you can probably do through the site) they should be able to get a bottle in for you fairly quickly to experiment with.

Rachel - I have been working on tiles this week, gradually finding out what works best for me. Here's what I did - hope some of this is helpful for you. I have a roofed terrace at the front entrance which was tiled with old floor tiles reclaimed from the original building. Before beginning construction, we had sorted through them, scrubbed them with acid and rinsed and stacked them. After they were laid and grouted we firstly cleaned off the dirt with a pressure washer (not an option for internal floors!), then I scrubbed them with Geal Acido 13H3. Since it wasn't a large area (6.5sq.m) I just did it with a scrubbing brush, rubber gloves, on my hands and knees. Then rinsed it off with the pressure cleaner and left it to dry. Some of the tiles had patches of white paint and the surface was rough in places so I decided to try out sanding them with a hand-held sander and coarse paper. It worked surprisingly well - I didn't want to remove all evidence of past use but I wanted the terracotto colour to show. I debated about rinsing the tiles after sanding but opted to just use the vacuum cleaner to remove all the dust. The preparation is the hardest part. Applying the finishes was straightforward. Since the terrace won't receive heavy wear I applied two coats of Geal Base for water and stain resistance. There are various ways it can be applied. I usually just pour a small quantity and spread it with a large paintbrush over about half a square meter, working my way across the floor. You can also wipe it on with a cloth but make sure it is lint free. A coarse-textured microfibre cloth works well. Allow an hour to two hours drying time then apply a second coat. In addition to sealing the surface, Base has a levelling effect and also helps the finishing coat to grip. I applied 3 coats of Woplus Lucido to finish because I like a low sheen but Woplus is also available in satin and matt finishes. Woplus is a milky liquid that can be brushed on or spread with a cloth. It is visibly white after application but dries clear. The coats should be quite thin - if pools of Woplus are left, they'll remain milky when dry. I could send you a before and after photo if I knew how to. I have also been working on terracotta tiles for the interior floors, as previously discussed. I bought plain rectangular tiles in unfinished terracotta with a reasonably smooth surface. They are not lovely handmade new tiles, or lovely old tiles unfortunately, because of cost. Since they are new and uniform in thickness they will be laid with glue. Even though they are new, there is a powdery residue on the surface from the manufacturing process which needs to be removed with acid washing, Acido 13H3 again, but this time diluted 50% with water. I decided to do the acid wash and apply one sealant coat before they are laid. It was an easy job - production line outside working on planks laid on trestles - scrub, rinse, leave to dry (in today's heat, it certainly didn't take long). Then I painted on one coat of Geal Barrier 2 sealant. It is much more expensive than Base but gives better stain resistance. I have used it before on old tiles and it was well worth the cost.  After the tiles have been laid, I'll clean them, then apply another coat of Barrier, one coat of Base (for its levelling and gripping qualities rather than as a sealant), then three coats of Woplus. I have tried this out on sample tiles and I like the result. I have also tried rubbing oil, lemon juice, coffee and balsamic on the finished tile and it was completely resistant to staining. If doing large areas, it might be worth using machinery to clean the tiles rather than scrubbing by hand. And I would certainly get someone in to sand the tiles with a proper machine if using old or rough-surfaced tiles (my interior tiles won't need sanding because the surface is smooth). It costs 18 - 20 euro per sq.m and it's worthwhile because it enhances the colour and makes the surface smooth enough to be moppable.