Monthly Archives: August 2013

How To Dispose of Leftover Grout and Thinset

Grout and thinset mortar are types of concrete and should never be rinsed down drains. That includes the muddy water rinsed from the buckets and trowels used to handle these materials. Remember concrete contains sand and can actually harden underwater, which makes it perfect for clogging pipes.

Most people find it easiest to wash up their buckets and trowels outdoors using a water hose instead of indoors using a sink. However, you still need to collect as much of the concrete in the rinse water as possible and dispose of it as solid waste for several reasons:

Sometimes weather will make it necessary to do all your work indoors, including concrete clean up, and so you might as well know how to clean up buckets and tools without using gallons and gallons of water to dilute the concrete and wash it into the lawn.

Also, if you mix up concrete frequently, the calcium in concrete rinse water can build up and kill vegetation by raising the pH of your soil. (I have used concrete water to balance the pH of my compost heap, which is highly acidic due to all the decaying organic matter.)

Rinsing Buckets and Trowels with Minimal Water

Use the trowel to shovel and scrape as much left-over concrete as possible out of the bucket and into a lined trash can.

Use old plastic grocery bags and newspapers to wipe out the bucket as cleanly as possible. Add 1 cup of water at a time. Stir the bags and newspapers around the bucket with a trowel. Dump the moist dirty mess into the trash. Repeat.

Do the same for your trowel.

It is possible to use this method to get your buckets and trowels sufficiently clean to do a final rinse in a sink without fear of harming plumbing in any way.

What To Do With “Muddy” Water

However, sometime things will not go to plain either during the mosaic work or the clean up. Sometimes your hand-rinsing bucket or some other bucket will end up with a lot of dirty water with concrete on the bottom.

Waste slurries such as this should never be poured down a drain. Even if you dilute the concrete so much that it could never form a bond, the sand in it will remain a solid and accumulate in low spots in the piping.

There is a solution that doesn’t involve throwing away the whole bucket: Stir up the slurry so that it can be poured out into a disposable basin such as an old plastic milk jug with the top cut off or a plastic trashcan lined with a garbage bag. The concrete will harden over night, and you can pour off the water in the morning and discard the disposable container in the trash as solid waste.

How To Enlarge A Mosaic Pattern Or Drawing Using Only A Ruler

It is easy to enlarge a mosaic pattern or drawing even if you have no confidence in your ability to draw. All you need is a ruler and a pencil.

For an example, I will show how to enlarge a back and white copy of a painting of mine from years ago called “Singing Love Song to My Art.”

painting gridded

Example of mosaic pattern made by drawing a grid on a black and white copy of a painting.

Verify Proportions

The larger surface should have the same proportions as your drawing. You can verify proportions  by dividing the width w by the height h of your surface. If this ratio is the same as w / h for your pattern or drawing, then the two have the same proportion.

proportion = width w / height h

In our example, the pattern has a ratio of 0.805.

= 483 mm / 600 mm

= 0.805.

If your surface has extra space in one dimension, you can always center your pattern and have extra background space on either side.

Draw A Grid On Your Pattern

Use a ruler to draw a grid on your pattern or drawing. The number of grid lines and the spacing between them can be whatever you want, as long as they are spaced evenly, but I usually use about 10 or 12.

In my example, I want the grid to be 12 cells high, so that means 11 lines spaced at

600 mm/12 cell


50 mm/cell.

Note how the contents of each cell are very simple, just a line or two, something extremely easy to copy. There is no drawing required. Just a few simple lines and curves that anyone who can write should be able to copy. In fact, drawing the grid on the larger surface requires more thought than copying what is in each cell.

If your pattern still has too much detail in each cell of the grid, then you need to use a finer grid.Try a grid that is say 20 cells high.

Draw A Grid On The Larger Surface

The next step is to draw a grid on the larger surface that has the same number of lines as the grid drawn on the pattern. To do this, you need to calculate how far apart the lines need to be spaced. This is found by calculating a ratio for the pattern:

height of cell / height

= 50 / 600

= 0.0833

Let’s say you want to draw your pattern on a surface that is 215 inches high. How far apart should the lines be spaced going up the height of the surface? To find this, multiply the height of the surface by the ration you calculated for the pattern:

215 inches * 0.0833

= 17.92 inches

In our example, the width of our cells on the large surface should be the same because we used a square grid.

Note that a ruler is less useful for drawing the larger grid, but yard sticks and t-squares and larger straight edges can be used in the same way.

Copy Each Cell

Now you are ready to copy a few lines or curves from each cell. Anyone who can print their name in neat block letters should be able to do this. If each cell still has too much detail to be copied easily, consider using a finer grid that divides the pattern up into smaller cells.

JPEGs and Digital Photos

Note that you don’t have to start with paper copy of a pattern. You can use digital images as your pattern. In my example above, I used a digital photograph of my painting as the starting point. I created a black and white copy of it using Adobe Photoshop Elements and then drew my grid using Microsoft Paint. Instead of measuring the drawing with a ruler, I used its dimensions in pixels, and I turned on the ruler and grid feature of Microsoft Paint to know where to draw my lines. If you hold down the shift key as you draw in Microsoft Paint, the line will be perfectly straight.

How To Keep Your Hands Clean When Using Thinset Mortar

Thinset Mortar is concrete with polymers added for enhanced strength and adhesive properties and is the recommended material for all outdoor and wet mosaics (pools, fountains, etc.). Unhardened thinset looks more or less like wet concrete, but it is sticky almost like honey or tar, and handling it for the first time can be a little intimidating. However, with some basic planning, you can eliminate a lot of the mess and all the stress.

One approach is to pre-mount your tiles on paper or mesh so that the final installation only involves trowels to spread thinset on a surface instead of placing individual tiles by hand into thinset.

But what if you want to mount individual tiles by hand and use thinset similar to how you use a convenient bottle of glue to make indoor mosaics?

Well, it doesn’t make sense to try to apply a small amount of thinset to the back of an individual tile similar to how people will sometimes apply glue to the back of a tile from a squeeze bottle. That approach continually contaminates the fingertips with thinset. Instead, it is more efficient and cleaner to spread a little bit of thinset over a small area of your surface and press tiles into that. Small trowels, old butter knives, palette knives and even popsicle sticks are useful for this.

These same spreading tools are also useful for pushing the tiles around and making slight adjustments in position, but invariably artists will use their fingertips for this purpose once they “get in the groove” and lose themselves in the creative flow. And then there are all the plops and spills and silly accidents like picking up the spreading tool from the wrong end.

The question becomes how do you keep your tools and hands clean without consuming a large amount of rags. Remember, this isn’t water or even glue that you are wiping off. It is concrete with sand it it. While you might be able to use the same rag all day when working with Weldbond or some other water-based glue, you can make a rag more of less unusable with just a few wipes of thinset.

Without a system, you will use up an astronomical amount of rags and still have dirty hands. It just isn’t possible to reach for rags randomly without eventually grabbing one that is already contaminated and smearing wet concrete across everything. And it is always the rag that looks perfectly clean that bites you! When the material in question is thinset, it only takes a pea-sized amount to make a big mess.

My Three Rag System

Mosaic and other crafts are more enjoyable and productive when you organize your workstation so that tools and materials are close to hand. This is doubly true when you are working with a messy material like thinset. You’ve got to set things up in a way that takes into account that you will frequently need to clean your hands and tools.

Here is how I use three rags in different ways to maximize the useful life of each rag:

  • Dirty Rag: a contaminated rag lying on the work surface near the art.
  • Wet rag: a rag is floating in a 2-gallon bucket half filled with water.
  • Dry Rag: a clean dry rag lying in the artist’s lap.

Dirty Rag

The dirty rag is placed directly on the mosaic or work table, right beside the place on the mosaic where I am currently mounting tiles. This is the rag used for wiping clumps of thinset from fingertips and tools. (Note that you should try to shake off large clumps of thinset into a garbage pail first.)

Wet Rag

The wet rag floats in a bucket half-filled with water. Hands and tools are dipped into the bucket to rinse them off. The wet rag stays in the bucket and is only there to provide something to rub against to help remove any last traces of concrete.

Dry Rag

The dry rag in the artist’s lap should only be used for drying hands and tools that are free of concrete and merely wet. Once the dry rag is contaminated just a little bit, it more or less has to be demoted to being used as the dirty rag. With that in mind, you have to be disciplined and resist the urge to grab it to wipe away spills and smears on the mosaic. For this reason, you should have a fourth rag for emergencies and use it only for that purpose.

Emergency Rag

In addition to the three rags used for cleaning and drying hands and tools, a fourth rag is needed for cleaning drops and smears on the mosaic itself. Of course, you should always try to get most of the material up using your trowel or spreading tool and use the emergency rag only for the residue so that it lasts longer. Once the emergency rag becomes too contaminated, it is demoted to being the new dirty rag.

Additional Materials and Tips

It takes a little practice to be able to lose yourself in your work and still be disciplined and conscious enough to not grab the first rag you come to when you make a mistake. That is why you should have a box of extra rags standing by. You should also have a bucket by your feet for quick disposal of contaminated rags.

Rinse Your Dirty Rags Outside

Remember to take a break and run outside to the garden hose and rinse the thinset from these rags before it hardens. These rags might be permanently stained, but they can be cleaned sufficiently to be as useful as new rags in the studio. If you are only an occasional artist, this need to reuse rags might not be such a big deal, but if you work with thinset on a regular basis, the amount of rags consumed can be significant. There will always be some that are past saving, so we try to salvage what we can.

Use a Garbage Pail

Another tip is to have an old garbage pail at your workstation so that you can throw old clumps of thinset into it instead your dirty rag bucket. I put scraps of cardboard and trash in my garbage pail to that I have something to wipe my spreading tool on. I try to use the garbage pail as much as possible to take pressure off my dirty rag.

Recycled Plastic Grocery Bags

Most artists tend to work until they can’t work any more, and that makes clean up all the more burdensome, especially when clean up involves wet concrete and requires some actual labor. This is when people are tempted to just grab all their contaminated rags and use them to wipe the left over thinset out of the mixing bucket and just throw them all away and be done. Again, this might be acceptable for an occasional artist, but it really isn’t very “green” or sustainable in a studio that frequently works with thinset.

The good news is that there is a readily available waste material that can be used as a disposable wipe for rubbing thinset off buckets and tools. Plastic grocery bags work very well for this and can be gathered for free in as large a quantity as needed.

Medical Examination Gloves

Thinset and grout contain portland cement and are mildly caustic. We wear disposable latex medical examination gloves when we work with thinset to keep it from drying out our skin.


Keeping Art Fresh

You Can’t Force Freshness

To make it as a professional artist, you have to keep your art fresh and always be enthusiastic about working on it. The easiest way to do that is to keep a variety of media in your studio and move between them as needed.

Yes, you need to have discipline and focus and stick to a craft over time to develop any depth of skill in it, in mosaic or in painting or whatever your preferred medium of art happens to be, but sometimes you need a break from the routine to have perspective on what you are doing. Sometimes you need to make little clay sculptures instead of mosaic. Or work with paper cutouts or collages from old Kodachrome photographs from 1960’s National Geographic magazines. Sometimes the most important work you can do is to not bang your head against blockages or monotony.

The Importance of Play

As an artist, you will most likely live on small commissions and day jobs and can’t afford to let too much time go by in an unproductive way. Most likely you are painfully familiar with how competitive the world is and how much economic incentive there is to always by sharpening your skills. The question is how to take a break without taking a break, and the answer is alternative mediums.

Legos Tonight

I play Legos with my 4-year-old son every day after I pick him up from preschool. We built up our collection of Legos from a few key starter sets and ordering specialty kits like wheels and doors and windows as needed. I am careful to avoid anything that is too theme specific, especially franchise themes like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and stick to generic Legos instead. I want to show my son how to build things he imagines from generic components, not make copies of things that are already saturated in video and other commercial media.

Used Bulk Lots on Ebay

The best source of Legos turns out to be eBay, where you can buy them in 10-pound and 20-pound bulk lots and get thousands of used blocks and components for the price you would pay for just a few hundred new pieces. Also, the selection of blocks in the used bulk lots is much more diverse than what you could find in any new set because these bulk lots contain blocks from countless sets of different themes from different years, many of which are discontinued and no longer available. The latest bulk lots I bought probably contained blocks from at least 40 to 50 different sets, and about 50% of the blocks were components I had never seen before: shafts, brackets, panels, hinges, beams, axles, etc. The color selection in these used bulk lots is also more diverse than what you find in a new set for exactly the same reason.

How To Clean Used Toys

One concern about buying used toys is that they can be covered in several decades worth of filth, contagious germs and little-kid stickiness. Since Legos and most contemporary toys are plastic, it is very easy to clean them by soaking in a basin of warm water with a small amount of chlorine bleach added. We use one of our large plastic recycling totes and a colander to process the whole set in one  batch. The colander is more or less required to catch all the hundreds of tiny pieces.

If you are buying toys to make assemblage sculpture, you should also consider cleaning them in a batch before starting work, although I am referring to newer contemporary toys and things that don’t have an interesting patina that defines how the object looks. Antique metal toys and even plastic toys from a few decades ago often have some rust or dirt or patina that can’t be cleaned off without changing if not downright ruining the look of the toy. Make sure you avoid the bleach bath for these type pieces and give them individual attention. I have even seen artists paint a layer of thin acrylic over patinas and dirt to make sure it didn’t come off.

My Latest Lego Creations

Enough babbling about how to make art! Here is what I made last night. Let the bidding begin at one million dollars. That is how much fun I had making them. Note that the hoist on the crane works, as does the magnet, and all of these creations were built from generic components without a plan:


Lego Crane Truck Rear View


Lego Crane Truck Front View


Lego Asian Taxi


Lego Amphibious Duck Vehicle


Lego Adjustable Camera Boom Mounted on Rolling Swivel Platform

Lego Jet Car

Lego Jet Car

Mosaic Sinks

Someone recently asked me about how they could make a Moroccan-styled Glass Mosaic Sink, and that got me thinking about different options for making mosaic sinks in general.

How to Make a Custom Basin from Thinset and Hardware Cloth?

To make a custom shape such as the simple elegant shape used in the Moroccan sinks I have seen, I would probably use a large ceramic serving bowl reinforced and extended with thinset mortar and hardware cloth (wire mesh). Actually I would probably use the bowl only as a mold for the curved bottom and build the sink up in layers of thinset and fiberglass mesh, Once I had a few layers, I would let that harden. Then I would cement in some hardware cloth and use a 1/4″ rebar hoop to stiffen the outer rim and support the bowl. Make sure the hardware cloth extends past the rebar hoop. Fold this back down over the hoop and lay if flat on the outside. Cover this in 2 coats of thinset,

Of coarse, you need to have a metal drain cemented in place from the very beginning. I would use the upside-down bowl as a mold to get the curvature I wanted, and I would leave the fiberglass mesh bare in the very top where the metal drain will be placed. I would stick the metal drain  in a hole in the middle of the hardware cloth. I would fold this hardware cloth down on the outside of this shell and made sure the metal drain matches up with the bare fiberglass mesh at the top of the inverted sink shell.

That is similar to how I made shapes for sculptures. Sometimes I would use an object as a “mold” to define the shape by draping it in mesh covered with thinset, and other times I would weld up a rebar skeleton and cover it with hardware cloth first and then cover this skeleton with thinset.

How To Use A Conventional Porcelain and Iron Sink As A Mosaic Base?

I’ve always thought about making a more contemporary mosaic sink, a wall mounted unit or maybe even a pedestal.

For either one, you could use a conventional sink (glazed porcelain or cast iron enameled with glazed porcelain). I’m always seeing interesting ones in construction dumpsters and beside the road on pickup day. It’s not like you have to wait too long to find one if you keep you eyes open on streets where they were restoring old houses.

The question is how to scuff up the porcelain so that the thinset sticks to it extra tight. Maybe the artist will get lucky, and the one in the construction dumpster will be 80-years old and used to rinse mops and scratched and stained. If not, I’d probably use a dual-grit rubbing stone an a leather work glove to scuff it up. I do stuff like that wet of course to keep from making a bunch of air-born dust. Remember, a mist bottle is often more effective than a dust mask, and a lot more comfortable when it’s hot.

You could definitely make an interesting mosaic sink from some of the glass tile I sell.

However, none of my glass is certified to be safe as a food preparation surface like a dish or a cutting board. This might not be relevant when talking about a counter top, but a sink is different.

Some people use their sink as a bowl for soaking vegetables and frozen meat. I wouldn’t do that in a sink made from stained glass because I would want to be sure that none of the softer varieties of stained glass were shedding metal oxide pigments. I wouldn’t rule that out in a sink which is subjected to organic acids and spoiled food on a regular basis and chronically damp. You could avoid the problem by using a bowl for soaking food and keeping the sink clean of food residues.

Recycled Glass Tiles

The Elementile brand of Recycled Glass Tiles would be an interesting choice for a mosaic sink, and probably the most durable glass material we have for an application like that. Elementile is small and available in a range of colors too, so you could have a fairly detailed design without having to cut it or supplement other types of glass to make up for missing colors. I’m sure this is what I would use. I would use the standard finish Elementile and avoid the iridescent version of the product.

Stained Glass

I have seen smaller pieces of stained glass used in some amazingly detailed figures in mixed medial counter tops that ranging from repeating borders in conventional ceramic tiling to found-object mosaics that included artifacts like beach bonfire glass and boyhood collections of arrowheads.

Use Small Pieces for Mosaic Counter Tops

I think I would avoid large pieces of stained glass for a sink or a counter top because some of it is very brittle, and all of it is relatively thin: nominally 1/8 inch. Most all of the glass mosaic tile is nominally 1/8″ thick, but none are larger than 1″ x 1″. There is a relationship. When the thickness is relatively thin, the piece size can only be so large before it is too easily cracked by a falling object.

Smaller tiles are less likely to crack than large ones. Here’s why: With smaller tiles, there are more lines of grout between the tiles. The grout between tile is concrete and actually helps strengthen the face of a glass mosaics to blows.

In general, I would probably avoid stained glass for sinks and only use it selectively in counter tops and those backsplashes that are less likely to see impacts from dinnerware being slung and slid around.

Mosaic Tile Colors for Flesh and Skin Tones

I frequently get emails asking me what is the best color mosaic tile we sell for rendering skin tones. I then have to explain that the question doesn’t have a straightforward answer, even if the person specifies the particular race or ethnicity of the skin to be depicted. The reason the question is problematic is that even a simplistic rendering of a face will require more than one color of tile so that you can show the features of the face, preferably through the use of shading and highlights instead of mere outlining.

Instead of talking about what I mean, an illustrated example will make the point instantly obvious:


Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of NYC Mayor Bloomberg

Artist Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was NOT made by searching for the ONE most beautiful pinky white color of mosaic tile or stained glass we sell. Instead, Sandhu uses a variety of colors: muted pinks, off whites and browns in contrasting values (light versus dark) to show depth, shadow and highlights. Also note that the material Sandhu used was not stained glass or smalti or some other expensive variety of premium art glass, which is what people tend to search for when they think they need one particular color in order to be able to create a realistic image. The mosaic above was made from 3/8-inch vitreous mosaic tile, which has a fairly limited color palette and is produced primarily as a building material and not as an art supply.

More of Sandhu’s work and portrait by other mosaic artists can be seen on our page for mosaic portraits.

I take great pleasure in showing off Sandhu’s portraits, particularly when people express frustration in the lack of flesh tones available in vitreous glass tile or complain about the lack of intensity in the colors available. But I don’t do it in a self-righteous way. It took me forever to learn a few simple lessons about using color myself, especially this very important one:

The intensity of a color is determined in large part by the use of contrasting colors around it. If you want a fiery red, surround it by blues and greens, not oranges. Value (brightness or shade) also works by contrast. A warm cream looks bright when surrounded by dark brown and relatively dark when surrounded by pure white. Whether you use complementing colors to create contrast or light and dark, the key to creating visual interest is contrast.

Once you get the hang of experimenting and putting colors side by side to see how they contrast and compliment each other, you will be surprised at what complex images you can create from seemingly ordinary colors. I hardly ever see a random spill of mixed tile on the floor of the warehouse that I don’t start thinking about what sort of image I could render using only those colors, although I always end by thinking of what colors I would add to balance them (or which to subtract.)  Just as you can learn a lot about painting by brushing pigment of canvas, you can learn about how to render in tile merely by playing with tile and making different arrangements.

Adhesives for Mosaic Mannequins and Fiberglass Sculptures

We never have to worry about evaluating new adhesives in our work because we use conventional mosaic backers like plywood (indoors), concrete backer board, stone slabs and masonry walls. This means we always use Weldbond (a white PVA adhesive for dry indoor mosaics) and thinset mortar for everything else.

But what if you are wanting to put a mosaic on a plastic mannequin or a fiberglass sculpture or some other novel backer?

Well, these backers were made to be light weight, and so it doesn’t make sense to use thinset, which is a type of concrete, and Weldbond does not bond at all to most plastics.

Silicone and Epoxy

Many people report using silicone-based adhesives and epoxies on plastics with good results, but there are several reasons to test whatever adhesive you select on your particular backer before investing time attaching very many tiles.

Reasons to Test Your Adhesive

Plastic Ain’t Plastic

There are many different types of plastics. The information you read online might say the product works well on plastic or bowling balls or whatever, but chances are that whatever plastic you have isn’t exactly the same as what the author used in their project, especially if you are using something found at a thrift store or yard sale and possibly several decades old.

Delamination of Composite Materials

The problem might actually be within the substrate and not the glue per se. For instance, testing might reveal that your plastic is actually a composite material with a thin outer layer that pulls off relatively easily when something is glued to it.

Glues Can Go Bad

What if the problem is with your particular container of glue? Specialty adhesives have shelf lives and expiration dates and can sometimes be ruined by exposure to heat or cold.

Scrape Test

The easiest way to test an adhesive is to put a small bead or dot of adhesive in an out-of-the-way place on your backer and try scraping it off a few days later with a paint scraper or putty knife. Remember to use common sense and not damage your sculpture. If the bead of adhesive won’t come off, don’t keep banging on it with the scraper until you come away with a big chunk of the substrate or crack your sculpture. Instead, use sandpaper to sand the adhesive down.

To make your test bead, you will also want to rub the wet adhesive onto the surface to make sure that the bead of adhesive has actually made intimate contact with the surface and isn’t just sitting on top superficially. You don’t have to smear it flat. It can still be a small bead.

I recommend putting two or three beads of adhesive in the test area to make sure that you have at least one that has good contact. If the adhesive fails the test, you want to know it failed because the adhesive isn’t meant for the material, not because you didn’t apply it very well. For the same reason, you will want to make sure that you prepare the surface before testing.

Surface Preparation

Before applying glue, you need to make sure the surface is clean and free of dust and oils. Most molded plastic surfaces are fairly smooth, so you will also want to lightly scuff it with a medium-grit sandpaper. However, you shouldn’t skip cleaning the surface before sanding it. If there are oils or contaminants on the surface, it is possible for them to migrate down to the freshly exposed material as you are sanding. The sandpaper gets contaminated and then contaminates the new material underneath.

I use dish-washing detergents for cleaning applications like this because they wash away cleanly. Solvents like alcohol might be more effective for lifting grease with less scrubbing, but they also run the risk of being absorbed by the material being cleaned. Probably not, but it’s safer to assume the worst when using a base of unidentified materials.

Which Brand to Use?

Consider brands like Loc-Tite, DAP and Permatex. Loc-Tite makes a variety of adhesive products in addition to epoxies and silicone adhesives, so make sure you don’t buy one of their super glue (cyanoacrylate) products. Cyanoacrylate bonds are strong but tend not to last as long because they are brittle.

Gorilla Glue is a tougher and more impact resistant cyanoacrylate adhesive, and it does have a lot of fans, but we have not used it. I would be interested in learning more about how it ages. If the tiny rubber particles that give Gorilla Glue its toughness were to oxidize over time and dry rot the way rubber does, then I would have serious doubts about using it in art meant to be durable.

Going to the adhesive aisle of a building material store and reading a few labels is a good way to find a few candidates and compare them side by side based on manufacturer recommendations. Usually the packaging will have a list of materials the adhesive will work on. Online shopping might be less useful in this regard because the product descriptions are often fairly brief, but the flip side is you can read product reviews.

HOWEVER, no matter how much of that type information you gather, make sure you test the adhesive on your particular plastic/fiberglass backer before committing time on the actual tiling.


Practical Advice for Outdoor Mosaic Art

Thinset Mortar

The first thing you need to know about outdoor and wet mosaic (pool, fountain, shower) is that thinset mortar is used instead of glue. Thinset mortar is a type of concrete with polymers added for tensile strength and enhanced adhesive properties. It contains sand and portland cement just like standard concrete and comes as a powder which is mixed with water. Hardened thinset is like concrete, only stronger and tougher (able to withstand greater impact without cracking).

I wrote a must-read page for how to use thinset mortar for detailed mosaic artwork. The thinset page contains basic handling instructions and a procedure for keeping your hands clean as you work, which is actually not as simple an issue as you would think if you haven’t ever done much work with sticky substances like construction adhesives.

I have also written a summary of basic pointers for outdoor mosaic art and an illustrated case study based on a customer’s street number project. Both of those pages contain information that can make your outdoor mosaic more durable and less labor intensive to make. (One caveat: the case study documents how our customer did his particular project, which could have been done much more efficiently by laying up the mosaic temporarily on paper, but what it lacks in efficiency it more than makes up for as an example of how much shear energy amateur artists bring to their first projects in a new medium. The sequence of photos is also instructive.)

BIG Bags of Thinset

The first thing you will notice when you go to the building material store to buy thinset is that it comes in 50-pound bags. Only 50-pound bags. As if people never had to tile the floor of a shower that was only 6 square feet. Or make mosaic art or do any number of household projects that would require nowhere near 50 pounds of anything.

For over a decade I have been hoping to find a manufacturer who could supply thinset in smaller containers, but no luck yet. I’m not sure exactly why a company the size of TEC or Laticrete wouldn’t value someone like me distributing thousands of samples of their product and paying for the privilege of doing so, but the shear lack of imagination in corporate America has never ceased to amaze me.

Imagine if you could only buy nails in 50-pound bags. Think that might kill some potential sales?

The good new is that thinset is a very useful product for home repairs, and there are ways to make the 50-pound bag more easy to use. Also, mosaic art tends to be addictive and serialized. If you make one, you will make several in all probability. Statistically, you are also likely to return to the craft repeatedly over the years.

How to Manage a 50-Pound Bag

Tip #1. Buy a 5-gallon plastic bucket with lid when you buy your bag of thinset. If you keep it sealed in the bucket where moisture and humidity can’t degrade it, the thinset should last for years and years.

Tip #2. Read and copy any instructional information from the bag before you put it into the bucket. If you forget step #2, you can always read the outside of another bag at the store or look up the manufacturer’s product information online.

Tip #3. Put the entire bag into 5-gallon bucket. Do not attempt to pour the bag into the bucket unless you want to create a dust cloud the size of Texas and coat the inside of your lungs with fortified concrete.

Tip #4. Slit the top of the bag with a box cutter and keep an old measuring cup or plastic tumbler in the bag inside the bucket for scooping out thinset as needed.

Tip #5. Scoop and mix your thinset outdoors in a location you can hose down. Or just be neat.

Tip #6. Mix your thinset up in an oversized container. For example, if you are mixing up only 3 to 5 pounds of thinset, you should still use something the size of a 2-gallon bucket. That will help contain the dust and the splatter. If you use a container that isn’t much larger than the mass you are mixing, then you will probably sling dust and mud out. Concrete is heavy and thick and takes concentrated force to mix it. That means it is more likely to be accidentally slung while being stirred.

Tip #7. Pour the measured water on top of the thinset to be mixed up. Blend it slowly and carefully at first to minimize the amount of dust being created.

Surface Preparation

If you are mosaicing on an outdoor wall of stone or masonry or a slab of concrete, then make sure the surface is clean and free from paint and any outer layers that may have been degraded by exposure to the elements.

Note that degraded surface conditions might not be as obvious as flaking paint chips. It might simply be that the outermost layer of stone or concrete is a little more crumbly than the same material underneath.

The easiest way to test for this type of superficial decay is the same method you would use to remove it if it exists. Take a wire brush of the type used for cleaning welded metal and scour the surface. If surface material comes off relatively easy, then you have some idea how much scouring you need to do.

Remember it doesn’t matter how well you mount your mosaic or seal it if you mounted it on a dirty or degraded surface. The tiles will start falling off relatively quickly.

The Right Brush

Note that the wire brushes used to clean welds have wooden handles and thicker stiffer bristles than the wire brushes used to clean barbeque pits. They are available at most hardware stores.

If you are installing a large outdoor mural, then you may want to use a circular wire brush on a power tool such as a drill or angle grinder. But, as my father used to say, “Boy, put you some long pants on and keep a good hold a this thing cause it’ll take the hide clean off you.”

Wearing the clear plastic face shields used by metal workers are also a good idea, especially if you are a novice. Gloves are not optional when using any power tool that removes material.

Plaster The Surface Level

When we mosaic a masonry wall or fireplace, we will often plaster the surface level a few days before mounting the mosaic. What do we use? Good ole thinset from our 50-pound bag.

Note that thinset gets thinner as it sets or cures (hence the name), and so you should be aware that any divots or trenches you fill with thinset (such as the seam between bricks) may start off level, but as the thinset cures, a ghost of the original divot or trench will reappear. If the holes I am trying to fill are more than half an inch deep, I will reapply a second plastering of thinset after the first coating has cured for three days.

Pre-Mount Your Tiles

Doing detailed work outdoors is much more difficult than working at your studio table, even if you are doing it on the first magical day of warm spring weather or the first refreshingly cool day of fall. Even in pleasant weather, there are ergonomic limitations that quickly come apparent when you attempt to set each tile by hand, and then there are only so many daylight hours and so many days that you can be on the job site.

The solution is to lay up your mosaic before hand. I recently wrote an illustrated post that explains how to use sticky contact paper and clear packing tape to lay out mosaic designs in advance of actually mounting them. We also sell mounting paper and mounting grids in our mosaic tools category.


Nonsense Questions

Correcting a Decade of Misinformation

For the past eleven years, I have been answering numerous how-to-mosaic questions via email on a daily basis.

In the early days, much of the advice I gave was essentially correcting misinformation that people had found elsewhere, specifically arts and crafts sources that wanted to make things as easy as possible in order to encourage sales.

These sources of information often omitted what needed to be done to make the mosaic durable and weather resistant. Possibly they thought the extra information might make the project look overly complicated or seem like too much work. (It isn’t.) However, in some cases I think it was ignorance on the part of the authors, and so they wrote instructions for how to make outdoor and garden mosaics using materials and methods meant for dry indoor locations.

And then there were all the people who would read instructions clearly meant for indoor mosaic projects like trivets and use those instructions to make an outdoor mosaic table or birdhouse…

This latter group included people who would send vitriolic emails blaming it on the tile we had sold them and other people who would propose solutions for how to rescue the poorly-conceived project: “If I dipped my mosaic birdhouse in a clear hard plastic, do you think it would keep it from falling apart? Do you sell anything like that?”

I think I preferred the emails from people threatening to sue me over the emails from people wanting clear plastics to pour over doomed outdoor projects.

But I have noticed a change in the type of mosaic questions I am getting via email over the past decade.

Some Things Do Change

Apparently the Internet has been successful in distributing a vast amount of basic how-to information because the questions I receive now don’t seem nearly as half-baked as they did when I started Mosaic Art Supply. I can’t even remember the last time someone emailed me asking if they could use a a large stretched painter’s canvas as a mosaic backer or if food coloring could be used to color grout. Silly nonsense like that used to come in several times a day when I first set up shop.

Nonsense Questions

The first reason those type questions seem like silly nonsense to me is that they don’t consider non-mosaic information the person asking is almost certainly already aware of, especially since they usually introduces themselves by mentioning their experience in art or their profession.

Q: Can I use a 3 ft x 4 ft stretched canvas as a backer for a mosaic of glass tiles?

A: Can your canvas hold 30 to 40 pounds of anything without sagging? No. It’s fabric. Also, fabric flexes; tile does not.

Q: Can I use food color to dye grout? Would it last if it worked?

A: No. Grout is concrete and mildly caustic when mixed. It would eat a vegetable pigment. Besides, what’s the longest you have ever seen a spilled Kool-Aid stain last on a sidewalk before fading away?

Of course, you never get to answer those type question emails quite as bluntly, but you do have to answer them, and sometimes they keep emailing back, and you actually have to explain to them why it won’t work, convince them it won’t work.

That is when it truly becomes nonsense: when someone is so in love with the idea they have come up with, they want you to bless it and tell them that it will work, even though they know it won’t.

Better Questions Now

As people have become more educated about basic how-to information, their questions have become a lot more relevant and practical and worth sharing with a broader audience.

For instance, more and more people generally seem to know they need to use thinset mortar instead of glue for outdoor and wet mosaics, and so now more of the questions are about how to use thinset instead of “why did the mosaic I made with a hot glue gun suddenly fall apart when it turned cold out?”

I have to be honest. In 2003 when I launched my business, I worked around the clock drawing on every knowledge resource I had gained from two engineering degrees and a lifetime of shop work just to get by, but that was not the challenging part. The challenging part was email. Sometimes I would open an email and think I literally might go mad if I attempted to answer it, but I answered them every day…

The Importance of Durability in Mosaic Art

In my previous post, I wrote about improvisation being a critical skill for visual artists working in multiple mediums. I regularly get emails from people using methods that are not technically sound: using hot glue guns to mount mosaic tile, using grout as mortar to attach tiles, etc., and so I think I need to say a little bit about improvising in ways that are technically sound versus just trying things blindly.

Improvisation Requires More Knowledge Not Less

Improvisation is best done with knowledge of fundamentals and how things should be done for durability sake. Improvisation is not stumbling in the dark or willfully ignoring design principles or shop practices. To deviate from the beaten path, you have to know more not less. Otherwise your artwork is likely to be physically defective in some unexpected and undesirable ways.

Ignorance Is Ugly (Often Literally)

When I see a piece of art that is poorly made and not very durable, all I can think about is how quickly that piece will end up in the landfill and how much fossil fuel and mined minerals were used to manufacturer the materials the artist consumed.

As an artist, you are free to use paint and glue and concrete in novel ways, but if you ignore basic usage instructions and fundamental design principles, then your artwork probably won’t age very well.

Poorly executed craft work is a manifestation of ignorance, and ignorance is never attractive. Where durability is concerned, naivety just isn’t the same as the naivety that make children’s artwork so wonderful. There is nothing liberating or instructive in seeing yet one more piece of poorly made junk in an age dominated by poorly made junk.

The Art of Impermanence

There is quite a lot of wonderful art that is made to be temporary, and its impermanence is actually part of its beauty and significance and wow factor, for want of a better phrase. Who hasn’t seen a photo-realistic masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk and not been stuck in an emotional way by the fact that it will all be gone in the next rain? The fact that it will be gone so soon makes us ponder that piece of art in ways that would have never occurred to us if it were just another painting on canvas.

A Sad Persistent Reproach

The example of a masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk is significantly different from a mosaic missing tiles and chunks of adhesive. The sidewalk painting washes dramatically and cleanly away. A poorly executed mosaic is a sad persistent reproach that just won’t go away. It has to be scraped or chiseled off as penance for the artist’s disregard for doing things in the right way.

Remember, what makes crumbling architecture so beautiful was that it was built to endure as long as possible not to be disposable.

If you want to make Tibetan butter sculptures to watch them melt in the sun as a meditation on the impermanence of everything, then use butter, not materials that were manufactured to be durable. I would say this for esthetic reasons alone, but there is also the moral reason, especially when the materials in question (cement, glass tile, etc.) require so many resources to be manufactured.