Monthly Archives: October 2013

How To Make A Home Mosaic Art Studio

Avoid Studio Obsession

Setting up and organizing your studio or corner workspace can become an end unto itself and just one more thing that keeps you from working on your art. Keep in mind that great works of art have been created under terrible working conditions and with minimal tools and equipment. The most important thing you can do for your studio is to make sure you work on your art often and frequently. Incremental improvements will be made over time on an as-needed basis as you notice problems with inadequate lighting, incorrect work surface heights and the other general principles of laying out an art studio.

For many years, my art was made on the floor of whatever small apartment I was living in at the time. My workspace was cramped, and often the project had to be cleaned up and put away immediately after each work session to make room for day-to-day activities like laundry or simply to be able to walk through the tiny room.

In the example below, I show rolling tables, rolling shelves and other moveable fixtures that can be rearranged to accommodate large sculptural mosaics. This is not how my home art space was set up to make mosaics back in the day, and this probably isn’t how you should set up yours (unless you live in a large warehouse with concrete floors.)

Use What You Have (And What Can Be Gotten For Little Cost)

Instead of custom-built low tables on wheels, you can use what I once did: a plastic recycling tote turned upside down and slid into position as needed. Old coffee tables and end tables from garage sales are also useful. Keep in mind that in addition to your main work surface, it really helps to have one or two auxiliary tables on the side. This arrangement of tables creates a highly efficient C-shaped manufacturing cell where the operator can reach a wide range of materials merely by pivoting.

Depending on how many different colors or materials you are working with, you may find that one of your two side tables should be an open shelf instead. An old bookshelf made for small paperbacks is an effective and cheap solution as are shelves mounted on a wall if your workspace is in a corner.

If at all possible, have your main work table set against a window so that you can have natural light and look up from time to time to rest your eyes from the intense up-close work

A C-Shaped Manufacturing Cell

mosaic-studio

This particular mosaic studio was set up for standing artist who was working intermittently between packing orders for shipment and making “last-minute” changes before grouting.

In the picture above, notice the main work surface is augmented by an open shelf to the right and a smaller lower table to the right (almost out of camera view). Notice how the small plastic containers of tile could not be reached by a seated artist. If the artist were seated, those containers of tile would be better places by arranging them on the shelf, preferably a more efficient shelf with more levels than the one shown here. The point of the C-shaped manufacturing cell is to arrange things where the artist can reach them without getting up or stretching.

Use A Low Table For Seated Artists

low-mosaic-table

I’ve built some low tables on wheels that are about knee high, which allows a seated artist to position tiles and see. The artist does not need to bend over or reach the far side of the mosaic. Instead, the mosaic can be spun on the table, or the table itself can be spun.

Mosaic is different from painting in that it is best done while the surface is lying horizontally, and this presents a problem in how step back and see the work as a whole as you are working on it. Sure, you can clean off the tools and loose pieces of tile and prop the mosaic up vertically, but this just isn’t practical.

More importantly, it’s difficult to judge how far you are spacing each tile you place if you are looking at the mosaic from a low angle. You need to be looking at it from above. Conventional desks and worktables don’t allow this because they are too high unless you are standing, and that doesn’t make sense for hours at a time. The solution is to use a work surface much lower than what you would use for most other art activities. Old coffee tables are just about the right height and make near ideal mosaic work surfaces, particularly the square ones.

Can You Tell This Picture Has Been Staged?

mosaic-studio-table

Large work surfaces allow you to lay out tools and materials and still rotate and move the mosaic to work on different areas.

Once you work on a mosaic, the above picture should make you chuckle with its artificial neatness. I’ve laid out all the nippers, palette knives, tweezers, etc. like surgical instruments. Keep in mind that surgeons have interns and nurses and even other surgeons to assist. That means you have to keep things findable yourself.

That doesn’t mean rows, but it does mean rough zones that radiate out from your current site of active work. The zone can be as simple as tools right, blues top, greens left.

How To Manage Your Immediate Work Area

The place on the mosaic where you are actively mounting tile tends to get ringed with the tools you are currently using (glue, rag, tweezer, pick) and bins of the different colors most relevant to that location. Try to keep the stuff you aren’t using most swapped toward the back of its zone.

Also if you’re like me, you will want to create a special zone where you periodically slam down something you’ve had to search for a minute or two to find. If it keeps getting lost, put it in the special zone.

Why You Can Only Be So Disorganized

You will find yourself reaching for a palette knife as quick as any surgeon reaching for a scapple when you need to do stuff like scoop runny wet mortar before it drips onto an unsealed 250 myo limestone ammonite fossil to stain it forever. You have to work carefully and deliberately and quickly when you fabricate a surface from artifacts, and you have to know what to do when things go wrong.

And things do go wrong when you work with wet concrete and stuff easily stained by concrete.

You can be in a good rhythm, but then you will drop something, and before you know it, you will  suddenly have concrete on both hands, plus the past 6 things you touched, including whatever you are currently holding, which will continue to get dirtier until you just drop it and accidentally touch you hand to your face or hair in frustration. And then you laugh like a crazy man or cuss or both and spend the next five to ten minutes bathing things and picking concrete out of your eyebrow.

Contain Your Cutting Slivers

You can’t just cut tile, especially glass tile without creating some dangerous slivers and splinters, so this means you can’t indiscriminately hold your cutting tool over your lap or work surface. Cut tile over a tray or plastic tote to help contain the slivers generated by cutting. Totes with some depth like dishpans and unused litter boxes are more effective than flat trays for catching splinters that shoot out instead of merely falling.

Why is this important? Random slivers lying invisible on surfaces cause more cuts than handling the tile. Inevitably you touch your finger, hand or forearm to the surface, and you have cut yourself before you know what is happening. The cuts are usually surprisingly deep given the size of the slivers. I’ve had one roll a deep cut all the way across my palm when I foolishly brushed a seemingly clean table with my bare ungloved hand.

Keep your shop vacuum in the cell of the workstation if possible and use if frequently with a counter brush like the kind we sell.

I have a wire mesh fitting over my vacuum hose, and it makes the vacuum a lot more useful. I use the wire mesh fitting for vacuuming the dust out of all my small part containers without having to remove the parts: mosaic tile, screws, hardware, fossils, teeth, arrowheads, artifacts. This is huge when you have a room with thousands of open-top containers of small parts.

How To Make A Mesh Vacuum Fitting

I made the mesh fitting from 3/8″ hardware cloth (galvanized steel wire mesh) folded over the end of a hose pipe salvaged from a dead shop vac. The wire mesh was folded under at the outer edges, and I spent a few minutes with with the needle nose pliers nipping and tucking under the sharp ends. Then I wrapped it about three times with duct tape.

 What Your Really Need To Know About Duct Tape

Just because you are using duct tape doesn’t mean that your work has to be “halfast” and disposable.  You can form up some useful things with duct tape. Also, the environmental cost of making duct tape  and disposing it when worn out means that it is actually a very expensive material and should not be used carelessly.

The nozzle I made was wrapped about three times with duct tape. If you leave the sharps turned out, you could wrap a whole roll on there and still get poked if you ever pressed down on it good.

Tools List

mosaic-studio-tools

Mosaic tools arranged to the right of Dorothy Stucki’s in-progress mosaic “To Begin and End With Nothing.”

In the tools laid out above, some are more clearly visible than others, so my list begins with the less than obvious and the less visible:

  • misting water bottle (not shown)
  • glue tray for dipping tiles in glue -use plastic lid  (not shown)
  • tray of cotton swabs
  • tray of assorted metal detail tools: dental picks, tweezers of different type, small pocket screwdrivers, palette knives, butter knives, spoons
  • palette knives
  • putty knives
  • pencil cup full of odd tools: scissors, toothbrushes, pencils, markers, box cutter
  • marble file
  • mosaic glass cutter
  • tile nipper

Grout Mixing Tools

I don’t mix my grout or thinset mortar up in the workstation where I actually position the tile. I prefer to mix up and wash up in a separate place, preferably where things can be hosed down without the possibility of getting concrete in any drains. For this reason, your grout and grout mixing supplies don’t have to be stored around your mosaic workstation.

mosaic-studio-grouting

Grout mixing tools for smaller batches include small digital kitchen scale, measuring cups, buckets, pails, rubber gloves and a counter brush. Note the white tray to the left is the catching tray for the mounted compound nipper above it.

Architectural Mosaic Safety Issues

An architectural mosaic can cut someone if sharp edges are left exposed or crush someone if it’s not mounted securely. Even a small mosaic plaque is significantly heavier than a painting or photograph of the same size and should not be hung with light gauge wire or fasteners.

Preventing Cuts

Would You Glue Razor Blades To Your Shower Wall?

Broken glass can be sharper than any razor blade. Don’t cement razor sharp daggers to walls, floors or anywhere else. Use a marble file or grozing pliers to knock off any razor edges.

Use Smaller Grout Gaps To Reduce Cuts

Tighter (smaller) grout gaps helps reduce the potential for cuts. It’s intrinsically more difficult to cut yourself the closer the pieces are together because the closer they are, they less flesh that can be pressed between them.

However, there must be a grout gap large enough to get some grout into during the process of rubbing the wet grout into the cracks. Grout (and thus a gap big enough to be able to press wet concrete into) is needed to seal out water. That is one of the big ironies of mosaic: You can make your mosaic significantly more vulnerable to water damage by mounting the tiles so closely that they touch. Wet concrete might find it difficult to fit into a hairline crack, but water won’t have any problem.

Grout Cannot Hide SIns (Forever)

Grout erodes over time, particularly in locations with lots of water and traffic, such as the bathroom floor and shower stall. When the grout erodes, it re-exposes the sharp edges. Don’t use grout to hide safety problems.

Repair Damaged Mosaics

Repair damaged mosaics by prying off broken tiles or smoothing with a marble file.

Mount Mosaics Securely

The most secure mounting for a mosaic mural is a stone, concrete or masonry wall. However it is possible to mount a mosaic mural on a wood-framed wall provided you review the wall with a carpenter to make sure it’s structure can support the weight.

Smaller mosaics may be mounted using multistranded stainless-steel picture wire with construction-sized wood screws, but install a redundant wire as a back up. Use multiple fasteners in the wood and stagger their locations so as not to split the wood.

Larger murals should use steel mounting clamps or mounting trays. The fasteners should be of structural size and not finishing or cabinet nails. Put fasteners in studs and review your mounting scheme with your carpenter when you review the wall with them. Weights of large murals can be calculated from area multiplied by unit weight, which can be summed from component materials if not actually weighed on a scale.

Make sure you have a carpenter look at the wall to see if it can bear the load.

How To Lay Out A Home Art Studio

You have to build the factory before you can make the product, and that includes when you work sitting on the floor of a hotel room while on business travel like I did for years. Your factory can be as simple as a small plastic tote or gym bag with all your materials and tools packed inside.

However, the key to maximizing the amount of time you spend working on art is minimizing how much time you waste laying out and putting away materials when you are done. A designated desk or worktable can make all the difference in the world as far as productivity, especially if you lay out your tools and materials in an efficient way and keep things organized so you aren’t constantly cleaning up messes or clutter.

I wanted to talk about art studios in general first before how to configure a studio for mosaic work. My acrylic painting studio is a better example of basic principles for organizing the home art studio because my mosaic studio is at the warehouse and the tables and racks are larger and on wheels and are made for working on larger sculptural mosaic. However, I do have some mosaic-specific points at the bottom of this article.

painting-studio-201310

In my painting studio, I have things where I am surrounded on three sides by brushes and palette tools and paints and rags all arranged in the order I reach for them with minimal travel distance to the canvas at the right. Note that the totes of brushes and tools and rags and paints are all positioned about knee high so that I can reach them easily while seated. Note that there are other easels and nails on walls for displaying works in progress and color studies. Note there are open shelves just out of camera view to the left and right.

An Efficient Home Art Studio Is Similar To A Factory Workstation

Factories that have workers doing complicated assembly tasks by hand usually have them doing this work at stationary tables called workstations and not on moving assembly lines or conveyors.

The layout of these workstations have been optimized to shave seconds off of each step in the process and minimize the total floorspace used. Bins of parts and tools are arranged in order at just the right height so that the worker has to reach a minimal distance. Often the workstation is C-shaped with the worker in the middle. There is adequate lighting and a plan for how parts flow into the workstation and finished products out without the operator having to take a step.

Few professional artists have had the first course in Industrial Engineering, but their studios often  look like workstations professionally designed for a factory. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. If you work in a place day in and day out, and you are clever enough to create art, your tools and materials tend to get arranged in an efficient layout over the years merely by trial and error.

But as a trained engineer, I can see at a glance the extent to which these studios are ergonomically efficient, and it is remarkable just how honed some artist’s work spaces are, especially when laid out for one specific activity like sewing or painting or assembling small sculptures.

Multiple Creative Tasks Sharing One Space

The more difficult question is how do you lay out your limited space at home when you use it for incompatible processes like sewing and mosaic making, which requires mixing up grout and cutting and gluing tile, all processes that are inherently messy and could easily contaminate fabrics.

Modular Totes, Boxes or Trays

The solution is to using the same space is to use plastic totes or open boxes to minimize the amount of time you spend getting things out and putting them away:

  1. Make a basic layout that maximizes work surfaces and open shelves where you can see and reach different materials.
  2. Keep tools and materials for a specific media or process in plastic totes or open-top boxes.
  3. Move the totes in and out of the workstation based on which process you are using.
  4. Have a separate shelf where totes of specific materials stay when not in use.
  5. Subdivide each tote with smaller containers that organize tools and materials as needed.
  6. When possible, do you work on trays or boards or shallow totes that can be moved with everything on it as a work in progress.

Separate Out The Dirty Processes

You must also divide processes into clean processes versus messy processes, and this is sometimes relative.

For example, attaching tiles by thinset mortar involves handling a sticky variety of concrete and using a bucket of water to rinse you hands and loose concrete and grit will contaminate the work surface around you mosaic. However, an artist with a little bit of experience can easily contain the mess by using a plastic drop cloth on the table and being neat with rags and a vacuum. This is a relatively clean process that could be done inside in your studio.

On the other hand, mixing up grout or thinset can create dust, and washing up the buckets and tools are best done using a water hose. Note that these tasks are usually shorter in duration and are not the actual implementation of the design, so they are best done outside of the workstation you are using for your clean processes. Locations like driveways, patios, back porches and garages are more appropriate for these dirtier processes.

This exterior space or space(s) should also be used for any sawing, sanding or drilling, although avoid using power tools and hoses at the same time or using power tools on damp surfaces.

Don’t Squat On The Ground, Even For Dirty Work

A folding plastic table with locking legs is a great thing that can save a lot of strain on your knees and back. Don’t bend over or squat to mix up grout or wash out buckets like most people are tempted to do whenever they work with a garden hose. Suddenly they are 8 years old again even though their lower back isn’t. What happens is you get into what you are doing and don’t realize you are getting stiff and need to change positions. Something as simple as an overturned plastic milk crate can be used as a seat for working close to the ground with a hose, but you are better off with a seat with lumbar support or standing at a table. You always end up bent over longer than you had planned to be.

General Principles For Designing Home Art Studios

An art studio’s specific needs depend on the size of the art being created and the processes used, but there are some general principles

  • adequate light
  • work surfaces, preferably adjustable height, preferably more than one
  • shelves and open storage areas that display materials in a visible and accessible way.
  • an arrangement that puts the artist at the center of work surfaces and shelves.
  • an arrangement that doesn’t require to bend over or hold awkward poses.
  • a seat, preferably with lumbar support, that can be quickly rolled out of the way.
  • an easy way to move materials in and out of the workstation.
  • use plastic storage totes to store everything for a particular process.
  • move these totes in and out of the workstation when changing processes.
  • don’t use your workstation to store totes for processes not in use.

 Specific Principles For Designing Mosaic Studios

Mosaic work that is simply attaching sheets of mesh-mounted tile to a surface can be done in an area for messy processes or on site. The workstation used to create the sheets of mesh-mounted tile could also be used to create small and medium-sized mosaic plaques and sculptures, no matter if Weldbond adhesive or thinset mortar is used. The only difference being is that you have to go to you “messy process” area to mix up your thinset and wash out the buckets and tools at the end of the session.

  • a comfortable seat with lumber support.
  • a main work surface as large as practical to accommodate a mosaic plaque lying flat while surrounded by tools and containers of different materials
  • adjacent tables or open shelving
  • plastic totes that can be rinsed, not cardboard boxes
  • plastic containers such as yogurt and butter tubs for holding tile pieces.
  • shallow trays for catching and holding pieces of tile while being cut.
  • rags
  • mosaic glass cutter, tile nipper, tweezers, pick-up tools, dental picks
  • safety glasses

I also wrote a page for specifically setting up a workstation for using thinset mortar.

For most processes, especially mosaic, it helps to have a vacuum handy within reach.

 

How To Make Reclaimed Wooden Frames And Mount Indoor Mosaics

Frames That Match The Art

If the mosaic is a mixed-media mosaic with rounded and irregular sculptural elements, a frame in the style of a generic photo frame or document frame may look out of place with its uniformity and minimalism and linear perfection.

The Merits Of Reclaimed Wood

I think reclaimed wood with some naturally worn edges and grooves works very well, especially if you use the surface of the wood without sanding off all the wear and join the wood in such a way that matches the worn character of the wood. Reclaimed wood is a great example of downcycling in art and using repurposed materials.

Wood bleached white from the sun might not be as useful as indoor wood that was been aged to a warm color.

I salvage solid wood desks and chest-o-drawers when I see them on the side of the road, but here I’m talking about larger pieces salvaged from a house, maybe something roughly 1.5 to 2 inches thick, maybe something from an oaken door frame.

Original nails can be good, preferably square, preferably flush with the surface or near to flush. Rust stains, knots, old peg holes, notches, channels and dovetailing are good features to look for when choosing your wood.

Joining The Corners

I wouldn’t cut the wood to make a 45-degree mitre joint like a manufactured frame. The joint should not be a super-straight line with crisp corners if that isn’t how the other edges of the wood are.

How I attach the pieces together at the corner joints depends on the sizes, shapes and end details of the wood I found.

I like to notch things like the logs at the corners of the log cabin. In a cabin, the logs are notched shallow enough so that a log sits slightly above the two logs it is sitting on. For a mosaic frame, I cut deep notches so the four sides are all a the same level in the same plain and not two sides higher than the other two.

No Daniel Boone, you don’t use an axe to notch something this small. Instead, use a wood chisel and mallet. You can cut a notch by making repeated passes on a tablesaw set to shallow depth, but I don’t like how uniform and crisp the tablesaw is compared to the wood chisel.

You can peg the notch-joint corners with a rusty square-cut nail or brass wood screw from the front or a more generic fastener hidden from the back based on preference.

A shallow pan of a dilute bleach solution can accelerate rusting of steel nails and other findings.

Finishing Cuts

The edges of any cuts need to look like the rest the wood. Round the edges of cuts by light controlled blows with a hammer and burnishing with an old rag that gives off traces of shoe polish or wood stain, not sanding. Better yet, look for pieces of wood that are slightly longer than needed and extend out to the sides.

If a piece of old wood is too wide, consider splitting it instead of saw-milling it in a tablesaw.

Attaching Frame To Mosaic

The frame should be built around the mosaic. What I mean by that is every time you join a corner, fit it onto the mosaic to test the fit before and after driving the fastener.

I would probably have the surface of the frame be about 1/2 inch to 3/4″ inch above the surface of the mosaic but do it in a way that didn’t cause a problem shading or obscuring details. That is best accomplished by using wood that is thinner or more worn down on its inside edge.

Make sure that your mosaic is securely integrated with the frame and can’t just pop out. For esthetic and structural reasons, the frame needs to be part of the art. Use adhesives and fasteners for safety’s sake. Use your wood chisel to make sure the mosaic fits snugly inside the frame.

Mounting The Mosaic

Smaller mosaic plaques can be hung using stainless steel multi-strand picture wire provided the weight isn’t too great and the mosaic is being hung where it cannot be brushed by someone walking past and isn’t hung overhead.

A mosaic is significantly heavier than a painting or photograph. Use double mounting wires. Use stainless steel multi-strand picture wire.

Attach the first wire to nails in the back of the wood, not silly little screw eyes such as sold for hanging pictures. Wrap the wire under the heads of two nails on each side, first one nail, then the other down below it. That is your back up nail on each side.

The second wire is the backup wire, and it runs to the same 4 nails and is wrapped under the nail heads over the top of the ends of the first wire.

The nail should be selected for having a broad head, but don’t use a roofing tack. The heads of roofing tacks tend to break off easier than most nails. A screw with drilled pilot hole is preferable to a nail.

You must not use wood that is too brittle or worn out to be structurally sound. The fastener will pull out or split the wood over time. Use good carpentry skills and stagger the fasteners so that they don’t split the same grain.

The mounting wires need to hang on a fastener of structural size in the studs of the wall.

Use Metal Mounting Brackets Not Picture Wire For Large Mosaics

If your mosaic is large and heavy enough, it needs to mounted with metal brackets similar to those  used to mount mirrors, not hanging on a picture wire. Mosaic murals of this size may not need a frame.

Where To Get Materials

A carpenter friend who renovates old homes throws a lot of amazing art material into dumpsters all the time: oak flooring, oak door frames, old floor joists and ceiling beams. I’ve always been grateful that I’m tall enough to peak over inside a construction dumpster.

Mosaic Holiday Ornament Kit

I have designed a base kit that people can use to make a mosaic holiday ornament, and I plan to sell the base kit at the website. I designed the ornament base relatively quickly due to business demands, but I have spent at least 10 years thinking of how I would design mosaic kits or bases if I ever got around to it.

Design Criteria

Here are the criteria I decided were important for the holiday ornament kit:

  1. The kit should be only a base with instructions and not a complete kit because most people will want to pick out their own tile colors.
  2. The base should be reparable from generic components available at any hardware store.
  3. The mountings of the base should emphasize strength over shine or polish or decorative finish.
  4. The name of the ornament kit should avoid the word “Christmas” so that it could be used for other holidays and purposes year round.

Materials Used

The base is a 3-inch hard polystyrene foam sphere with mounting made from a loop of twine through a #8 stainless steel washer. The mounting is secured to the sphere using a 3-inch deck screw.

Note that the ornament does not hang perfectly centered from the string but is biased to one side, although the bias is slight. This was deemed preferable over a purpose-made ornament mount that would be perfectly centered yet not reliably hold the weight of a MOSAIC ornament.

mosaic-ornament-base

The base is designed to hold the weight of a mosaic over the years without having the mounting pull free from the sphere. Thus the hardware used in the mounting emphasizes strength over decorative finish.

 Hard Polystyrene Foam Sphere 3-Inch

A wooded base would add too much weight. Styrofoam or foam of some sort was needed, but not the soft foam made for floral design. A hard foam of the type used for fishing floats was needed. I selected expanded polystyrene, which is hard and paintable, which means a white PVA glue such as Weldbond can bond to it. I chose a 3-inch sphere because that was roughly the most common size and shape of Christmas ornaments sold in the US, at least in decades past.

#9 Deck Screw 3-inch

A plain screw was chosen over an eye screw because eye screws tend to be too small or short or too heavy gauge. As far as what you can find in most hardware stores, there is no middle ground. A #9 deck screw has just the right pitch and thread length to grab onto the polystyrene. The 3-inch length was also optimal for the sphere size I had chosen. I used a deck screw because they are coated for corrosion resistance, and I wanted a fastener that could be re-glued in place if it failed years from now as the polystyrene fatigued from the weight of the mosaic.

#8 Stainless Steel Washer With Twine Loop

The #8 washer can accommodate a twine loop and the shaft of the deck screw yet not slip over the head of the deck screw. Stainless steel was selected for corrosion resistance.

Design Philosophy

There are all sorts of ornament mounts that we could have purchased from China that are purpose-made and shiny and all that. The problem is that the mounts made for Christmas ornaments aren’t made to hold the weight of a mosaic, especially over the course of years.
The hardware I selected to mount the ornament was based on strength and durability and repairability. After all, why does it need to be shiny and decorative if the mosaic underneath it will be shiny and decorative enough? Not only that, shouldn’t a hand-made ornament look hand made?

Field Reparable From Generic Components

If someone uses my base kit to make a family heirloom that is passed down generation to generation, the most important aspect of the base should be durability followed by repairability. After all, I didn’t want anyone to have to throw away their great grandma’s ornament simply because they couldn’t fix it.

When I was pursuing my first engineering degree, I worked an internship at an aerospace defense contractor so I could steal the plans for the death star and send them to the rebel alliance. (Actually I worked the internship because I was clueless in general, especially as to how I could ever figure out how to use an engineering degree to live the life I really wanted to live and make art full time.)

Anyway, while I was there I studied the military hardware doctrines of the Soviet Red Army and how they contrasted with that of NATO. While US designs for jets and tanks and other weapons systems were pushing the envelope in terms of sophistication and complexity, the Soviet design philosophy was more pragmatic: supply chains in times of war are easily disrupted, so don’t make anything that couldn’t be repaired in the field with generic components.

The ornament base I designed uses generic mounting hardware that could be easily sourced and replaced.

Failure Mode Effects Analysis

When teams of engineers are designing a new product in the corporate workplace, they do something called “Failure Mode Effects Analysis,” which is a study of how the product might fail in different ways and what the likely effects are of each mode of failure. For example, if the power switch for a vacuum cleaner shorts out, does the vacuum simply stop working or could it electrocute someone?

I applied this methodology to the mounting of the mosaic ornament and quickly rejected all the purpose-made ornament mounts I saw on the market. None of them seemed likely to support the weight of a mosaic. I also applied this principle to generic screws and hardware. If or when the mounting screw pulls out, I wanted a fastener coated with something that a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond could bond to. That is why I selected a deck screw which has a corrosion-resistant coating instead of bare steel or zinc. Sure my fastener might pull out after years and years, but glue could be squeezed into the hole and the same fastener re-inserted.

Most Kits Discourage Original Design

Over the years, I have looked at craft kits sold for mosaic art with an eye toward selling them myself, but I have always been turned off in a major way by what I found. Every kit I saw on the market was overpriced, cheaply made and uninspired in terms of design, with a heavy emphasis on cutesy or being easy to complete in a relatively short amount of time. I considered designing my own project kits, but I didn’t want to do anything that encouraged people to make a copy of a design instead of making their own design. I started Mosaic Art Supply to encourage people to try their own hand at design and promote Art with a capital A, not sell junk to people who wanted to make junk.

I like the base kit I have made for a holiday ornament because other than size and shape, there isn’t any constraint on what type designs people could put on the base.

mosaic-ornament-det1

The base kit come unassembled so that the tile can be glued on and grouted without soiling the mounting hardware.

The Importance Of Repurposed Downcycling In Art Studios

In my previous article about how to cut cement board for use as a mosaic backer, I explained how I didn’t buy carbide-grit jigsaw blades for this because I re-used my worn-out wood blades for this once they became to dull for wood, and that it didn’t matter that cutting the cement board destroyed them completely. The worn-out wood blades would normally be thrown away as useless, so they are essentially free. This is an example of repurposed downcycling.

Repurposed Downcycling Versus Conventional Recycling

Recycling cans and bottles and plastics and paper usually means collecting old containers, transporting them to a plant, melting or breaking them down, re-manufacturing the raw material into new products and then transporting these finished goods to consumers. Each step of this supposedly “green” and sustainable process is actually much more energy intensive than it should be.

What this means is that conventional recycling doesn’t conserve nearly as many resources as when you can repurpose waste materials on site, even if that new purpose isn’t as important as the original purpose of the material.

For example, consider the re-use of a 32-ounce yogurt tub as a water container for rinsing paint brushes while working with acrylic paint. A container used to rinse paint brushes doesn’t need to be made from virgin plastic, which was what was required to make the yogurt tub. You could use a container to rinse brushes that was made from recycled plastics, old plastics that didn’t have to be certified to be contaminant free. However, if you can re-use the virgin plastic food container (a purpose requiring high-grade material)  for a brush rinsing container (a purpose requiring lesser-grade material) you save all the energy and other resources required to produce one from recycled plastics.

Examples Of Products Replaced By Free Repurposed Materials

Here are just a few examples from my studios and steel and woodworking shops. The free repurposed material is in parentheses () following the commercial product being replaced:

  • paper towels (old newspapers)
  • shop rags (worn-out clothing cut into pieces)
  • carbide-grit jigsaw blades (old dull blades made for cutting wood)
  • rags for cleaning up thinset (plastic grocery bags)
  • studio floor mats (flattened cardboard boxes)
  • sorting bins for nails, screws and hardware (tin cans of uniform size in a cardboard box)
  • small disposable paint containers for mixing (bottoms of milk and juice jugs cut down)
  • plastic buckets with lids (plastic paint buckets)
  • nuts, bolts, washers, screws (reclaimed hardware from old appliances)

Then there all the many different ways you can use discarded objects of metal, glass and wood as raw materials for sculpture…

Downcycling Is Different From Hording

As an artist, your most important resource is time. Your second most important resource is space. Saving large unsorted piles of mixed materials is an act of waste. It wastes your time, and it wastes your workspace, and it usually wastes the materials too eventually.

If the materials are unsorted or saved in quantities beyond what you use on a regular basis, then sooner or later it will be necessary to dispose of them all at once, even if it is after you are gone. Unused junk is unused junk. What a bizarre burden to live with. What a bizarre burden to leave for your loved ones to sort out!

Practical Tips For Downcycling

Here are some practical tips for saving materials for repurposed uses in the art studio:

  • sort materials immediately or discard them.
  • store materials in labeled containers.
  • don’t save more than you use.
  • don’t try to save everything, or even most of everything, or even some of everything.
  • don’t store anything at the expense of your workspace.
  • don’t spend more time salvaging materials than working on your art.

Repurposed Downcycling Also Saves Time, Labor and Money

Downcycling of waste materials for “lesser” purposes has other advantages than saving more resources than conventional recycling. Re-purposed materials save money because they are essentially free. Re-purposed materials also save time and labor. How? An example makes it instantly obvious: If you can cover the floor with old newspapers or flattened cardboard boxes, then you can paint the ceiling a lot faster without having to stress about every drop that falls.

Most manufacturing and maintenance processes can be done faster with sacrificial materials of some sort. Things like removable painter’s tape and paper patterns and disposable rags for cleaning up are obvious examples. When you use downcycled materials for these purposes, you can use more of them if needed without hesitation because they are free, and this allows you to  focus on minimizing time and labor costs.

How To Cut Cement Board

Two Types Of Cement Board

There are two types of cement board: The first type contains wood fibers or wood particles mixed in with the cement. The second type is portland cement between two sheets of fiberglass mesh. The second type is completely water resistant, and that is what we use in our mosaics when we use cement board.

Two Methods of Cutting Cement Board

There are two methods for cutting cement board: score-then-snap and jigsaw. The score-then-snap is faster and creates less dust, but it can only be used for straight line cuts.

Score-Then-Snap

The Score-Then-Snap method uses a box cutter to score the board, with the purpose of the score being to cut the strands of fiberglass mesh on that side of the board. A pencil and straight edge (yardstick or carpenter’s square) is used to measure and mark the board before cutting. Cut slowly and firmly to avoid deviating from the line, which happens all too easily due to the surface roughness and the blade snagging on the mesh. Tip: Cement board dulls blades very quickly, so use an old blade and not a fresh sharp one.

box-cutter

A box cutter is used to score the cement board and cut the fiberglass mesh just under the surface.

Make a second pass in your score to make sure all strands of the fiberglass mesh have been cut. Once that is done, the cement board can be snapped with minimal force using the edge of your work surface. You can also slide a yardstick under the board and line one edge of the yardstick up with the score. Pressing down on both sides should snap the board.

concrete-board-snap

The edge of a worktable or landing makes a natural place to snap the cement board once it has been scored but sometimes all that is required is to slip a yardstick underneath the score and press down on both sides.

The third step is to flip the board over and cut the fiberglass mesh on the back side using the box cutter.

Jigsaw

Jigsaws can be used to make curved cuts in cement board, but the process does create silica dust, so wear a dust mask.

jigsaw-2

Jigsaws should be run at slow speed to minimize the amount of dust generated.

Run the jigsaw at slow speed to minimize the amount of dust you create. Also make sure the cement board is supported and not allowed to flap up and down during the cut. It is possible to damage the board and weaken it by flexing and cracking the concrete.

Of course, the blade in the jigsaw should be a carbide grit blade, which is different from the toothed blades used to cut wood and metal. However, if you are like me, you save and “downcycle” everything, and you can use old wood blades that have become too dull and worn out to cut wood cleanly. The coarser the teeth the better. Run the jigsaw at slow speed and be prepared to change out blades when the teeth get worn off, which happens quickly.

jigsaw-blade

The carbide-grit jigsaw blade is still in the packaging because it will be returned to the store after the photo shoot. We save our old wood blades when they get too dull and worn out to cut wood and use them on the cement board.

How To Cut Holes For Sinks

Sometimes you need to cut holes in cement board, which is commonly done for sinks in countertops. You can use a jigsaw for that, but the problem is how to get the blade started. The solution is to drill a hole in the cement board using a masonry bit. Here are a couple of tips for doing this without damaging the board:

Tip 1. Drill Pilot Hole In Wasted Material

Drill the pilot hole in some of the wasted board to be cut out not right on the line of the cut because you are likely to mess up the smoothness of the sink hole if you try to drill your starter hole there.

Tip 2. Support The Board While Drilling

Make sure the board is supported completely underneath when you drill it and not sticking out over the edge of your work surface. The pressure of drilling is enough to flex and bend the board, which cracks the cement.

When To Use Cement Board As A Mosaic Backer

Indoor mosaic plaques and table tops can be made on plywood, but architectural mosaics such as floors and backsplashes and countertops should be made on cement backer board. The reason is simple: plywood can compress, sag and flex over time, especially when the plywood is part of a house with all that implies about exposure to humidity, water and structural stresses over time.

Most of the building material stores I have used (mostly Home Depot in Georgia) carry the fiberglass mesh variety of cement backer board in two thicknesses: 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch. They say you can use 1/4 inch in flooring because the concrete backer board doesn’t supply any structural strength to the floor, but I’ve noticed that the edges of 1/4 inch board tends to get damaged more easily during handling and construction, especially if the tile doesn’t get laid right away. That being said, you might need to use 1/4 inch on your floor merely to save weight.

An Important Note About Weight

When installing tile floors, make sure you have a carpenter look at the joists under the floor to make sure it can hold the weight of the backer and the mosaic tile.

 

 

How To Store And Reuse Dust Masks

Mixing up grout and thinset require that mosaic artists wear dust masks on an occasional basis.

I wear an N95 particulate mask, which is the same one I wear for sawing wood with power tools and many other shop and studio tasks that involve non-oily dust. An N-95 captures 95% of the particles of a certain diameter. Controlling the amount of dust you create is also essential for minimizing exposure, but that would be true even if the masks were rated 100%. No mask can protect you once you take it off.

dust masks can be stored in plastic bags

An ordinary resealable plastic bag is excellent for storing dust masks.

If It’s Done, Can It

The vacuum-and-bag method below is how I store and reuse dust masks used occasionally for lighter duties.

Of course you might not want to try to do this with a mask you wore on a twelve-hour shift in hot sweaty weather or if the amount of dust you were in was so extreme it affected visibility.
The mask should be disposed if it is saturated with dust or body salts or if it is mechanically worn out (torn, worn thin, creased severely).

Vacuum And Store In A Plastic Bag

Vacuum your mask (without damaging it or feeding it to the pig) and store it in a plastic bag.

The Important Tip

The important tip is how to vacuum it without ruining it or sucking it up in the vacuum. Remember, the pig will snatch up and eat anything, especially if you taunt him with a snack right in front of his suck hole, and his innards were made for contaminating dust masks. Always make sure the elastic band of the mask is twisted around your wrist.

You can also destroy your mask in a less obvious way.

You could create invisible rips and pinhole tears in the mask if you let the vacuum hose get stuck on it. Letting the hose get stuck on the mask also increases the risk of it getting sucked up.

Use brush fitting not bare nozzle. This helps prevent the mask from sealing or sticking to the hose.

Vacuum The Outside First

You also don’t want to suck dirt into the cup of the mask or deeper into the fibers of the mask. Vacuum the outside of the mask first. Then vacuum inside.

Don’t Make A Dust Inhalation Device

A dirty mask is a dust inhalation device, even if all the dust is on the outside of the mask. The act of handing it and putting it on can be enough to clog your sinuses if the mask is dirty enough.

This includes dust from storage as much as it does from previous wearings.

Keep your mask in a plastic bag to prevent dust from settling on it. The plastic bag can be a reused bag (shopping, bread, ziplock).

Don’t Swap Germs Until The Studio Christmas Party

Label bags with a black permanent marker to avoid exchanging germs with coworkers. I’ve found that some people are blind to most forms of labels on personal safety equipment. Capitalized initials in block letters seem to be the most effective, but razor wire probably wouldn’t stop some people from wearing your stuff.

How To Color Grout

This article is about coloring grout for mosaic art before the grout is applied.

This article isn’t about staining grout for bathroom backsplashes. From what I’ve read, staining bathroom grout doesn’t tend to last but has to be refreshed within a year or two. If I wanted to change gout color, I would remove the existing grout with a grout removal tool and then re-grout.

Another problem with grout stains and concrete dyes is that they tend to be limited in color, especially what is available at your local building material store.

Coloring Grout With Acrylic Paint

White grout (for dry indoor mosaic art*) can be colored with artists acrylic paint. You should mix the grout up according to manufacturer instructions, and once you have a nice lump of grout with a consistency similar to dough, you can add the paint. Mix in the paint a little bit at a time until you work up to the color you want. (It’s easier to add than remove, as my father would say.)

Make sure you use white grout because white will be easiest to color. If you find that you can’t get a dark enough color with white grout, then consider starting with grey grout. However, if you start with grey grout, you may find it easier to get a darker color, but it might be less intense than what you got with the white grout.

*Outdoor And Wet Mosaics

I’ve not used this on wet mosaics. That doesn’t mean it cannot be done. It only means you should test first and be aware that not all pigments are UV resistant and can fade with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Testing For Outdoor Use

I would test my colored grout by placing a hardened lump in water for a week and look for signs of color leaching or softening. I would use a minimal amount of water and look to see if the water was tinted after a week of soaking.

I would also make a few other lumps for hammer hardness testing. I would have a few control lumps with NO paint added so I could compare their hardness to the experimental specimens. Place the head of the hammer in your hand and press down on the sample with increasing weight until it crumbles. The specimens with paint should be more resistant to crumbling. Definitely email me if you observe anything different.

Use Studio Grade Pigments For Reds, Oranges And Yellows.

Use studio-grade or student-grade pigments when it comes to reds, oranges and yellows. The artist-grade pigments of reds, oranges and yellows are cadmium oxides, which are toxic. Studio-grade pigments are generally “non-toxic,” which means there isn’t a known toxic effect in the short term.

Acrylic Paint Strengthens Grout

Acrylic paint should improve the tensile strength and impact resistance of the grout the same way thinset is fortified with polymers. Of course, all of this refers to conventional grout and not the new epoxy-based grouts. I have no idea what could be done with epoxy grouts.

Should You Color Grout?

The most important question about coloring grout is should you color it.

Consider the following:

Novice artists tend to see the choice of grout color as an opportunity to improve their mosaic. Experienced artists tend to see grout color as a potential to screw up their mosaic and thus tend to make a conservative choice for grout color,

Grout color should contrast tile colors not match them. Unless you are using gray tile or light blue tile, a medium gray is usually the best choice of color because it tends to contrast the most colors. If you match grout color to tile color, then your tiles won’t be separated visually, and the mosaic effect will be lost.

The grout line is best used to separate the tiles visually and not as a color field. Think about how a thin pencil line provides definition to watercolor paintings but not color. That is how grout is best used.

Wrong Color Grout?

If you realize that you chose the wrong color grout, I wrote an article on fixing grout mistakes, including wrong colors.

Test Color Of Hardened Grout Before Applying To Mosaic

Of course you should test the color of your mix before applying the grout to your mosaic. By test, I mean mix up a small amount of grout and color it and allow it to harden overnight. You need to know what the grout looks like when it is hardened and dry before you even consider applying it. Keep in mind that grout always looks less intense and lighter after it has hardened.

If you are worrying about wasting a little grout and paint by testing it in this way, then consider how much you will waste if you apply it to your mosaic and it isn’t right…

How To Build Up Low Areas With Thinset Mortar

Low areas on a surface can be built up with thinset mortar mixed with an additional aggregate of very coarse sand a few days before tile is laid. This should be be done if you want to put a mosaic insert of thin glass tile (1/8 inch) between thicker architectural tiles like 3/8 inch stone and ceramic and still have a flush surface.

A Separate Step Is Best.

This must be done before you mosaic, preferably a few days before or even earlier. Remember, thinset shrinks or thins as it cures. You should not try to tile and build up areas at the same time.

How to Minimize Thinning During Curing

The idea is to add coarse sand with the fine stuff sifted out. (This is in addition to the fine sand aready in the thinset.) The best aggregate is the smallest grade of crushed stone. You want the largest piece size that is practical. For example, if you are building a layer 3/8 inch thick, you might not want a grit larger than 1/16 inch. If the grit is too large, you might have trouble making a smooth level surface that doesn’t have pieces of grit sticking up too high.

Make sure you save about 20% of your thinset batch free from coarse sand. You will need some plain thinset for wetting surfaces before applying the thinset with aggregate added. Scoop this into a separate container after you mix up your thinset.

How To Sift Sand Without a Mesh Sieve

Of course your sand has to have some coarse stuff in it for this to work. Bags of sand from the concrete aisle of the building material store won’t work for this because it is already sieved to be fairly small and uniform.

Colander or Two Buckets

If the sand is coarse enough, you may be able to wash it in a colander. If it is smaller than the holes of your colander, then you can use two buckets.

Do It Outside With a Garden Hose

In either case, do it outside with a garden hose somewhere water and sand can slosh. Sand should never go down drains.

2-Bucket Method

Put the sand in a 2-gallon plastic bucket. Fill the bucket 1/3 the way up with sand. Fill the rest of the way up with water. Swirl the sand with with a large serving spoon (Use a one-piece spoon. Don’t use welded ones. The scoop tends to break off the rod eventually.)

Allow the sand to start to settle, but pour it off when a sand slurry is still spinning around in the bucket.

Pour it off in a neat flowing motion that doesn’t jerk or jolt the bucket or otherwise prevent heavier particles from settling out. Don’t pour off the sand in the bottom.

A 5-gallon bucket is a good size for the bucket being poured into. Allow the 5-gallon bucket to settle for a few minutes and pour off the water in it.

Add more water to the sand still in the original 2-gallon bucket and repeat the operation a few more times or as many times as needed.

Start With Mostly Coarse Sand

It really helps if you start with sand taken from a place where the sand is already the coarsest. Look at the pile at the garden center or creek bed and pay attention to where the water has washed the smaller pieces away leaving mostly the good stuff.

Pick out random rocks and pieces that are too large.

Mixing In The Coarse Sand

The sand needs to be dry before you mix it into the thinset, else you are adding water to your thinset.

Add no more than 50% coarse sand, the coarser the better. If your sand is too fine, it will overload the thinset because the small stuff has a lot more surface area to wet. Make sure you don’t add more sand than the thinset can coat. Add some sand and mix it in before mixing it all in. Stop as the mixture becomes saturated. The coarse grains need to look like something breaded for frying.

You can also so this with small pea gravel to make 3-D concrete figures for mosaic sculpture.

Applying To The Surface

Wet the surface with thinset before troweling on the thinset/coarse sand aggregate that you mixed up.

Keep in mind that it will still contract some if the low spot has any depth to it. The coarser the sand you use, the less it will contract. It is possible to make the bulk contraction small enough
to not be noticeable.