Recently a customer emailed me asking how to cut a piece of marble mosaic tile into very small pieces. He reported that he could easily cut the marble tile into thirds by making straight cuts, but when he attempted smaller pieces or diagonal cuts, the marble would crumble or break into jagged pieces
The customer verified that he had the correct tool for cutting extremely hard tile, which is a compound nipper, but the problem is in the stone (and the technique to a certain extent) and not the tool. This article explains how to make cuts that take into account natural breaking points in the stone and how to use a marble file to file down extra small pieces instead of cutting.
Homogeneous And Thinly Layered Stone Types Cut Better
Whether or not a piece of stone tile can be easily cut into small pieces depends on the type of stone. Some varieties can be cut into thin sections while other varieties are likely to crumble or break irregularly when cut to any size. This is due to the internal structure of the stone. If a stone is homogeneous or composed of many thin layers, then it probably can be cut into thin pieces without breaking randomly. But other types of stone have veins and globs and swirls, and these types are likely to break along these natural internal structures instead of the intended line between the blades.
Note that some types of stone have natural swirls of color that do NOT act as natural fault planes, so you can’t always assume a stone will be difficult to cut reliably merely from variegated color.
Take Veins, Globs, Swirls And Layers into Account
With practice and experience, you can learn to look at the veins, globs, swirls and layers in the stone and make your cuts in places where the stone is likely to break naturally. Just as an experienced carpenter knows to avoid diving fasteners into knots in wood, an experienced mosaicist knows to make cuts along natural boundaries. Even then, there are still some varieties of stone where scrap has to be generated to get small pieces by cutting. However, there is a way to make small pieces from difficult stone types
File Instead Of Cutting
For problematic varieties of stone, you can use the fine side of a marble file to file a piece down to size instead of cutting it. Of course, you may need to make an initial cut with a tile nipper to get the stone to a manageable starting point before using the file. In fact, you may discover a lot of useful starting pieces in the “useless scrap” created by previous cuts.
Once you get accustomed to using a marble file, you may start to think of rough cuts as just an initial step followed by shaping with a marble file. For really small pieces, you can completely alter the shape of the tesserae with just a few strokes because all of the abrasion is focused on such a small surface area. You should hold the file still and rub the stone on the motionless file for greater control.
Tip: Wear gloves for this task because it is difficult to slide the tiny pieces up and down the file without scratching up your fingertips. If gloves make your hands too clumsy, then use a shop rag over your fingertip instead. As always, use mist from a spray bottle to control dust and wear a dust mask if needed.
Of course, this isn’t a scalable solution, meaning you wouldn’t want to have to do this for very many tesserae, but it is useful for making a limited number of small pieces for fine details in a mosaic mainly made from larger pieces.
Plan Mosaic Designs Starting At The Smallest Detail
Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is prevention. It doesn’t make sense to start with a mosaic pattern that has details smaller than the smallest piece of tile you can cut, but many novices make this error, which often results in a key focal point of the mosaic being more crudely executed than the background. Instead of assuming that you can always just cut the tile smaller to make the smallest detail of a mosaic, do the exact opposite: Before you begin executing the mosaic, take the smallest detail of your design and try cutting and arranging a few tiles to make that detail. If the tile is too difficult to cut that small, or if it is too tedious to arrange properly, then consider making the mosaic larger (or simplifying the smaller details of the design).
The size of a mosaic (or a painting) is ultimately determined by the size of the smallest detail that can be rendered. The principle seems obvious in hindsight, but in practice it catches many people by surprise. Why? Because they can visualize the smallest detail easily but do not realize that their powers of execution are much more limited.
Take the stress out of your mosaic project by playing with tile before you begin. Cut a little bit of it up and play around making patterns, and then decide how detailed your design should be and how large it should be. If your total area is already fixed (due to the size of an existing surface to be tiled), then try cropping or simplifying your design.