Monthly Archives: November 2014

Cutting Pan For Mosaic Tile

Cutting glass tile with a mosaic glass cutter is a relatively quiet and gentle process because not much force is required to make the cut. However, glass is a brittle material, and cutting it with a compression tool causes pieces to snap off and bounce across the room. In addition to usable pieces of tile, tiny slivers of glass are also produced and traces of dust. While this waste isn’t produced in large quantities, it does need to be contained, especially when the work is being done at home, because the slivers are extremely sharp and dusts of all type should not be breathed (including generic materials like sand and sawdust).

Fortunately, the wastes from the cutting process can be contained easily using ordinary household items such as a shallow plastic tray or pan and a damp dish towel.

mosaic cutting pan

Plastic dish pans and litter boxes make great cutting pans, especially those that are fairly shallow and wide. The sides do not have to be high at all to contain flying pieces of tile. An old dish towel can be dampened and placed on the bottom of the pan to help trap dust and slivers. A spray bottle filled with water should be used to mist the pan periodically. The tile and cutter are held down in the pan or just over it when the cut is made.

Glass Slivers and Old Towels

Pricked fingertips are a common injury, especially when you attempt to pick up a freshly cut piece of tile with a sharp triangular point instead of using a pair of tweezers as recommended. While virtually every injury I had of this type over a 15+ year period was superficial, it can be annoying especially if you work with mosaic on a daily basis like I do for long periods.

But pricked fingertips aren’t the real problem, at least in my experience. The most common form of injury experienced when working with glass mosaic are cuts from tiny glass slivers that lie hidden on work surfaces until you run your hand over them or rest your forearm. Fortunately, cuts from stray slivers can be completely avoided by common sense practices such as cutting over a pan lined with an old hand towel or dish towel and using a vacuum to periodically clean up the surrounding worksurface.

The dish towel at the bottom of the cutting pan helps prevent cuts when you pick up pieces of tile because the slivers resting on the soft terry cloth material of the towel don’t have a hard surface to push them into your skin.

Make sure you don’t reuse the old dish towel for other purposes because slivers can become tangled or embedded in the fabric. Also make sure don’t shake it out in a way that creates dust of flings slivers around. I prefer to rinse mine out in a basin of water. If I do have to shake out crumbs, I do it by holding the towel INSIDE a large trash can. I also mist the towel thoroughly beforehand to make sure the shaking doesn’t make dust fly.

Humidity and Dust

Dust can be controlled by humidity. While dry air allows tiny dust particles to become airborne more easily and stay in the air longer, moist air tends to make dust precipitate out of the air faster and helps keep dust stuck to surfaces. That is why factories often have misting sprinklers running in the ceilings, especially at times of the year when the AC or heat is running continuously.

You can do similarly by using a spray bottle to occasionally mist over your cutting area and keeping your dish towel moist inside your pan. The damp dish towel serves as a reservoir of moisture that keeps the air above it relatively humid. The humid air helps any trace amounts of dust created by cutting fall out of the air and onto the towel. The terry cloth fabric of the towel helps trap the dust once it settles.

Cutting Pans And Stray Pieces

While the safety issues mentioned above are usually ignored as a nuisance, the problem of having to chase down a loose piece every time one shoots across the worktable and onto the floor is a lot harder to ignore. Stray pieces of tile are sometimes sharp, and they can scratch floors or cut bare feet if walked on. A cutting pan made from a shallow litter box (purchased new) or plastic tote can help contain these useful pieces in addition to any waste that is created. I keep my mosaic and glue right beside my cutting pan so that I can transfer the cut pieces directly to the mosaic  -without having to get up every few minutes to find strays!

Mixed-Media Mosaic Bar

Recently artist Wendy Schroeder emailed us some photographs of her mixed-media mosaic bar top, and it is worth taking a look at for several reasons, especially if you are doing a high-end project and would like to integrate figurative mosaic art in a seamless way with other design elements.

Strong Figurative Design

First, the glass tile mosaic part of the bar top is a strong figurative design (koi pond with lily pads and lotus) that makes good use of contrasting colors from the color wheel. Wendy also made good use of multiple shades of the same hue to make color fields more interesting. (She used multiple greens for the lily pads and multiple blues for the water instead of just one color for each.) There is also good use of andamento, which is the practice of arranging the tile in curved concentric rows to suggest motion instead of placing the tile in straight rows or grids.

Mosaic Bar Finished

This impressive mosaic bar by artist Wendy Schroeder has a strong figurative design for the glass tile mosaic portion, which is integrated with the other materials and features making up the bar. Notice how well the rounded river stone mosaic works with the glass tile mosaic in spite of being different in texture and color and how the river stone mosaic helps tie in the sink and draining board. Also note the use of thick stone tile to make a border and cover the side edges of the bar top.

Figurative Design Integrated With Other Elements

Another reason this project was successful is that the glass tile mosaic koi pond is well integrated with the other features and elements making up the bar. A second type of mosaic made from monochromatic rounded river stones contrasts the color and texture of the glass mosaic, and it helps tie in the black sink and draining board. Sure the entire bar top could have been covered with the mosaic of the koi pond, but having less of it and having it paired with a contrasting dark material make its colors stand out more.

Wendy’s use of the stone mosaic to limit the amount of colorful glass mosaic is a convincing demonstration of how less can be more in art, and it makes good practical sense too. Pots and pans can be dropped on stone mosaic around the sink instead of on brittle glass tile. Besides, I’m not sure the glass mosaic would have looked as strong if it ran all the way to the sink. It may have looked more like a generic repeating covering purchased by the square foot if it had been used to cover the entire bar top. The irregularly shaped intersection with the river stone mosaic calls attention to the custom aspects of the design.

mosaic artist with bar

The artist Wendy Schroeder working on her mosaic bar top. Note that the rounded river stone mosaic is yet to be installed around the sink as are the thick stone tiles used to cover the edge of the bar top. The photograph gives a good overview of the figurative elements. Note the abstract swirls running between the lily pads. The abstract swirl illustrates how curving andamento can be used to interact with figures in a mosaic design.

The large boulder construction of the body of the bar underneath helps tie the mosaic bar to the same materials used elsewhere in the cabin.

A Novel Border / Edge Treatment

Third, Wendy’s mosaic bar top has a great solution for the side edges. Instead of tiling it with small glass mosaic, thick stone tiles were used in a way where the tiles extend up to form a border around the mosaic on the top surface. You need to look closely at the first and third photographs to see these border tiles, and only their top edges are visible in the first photo. Note how those tiles have to be as thick as they are to properly form a border around the black river stone mosaic.

cutting board detail of mosaic bar

A walnut cutting board and brass bin cover are built into the mosaic bar top. Note the thick stone tile used to cover the side edges of the bar top and how these stone tiles form a border around the glass mosaic.

Project Integrated With Room Decor

The photograph above shows how a walnut cutting board and brass bin cover were integrated into the mosaic design of the counter top. The thick boarder tiles used to line the edge of the counter top are also used to form a boarder around the sink and brass bin cover. This boarder helps tie all the different components together.

What is equally important to me is how the bar counter top as a whole works with the other design elements in the room. After all, the colors and the materials and the design of the mosaic shouldn’t look out of place in the room where it is being installed. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how well the mosaic itself is executed. Usually this sort of harmony is achieved by using similar colors or materials or motifs or themes in the mosaic. The hardwood floors and stone mosaic used elsewhere in the kitchen help the bar to look “at home” because they are similar in color and texture and design and theme to the bar. Even the modern stainless steel appliances are visually compatible with the bar top because it contains black and gray elements.

From what I have seen over the years, architectural mosaic projects that fail usually do so because the materials or colors or design of the mosaic are not compatible with the decor of the room as a whole. It means a lot for me to say that because I am a figurative artist who paints and mosaics for its own sake, and I hate the idea of shallow people buying a painting merely because it matches their sofa, but art is context and art is design. Things have to be balanced and compatible as a whole in terms of interior design for the artwork itself to be fully appreciated.

mosaic bar lights

“And that’s not all! If you act now, we will include custom lighting!” As if a successful mixed-media mosaic project that worked well with existing room decor were not enough of an accomplishment, Wendy built in custom fiber optic lights BENEATH the glass of the mosaic. My initial emotional response to this piece was pure artistic envy: “Someone has outcrazied me, and I feel threatened.”

Drawing The Pattern Directly On The Backer

Another reason I wanted to show off this project is that Wendy got some good photographs of the work in progress, which is something I have been terrible about doing, at least in the past. One of her work-in-process photos shows how she drew her cartoon (pattern or outline) directly on the backer used for the mosaic counter top, which in this case is a plywood surface with some reinforcing underneath.

Mosaic pattern demonstration

The outlined patterns used for creating mosaic designs are referred to as “cartoons,” and these can be drawn directly on the backer to be mosaiced if the surface isn’t currently in use. Usually you have to lay up the mosaic design in advance on mounting tape or mounting paper or fiberglass mesh because the surface to be covered is being used during the time it takes to lay up the design.

Mounting The Tile

Mounting Mosaic Tile

Mounting tile on a large project is a time consuming process that ties up real estate in your studio for an extended period. It isn’t practical to pick up and store everything after each working session, so it makes sense to find a room or work surface that can be occupied for the length of the project. All that being said, small mosaic plaques can be made quite easily on a shared table provided you vacuum after work sessions and keep materials stored in trays.

Custom figurative mosaic work with glass tile means a lot of cutting, which is easy to do with a mosaic glass cutter, but tiny glass slivers are produced. These can be quite sharp and lie hidden on surfaces until you rub your hand over them. Keep your vacuum handy and cut over an old towel to contain these sharp slivers. Make sure you retire the towel after use or use it exclusively for mosaic.

Thanks Wendy! I really enjoyed showing off your project.

 

Small Glass Mosaic Instructions

These instructions explain how to set up and make a small mosaic from glass mosaic tile. I use our new hardwood mosaic coaster bases with 12mm Elementile recycled glass mosaic tile as an example, and I show how to set up your studio work space in ways that control dust and sharp splinters of glass. I grew up working in a dirt-floor welding shop and have spent a lifetime thinking about ways to minimize my exposure to potentially harmful substances, especially dusts, so don’t let my emphasis on safety alarm you.

These instructions were also written for someone trying to fit the glass as close together as I did in my mosaic crab shown below. If you leave an irregular grout gap of 1/16″ or less, you will have to cut a lot less and create fewer shards and dust. (You will also be able to use nearly every piece you cut and be able to use regular sanded grout to grout it.)

mosaic coaster crab

Crab Mosaic Coaster. I used the glass mosaic tile upside down so that the embossed texture showed to make this crab. The edges of the coaster were smoothed with a marble file. Note that leaving a gap for grout instead of fitting the tile together this closely would have made the work infinitely easier. Fitting tile this closely takes more trial and error and you may end up cutting up over twice the amount of tile than you actually use. Most of these extra pieces could be eventually used on a future mosaic, but you can really take a lot of stress out of the process by leaving irregular gaps and not fitting each piece exactly. You can make the tile touch in places and still have an irregular gap.

Mosaic Studio Set Up

Mosaic Studio Set Up

Whether you are painting, soldering, sewing, engraving or doing mosaic, your workspace tends to evolve into a U-shaped station where you can reach everything you need. Note the trays made from cardboard shallow boxes holding tile in recycled yogurt containers. Keeping your materials in shallow boxes and trays allows you to set up different activities and clean up quickly. One of the most important pieces of equipment isn’t shown: a HEPA-quality vacuum for cleaning up splinters of glass and any incidental dust.

Your Vacuum Needs To Be A HEPA Vacuum

Your home vacuum should be HEPA quality, which means it removes at least 99.97% of airborne particles 0.3 micrometers (µm) in diameter. I say this for all uses including cleaning your house and not just for mosaics or other crafts. If your vacuum isn’t HEPA, then it is blowing out a lot of dust that you are breathing. Vacuuming should make the air more healthy to breath, not expose you to lots of dust. Keep in mind that the silicon dust you track in as soil can be just as bad for your lungs as most of the materials used in arts and crafts.

When you cut up glass mosaic tile, there will definitely be small vicious splinters of glass that hide unseen on surfaces until you slide your hand across it and get a nasty cut before you even know what bit you. A vacuum and a counter brush are good ways to remove these from the work surface and the surrounding floor and to pick up any dust that is created by cutting.

Cutting Towel and Spray Bottle

cutting towel for glass slivers

An old dish towel or hand towel can be used to catch tiny splinters of glass created during cutting. Be careful shaking the tile out after use because you could flick sharp pieces of glass. We do this INSIDE a large garbage can and wear safety glasses when we work with mosaic. You should also mist your towel before shaking it to make sure you are not creating airborne dust.

In addition to a vacuum, you should use an old dish towel or hand towel to contain any dust and splinters created by cutting tile. You can put the towel in a shallow box or dishpan to catch any pieces that fly off when nipped by the mosaic glass cutter. The towel and tile can be misted with a spray bottle to prevent the formation of airborne dust, but don’t be excessive. You still need to keep the moisture away from the vacuum to prevent the risk of electric shock, and moisture can cause wood backers to warp, especially thin wood such as the mosaic coaster bases.

Using Marble Files Without Creating Dust

Marble File in Bucket

Marble files are great for shaping individual tiles and smoothing the edges of finished mosaics, but they should be used in an intelligent way that doesn’t expose you to glass dust. We do this by keeping the file in a 2-gallon plastic bucket and misting with water from a spray bottle. Sure the file will rust over time, even if you rinse and dry it each night, but marble files can be replaced while new lungs are hard to get. You already breath enough silicon from pulverized sand every day merely by living on planet Earth. Don’t add to the burden through your hobbies.

Mostly you can get the pieces you need by nipping, but sometimes there are random slivers left at the edge of a cut, and the edges of the finished mosaic on a round coaster base usually requires smoothing. Now any blockhead can just grab the file and go at it, but I LIVE in my studio, so I use common sense practices such as wet sanding and wet filing to make sure I don’t create airborne dust. Use your marble file in a 2-gallon plastic bucket and mist with a spray bottle to contain the dust at the source.

Mounting Tile With Glue

Tweezers and glue

Tweezers and glue. Working with pieces of tile this small is difficult without the use of a pair of tweezers. A self-closing pair of tweezers with a needle point is shown, but these can sometime cause a tile to shoot out, and I prefer regular tweezers with a wide tip.

We use the Weldbond brand of white PVA adhesive because it is the best PVA we have used and doesn’t get as brittle in cold temperatures as some of the other brands we have tried over the years. It also seems to be very water resistant when fully cured. (Note that water resistant does not mean water proof, and we use thinset mortar on all wet mosaics and outdoor mosaics.) The white disk in the photograph is a top from a plastic yogurt container. We use these to hold a small blob of glue and dip the bottom of the tile into the glue using a pair of tweezers.

If you are fitting the tile tightly together, make sure you start at the center of the mosaic and work outwards. Otherwise, you can warp thin wood backers by squeezing tile into tight places.

Drawing Mosaic Patterns On Your Backer

Draw the cartoon (outline) of your mosaic directly on the coaster base or whatever small mosaic backer you choose. You should start with pencil and then darken the principal lines with a fine-point marker such as a Sharpie. Your pattern should look like a picture from a coloring book: just the main lines and the outline of the figures.

You can also find a pattern on paper and transfer the pattern to the backer using graphite tracing paper (carbon paper). First, print the pattern as the same size as the backer by resizing the pattern using a photo-editing program. Then tape the pattern to the backer with carbon paper in between the pattern and the backer. Then trace over the pattern firmly with a ballpoint pen.

If you cannot print the pattern the same size as the backer, you can use these instructions for enlarging and transferring a mosaic pattern.

Grouting The Mosaic

Most mosaic art is made with a grout gap of roughly 1/32 inch to 1/16 inch and is grouted with sanded grout. If your mosaic is made with fitted tile such as mosaic crab coaster above, you should use nonsanded grout or leave the mosaic ungrouted. Note that leaving a mosaic ungrouted is not practical for wet mosaics and outdoor mosaics or even mosaic counter tops. Those mosaics need grout to seal out water.

You should mix your grout according to manufacturer instructions, which usually specify roughly 1/4 pound of water per every 1 pound of sanded grout, and mix it thoroughly to make sure all the powder is thoroughly wetted. The grout is applied by smearing the wet grout across the face of the mosaic, and you should make several passes from different directions to make sure the wet grout is being forced to the bottoms of the gaps and not just superficially covering the tops. A gloved hand is good for this work, but be aware that sharp edges of cut tile pieces can sometimes cut through a glove. That is why the grouting gloves we sell are thicker than most dish washing gloves. You can cut a plastic lid in half to make a great disposable grout spreader.

Make sure you don’t allow the grout to dry out as it as curing. Concrete hardens by BINDING water not by drying. If you have to, cover the mosaic in plastic wrap or use a humidifier. Both are recommended if you are in a dry climate or the heater or AC are running excessively.

Make sure you use a damp (but not dripping) sponge or rag to remove excess grout from the face of the mosaic, but be careful not to pull the grout out from the gaps between the tile. After grout has hardened, you can buff the face of the mosaic with wet and dry rags to remove any remaining haze.

Dispose of your wet grout in the trash and not sinks or drains. Grout is concrete and can harden underwater, and even the loose sand can be a problem is pipes.

Outdoor mosaics and architectural mosaics (such as counter tops and backsplashes) need to be sealed with a tile and grout sealer such as the TileLab brand from Home Depot, but small art mosaics don’t really require it unless you expect it to be subjected to splashes and stains.

Additional tips about grouting can be found on the mosaic grout page and our page for how to avoid grouting problems.

Sealing Sides and Backs Of Wooden Backers

I like to seal the side edges and backs of wooden backers with a clear polyurethane (sometimes with varnish, sometimes without) or with acrylic artists paint such as umber or burnt umber.

This keeps the plywood from delaminating and solid wood (such as the coaster bases) from cracking or warping. This is particularly important for coasters subject to spills and condensation from glasses.

Mosaic Transfer Instructions

Yesterday I wrote up some recommendations and instructions for Outdoor School Mosaics that focused on a project where each child made a mosaic stepping stone on a paver to be arranged in a crazy quilt design. I forgot to clarify that those instructions were written for younger students and beginners needing to play around with tile and get some basic experience forming tile into patterns and shapes. After all, it doesn’t make sense to have young children trying to copy the work of an experienced mosaic artist before they have had the benefit of handling tile long enough to make a simple triangle or smiley face.

More Sophisticated Designs

If you wanted to use make a more sophisticated design with smaller pieces of tile or to render an image, you could adapt that same method and add just a few steps. I have the steps numbered below, but here is a summary of what would be different: Before you covered the cardboard square with contact paper (sticky side out), you would draw your pattern on the cardboard or tape the pattern to the cardboard. Once you position all your tile on the pattern covered in contact paper, you would use some mosaic mounting film to pick it up off the cardboard/contact paper. Then the mosaic could be pressed onto a paver or stepping stone coated with thinset. Once the thinset hardens, the mounting film is peeled off and the mosaic is grouted. This method allows you to lay up very complicated designs in advance of transferring it all at once to the cement.

Pavers vs. Molds

Note that here I am talking about using thinset mortar to attach a mosaic design to an existing stepping stone or paver or flagstone. If you need instructions for how to use a stepping stone mold to press tiles into wet concrete (or pour wet concrete over a mosaic design mounted on contact paper at the bottom of a mold), then read my article on Mosaic Stepping Stone Instructions.

Stepping Stone Transfer Instructions

  1. Cut out a square of cardboard the same size as your stepping stone or paver. If you want to use an irregularly shaped piece of flagstone as your mosaic base, you can cut out a piece of cardboard in the same shape as the flagstone. Just lay the flagstone on the cardboard and trace around it.
  2. Draw your mosaic pattern on the cardboard or on a piece of paper taped to the cardboard.
  3. Wrap the cardboard pattern with clear contact paper with the STICKY SIDE OUT. The sticky contact paper keeps the tiles from sliding around as you position them on the pattern.
  4. Use mosaic mounting tape (or clear packing tape) to pick the mosaic up off the cardboard pattern.
  5. Coat the paver or stepping stone or flagstone with a thin layer of thinset mortar. Smear it around to make sure the surface is wetted thoroughly and then scrape off the excess. You only need a layer about 1/16 inch thick. A little more won’t hurt, and it doesn’t have to be exact, but too much can be a little messy if you press down of the mosaic and squeeze it out the sides.
  6. Press the mosaic into the thinset. It may be easier to lay the mosaic on a table (with the mounting tape side down) and lower the thinset-covered stone onto the sheet of tile.
  7. Allow the thinset to harden for 24+ hours.
  8. Peel off the mosaic mounting tape.
  9. Grout the mosaic with additional thinset if needed. It is better to use more thinset instead of grout because it will match the color of any thinset that pressed up between the tiles when you mounted the mosaic. If you use grout, then the color probably won’t be exactly the same, and your mosaic will look like you grouted it with two different types of concrete. Often no additional grout is needed because enough thinset squeezes up between the tiles during mounting.
  10. Clean any grout residue or haze from the face of the mosaic by buffing with a clean cloth.
  11. Allow the grout to cure for 2 or 3 days and then seal the finished mosaic with a tile and grout sealer purchased from a local building material store.

For more information on using clear contact paper and mosaic mounting tape to lay up and transfer mosaic designs, read my article on Mounting A Mosaic On Clear Adhesive Film. If the cost of mosaic mounting tape is too high, or if you don’t need a whole roll, then you can use clear packing tape as a substitute.

Outdoor School Mosaics

Recently I received an email from an art teacher whose school mosaic project was an outdoor mosaic where each child would create a mosaic on an 8 inch x 8 inch brick paver (paving stone), and then the mosaic pavers would be arranged together in a crazy quilt design similar to what artist Victor Kobayashi created for his mosaic patio in Honolulu.

I really like the crazy quilt approach to school projects because it allows each student to make their own art and have a real art experience instead of copying some teacher’s favorite piece of art, which usually involves more boredom or frustration than it does art. Crazy quilt projects also tend to produce more exuberant and impressive results. Copying something is merely copying something, even if that something is an acknowledged masterpiece.

Normally, school mosaic projects can use 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch sanded plywood as a backer, and the tile can be attached using a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond, but plywood and glue are for indoors only. For outdoor and wet mosaics, you must use thinset mortar to attach the tiles to the backer, and that backer must be cement, stone or masonry. For large mosaics, a sheet of concrete backer board can be mounted to a metal wall using a frame welded from angle iron, or the mosaic can be created directly on a stone or concrete wall or a brick wall plastered smooth with thinset. In this case, the mosaic can be laid up in advance on fiberglass mesh, mosaic paper or clear mounting tape, and then these sheets can be pressed into thinset spread on the wall using a notched trowel.

This particular teacher decided to use brick pavers for her backers, but the concrete stepping stones/pavers commonly sold at building material stores could have been used in a similar way. The real issue for her project was how the students could use thinset mortar to attach each individual tile without creating a huge mess.

Thinset mortar is a sanded portland cement product with polymers added for strength and adhesive properties, so think of it as sticky concrete because that is essentially what it is. Your students might be mature and competent enough to use a bottle of glue that looks and handles just like Elmer’s glue, but how are they going to fare when they start working with sticky concrete? Now that I have your attention and your hair is standing on end, let me calm you by saying that it can be done, and it can be done fairly easily with a little forethought and planning.

One option would be to avoid setting each tile individually and lay up the designs in advance on clear mounting tape using my instructions for using contact paper and mounting tape. Then thinset could be spread on the pavers and the whole design mounted at once.

But that still involves handling thinset and some point, and sometimes you find situations where the mounting tape method isn’t practical (such as when not all of your tile have the same thickness).

Make A Prototype To Answer Basic Questions

The key too minimizing frustration and mess is to figure out your process BEFORE you involve the children, and the best way of doing that is to make a prototype in advance. In making a small mosaic beforehand, you work out the details of your materials and methods, including how the thinset will be distributed between the different children and how they will apply it to the backer.

Here are some questions you should answer by making your prototype. Please don’t let any of these alarm you because I have a practical recommendation at the end of this article that greatly simplifies everything and even eliminates some of these concerns:

How long does it take to apply tile to a mosaic of this size?

How many classroom sessions will be required?

Would it be more practical to have longer sessions instead of a larger number of short sessions?

How will thinset be applied to the stepping stones? Will the children spread the thinset themselves?

How will the children keep their hands clean while working; buckets of water and piles of rags?

How will we keep the thinset from drying out in the heated winter air or summer AC? Can we use humidifiers if necessary?

How much thinset do you need to mix up at one time? (This is answered by thinking about how many students will be working at once and how much thinset you used in one working session.)

How will we mix up the thinset? Is a parent volunteer available with a mixing paddle, drill motor and 5 gallon bucket? Do we have any parents who work as contractors and have experience with laying tile or mixing up concrete?

All of these things are relatively easy to implement, but they can make things chaotic or difficult if you don’t think about them in advance.

Thinset And Surfaces

There are a few specific concerns related to using thinset and pavers/stepping stones.

Surface Wetting

Sometimes you can drop a clump of thinset onto concrete backer board and it will harden without bonding to the backer board and it will fall right off or come off with minimal scraping. This was because the thinset didn’t really make intimate contact with the board due to surface dust. This can become more of an issue over time as you work and the thinset starts to set up as you are using it. The point is that sometimes you need to smear thinset into a surface to make sure it adequately wets the surface and makes intimate contact. Normally this happens merely by pressing a tile into the thinset, but you might do well to keep an eye out for students who are minimalists in terms of how much thinset they apply and for those who have a butterfly touch and just kind of sit the tile on top of the thinset instead of pressing it in.

Presealed Pavers

One problem you might encounter is pavers or stepping stones that have been sealed with some sort of silicon or polymer that might interfere with thinset bonding well to them. You can test for this simply by dripping some water or spittle on the paver and observing whether or not the water wets the surface. If the water wets the surface and soaks in, then there shouldn’t be any problem. If the water beads up similar to how water beads on a waxed car, or if it fails to soak in, then you know that the pavers have a heavy coat of sealant and should be avoided.

Skin Irritation

Wet concrete is mildly caustic, so it can dry and irritate the skin. A box of disposable medical examination gloves from the drug store can prevent this. You should also have the children wear safety glasses with side shields.

Overly Complex Designs And A Recommendation

Another thing you can learn from making a prototype is how much time is involved and how simple or complex the designs can be in order to be completed in the time allowed. I definitely prefer children be allowed to make original designs so that they get a real art experience, but you still need to give them recommendations about what level of detail is practical and look out for children trying to make overly complex and detailed designs. For this reason, it can be somewhat problematic for children to sketch out their designs in advance. Sometimes the mere act of drawing gets a person thinking in terms of a level of detail that isn’t practical in the medium in which the design will be executed. I have encountered this time and again while sketching out designs for my painting and mosaic.

Instead of sketching out designs, a more practical exercise might be for the students to play around with arranging tile before they decide on a finished design and definitely before they work with concrete.

I recommend making cardboard squares the same size as the mosaic backer and allowing the children to practice laying up their design on the square. If possible, give them one session to play with different arrangements and experiment with rendering different designs in the square, and a second session to finalize their design.

Then the following sessions could be about transferring the tile to the thinset on the paver. Using this approach, it would be possible for a teacher or parent volunteer to spread thinset on the pavers, and then the students merely transfer their tile designs from the cardboard squares/trays to the thinset, which would greatly minimize the amount time the children spent touching concrete.

A Practical Method For Kids And Thinset

  1. Make squares from cardboard that are the same size as the stepping stones/pavers or draw squares the size of the pavers on cardboard or trays. I prefer to cut out the cardboard squares so that they can be wrapped with contact paper with the sticky side out to prevent the tile from moving around.
  2. Have children spend one or two sessions arranging tile into designs on these squares/trays.
  3. Have teachers or parent volunteers mix up and spread thinset on the stepping stones.
  4. The children transfer their designs to the stepping stone one tile at a time. Alternatively, clear mounting tape could be used to pick up and transfer more complex designs made from smaller tile.
  5. After the thinset has hardened for a day, grout the mosaics with more thinset or grout.
  6. After the grout has hardened for at least a day or two, clean off any remaining grout residue by rubbing with a clean cloth and seal the mosaics with a tile and grout sealer.

MORE COMPLICATED DESIGNS?

The above instructions were written for children and beginners who just need to play around with tile to make simple designs. However, you may have more advanced students capable of making more sophisticated images from many small pieces of tile. I have written a second article Mosaic Transfer Instructions which explains how to lay up a more complicated design on a pattern and transfer it all at once to thinset or cement using mosaic mounting tape or clear packing tape.

Mosaic Coasters

Our shipment of hardwood bases for making mosaic coaster recently arrived, and I just now added them to our website. We have bases for making square mosaic coasters and round mosaic coasters, and these are great project ideas for someone wanting to make a mosaic miniature.

The coaster bases are made in the USA from cherry hardwood that has been cut out with a laser so that the sides have an attractive burnt wood finish.

mosaic coaster skull bases

The mosaic coasters are a great project idea because they are small and require less time and material. I made this skull mosaic the night before Halloween.

In the product descriptions for these, I included some instructions for how to make your own mosaic design on them. My instructions emphasize the need to evaluate your design to make sure you don’t have any details smaller than the smallest piece of tile you can cut. To do this, I always find the smallest detail in my design and cut up some tile and arrange it to form the detail. If I discover that it is too difficult to cut the tile that small, then I know I need to change the scale of my design by cropping it or simplifying it in some way. This is important for creating mosaic art in general, but it is particularly important when you start trying to make mosaic miniatures like this. It just doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of time in the rest of the mosaic only to get to the most detailed part (which is often a key focal point in the design) and discover that you can’t render it very well because it is too small.

Here is my mosaic skull coaster again. I am reluctant to describe it as micro mosaic because this is really nothing compared to the insanely detailed work that the micro artists turn out. After all, this is a coaster, not a design on a pinky ring!

mosaic-skull-coaster

Boo! In my painting and other mediums, I have been focusing on a series of small works as a means developing skills and experimenting with variations side by side. I can now see the advantages of using miniatures to develop skills in mosaic as well. It really does help to complete a piece with less time and materials so that you can try different approaches faster than you would if making full-sized works.