Category Archives: Joe’s Rantings

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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.

Penny Mosaic Warning

We regularly see questionable information online concerning how to mosaic and how to do other art and craft projects. Mostly this information is questionable because it was written without regard to durability or how the project could have been used as an opportunity to make real art (personal, unique) instead of making clones of something already mass produced. Sometimes we even see instructions that are potentially dangerous or even likely to be dangerous. The recent fad of tiling floors with copper pennies may be an example of this, at least in certain situations.

In micro amounts, copper is a nutrient and is found in all plant and animal life. On the other hand, excessive exposure to copper can be toxic, particularly if a person has a genetic predisposition to a condition called Wilson’s Disease, in which the liver is unable to remove excess copper from the body.

Sure we all handle copper pennies every day, but this is different from lining a living space with them, especially on a floor where foot traffic will abrade the pennies and household cleaners will accelerate the forming of copper oxides and other toxic compounds.

Different websites mention coating the pennies with urethanes and other sealers prior to use. That is probably good in theory, but I’m not confident that the thin layer of sealant will isolate the copper for very long under normal use conditions. Keep in mind that copper is fairly soft and fairly reactive. What is acceptable for a wall or a mosaic sculpture is often inadequate for a floor.

Terracotta Flower Pots Mosaic Warning

Terracotta flower pots are highly susceptible to freeze damage because the material is extremely porous. Moisture seeps into the tiny pores, freezes and expands, and then the surface flakes off as shown below. However, it is possible to use terracotta as a mosaic base provided the mosaic is mounted correctly and the artist understands the limitations of the material.

terracotta-flower-pot

Terracotta flower pots are highly vulnerable to freeze damage because they are soft and porous. The damage could have been minimized by sealing the pot inside and out with a tile and grout sealer.

Minimizing Damage To Terracotta Flower Pots

Freeze damage can be minimized by sealing the flower pot inside and out with a tile and grout sealer from a local building material store. Tile and grout sealers are silicone products that plug tiny pores and prevent moisture penetration. They can also interfere with bonding, so we recommend sealing the flower pot AFTER your mosaic is complete. Note that even if you do seal a terracotta pot very well with multiple applications of sealant, it still won’t last as long as a concrete pot would.

Concrete Pots Are Preferred

A terracotta pot might be an acceptable base for an abstract mosaic quickly made from random colorful tile, but detailed mosaic designs take more time and effort than that, and they deserve a more durable base. Concrete flower pots and planters are available at most lawn and garden centers, and whatever extra cost is well worth it. A single winter of hard freezes can totally destroy a terracotta flower pot left outdoors. Also terracotta is also easily broken and cracked during normal use.

Sure you might already have terracotta pots at home that you could use for free, but how much money are you saving if the mosaic doesn’t last six months? Once you take the time to mix up mortar and attach the tile, you’ll be glad you took the time to find a concrete base, even if your design is just random tile.

Use Mortar Not Glue

The tiles should be attached with thinset mortar instead of glue. White PVA adhesives such as the Weldbond we sell are water resistant when fully cured, but there is a difference between water resistant and water proof. Flower pots are containers full of damp soil, and that means the back of the mosaic will be continually subjected to moisture and acids from decaying organic matter. The acidity of the leach water means that flower pots may be a more extreme environment for mosaics than pools and fountains.

Thinset mortar can also be used to grout your mosaic. Both grout and thinset are powdered portland cement products, but the thinset is stronger and more adhesive. If you are going to have to purchase a powdered cement product to make the mosaic, get the better product (thinset), and use it for everything. You can even reinforce the inside of a terracotta flower pot by plastering it with thinset.

Mosaic Stepping Stone Instructions

Mosaic stepping stones are great first projects, but they don’t have to be cheap and cheesy or dangerous. Keep in mind that if you totally cover the surface of the stone with large pieces of stained glass, it is likely to be slippery when wet. If you leave sharp edges of glass exposed, or allow the grout to erode out from between the glass over time, then your stepping stone is less of a stepping stone and more of a device for cutting bare feet. Both of these problems can be avoided by following best practices and using sound methods.

A Brief Rant

First, avoid the craft kits that have you make a butterfly or some other canned 1970s design by gluing large pieces of pre-cut stained glass onto a stepping stone. Glue will not resist moisture over time, and these kits are the poster child of slippery when wet. They also look exactly like all the other mass-produced stepping stones from China and thus have all the charm of a fast-food wrapper or billboard.

Instead, make something original by pressing your own designs of small tile into wet concrete, and be confident that whatever skill you lack may actually add to the originality and charm of what you make. A homemade stepping stone is supposed to look like a homemade stepping stone and not something made in a Chinese prison factory based on a design first copied in the 1970s.

Glass Tile Is Best

Glass tile doesn’t have any pores, and so water can’t penetrate into it and freeze and crack it. Ceramic materials have lots of pores, and there are tiny cracks in the glazing, so these materials are more susceptible to freeze damage. However, porcelain and dinnerware and other high-end ceramics are a lot more resistant to freeze damage than something like glazed bathroom tile, so they can be used with discretion. Remember, the more soft or crumbly a ceramic material is, the more susceptible it is to freeze damage. Avoid terracotta, glazed ceramic bathroom tile and anything that easily breaks.

Decide Which Method To Use

There are two main methods of making a mosaic stepping stone. It is better to use a mold if you are wanting to use marbles or large stones or other found objects not easily attached to a flat surface.

1. Prefabricated Stepping Stones.

You can cement tile to a plain prefabricated concrete stepping stone purchased from a lawn and garden center.

2. Stepping Stone Molds.

You can press tile into wet concrete in a stepping stone mold or have a mosaic design on contact paper at the bottom of a stepping stone mold and pour concrete on top of that.

Note that both methods require that you mix up a powdered concrete product because you cannot use glue to attach tile to an outdoor or wet mosaic. Instead, you have to use thinset mortar, which is a powdered portland cement with polymers added for enhanced adhesive properties and strength.

Prefabricated Stepping Stones

Plain concrete stepping stones can be purchased from lawn and garden centers. These make great bases for mosaic stepping stones even if you are wanting to press tile into wet concrete instead of cementing the tile to a rigid surface and then grouting later. How is this possible? Easy. You simply spread the mortar on a little thicker than normal, say about 3/8 inch thick, and press the tile into that.

Stepping Stone Molds

Stepping stone molds can be purchased or improvised from ordinary containers such as plastic dish pans and old metal cake pans from the thrift store. Various websites recommend using the nonstick baking pans from your kitchen and even make the claim that you won’t scratch them up, but I wouldn’t go that route. As a general rule, I avoid using anything from my kitchen in my art studio and then returning it to the kitchen, and I’m fairly sure that some people would manage to scratch the pan when they removed the hardened concrete stone. Besides, you can always get old cake pans from the thrift store or use a plastic dish pan or take an old plastic 5-gallon bucket and cut it down with a jigsaw. There is no reason to raid the kitchen when all these other options are available.

Tip: No matter which type of mold you use, make sure you coat it with non-stick cooking spray or petroleum jelly (Vaseline) to ensure that the hardened concrete stone can be removed easily.Sources of Improvised Molds:

mosaic stepping stone instructions

A stepping stone mold with some accessories. The pea gravel can be mixed with the thinset mortar to give it strength and bulk.

Sources of Improvised Molds:

  • plastic dish pans
  • plastic totes
  • purchased stepping stone molds
  • old cake pans from thrift stores
  • 5-gallon plastic buckets cut down with jigsaw
  • plastic litter boxes (new or bleached)
  • plastic plant trays
  • cardboard boxes lined with plastic trash bags
  • your spouse’s nonstick baking pans (not recommended)

Two Ways To Use A Stepping Stone Mold

There are two ways to use a stepping stone mold. You need to decide which you will use, and the second is better for marbles and other found objects that aren’t flat like ordinary tile:

1. Put the tile at the bottom of the mold and pour concrete over that.

You can place your tile UPSIDE DOWN in the bottom of the mold and pour the concrete on top of that. The easiest way to keep your tile from moving around when the concrete is poured on top is to put contact paper at the bottom of the mold with the sticky side up. Then you stick your tile UPSIDE DOWN onto the contact paper. This method is recommended if you want a very detailed design because it allows you to get all your tile carefully positioned before you mix up the concrete, which only has a few hours of working life before it starts to harden. Even if your design isn’t very complicated, I wouldn’t attempt it without the use of contact paper. Make sure you add the concrete slowly and gently tap the mold as you go along to make air bubbles come to the surface.

2. Press tile into wet concrete at the top of the mold.

This method is best for mixed-media designs made from marbles and other rounded found objects that couldn’t stick reliably to a piece of contact paper. You simply press the objects into the concrete, and you have the advantage of being able to vary how far they are embedded and to see how the work looks as you go along.

Tip: Wait 30 to 45 minutes before you start pressing objects into the wet concrete. This allows the concrete to firm up a little so that your objects don’t sink to far into it.

Using Thinset Mortar Instead of Ordinary Concrete

Thinset mortar mixed with a little pea gravel is MUCH stronger than ordinary concrete.

Most stepping stone instructions say to use ordinary concrete and often have tips about how to pick or sieve the larger pieces of gravel out of the concrete so that they don’t interfere with the tile or objects you want to embed in the concrete. One of the most significant hazards of doing mosaic work is breathing concrete dust, so if you were going to do this sieving or picking, you would want to do it AFTER you had mixed the concrete up, and that seems like a lot of pointless and difficult work to me.

Instead, I buy thinset mortar, which does not contain gravel, and I mix in small pea gravel in a ratio of 2 parts wet thinset to 1 part pea gravel by weight. For example, to make two small stepping stones, I recently used 8 pounds of wet thinset mixed with 4 pounds of pea gravel.

The pea gravel is needed because thinset mortar slightly contracts as it cures (due to the adhesive polymers), and all traditional portland cement products need and aggregate such as gravel or pea gravel to provide tensile strength.

IMPORTANT TIP: Set some of your thinset aside and don’t mix any pea gravel into it. Use this gravel-free thinset for the layer where your tile will be embedded so that no gravel interferes with the tile as you press it in. First, fill your mold about 3/8 inch from the top with the thinset mixed with pea gravel. Then fill the rest of the way up with the plain thinset. That top layer is where you would press the tile without having to worry about pea gravel in the way. If you have a pattern on contact paper at the bottom of the mold, you would first pour in some plain thinset and then top the mold off with the mixture of thinset and pea gravel.

Tips for Using Thinset Mortar

I have written some instructions for using thinset mortar and some tips for keeping your hands and tools clean while working with thinset mortar.

My instructions in those two links are for doing very detailed work with thinset. Most mosaic projects (such as stepping stones) are a lot more simple. Most of what you really need to know about thinset can be summarized here:

  1. Wear a dust mask when mixing up thinset to avoid breathing dust, and mix it up outdoors for easy clean up.
  2. For Versabond brand thinset, we mix 1/4 pound of water per 1 pound of thinset. The package will have manufacturer instructions for how much water to mix in.
  3. You have about 2 to 3 hours of working time provided you keep the thinset covered when not in use. If you are working in conditions of extremely dry air, such as when the heater or AC is running), then use a humidifier to keep the air moist.
  4. Do not dispose of thinset in plumbing or drains. It is concrete and can harden underwater.

Cleaning and Sealing

No matter which method you use, you should wait at least 24 hours before removing your stepping stone from the mold.

Sometimes stepping stones made on contact paper at the bottom of a mold will be removed from the mold, and the artist will discover voids between the tiles due to bubbles. Other times, you will see that concrete has gotten between the tile and the contact paper, and so there is concrete on top of the tiles. Both of these problems are easily fixed.

Voids are filled by mixing up small amounts of concrete and dabbing them in. Concrete on top of tiles can be scraped off using a small screwdriver or other steel tool. Use a spray bottle to mist the stone as you work to control any dust.

A few days after your stepping stone has hardened, you should seal it with a tile and grout sealer from a building material store.

Mounting A Mosaic On Clear Adhesive Film

Clear contact paper can be used to temporarily mount a design of mosaic tile, but it really isn’t sticky enough to be as useful as it should be, and it is better to use the clear mosaic mounting tapes (films) that are specifically designed for that purpose. I have used clear contact paper for small mosaics (less than 1 square foot), but even with something that small and simple, there were problems with tiles falling off and moving around when the sheet was pressed into the mortar. Mosaic mounting tapes have strong but removable adhesives. They are available in 6″ widths and 12″ widths, but you can always overlap narrow tape to temporarily mount a mosaic of any width.

Note that clear contact paper is still used in the method explained below, but it only serves to keep the tiles from moving around while you apply the clear mounting tape.

mosaic-contact-paper

The paper pattern is taped down to the work surface and clear contact paper is taped STICKY SIDE UP over that. The purpose of the contact paper is to keep the tile from moving around after you position them. After all the tile has been placed, the top of the mosaic design is covered in clear mosaic mounting tape, which is much stronger than contact paper.

Instructions for Using Clear Mosaic Mounting Tape

1. Tape or tack your paper mosaic pattern to your work table.

2. Tape or tack clear contact paper UPSIDE DOWN on top your paper mosaic pattern.

3. Position your tile on the pattern, sticking the bottoms of the tile to the sticky contact paper.

4. After all of your tile is in place, cover the top of the mosaic with clear mosaic mounting tape.

5. If your mosaic is larger than a square foot or two, then use a box cutter to cut the mosaic into manageable sections.

Note that sections you cut in step 5 do not have to be squares. Unless you are shipping the sheets to a client for installation by a contractor, there is no need try get them into roughly even squares. Instead, it makes more sense to divide the mosaic in places that make it easiest to line the sheets up when they are permanently mounted in mortar or adhesive.

Advantages of This Method

Using clear mounting tape has several advantages, and they are each significant:

  1. It allows you to work with the tile and the mosaic in progress FACE UP.
  2. The temporarily mounted mosaic is still visible through the clear mounting tape, which can be very important for lining up the sheets when you press them into thinset. A perfectly executed mosaic can be permanently flawed if an installer leaves a slightly extra wide gap between sheets.
  3. There is no mounting mesh involved, and thus the tile can be pressed directly into thinset mortar for maximum life outdoors and in wet locations. Mesh requires an adhesive be used to attach it to the tile, and that is a point of vulnerability, and Achilles heal that moisture could penetrate and delaminate over time.

Expensive Mounting Tape Is Actually Cheap

A 100-foot roll of mounting tape currently sells at our website for either $70.31 or $135.52 depending on whether you get the 6-inch width or the 12-inch width. Now that might be a little steep for a small project at home or maybe even a mosaic for a client that you happen to be installing yourself. But consider the following scenario: You have been commissioned by a high-end hotel or casino to make a 50 square foot mosaic to be installed behind their bar. The mosaic is highly detailed, possibly even photo-realistic, and it is made from several thousand dollars of smalti, and you have spent three or four months making it.

Do you really want to risk having their installer accidentally getting irregular widths between sheets? If you use opaque mosaic mounting paper, then the problem will not be discovered until the mortar has hardened and permanently set.

“Professional Installers”

A word about “professional installers” and other contractors: I have received more than a few emails over the years from high-end architectural jobs in places like NYC and LA where “professional installers” have done things like press sheets of tile PAPER-FIRST (I kid you not) into thinset and similar bonehead goofs. If all your “professional installer” has done is install 4-inch glazed ceramic tile in bathrooms, it doesn’t matter how many years of “professional” experience they have.

If you have to involve a contractor in your mosaic art project, don’t be surprised if you have to talk to a few before you find someone with relevant experience or even basic competence. In my experience, this is true of many aspects of home renovation, but it is particularly true of mosaic. Many contractors claiming to know something of mosaic have actually done only basic tiling using the materials and methods relevant to larger glazed ceramic tile.

Broken Ceramic Tile Mosaics

People often email me asking where to get 4-inch glazed ceramic tile in a range of colors to break up with a hammer for making a mosaic. The simple answer is nowhere. Colorful bathroom tile has gone the way of the dodo, at least for now. (I explain why in the last section of this post.)

The good news is that it is possible to get a similar experience making a mosaic from colorful glass tile, and there are several reasons glass tile is superior to glazed ceramic, especially if your mosaic will be outdoors.

Why You Want Glass Tile Instead Of Ceramic

Yes, you may be inspired by the idea of breaking scrap tile with a hammer and making a fun piece of art from ordinary easy-to-find materials, but the idea doesn’t jive with reality in at least two ways: First, colorful ceramic tile isn’t a commonly available material any more; it’s rare not ordinary. Second, breaking tile with a hammer creates a large amount a scrap, and the pieces you produce tend to be jagged or cracked or oddly shaped. How ecologically sound or fulfilling is it to create all that waste?

But here is the real reason glass tile is clearly a better choice: Glass is impervious to moisture and therefore frost proof. If you use ceramic tile outdoors, moisture penetrates into the tile and then freezes and cracks off the glazing. It seems counter intuitive, but glass is MUCH more durable than glazed ceramic tile when used outdoors, at least when it comes to freezing temperatures. (Of course, If you have access to hard porcelain tile with solid color throughout, then that is a different story, but porcelain tile is as hard to find these days as the softer varieties of glazed ceramic tile.)

Random Shapes Of Glass Tile

The most valid reason people have for wanting to use 4-inch glazed ceramic tile for their mosaic is that it is big enough to produce large randomly shaped pieces when broken up. Mosaic tile is 1 inch or less according to the generally accepted industry definition of “mosaic,” so it can’t produce big pieces. But stained glass and stained glass cuttings can easily be cut into large random shapes using a mosaic glass cutter. The selection of colors is broader than that of ceramic tile (even back in the 1970s when brightly colored ceramic tile was commonly available), and the colors are more complex and vibrant.

If you are willing to work in smaller pieces, then mosaic tile can be used, and it can be cut into irregular triangles and irregular trapezoids as easily as rectangles, so you can get more “random” shapes in your mosaic

This mosaic was made with 3/4″ vitreous glass tile cut up with a mosaic glass cutter, and it could have been made with irregularly shaped pieces as easily as rectangular pieces cut from the same type of tile:

mosaic-charging-bull-500

“Charging Bull” mosaic. Note that the pieces could have easily been cut more randomly: trapezoids, triangles, odd irregular shapes. You don’t have to cut rectangular or square pieces from tile.

Why No CERAMIC Tiles In Bright Colors?

People don’t tile their bathrooms with bright yellows and oranges the way they did in the 1970s, and once people stopped using bright colors in ceramic tile, the factories stopped making them. Now the factories all churn out the same endless variations on beige and gray, and I’m not exaggerating by much.

A year ago, I finally attended the world’s largest trade show for floor coverings, and it was absolutely monotonous: hundreds and hundreds of manufacturer booths all displaying stuff that was hard to tell apart, all beiges and grays, and each booth with banners and flyers claiming to be on the cutting edge of interior design. It was comic self-parody, and it was easy to get lost on the floor of the trade show because it all looked the same.

How To Select A Jigsaw For Making Mosaic Backers

Tools Are Cheaper Than Craft Supplies

I have often made the claim that a person could buy a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood and a jigsaw for less than what the craft suppliers charge for shaped mosaic backers such as hearts and stars and things like that. While this might be an exaggeration for an individual backer, it is perfectly true if you need to get backers for a class of 20 people. In my post about making custom-shaped  mosaic backers , I also explained why it is better to cut your own shapes if you are trying to make original art because you can make each shape slightly different and unique.

Jigsaws are fairly common, so you might be able to borrow one, but here are some guidelines if you decide to buy your own. Note that jigsaws are best at cutting curves. If you need to cut straight precise lines, then you need to use a circular saw or a table saw, but keep in mind that those two types of saws are more dangerous than a jigsaw.

This post is not a review of models currently on the market. Instead, it is discussion of general principles that should help the reader make a more informed purchase for any type of power tool or electronic device.

Never Buy The Cheapest Model

Never buy the cheapest model. In the past, there was a problem with things not lasting very long, but the trend of making things cheaper and cheaper has progressed to the point that it is now possible to buy tools and electronics that don’t work or barely work even from the beginning. Most people can walk into a dollar store and recognize the type of products I am talking about. What you might not be fully aware of is that this problem with non-functioning and barely-functioning products has spread to more mainstream retailers such electronics chains and home improvement chains

Manufacturers know that many buyers are completely uninformed and buy a new product solely on the basis of lowest price. Consequently, they all are “forced” by economic pressures to produce at least one model geared toward the bottom of the market.

Never Buy The Lowest Amperage

The power rating of jigsaw is expressed in terms of the amps of electrical current that it consumes at full speed. Due to the economic pressures expressed above, manufacturers now produce power tools that no informed buyer would ever purchase simply because they aren’t powerful enough for most jobs. These low-amperage tools just don’t have the power to be useful or last very long.

Don’t Buy A Rechargeable Tool

Rechargeable batteries only last if they are depleted fully and recharged fully. Occasional light use and continual charging is bad for the battery and destroys the battery’s ability to hold a charge.

Unless you work as a carpenter and use your tools daily, get a jigsaw with a power cord. The environmental cost of all these rechargeable batteries is simply too high, especially when they are used in ways that more or less guarantee that their life is short.

Don’t Buy Features Over Quality

Everyone is familiar with a certain computer operating system that owes its success to having a lion’s share of the market and to the monopolistic practices of the company that sells it.  Each new version of this operating system offers ever more bells and whistles, while the software itself still suffers from the same basic problems with stability and useability that have plagued it for years. The economic reasons for this situation are simple: New features make the product outsell the competition, even when the “competition” is merely the older version of the product that the consumer might reluctantly continue to use.

To a certain extent, features can become a trap where it is possible to buy the most cheaply made product even when you thought you knew better than that. For example: You may have been smart enough to avoid buying the absolutely cheapest model, but did you buy the cheapest model with the laser guide or some other feature? The question becomes this: How cheaply did they have to make the jigsaw itself in order to include a laser guide and still be the cheapest model with that feature?

Read NEGATIVE Reviews

Always read online reviews, even if you plan to buy locally. Amazon.com is frequently a good source of information for common products, but keep in mind that even a poorly designed product will get some positive reviews. I think this is because some people are just glad to open the box and tell people about the new toy they just got. Often these mindlessly positive reviews will more or less admit as much: “I just received my new JuiceTronic 9000 Smoothy Machine, and I am so excited…”

The key to making use of reviews is to read the negative reviews and find out how long the product tends to last, what design defects it might have, etc. You want to know what the man thinks after he has divorced the princess, not what he thinks on the day he married her.

All that being said, you have to take negative reviews in context. Even the best product in the world is likely to have some negative reviews. Remember that some problems are due to abuse or user error or the odd lemon, and some people are just mean-spirited trolls that are angry at the world.

At one point on Amazon, there was this guy who gave negative reviews for the Sharpie markers because these markers (which are clearly labelled as permanent markers and famous for being so permanent) wouldn’t erase off his dry erase boards. Some people are just ignorant and proud of it.

 

The Importance of Small Experiments in Art

In my previous post about how to use found objects in mosaic art, I made the claim that small experiments done before you start a large project do not require any extra time because of the time they save on the project itself. I wish I could emphasize how true this is.

Here is how you know it is true: How many times have you ever done something new and seemingly simple such as patching a hole in drywall or some other basic home repair and spent a lot of time and stress doing it, only to realize after you were done that the next time you have to do this same task, it won’t take nearly as much time and not be stressful at all because now you knew how to do it? Worse than that, how many times have you not been pleased with the results and realized you could now do it perfectly if only you could start over?

Small technical experiments allow you to do this in a sense. While you aren’t actually starting over, you are figuring out how your materials and methods work before you begin, which is more or less the same as getting a chance to start over in terms of saving time and stress. It can also save materials as well, even if your experiment is thrown away. How is this possible? Ask yourself, does it make more sense to throw away a scrap piece of backer board with some tiles or rocks cemented to it with thinset, or to have to throw away 80 square feet of tile and all the thinset used to mount it because you had to scrape or chisel it all off when you realized the grout gaps were all wrong or you didn’t mix enough water into the thinset or some other basic mistake?

Urgent Project Deadline! We Have To Start Now!

If you are facing an urgent deadline on a group project or large installation, you cannot afford to work inefficiently or make blunders that require you to start over. In other words, it is precisely because time is running out that you should do a simple experiment or two before you begin.

I have actually had customers admit they had never made a mosaic before and still tell me that they didn’t have time to make a small mosaic trivet before they started some 30 square foot project at their church or school, only to email me in a complete panic a week later when the project is an irretrievable disaster. And I am talking several customerS (plural), not an isolated incident.

What is it about mosaic that makes some people think that it requires absolutely no technical skills or experience? They probably wouldn’t offer to paint a 30 foot mural if they had never painted a small painting, but for some reason they don’t seem to make the same connection with mosaic, and it happens all the time. But I digress…

All that being said, mosaic is amazingly simple and accessible compared to most art forms, but something doesn’t have to be on par with rocket science for it to be a good idea to practice it at least once before you do it in front of an audience or coordinate 15 people doing it or do 100 square feet of it.

Experienced Artists Know The Value Of Small Studies

Experienced artists routinely do sketches and studies before executing large public art projects. Often these sketches and studies are done quickly or informally for the knowledge gained, but many times they are completed as finished works of art and sold. Either way, the small studies are almost always done first. If an experienced artist would never do a large public art project without first doing some studies and quick experiments, why do novices think this step can be skipped?

It is easier to work out color schemes and compositions on a 6 inch trivet than on 60 foot mural.

Small Experiments Made While Working

So far I have discussed small experiments as something novices really should do BEFORE attempting large projects, but “off canvas” experiments made while working on the main project are also important.

What I mean by “off canvas” is this: if an experienced artist is working on a painting and comes to a brush stroke or color combination they are unsure about, they will often do some quick experiments on their palette or an old canvas to the side before proceeding with the painting itself. By not experimenting on the painting itself, the artist avoids the risk of botching up the work already done. By doing the initial experiments on a piece of scrap to the side, the artist also has freedom to experiment in a looser and more exploratory way which would not have been possible on the canvas itself. On the painting, the artist has to be concerned about how the brush stroke or color combination fits in with the image being rendered, while anything done on the scrap canvas can be all about the brush stroke or colors per se.

Remember To Experiment Elsewhere

The “off canvass” principle applies to all mediums not just painting or mosaic, yet it is difficult sometimes even for experienced artists to remember. For example, it may makes more sense to figure out how a new type of stitch will work on a scrap piece of fabric than the wedding dress being made, but it is precisely because the seamstress has worked for 8 hours straight on the wedding dress that she is too focused on it to remember to put it aside and try out the stitch first on the scrap.

That is why I keep multiple easels with multiple canvasses in my painting studio. I want other surfaces always handy and visible so that I remember to try things out there first if I am sure. Of course, I do experiment with the canvas I am actually painting, just as any other artist does, but I try not to grope around blindly there and risk messing up the work I have already done.

Experiments As Short Breaks

If you are struggling to render a detail in painting, drawing, mosaic or whatever medium of visual art, then the tendency is to become focused exclusively on that particular detail, which can be problematic if for no other reason than you stop seeing the work as whole.

This is when you need to remember to step back and look at the work as a whole and possibly do a quick study elsewhere before continuing with the work of art. In fact, doing a little quick experimentation to the side often helps because it takes your eyes off the project for a few minutes so that when you look at it again, you see the image as a whole instead of the particular detail you were struggling with.

Often this study on the side might take less than a minute and might not involve more that a few pen or brush strokes or a few tile arranged loosely on a board just to see how the shapes might fit together, but it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of the finished art produced and in reducing frustration.

 

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.