If you work with stained glass over time you can end up with buckets full of scrap. When the pieces start getting too small and irregular, or if there’s just too much of it, you can used them in a stepping stone. This tutorial demonstrates how to make a stepping stone with an abstract pattern. You can also use tiles instead of stained glass scraps.
Small mosaic plaques can be mounted on a wall with a the same type of hangers and wires used for paintings provided the nail on which it hangs is mounted in a stud inside the wall, and even then redundant wires and fasteners are recommended. However, larger mosaics need more robust mounting hardware. The “french cleat” is a type of wall mounting that can be used to securely affix heavy mirrors, cabinets or artwork to a wall. In addition to its strength, the french cleat also allows mosaic art to be mounted flush against the wall and makes leveling it easy.
If you built a frame on the back of your mosaic as described in this tutorial, then french cleat molding is a good hanging option.
For dry indoor mosaics, areas can be built up to support thinner tile next to thicker tile by mixing sand or sawdust to Weldbond adhesive to create a heavy paste. You can also fill holes in mosaic backers using this method. Sand is best for minimizing the contraction that happens as the glue dries, but sawdust can be used when weight is an issue.
For outdoor and wet mosaics, thinset mortar can be mixed with clean pea gravel to make a concrete. The pea gravel must be washed clean and dried to avoid contaminating the mortar, and we recommend screening the pea gravel and using only small pieces. Note that you cannot use sand because too much sand will overwhelm the mortar and make it crumbly.
Case Study: Stained Glass Mosaic Coffee Table
Recently our customer Holly LaBarre emailed us asking how to build up areas between wooden slats of a mosaic coffee table she was making. The design concept for the coffee table was to make it look like it was made from pallet wood or wooden planks and put stained glass mosaic between the planks. The problem was that the planks are significantly thicker than the stained glass, but Holly wanted the stained glass to flush with the planks so that the coffee table had a flat surface.
The solution was to put a piece of 1/2-inch plywood on the underside of the table top and then build up the area to be mosaiced using a paste of Weldbond and sand.
The catch is how to build up the area to the right height so that when the stained glass is applied, it isn’t too high or low. To figure this out, Holly made a simple gauge from a straight edged piece of wood that rests on the surrounding planks and has a small piece of stained glass glued to its bottom edge.
Choosing a grout color is more of a situation where you want to avoid making a mistake that causes the tile to look wrong than it is an opportunity to tie in the room’s color scheme by selecting some optimal color.
A Case Study
Recently a customer emailed us the photo above and asked for advice on how to match the grout color to the room’s color scheme, which includes rich gunstock brown cabinets and paint that is pale green or taupe and a black counter top. The mosaic backsplash itself is made from long gray and black tile in varying lengths.
Choosing By A Process of Elimination
Grout colors should always contrast tile colors enough so that each tile is visually distinct. If you were to use a gray grout on this mosaic, the gray tiles wouldn’t stand out as individual tiles. If you used black grout, you would would have the same problem with the black tiles. Since the mosaic is a gray and black color element, a white grout of some shade makes sense. A pure white grout is likely to be too bright, and so an off-white grout that is more or less the same color as the exposed backer between the tiles would be a safe choice.
Too Clever for Your Own Good?
What if you still thought that you needed to tie in the grout color to the room’s color scheme? Then you might consider using some sort of terracotta or brown grout in either a light or dark shade. The problem with that approach is that there are many different hues of gray, and not all of these will look good with a particular brown, even if that brown is optimal for the room.
If you are bent on using some sort of brown or other color for a black-white-gray backsplash such as this, then make sure you take some of the tile with you to the building material store and actually hold the tile up to the grout swatch. That way you can see if the hues look odd together. Avoiding that mistake is much more important than trying to match the other colors in the room.
How You Know This Is Good Advice
Notice how the counter top is black, and the stove and microwave oven are black and silver in color. They don’t have any brown or taupe color elements, but they are perfectly at home in the room’s color scheme. Similarly, the mosaic backspash is a black-white-gray color element that needs nothing extra to tie it in.
Artist Sondra Jonson recently completed a mosaic baptismal font for St. James Catholic Church using our gold glass mosaic and metallic glass tile and vitreous glass tile, and it turned out really well. Religious architecture is supposed to be instructive and inspiring, and so Sondra used a spiral galaxy motif for the bottom of the font and a night sky with stars for the insides of the walls to convey the cosmic significance of the sacrament of baptism.
Laying Up The Mosaic Design
Sondra laid up the mosaic design using mosaic mounting tape, which is recommended instead of fiberglass mesh for outdoor and wet mosaics because glue is used to attach tile to mesh, and glue is vulnerable to moisture. If you use mosaic mounting tape to pick your design up by the faces of the tiles, then you can press the tile directly into the thinset mortar. If you would like to know more, I wrote some instructions for laying up mosaic designs on contact paper and then picking it up with mosaic mounting tape.
Whether you use mesh or mounting tape, you need to minimize the amount of bending and flexing because that can make tiles pop off the sheets. You can use cardboard or plywood panels to lift and transport the sheets. Note that Sondra’s sheets aren’t square for the simple reason that radial sections made more sense than squares because the area to be covered was hexagonal.
Write Down The Names Of Your Tiles!
We recommend that artists save their invoice and glue a small piece of tile next to each product listed on the invoice. That way, you know what you used and where you bought it and when. The date of purchase is as important as the color name and supplier because tile varies by batch, and manufacturers revise their products all the time. Sondra wisely made a sample board for the materials used in the baptismal font in case it ever needs to be repaired or a future client wants to use some of the same materials,
I cannot imagine installing a large public art project without documenting what materials and sources you used. Even if a product is discontinued or revised, which does happen, you or your client will still have the name and the brand and samples for a photo if you make a board like this on for the project. That is a better starting point for finding a replacement from a different supplier than blurry detail shots cropped from photos of the project, which is what people email us all too often.
This mosaic was installed using thinset mortar, which is recommended for all mosaics in pools and fountains and other wet locations. I wrote some instructions for using thinset mortar for detailed mosaic artwork if you need to know more for your project.
The Artist Surveys Work In Progress
Grout does not shrink, but it is prone to forming voids and bubbles if it is not rubbed thoroughly into the grout gaps. These holes are easily repaired.
My friend Fredrik reported a problem while grouting his mosaic portraits of famous rock icons. He described the grout as having shrank in the grout gap.
Real Grout Doesn’t Shrink
The grout didn’t actually shrink, which isn’t possible with traditional grout made from portland cement, sand, and water. (I can’t speak for the newer epoxy-based grouts because we haven’t used them.) What actually happened was that voids were left in the intersections of the groutlines, and these voids got covered with a thin film of grout that then dried out without curing.
Press Grout DOWN Into The Gaps
When you grout a mosaic, it is important to press the grout down between the tiles, and to rub and press the grout thoroughly. Otherwise, voids and bubbles will be left down in the gaps and get covered over with a superficial layer grout similar to how a thin layer of wind-driven snow and ice will sometimes form over a crevasse in a glacier. That is why pressing down is important, and you shouldn’t just rub tangentially across the surface.
You can also “pull” voids into grout by rubbing it repeatedly in the same direction. That is why it is best to rub in circles and to vary the direction of the rubbing randomly.
Avoid Dry Air: Use Humidifiers
Fredrik reported that he wasn’t able to able to spend very long pressing the grout into the gaps because it started to harden almost immediately. It takes grout a while to harden, and this hardening happens by binding water not by drying out, but grout can become prematurely stiff and difficult to manipulate if it starts drying out. Since Fredrik was working in Sweden in February, I suspect the air was very dry due to the heat running, not to mention the already low humidity of the winter air. You can avoid this problem by running a humidifier near your mosaic and by doing the grouting away from heater vents. You can also cover the grouted mosaic with plastic kitchen wrap such as the Saranwrap brand.
How To Fix Holes In A Groutline
The good news is that it is possible to grout voids and holes and bubbles in a mosaic that is already grouted. The only caveat is that the old grout can suck the moisture out of the new grout before it can properly cure and harden. To prevent this, mist the mosaic thoroughly with water before you begin so that the old grout is saturated with water. Note that the mosaic should not be coated with water because droplets of water or a thin layer of water could interfere with intimate bonding. It really helps to have a humidifier running near the mosaic, and you should start the humidifier an hour or so before you grout so that the old grout isn’t bone dry.
Before you regrout, you need to expose all the hidden voids and bubbles. You can do this by pressing on the grout with a small screwdriver and vacuuming out all the loose crumbles. Of course, you need to do this in places that look like there is a problem, and but you also need to press in places that look deceptively fine. You don’t want to have to grout a third time.
I prefer to press straight down instead of dragging the screwdriver because I want to avoid scratching up grout that is fine. If you do get some scratched up grout from your probing, use a stiff bristle brush and a little water on the finished mosaic to buff out the scratches and make them less noticeable.
If you notice that your grout is crumbly in general, you should scrape it all out and regrout. In that case, you might want to use the grout removal tool.
Mixing Up Small Amounts of Grout
One objection to fixing small grout problems is that people don’t want to mix up a whole container of grout and end up wasting almost all of it. The good news is that you don’t have to waste any or at least very much, and you don’t have to be paranoid about whether or not you are adding the right amount of water. You can easily mix up a small amount using a few rules of thumb:
- If you have a small postal or kitchen scale, use 1 part water by weight to every 4 parts dry grout.
- If you don’t have a small scale, add a little water and mix thoroughly. Stop adding water when the grout has the consistency of dough.
- Once you have enough water in the grout, mix it thoroughly to ensure even consistency with no tiny lumps of dry material. These can sabotage the grout hardening process.
This method for altering a mosaic can be used before grouting, or grout can first be removed by scraping it out with a grout removal tool or screwdriver.
Why Remove Tiles?
Even experienced artists modify their designs as they work on them, and beginners can’t help but use a trial and error approach. After all. it’s hard to plan exactly what you will do when you are just learning a new medium.
With drawing and painting, revision is easy, but what about mosaic? How do you remove and replace tiles after the glue is dry?
How To Remove Tiles SELECTIVELY From A Mosaic
The following method assumes the tile is attached to a plywood backer using a white PVA glue such as Weldbond. You could use the same techniques on an outdoor mosaic made with thinset mortar, but it would be very difficult if the mortar has cured for more than a few days. Mostly this method is used while you are working and see obvious mistakes, and the glue or mortar is not very hard.
Soften The Glue If Needed
OPTIONAL: If needed, apply a few drops of water around the tiles in question to soften the glue. If the surrounding tiles get wet and unexpectedly come up or look like they might, you can pull them up and reglue them too.
Cotton swabs are useful for applying drops of water to precise locations. Dry cotton swabs are useful for soaking up excess water and containing the spread.
Use A Metal Tool To Pry
VERY IMPORTANT: Use a ruler as a fulcrum to lean the metal tool on when you pry. If you lean the tool on the surrounding tile, you can split or crack the tile VERY EASILY without applying much pressure at all.
Scrape Off Broken Pieces
If the tile breaks into pieces, and some pieces are still glued down, you can scrape that off, but take care because the tool can slip, and then you can jam your hand into the razor sharp pieces before you are aware what is happening. Wear leather work gloves to avoid skinning your knuckles or cutting your fingertips open on broken tile.
Repairing Holes In Backers
If you gouge a hole in the backer while scraping or prying, it can be repaired with Weldbond glue or glue mixed with sawdust if the hole is deep. If a layer of plywood gets snagged and sticks up like a flap of loose skin, squirt glue under it and apply a heavy weight on that precise location to hold it down until the glue is dry.
Wear safety glasses with side shields RELIGIOUSLY when doing this work. Prying tile with a metal tool can shoot tiny splinters right at your face. Wear leather work gloves when scraping in case your tool slips.
Choice of Pattern
This method for transferring a mosaic design with contact paper works whether you are improvising on a quickly sketched cartoon or carefully following a detailed pattern for each piece of tile.
This method reverses the mosaic from left to right in a mirror effect because the tile is laid upside down onto the sticky pattern and then a backer board spread with glue is placed on top of the upside down tiles. If you have NUMBERS or LETTERS in your pattern, remember to reverse them in your pattern by turning the pattern over and tracing it from the other side in marker and using that as your pattern.
The pattern above was a quick sketch and not followed rigorously. Instead, I improvised details based on how I could cut the tile.
Tape Contact Paper Over Pattern
Make sure you tape the contact paper UPSIDE DOWN. The purpose of the contact paper is to keep the tile from moving around as you lay out the design.
Clear packing tape can be substituted for contact paper, but you may want to pat the tape with your hands several tiles to make it less sticky.
Lay Tile UPSIDE DOWN on the Sticky Pattern
The pattern is sticky because it has a piece of upside down contact paper taped over it. Lay pieces of tile face down onto the pattern so that the textured backsides are facing up. Later we will coat the backer in glue and lay it on these upside down tile.
Work from the Center of Pattern
Begin cutting and laying tile near the center of your mosaic and work outward to avoid having to squeeze a piece between tiles that have already been laid, which can be frustrating and require more trimming.
Trim Less, Waste Less
Trimming tile to shave off just a little bit off is MUCH more difficult than cutting a piece into two parts . Trimming is difficult because tile will often crumble at the edge and not break as predictably or as cleanly as it would if you were cutting off a more substantial piece. That is why you want to avoid trimming as much as possible by doing the following:
- Cut a few alternate pieces and use the best instead of trimming.
- Remove small amounts by rubbing the piece on a marble file instead of trying to cut it off.
- Work from the center of the mosaic to avoid the need to trim.
- Tolerate less exact pieces and the grout gap these pieces create.
Change Tile Color If Needed
The contact paper holds tile in place while you arrange the tile, which allows you to fit pieces more closely and even replace a color if it doesn’t look right. A dental pick is useful for pulling up tile, but take care not to snag the contact paper or pattern. I dull my dental pick on concrete to prevent this.
Do Not Tile Beyond Borders
Do not lay tile beyond the outline of the border so that the mosaic fits on the backer. Make sure each tile is within the border by a hair or touches the border but does not extend beyond. If you have a few pieces that do, the finished mosaic can be filed with a marble file, but it is better to file or cut the pieces before gluing.
Seal Backer With PVA Glue
Plywood backers should be sealed with the same white PVA (polyvinyl acetate) adhesive that will be used to attach the tiles. This sealing coat should be applied and allowed to dry completely before proceeding.
We wouldn’t need to do this pre-sealing if we were gluing each tile individually with a generous blob, but we are going to glue on all the tiles at once in a layer spread thin, and we want to make sure that the second coat of glue that actually attaches the tile isn’t all sucked up by the plywood in places where it happens to be spread thinnest.
Spread Backer with 2nd Coat of Glue
How thick should you apply the glue? Place a few test tiles and pull them up and look at them. Make sure the glue wets the bottom of the tile completely. The glue has to be that deep, but don’t over do it. Try to spread it thinly enough so that the glue doesn’t come up too high between tiles placed closely together.
Place Glue-Covered Backer on Mosaic
Center the backer on the mosaic before it is lowered down because it is difficult to move the backer from side to side without moving the tile. If you do need to push the backer to center it, hold a straight edge on the opposite side to keep the tile from moving.
Untape Contact Paper and Flip Mosaic
The contact paper is untaped from the work surface, and the mosaic is flipped upright so that the face of the mosaic is visible. Notice the occasional place where glue squeezed between the tile. This can be removed with a dental pick once the glue is thoroughly dry.
Remove Contact Paper
Allow the glue to dry before peeling off the contact paper. Also avoid cleaning the faces of the tiles or handing the mosaic until the glue under the tile is dry. If you bump one tile and it moves, other tiles are also moved, and they move again when you try to fix things. Tiles start sticking to the drying glue on you fingertips and pulling free from the backer. Don’t risk this. One touch can spiral into disaster.
Removing Glue Residue
After the glue dries and you remove the contact paper, you will notice places where the PVA glue got squeezed up between the tiles and filled the grout gap. There will probably be places where the glue smeared onto the faces of the tiles. The glue is clear when fully dry, but if it is misted with water, it will turn white and be more visible and softer and easier to remove.
We use a wide plastic pan with a wet terry washcloth spread on the bottom. We lay the mosaic face down on the wet cloth and allow the glue to turn white. We rub the mosaic on the cloth with a gentle even pressure making sure that not water squeezes out of the washcloth and between the tile. The washcloth should be thoroughly wet but rung out so that it does not drip or squeeze out water when pressed.
Of course, I am talking about a washcloth that has been retired and no longer rubbed on people’s faces. Glass slivers can nest in knitted fabrics and outlast the washer and dryer.
Keep an eye on the glue that is holding the tile to the board (by looking at the side of the mosaic and in gaps and make sure that the glue there does NOT get wet and start whitening. Stop working and dry the mosaic and leave it to dry if you see that happening.
If a few tiles pop free, they can be reglued after the mosaic is cleaned up. A dental pick is used to clean glue residue from between the tiles. Take care not to pry with the dental pick because you can crack and splinter the glass tile very easily by prying with small tools.
Mosaic Ready For Grouting
This article explains how to use a charcoal pencil (or graphite pencil) to color the back side of a paper pattern and then trace over the pattern firmly to transfer it to a plywood mosaic backer board.
I have written a separate article explaining why tracing borrowed images is better than drawing for making patterns for small mosaics -even when the purpose is to create original artwork.
If your backer is much larger than your pattern, you can enlarge the pattern by transferring it to the backer using the grid method of pattern transfer instead of the method I explain here.
Example Using 6×6 Inch Backer
In this example, I use the 6×6-Inch Plywood Mosaic Backer Board we sell at our online store and a detail cropped from Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses.”
Step 1. Find And Make Your Pattern
I used Photoshop to crop and size the image and convert it to a black and white, but you can also use photocopies from books and your own drawings as starting points. Read more about this process in my article How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing.
Note that the image was sized so that it was 6×6 inches and printed out on regular printer paper.
The Purpose Of The Pattern
For small mosaic icons and tabletops, you can work directly on the surface. Simply draw or transfer your pattern onto the backer. This pattern should look something like the black line drawing from a coloring book, just a map showing the outlines of different colored areas, possibly subdivided to show shading. (Shading and variation in these different color regions can be worked out when you start placing the tile, and so your pattern can be as simple as a cartoon outline.)
Step 2. Fold The Pattern Around The Backer Board
Fold the paper pattern around the backer board so that the image of your figure is centered on the board. Having a border drawn the same size as the backer board helps you line it up.
Step 3. Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board
Step 4. Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal Or Pencil
*** FOR MOSAIC PATTERNS THAT SHOW EVERY TILE AND HAVE LOTS OF LINES, YOU MAY FIND IT EASIER TO USE CARBON PAPER INSTEAD OF RUBBING THE BACK OF THE PATTERN WITH CHARCOAL. ***
Step 5. Refold The Pattern Around The Board And Tape
Step 6. Trace The Pattern Firmly
Step 7. Remove The Paper And Fill In Missing Lines
Step 8. Make The Lines Permanent With A Marker
Ready For Indoor Use
Variations On This Method
There are a couple of parts of this method that could have been done through alternative means:
- Instead of folding the paper pattern around the backer, it could have been cut to the size of the backer and taped on that way.
- Instead for rubbing charcoal or graphite pencil on the back of the pattern, carbon tracing paper could have been used.
You can and should spend more time “drawing” with tile than drawing with a pencil when most of the details in the mosaic are about the size the smallest piece of tile that can be cut.
If the smallest details of your design are larger than multiple tiles, then you should draw a detailed pattern, but most mosaic plaques are small enough so that nearly all lines are affected by limitations in how small the tile can be cut, and drawing patterns for these can be counterproductive and cloud judgment.
Improvise Loosely On A Photo Or Image Used As A “Pattern”
HERE’S WHY NOT TO DRAW FOR SMALLS: Every element in your drawing will need to be a multiple of tiles wide or a fraction wide. Until you understand those multiples and fractions in practical terms of what you can cut and what looks good, your drawings can lead you to make bad design decisions and artificially cause you more stress than is necessary without teaching you more about rendering in tile. How To Transfer A Pattern From A Digital Image.
This Method Can Be Used To Make Original Art
What is the alternative to drawing if the beginner is only interested in making original art?
Answer: Select a model from a large number of images (such as hundreds or thousands looked up online or your own photos), and then render loosely with tile on top of that image making simplifications as needed.
This rendering process (“drawing with tile”) can teach you things about the image that the pencil is unaware of. It is a much more taxing interpretation than drawing, and it has its own vocabulary.
Here are the steps for making a pattern quickly from a photo or image,. The details follow. And an explanation about why this method works better than drawing studies of that image.
Make a “Pattern” From A Photo or Image Instead of Drawing It
- View a large pool of images, such as can be had in Google images, your own photos, books, and encyclopedias.
- Select an image with strong lines and iconic shapes.
- Modify the image as desired. Combine multiple figures if desired.
- Convert that image into a black and white image. (Photoshop or photocopier or tracing or sketching.)
- Resize the image to the size of the mosaic backer.
- Transfer the pattern to the backer.
- Render LOOSELY on this pattern making simplifications as needed.
I have written a separate article about How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns,
Resize Digitally or Using The Grid Method
Mosaic patterns can be resized digitally, but I have written some instructions for resizing a mosaic pattern using a grid while you copy it onto your backer board.
Combine and Modify Images
You can combine figures from different photos by drawing or tracing them and then cutting them out and gluing them together in collages, or you can do it digitally in Photoshop or other image editors. I prefer the digital method because you can resize the different figures as needed before combining them in a scene.
Making Black and White Copies of Photos
Photoshop is also useful for converting images to black and white without making the images too dark. Use Photoshop’s Adjust Sharpness tool and Adjust Brightness/Contrast before using Photoshop’s Convert To Black And White so that the black and white image is created has maximum contrast. That will help make the image be more outlines than dark shapes, and we need distinct outlines to transfer the pattern onto the backer.
An Example Mosaic Pattern
Here is what a mosaic pattern might look like when derived from a color photograph:
In Defence of Drawing
Drawing a pattern by hand or by using the grid transfer method is a great exercise because it enables you to become familiar with the lines and see the image in your mind. Drawing also is an opportunity to interpret what you are seeing and make original art. In fact, for someone like me, the drawing becomes an end unto itself and almost immediately has more detail than can be rendered in the size of tile I will be using.
Drawings As Maps To Nowhere
Overdrawing the details is just part of the problem. The more time spent drawing a pattern, the more likely the artist is to try to hold to it religiously rather than improvising more freely with the tile when needed. This makes the actual mosaic work more tedious than it needs to be, and it can result in awkward results when you attempt a detail in a way that doesn’t take into account the work lines of the tile or what shapes are being used or some other aspect of the tile.
Staying true to carefully rendered patterns can have you scraping off gluey tiles and redrawing the detail in a way that matches the flow of the tile –or pulling tiles off your mesh, mounting tape, or tile paper. I call this mistake “Following the pattern into a detail that can’t be rendered,” and it can happen even when you work indirectly and lay the mosaic up in advance.
Of course, this doesn’t happen often on large mosaics where the tiles are tiny compared to the details being rendered, but for small mosaic plaques and icons, the resolution issue affects nearly every single tile.
How Patterns Should Be Used For Small Mosaic Images
Don’t be a slave to your pattern. Don’t let your pattern interfere with the tiling process and the rendering that happens there. The easiest way to do that is to not become emotionally invested in your pattern, and many artists cannot do this very well with their own drawings. Avoid the issue by using a photo or borrowed image as a starting point. Draw with tile, not a pencil.
The “Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design” shown above was made using a photo of an ox’s heart downloaded from Google Images as the pattern. Is there any doubt as to whether or not this mosaic is an original interpretation? Would anyone try to argue that it is a copy of the photo?
Look at the width of different features in terms of tile count. Most everything is one or two tiles wide. How would drawing the photograph help a novice make those design decisions? Wouldn’t a novice be better off improvising on a copy the photo itself? Wouldn’t anyone attempting to draw a meaningful pattern need an experienced eye for how the tile can be cut and arranged?