Category Archives: Step by Step Instructions

Detailed instructions that teach how to make mosaic artwork.

Removing Glass Tile To Change A Mosaic

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?

Horse Mosaic Before Versus After

Prancing Horse Mosaic Before Versus After shows the changes made by prying up and replacing tiles. The purpose of the change was to make the head more horse shaped. I think the mosaic could be further improved by making the mane and tail from the same umber tile used in the hooves and outlines.

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

Use a small screw driver or studio spatula to pry the tile up or lift it up with a dental pick.

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.

Prying Up Mosaic Tile

Prying Up Mosaic Tile can very easily crack surrounding tile if you lean your tool on surrounding tile as a fulcrum. Instead, hold a ruler firmly in place and lean your prying tool on that.

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.

Safety

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.

Mosaic Art In Progress

Mosaic Art In Progress. Sometimes you don’t see your art objectively until you start working on another mosaic. Thus, it is better to wait instead of grouting a mosaic right away.

Using Contact Paper to Transfer A Mosaic Design

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.

Mosaic Versus Pattern

The ungrouted mosaic beside the pattern that was used to lay it up. The sketch was from memories of an ancient Roman mosaic I saw in a book years ago with legs more like that of a scarab and antennae more like that of a moth. To me, these features made the Roman bee look more like the archetype of all insects than the familiar fat honey bee and called attention to the fact that honey comes from insects.

The pattern above was a quick sketch and not followed rigorously. Instead, I improvised details based on how I could cut the tile.

The Free Mosaic Patterns available at our tile and supplies store are drawn in terms of pieces that can be cut from 1/2-inch recycled glass tile and show each piece in the mosaic.

Tape Contact Paper Over Pattern

Contact Paper Taped Over Mosaic Pattern

The first step is to tape the pattern down on a work surface. Then the contact paper is taped over the pattern, but it is taped UPSIDE DOWN with the sticky side up. Cut the contact paper 1 inch larger than the border of the 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.

Lay Tile Upside Down

Lay tile upside down on the sticky contact paper so that the embossed texture of the backsides is facing up.

Work from the Center of Pattern

Tile on pattern for mosaic bee

Tile pieces (called tesserae by mosaicists) on the pattern for a mosaic bee. Also shown are the essential tools: Mosaic Glass Cutter and dental picks and tweezers.

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.
Tile pieces tesserae

Tile pieces (tesserae) cut into standard shapes (rectangles, trapezoids, triangles, irregular polygons) so that the artist can pick the best piece instead of trying to trim a piece to size.

Change Tile Color If Needed

Mosaic bee in progress

Mosaic bee in progress with the previous butterscotch color replaced with a more intense yellow.

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

Bee Mosaic Tiling Complete

Bee Mosaic Tiling Complete. Do not tile past the outlined border.

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

Seal Backer PVA glue

Seal backer with a white PVA glue. Weldbond Adhesive is spread on the 6×6-inch plywood mosaic backer with an artist’s palette knife.

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

Glue on Mosaic Backer

Glue on Mosaic Backer. After the sealing coat has completely dried, a second layer is spread.

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

Glue backer on mosaic

Glue-covered backer is carefully centered and lowered onto the 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

Mosaic flipped upright

Mosaic flipped upright.

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

Contact paper removed from the bee mosaic.

Contact paper removed from the bee mosaic.

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.

Glue residue bee mosaic

Glue residue on bee mosaic can be turned white by misting with water.

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. 

Removing glue residue from bee mosaic

Removing glue residue from Roman bee mosaic using a wet terry washcloth.

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

Roman Bee Mosaic ready to be grouted

Roman Bee Mosaic ready to be grouted

How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns Quickly By Tracing

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.”

Large Red Horses painting Franz Marc

Large Red Horses fauvist painting by Franz Marc includes a prancing horse that is rich with curves that suggest motion.

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.)

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of the painting and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. I also added a border to mark the 6-inch x 6-inch space to make it easy to line up the paper on the backer board. The outlines of the black and white image are what we will transfer to the wood mosaic backer.

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.

Fold Pattern Around Backer Board

Fold your mosaic pattern around the backer board so that the image is centered. Note that my pattern should have centered the horse better in the square so that the tail isn’t so close to the edge. If the pattern transfers as shown, it will be difficult to render that part in tile, and i will need to make the tail slightly thinner so that I can put some background around it because tile can only be cut so thin.

Step 3. Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold the mosaic pattern and remove the backer board. The folding was only done to get the paper creased at the edges of the pattern.

Step 4. Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal Or Pencil

Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal

Rub the outlines of the figure with a charcoal pencil (preferred) or a regular graphite pencil. Note that we are rubbing the BACK of the pattern not the front. Color every line that will need to be transferred.

*** 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

Refold The Pattern Around The Board

Refold the mosaic pattern around the backer board and tape it in place, preferably with some easy to remove painter’s tape. The creases in the prefolded paper made it easy to line the pattern up without smearing the charcoal all over the wood. Note that the tape goes on the VARNISHED side of the wood. The charcoal pattern will be transferred to the UNVARNISHED side.

Step 6. Trace The Pattern Firmly

Mosaic pattern traced

Trace the outlines of the figure firmly with a ballpoint pen or a pencil that is more dull than sharp. You want to press firmly so that the charcoal on the back of the paper pattern is transferred to the wood, but you don’t want to rip the paper. Avoid getting the paper humid or wet for this reason. Make sure you trace all the lines (curves) you would like to see on your backer.

Step 7. Remove The Paper And Fill In Missing Lines

Mosaic Pattern Missing Lines

When you remove the paper pattern, you will notice small places where the lines (curves) of the design didn’t get transferred for whatever reason, usually because you forgot to trace there or sometimes because you didn’t put charcoal in those places. You can fix those by drawing the missing lines. It is easy to do even if you have little confidence in your ability to draw because the existing lines give you a frame of reference.

Step 8.  Make The Lines Permanent With A Marker

Make Pattern Permanent With Marker

Make the lines of your transferred patterns permanent using a fine-tip marker such as the Sharpie brand. If you don’t do this step, then your hands and glue will quickly rub off the pattern.

Ready For Indoor Use

Mosaic pattern ready for work

The Mosaic pattern is transferred ready for tiling. This is a dry indoor mosaic, and so the tile can be attached with Weldbond Adhesive. For outdoor and wet mosaics. a concrete stepping stone or piece of flagstone could be used for a backer and the tiles mounted with thinset mortar.

Variations On This Method

There are a couple of parts of this method that could have been done through alternative means:

  1. 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.
  2. Instead for rubbing charcoal or graphite pencil on the back of the pattern, carbon tracing paper could have been used.

How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing

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.

Mosaic Coaster Heart

Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design  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?

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

  1. View a large pool of images, such as can be had in Google images, your own photos, books, and encyclopedias.
  2. Select an image with strong lines and iconic shapes.
  3. Modify the image as desired. Combine multiple figures if desired.
  4. Convert that image into a black and white image. (Photoshop or photocopier or tracing or sketching.)
  5. Resize the image to the size of the mosaic backer.
  6. Transfer the pattern to the backer.
  7. 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:

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses” and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. The outlines and curves are what you want to transfer to your mosaic backer.

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.

Ethical Considerations?

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?

Choosing Mosaic Colors Based On Contrast

Recently artist Jill Miller emailed me wanting some advice about choosing colors for a mosaic table top she was making, and the design she was a chickadee bird with holly leaves and berries. From her photos and a description of the colors she wanted to use for the border of the round table top, it was obvious that she wanted to use muted colors instead of intense colors. I was happy to help. I thought her project was a great example for how to choose colors for backgrounds and making sure there was adequate contrast between the different elements.

Chickadee Mosaic Table Top

Chickadee design for mosaic table top with some candidates for background color. Note how the faint moss green selected for the holly leaf does not adequately contrast the underside of the bird. Notice how the same can be said of the muted brown tile directly under the bird. The orange tiles do contrast the bird, but it is problematic to have a background color that is more intense than the colors of the figure in the foreground. Also, cool colors are usually used for backgrounds because cool colors recede while warm colors come forward visually.

Whether muted colors or intense colors are used, it is still important for there to be contrast in the colors that define different elements, else the elements don’t stand out from one another.

TIP: You don’t have to glue tiles down to see if they are the right color. You don’t even have to position them carefully. Just spread them roughly where they should go, take a break, and then look at the mosaic later. The loose tiles will either contrast the image enough to make the figure stand out, or they won’t. Your fresh unbiased eyes won’t lie to you. Don’t try to rationalize a color that doesn’t work based on some design you have in mind. Listen to your art. Look at it and really see it.

Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1 with intense green vitreous used for holly leaf. The problem with the vitreous green isn’t that the color is too intense but that it is grainy while the other colored tiles are glassy. Also, the green is a little more intense than the color scheme Jill had in mind.

Each work of art is just one version of many potential variations that could have been made with the same design. While it is not critical that you stay true to your original vision, it is important that you don’t have competing versions trying to exist in the same composition. The most important thing to stay true to is the design that is taking shape and making sure that color choices are internally consistent.

Color Study Version 2

 

Mosaic Color Study Version 2

Mosaic Color Study Version 2 with moss green for holly leaf. This more intense moss green still isn’t intense enough to adequately contrast the bird. Also, the color choices for the Chickadee are true to life, while this color green for a holly leaf is not. Again, colors don’t have to be true to life, but they do need to be internally consistent. A work of visual art can be a world unto itself, but it does need its own internal logic.

Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3 with mint green for holly leaf. “Ah, said Goldilocks, this third bed is just right…” Notice how this mint green teal color has enough intensity to contrast the colors in the Chickadee yet still keeps with the artist’s vision of muted colors. I like it. The muted colors remind me of an Audubon print, and what could be more appropriate for a picture of a bird?

Wrong Color? All Is Not Lost.

Most beginners are so eager to begin work that they start gluing down tiles before they are sure they have the right color. Usually they don’t notice that they don’t really like the color until they have spent an hour or so mounting tiles in glue. If that happens, all is not lost. Put on some work gloves and safety glasses  and scrape up the tiles with a screw driver. Soak them in water to remove glue residue. If the glue has already hardened for several days, you may break some tiles while scraping them up. If so, use a vacuum to pick up sharp slivers. Moistening the tiles for 30 minutes with a cotton swab dipped in water can help soften glue, but it can also increase the risk of creating gouges and delaminations in plywood backers.

Color Wheels and Complementary (Contrasting) Colors

Color wheels are an artist’s tool for choosing complimentary colors, which are pairs of color “opposites” that provide maximum contrast to each other: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple. Those are the main pairs of opposites, but the hues in between also have opposites. For example: blue-green and red-orange. Color wheel charts position all of these opposites directly across the wheel from each other, which makes it easy to see what the optimal contrast would be for any given hue.

You can see some color wheels by searching Google for “color wheel” or “complimentary colors.” Some are more in depth than others. I like the ones that also show different options for value, which is the relative lightness or darkness of the color.

Intense Colors and Contrast

Contrasting colors are important because they make images stand out. Look at these great bird mosaics made by Phil Lamie’s elementary school students, Notice how these mosaic take full advantage of contrast between intense blues and warm oranges. Notice how the cool blues are usually in the background and the warm colors are in the figures in the foreground. In the case of the blue bird, notice how the blue in the bird in the foreground is more intense than the blue of the sky in the background. Value and intensity can be used to make foreground images stand out from backgrounds, as the blue bird mosaic demonstrates. All of these bird mosaics are visually striking because they follow basic rules of using color.

 

 

Mosaic Pizza Oven

Mosaic Fireplace and Oven Surrounds: The Basics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a page explaining how glass, ceramic, and stone tiles can be used for mosaic fireplace surrounds and how the tiles should be mounted with thinset mortar or white PVA (polyvinyl acetate) adhesives such as Weldbond. But we are talking about the SURROUNDS, not inside the firebox. For inside the firebox, your need to use refractory materials (brick or stone) that can resist combustion temperatures. For the hearth, the issue is not temperature resistance so much as impact resistance: It doesn’t make sense to use glass tiles that are easily cracked by a metal poker or small tiles that are easily knocked loose. Stylistic concerns should never outweigh performance and durability, else the work won’t look good for long.

Mosaic Pizza Oven

Mosaic Pizza Oven by artist Kristina Young with octopus tentacle motif. Seafood and sea life and undersea scenes were common themes of Roman mosaic.

Problems with a Mosaic Pizza Oven

Recently, artist Kristina Young emailed me concerning a problem she was having with a mosaic she installed on the outer surface of an Italian pizza oven. The problem was that the mosaic was cracking over the door of the oven, and that caused me some concern because that should not happen with traditional fireplaces and pizza ovens constructed with brick or stone, and I have been telling people for years that there was no reason why they could not put mosaics on these surfaces in spite of the heat. Had I overlooked some basic technical principle and made recommendations that could ruin hundreds of people’s projects? The engineer in me became completely paranoid, and I could not wait for Kristina to email me back with answers to my initial questions.

Spoiler Alert: The good news is that the cracking is reparable and that the cracking is by the iron frame of the oven door, not the masonry elements of the oven itself, which means that there is no reason to expect similar problems with traditional fireplaces and ovens that are made from all stone or brick or concrete.

The Case of the Cracking Mosaic

cracking mosaic detail

Detail shot showing crack in brand new mosaic covering the exterior of masonry pizza oven. The location of this crack is significant: It started  right above the iron frame of the oven door.

When Kristina first contacted me, she was concerned that the cracking might have been caused by heating the oven not long after the mosaic was completed. That is a potential issue because thinset mortar takes time to harden, and like concrete, it hardens by bonding moisture not by drying out. (Concrete, mortars, grouts, and other portland cement products will be soft and crumbly if they are dried out by heat or dried air. They need to incorporate the water mixed into them, not have it removed artificially.)

Humidify, Don’t Heat

I don’t think that the oven was heated prematurely or that premature heating caused the cracking. The crack is location specific, and if the mortar was artificially dried out before it could harden, then the problem would be seen all over the mosaic in the form of cracks and missing tiles. That being said, I would avoid heating fireplaces and ovens for several days after a mosaic has been applied to them and grouted. The usual practice is to run humidifiers near a new mosaic to protect them from AC or central heat –not build a fire under them!

Thermal Expansion

Except for the notable exception of ice, most materials expand when they are heated. (Water expands when it freezes, and that is why ice floats: it is less dense than the water beneath it.) The problem with thermal expansion is that materials expand at different rates, and metals like iron expand more rapidly than stone, brick, and concrete. Kristina had already told me that the crack started on the front of the oven just over the door, and so as soon as she sent me a picture of the oven showing that the door had an iron frame, it was obvious to me why the crack had started there: The glass and mortar mosaic expands at roughly the same rate as the brick and concrete oven underneath it, but the iron door frame and the other iron structural elements expand even faster. They push the mosaic up like a shell on the outside of the oven, and when the oven and frame cool back down and contract, the crack appears.

The Right Repair Materials

An “expansion joint” spontaneously forming in the middle of your mosaic might have most people panicking and thinking of repairing the crack with a flexible material such as caulk. Caulk is problematic because it will not age well. It will yellow and shrink and crack. It will look more and more like the synthetic material that it is, a material that looks out of place on tile, a material which does not age.

Grout could be used to fill the crack. After all, grout is the concrete product that is used to grout gaps between tiles in the first place. However, thinset mortar is a better choice because it is harder and tougher and more adhering than grout,, and it can tolerate slight displacement (movement) while grout cannot. In fact, it would have been best if the entire mosaic had been “grouted” with thinset. I suspect that heating and cooling the oven in cycles over time may cause other cracks to appear or reappear, and these should have thinset rubbed into them as needed. Hopefully any new cracks or reappearing cracks will be smaller, but in any case, thinset is better equipped to withstand the stresses of expanding and contracting than grout.

Mosaic crack repaired with thinset mortar

Mosaic crack being repaired with thinset mortar. The mortar is spread on and worked into the cracks and wiped off just like grout. Thinset is superior to grout because it is harder and tougher and can tolerate slight movement.

Aesthetics and Authenticity

Think of high-end restaurants in reclaimed urban warehouse spaces: the exposed beams, the plaster chipped away in places to reveal the stone walls underneath, the different architectural elements like fire doors and hoists deliberately left in place to call attention to the space’s past industrial use.

To me, one of the more interesting things you can see in the mosaics of Mexico and the Mediterranean basin are the repairs that have been made to these over the years following earthquakes and other damage. I’m not thinking of the repairs that were made in modern times by archaeologists or professional conservators sparing no expense to make the mosaic look as if the damage had never occurred. I’m thinking of repairs made in the distant past by inexpert hands or by people with limited access to materials. I’m thinking of repairs like mortar-filled voids and replacement tiles of not-quite-the-right color and how you can sometimes see a series of these inexact repairs apparently made at different times in response to different injuries. To me, these inexact repairs more than anything else give me a sense of how ancient the mosaics are and how much history they have witnessed, endured even: earthquakes, fires, wars with slings and arrows, wars with bullets and bombs.

A large part of the ethos of mosaic art is it being an enduring relic of the past. If I were wanting to design a mosaic to look like an old relic, I might consider deliberately including mortar-filled voids and cracks to simulate past damage or maybe re-mosaicing some of these regions with coarser tile. With that in mind, is a crack appearing in a new mosaic in an Italian or Mexican restaurant a problem or a windfall? I’m thinking not. I’m thinking of the kid who deliberately scuffs up his new baseball glove so that it doesn’t look the unused glove of a rookie.

 

 

 

Mosaic Guitar

Artist MC Holt-Evans of Nashville recently made a mosaic sculpture very much in keeping with spirit of The Music City, and her mosaic guitar is worth taking a look at, especially if you are considering making a mosaic on an improvised base such as a musical instrument or a piece of furniture. The instructions below could be adapted for using other household objects as a base.

mosaic guitar back side

Mosaic guitar by MC Holt-Evans has a “blue grass” color scheme.

Mosaic Sculptures on Improvised Bases

Mosaic sculptures that use household objects as their base aren’t anything new. For example pique assiette (broken plate) mosaic furniture is fairly common, as are mosaic gazing spheres made from bowling balls. (Note that my article on gazing spheres explains why hard polystyrene makes a better base than a bowling ball.) However, a guitar can be a particularly challenging choice of mosaic base for several reasons: The shape is complex and curved, and part of it (the neck) is long and thin and has a lot of corners. The wood of the guitar’s sound box is thin, and yet it has a thick layer of lacquer that must be removed before adhesives and grout will bond to it.

Prepping the Guitar

Sanding

A medium grit sandpaper (120 grit) can be used to take off any lacquers or sealants. As always, wear an N95 rated dust mask for doing this type of work. (The N95 dust masks are cheap and readily available at a building material or hardware store.) I don’t recommend wet-sanding a guitar because you want to minimize its exposure to moisture until you get it sealed because the wood is thin and easily warped by moisture.

Modifying

Are you going to want to put the strings back on the guitar after it is mosaiced? Probably so, and that mean you need to take into account the thickness of the tile you are adding to the surface and raise the nut fret that separate the head from the neck. Use a hard wood for this such as bass (the wood used for sewing boxes and buttons) and not some soft wood like balsa.

Sealing

When you reseal the guitar with a water-based primer, you should apply two thin coats instead of one heavy one. To seal her guitar, Holt-Evans used an acrylic primer called Zinsser’s Bullseye 1-2-3 because it was recommended by an artist who works with mosaic guitars. Weldbond adhesive could also be used to seal/prime a guitar, and it might be the better choice because it is the adhesive that will be used to attach the tiles, and thus you wouldn’t have to worry about how well the adhesive and primer bonded to each other, but you would still need to give the sealing coat at least a week to dry out completely and fully harden before you tiled on it. Holt-Evans reported that she left coarse brush strokes in the sealant. This improves the bonding of adhesives and grout.

Using What You Have on Hand?

Be careful selecting a primer at random because Weldbond might not bond to some of them, definitely not oil-based materials. You want an acrylic, something like an artist’s gesso and not a latex house paint. PVA’s like Weldbond won’t bond to the vinyls and other binders in some house paint. Using what you have on hand isn’t necessarily being frugal if it doesn’t last nearly as long as it would have with the right stuff.

mosaic-guitar-start

The wood of the guitar was sanded bare and sealed with an acrylic primer in preparation for mosaic covering.

Mounting the Tile

Holt-Evans used Weldbond to attach the glass tile, penny rounds, and stained glass she used.

Partially Crushed Liquor Boxes

Use partially crushed liquor boxes to cradle the guitar or sculpture while you work on it. You can rearrange the boxes to re-position the guitar as needed so that whatever part of the curved surface you are working on is facing up.

Brush on the Adhesive and Let It Get Tacky

If you are having problems with tile sliding around, use a small paint brush to spread the Weldbond onto the surface and allow to sit for a few minutes and get tacky before you add the tile. Depending on how dry or moist your air is, this can be about 15 minutes, perhaps much faster if it is dry midwinter air and the heater is running. Remember, if you let the glue skin over too much, then it won’t bond to the glass as well.

Dental Picks and Cotton Swabs

Dental picks (or tooth picks) are invaluable for adjusting the positions of tiles without contaminating your fingertips. Cotton swabs can help clean up messes with precision and not move tile out of position. Tip: Don’t thow your wet-glue swabs into the trash. Instead, let them dry out and peel the dried glue off them next session and get another life out of them.

mosaic-guitar-progress

Mounting the tiles on the primed surfaces of the guitar.

Grouting

Grouting Studio or Bench Space

I like to grout outside on a patio or some place that can be hosed off. You can use drop cloths indoors, but you still have to be relatively neat, or you will track sand on the floor and ruin it. Grout and thinset mortar are concrete, not paint. That being said, grouting inside can be done without making a mess and is routinely done by mosaic artists. A plastic folding table or a table covered in construction plastic from the building material store is ideal for a project that might require multiple sessions to grout.

Grout Colors

Black grout makes color stand out more. All grout colors are lighter when the grout hardens, especially black grout. Black grout is usually jet black when mixed up but hardens to a charcoal gray or lighter. Pure white grout makes a mosaic look like a summer camp project.

Thinset Mortar vs Grout

I prefer thinset mortar instead of grout for projects like these. Thinset has an adhesive polymer in it that makes it strong and resistant to impact. Compared to ordinary concrete and grout, thinset is a lot less likely to crack and crumble when dropped. However, thinset contracts slightly as it cures, and so you might observe hairline cracks when used on a three dimensional object that can flex slightly, such as a wooden guitar. Like grout, thinset mortar can be dyed with concrete dyes.

Special Concerns

Grouting something like this is best done in multiple sessions. Unlike a mosaic chair or desk, a guitar has multiple places where special are has to be taken in order to not soil or clog some detail. A guitar has frets and working pegs and a saddle and a sound hole to take into account. Painter’s tape can be used to protect the bare wood inside the sound hole. Use crushed liquor boxes to cradle the guitar in different orientations while you grout it.

The color of a grout can look different if different amounts of water are used to mix up different batches or if they are misted differently. Try to mix up and handle your grout in a consistent way.

mosaic-guitar-finished

Finished mosaic guitar by artist MC Holt-Evans.

Grouting Sequence

Holt-Evans started by grouting the back of the guitar because it was the largest flat area with no obstructions and therefore the most straightforward surface to be grouted. When she grouted the back, she continued the grout over the sides so that there wouldn’t be a grout seam right at the corner because corners are vulnerable places and subject to many impacts.

The head and neck were each done in separate sessions, and for both of these elements, Holt-Evans did not take the mosaic and the grout around to the sides and backs. Only the top faces were covered, and so this meant that the grout had to be tapered off to the corner.

The front of the guitar was done in a later session because of the detail work required to get the grout tapered to the edge of the sound hole. The grout was carried down over the side to join the grout from the back on the sides.

To prevent a hairline crack where new grout meets the old, you should moisten the edge of the old grout with a little water on a cotton swab before grouting. This keeps the old grout from sucking all the water out of the new grout before it has a chance to harden.

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.

How To Cut Marble Small

Recently a customer emailed me asking how to cut a piece of marble mosaic tile into very small pieces. He reported that he could easily cut the marble tile into thirds by making straight cuts, but when he attempted smaller pieces or diagonal cuts, the marble would crumble or break into jagged pieces

The customer verified that he had the correct tool for cutting extremely hard tile, which is a compound nipper, but the problem is in the stone (and the technique to a certain extent) and not the tool. This article explains how to make cuts that take into account natural breaking points in the stone and how to use a marble file to file down extra small pieces instead of cutting.

Homogeneous And Thinly Layered Stone Types Cut Better

Whether or not a piece of stone tile can be easily cut into small pieces depends on the type of stone. Some varieties can be cut into thin sections while other varieties are likely to crumble or break irregularly when cut to any size. This is due to the internal structure of the stone. If a stone is homogeneous or composed of many thin layers, then it probably can be cut into thin pieces without breaking randomly. But other types of stone have veins and globs and swirls, and these types are likely to break along these natural internal structures instead of the intended line between the blades.

Note that some types of stone have natural swirls of color that do NOT act as natural fault planes, so you can’t always assume a stone will be difficult to cut reliably merely from variegated color.

Take Veins, Globs, Swirls And Layers into Account

With practice and experience, you can learn to look at the veins, globs, swirls and layers in the stone and make your cuts in places where the stone is likely to break naturally. Just as an experienced carpenter knows to avoid diving fasteners into knots in wood, an experienced mosaicist knows to make cuts along natural boundaries. Even then, there are still some varieties of stone where scrap has to be generated to get small pieces by cutting. However, there is a way to make small pieces from difficult stone types

File Instead Of Cutting

For problematic varieties of stone, you can use the fine side of a marble file to file a piece down to size instead of cutting it. Of course, you may need to make an initial cut with a tile nipper to get the stone to a manageable starting point before using the file. In fact, you may discover a lot of useful starting pieces in the “useless scrap” created by previous cuts.

Once you get accustomed to using a marble file, you may start to think of rough cuts as just an initial step followed by shaping with a marble file. For really small pieces, you can completely alter the shape of the tesserae with just a few strokes because all of the abrasion is focused on such a small surface area. You should hold the file still and rub the stone on the motionless file for greater control.

Tip: Wear gloves for this task because it is difficult to slide the tiny pieces up and down the file without scratching up your fingertips. If gloves make your hands too clumsy, then use a shop rag over your fingertip instead. As always, use mist from a spray bottle to control dust and wear a dust mask if needed.

Of course, this isn’t a scalable solution, meaning you wouldn’t want to have to do this for very many tesserae, but it is useful for making a limited number of small pieces for fine details in a mosaic mainly made from larger pieces.

Plan Mosaic Designs Starting At The Smallest Detail

Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is prevention. It doesn’t make sense to start with a mosaic pattern that has details smaller than the smallest piece of tile you can cut, but many novices make this error, which often results in a key focal point of the mosaic being more crudely executed than the background. Instead of assuming that you can always just cut the tile smaller to make the smallest detail of a mosaic, do the exact opposite: Before you begin executing the mosaic, take the smallest detail of your design and try cutting and arranging a few tiles to make that detail. If the tile is too difficult to cut that small, or if it is too tedious to arrange properly, then consider making the mosaic larger (or simplifying the smaller details of the design).

The size of a mosaic (or a painting) is ultimately determined by the size of the smallest detail that can be rendered. The principle seems obvious in hindsight, but in practice it catches many people by surprise. Why? Because they can visualize the smallest detail easily but do not realize that their powers of execution are much more limited.

Take the stress out of your mosaic project by playing with tile before you begin. Cut a little bit of it up and play around making patterns, and then decide how detailed your design should be and how large it should be. If your total area is already fixed (due to the size of an existing surface to be tiled), then try cropping or simplifying your design.