• Mosaic Gazing Spheres

    Mosaic gazing spheres are popular outdoor mosaic projects, and they offer a few simple advantages over mosaic-covered concrete lawn ornaments: They are lighter in weight and can be relocated more easily. Also, the mosaic gazing sphere can be adjusted in height easily by changing the height of the display stand used to support them. These are important points if you want to keep the mosaic prominently displayed as vegetation heights change throughout the season. (Think about annuals in flower beds and how high something like black-eyed susans can grow and even hedges can be an issue if you don’t have time to trim them regularly.)

    I have instructions for making a mosaic sphere toward the end of this article, but I wanted to mention a few important points first:

    How To Display The Gazing Sphere

    Wrought iron planter stands that are relatively simple in design make the best supports for mosaic gazing spheres. The ideal type of stand is a circular ring with 3 or 4 legs. You can find these at many lawn and garden centers. Tip: Use a little bit of black electrical tape to wrap the metal ring in four places so that the glass tile doesn’t rest directly on the metal ring. It’s OK for the tile to rest on metal in theory, but eventually someone is going to pick the sphere up to inspect it and not be as careful as they should be in returning it to the stand.

    Mirror Tiles

    Ordinary mirror cannot be used without a special adhesive that prevents the silver backing of the mirror from oxidizing and turning black. This adhesive is oil-based and relatively expensive compared to thinset. That is why we sell a mirror tile that has a special coating on the back that allows the tile to be mounted with thinset, PVA adhesives and other mosaic glues without turning black over time.

    Don’t Use A Bowling Ball

    Many people email us asking how to use old bowling balls for making mosaic gazing spheres. Bowling balls make problematic bases for outdoor mosaics for two reasons:

    Bowling balls have been reported to expand in high temperatures and cause mosaics to crack and tiles to fall off. Thinset mortar does not bond to the polymers bowling balls are made from, and thus an epoxy adhesive or oil-based is required, and that means fumes, difficult clean up and shorter working times.

    Either of these reasons would discourage me from using a bowling ball as a base even though I like to use recycled and repurposed materials as much as possible.

    Where To Get A Hard Polystyrene Sphere To Use

    Normal Styrofoam is too soft to use as a base, but there are harder varieties of expanded polystyrene that is ideal: strong, lightweight and bonds to PVA adhesives and thinset mortar. The Plasteel Corporation’s Smoothfoam website sells an 8-inch hard polystyrene sphere. The sphere comes in two halves that can be joined with the same Weldbond PVA adhesive or thinset that you use to mount the tile. Note that you should join the halves prior to mounting the tile, else you are likely to not mount the tile in a way that does not call attention to the seam. There are larger sizes available, but the 8-inch sphere is approximately the size of a standard bowling ball (8.5 to 8.595 inches).

    How To Make A Mosaic Gazing Sphere

    There is much about making a mosaic gazing sphere that is similar to making a mosaic on flat panel: Tile is attached to the surface using thinset mortar or a white PVA adhesive such as the Weldbond, and after this allowed to harden for at least a day, the mosaic is grouted by rubbing wet grout into the gaps between the tiles.

    The Basic Mosaic Process

    We have a page of illustrated mosaic instructions for more information about this basic process of attaching tiles and grouting. We also have a page about how to avoid grouting disasters.

    Putting Your Pattern On The Sphere

    You can draw the pattern of your design onto the surface of the sphere with a Sharpie marker or a pencil. Even if your design is as simple as an abstract pattern of swirls or rings, it helps to draw lines as a guide for each row of tile.

    Make sure you position the tile in adjacent rows so that four corners are never lined up together. (You want to avoid positioning your tile in a grid similar to how showers are tiled.) Instead, have the gap in one row coincide with the middle of the tile in the rows to either side. This makes each row stand out, which helps each row suggest motion.

    Decide Thinset Or Weldbond

    Thinset mortar is generally required for outdoor and wet mosaics. White PVA adhesives such as Weldbond are generally reserved for dry indoor mosaics. However, Weldbond is water resistant when fully cured, and if the sphere is displayed on a stand where it cannot sit in standing water, then a mosaic sphere made using Weldbond could have an extremely long life, especially if it were sealed with a tile and grout sealer.

    I have also come to accept that many people are intimidated by working with thinset because it has to be mixed up from powder form, cannot be stored once mixed up, and it is messier to use for a novice.

    All that being said, if you want to learn how to do this professionally, or if you want to make absolutely certain that your projects last as long as possible, then you need to learn to use thinset, which isn’t that hard in my opinion. I wrote a page about how to use thinset mortar for mosaic artwork and a blog article about how to keep your hands clean when using mortar.

    Decide Which Tile

    GLASS is the best tile to use outdoors because it is nonporous and therefore impervious to moisture, and thus it is frost proof. Ceramic and stone have micro pores, and water can penetrate and freeze and cause the faces to flake off. Ever notice how the surfaces of terracotta flower pots start to flake off when left outside over the winter? That is what is happening.

    Keep in mind that the Greek and Roman mosaics made from stone lasted because the climate of the Mediterranean basin is dry and relatively mild. If you want your outdoor mosaic to last in temperate and northern climates, use GLASS tile and then grout and seal it.

    Each sphere has approximately 1.4 square feet of surface area, so that means you would need:

    752 of the 3/8-inch vitreous glass tile OR 218 of the 3/4-inch vitreous glass tile OR 508 of the 12mm recycled glass tile OR 1225 of the 8mm recycled glass tile.

    Of course those numbers assume a grout gap of 1/16 inch. With the 8mm tile, you might want them slightly closer together. Also, if you are cutting the tile, you might want to budget 5 to 10% more to account for cutting scrap.

    Grouting And Sealing

    Outdoor mosaics should be grouted and sealed. You cannot simply place the tile as closely together as possible. Water can find its way into the tiniest crevice or pore. Consequently, you have to leave a large enough gap (usually 1/16 inch) to ensure that the gap is wide enough to get filled with grout. (As ironic as it sounds, you have to leave a gap to ensure that the gap gets closed up.)

    A few days after your grout hardens, you should seal the mosaic with a tile and grout sealer, which are invisible pore sealers that wipe on and wipe off. They aren’t coatings that form a clear layer over the surface. We use TileLab brand that we buy at Home Depot.

    One Side At A Time

    How do you glue tile to a sphere? One side at a time. Sit your sphere on a folded towel or cardboard box to keep it from moving or rolling as you glue the tile on the upper surface. Rotate the sphere only after the glue has started to set. If you are working carefully to ensure a uniform grout gap, you will probably be slow enough to ensure that the glue is hard enough before you have to rotate the sphere slightly to continue.

     

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  • Thinset On Plywood Mosaic Backer?

    Thinset mortar can be used on a plywood mosaic backer provided the plywood has been sealed with a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond. Otherwise, the plywood can suck the moisture out of the thinset before it has a chance to harden leaving it soft and crumbly. It is important to seal the plywood at least a day or two before you mount the mosaic with thinset because the Weldbond needs to be thoroughly dry and cured. For sealing purposes, Weldbond can be painted on with a brush or spread with a trowel. Many mosaic artists dilute the glue slightly or even up to 1:1 with water to make it easier to spread. Note that you shouldn’t seal your plywood with paint or sealers chosen at random because thinset will not bond to some of the oil-based and silicone-based products.

    Some artists seal their plywood backers with Weldbond before mosaicing even if they are going to use that same Weldbond to mount the tiles. Why? They want to make sure that the entire surface of the plywood has been sealed so that it doesn’t suck the moisture out of the GROUT when it cures. I never worry about sealing the face of my plywood because I am sure that I will get enough Weldbond spread around when I mount my tile, and so pre-sealing seems like an unnecessary extra step to me.

    Sealing VS Sealing

    A note of clarification: In this article, I am talking about pre-sealing the face of the plywood with Weldbond or some other PVA adhesive. This is a different step from sealing the finished mosaic a few days after grouting with a tile and grout sealer or “sealing” the edges and back of the plywood with paint or varnish to prevent warping by moisture.

    When You Should and Should NOT Use Plywood

    Plywood can warp and delaminate over time merely from the humidity in the air, and so you should never use plywood as a backer for outdoor mosaic or a mosaic in a damp location. However, plywood makes a great backer for dry indoor mosaics and not just for its light weight, which in itself is a significant advantage over concrete backer board. Unlike concrete backer board, the edges of plywood can be stained or painted, and they do not shed crumbs of concrete and sand. In my opinion, concrete backer board should only be used inside walls and floors and other places where its crumbly edges are covered up; it is not a backer for moveable mosaic plaques.

    Use Cabinet-Grade Plywood

    Note that you should spend the extra money and buy cabinet-grade plywood (in 1/2 inch thickness) instead of the ordinary plywood used for sheathing in construction. The cabinet-grade stuff comes with a sanded finish and has no knots or internal voids. It is also more resistant to warping, and the edges of cut pieces are cleaner than those cut from regular plywood mainly due to the lack of voids in the internal plies. With all of these advantages, the cabinet-grade plywood is only about 15% to 25% more than regular plywood, and in real terms it is actually the same price: some of the regular plywood may need to be scrapped due to internal voids, and it will require more work to make the edges presentable. The edges of a cut piece of cabinet grade plywood can be left plain or painted. The edges of a cut piece of regular plywood will have voids and require putty, sanding and paint if not a frame to look presentable.

    Why Use Thinset on Plywood?

    If plywood can only be used for dry indoor mosaics, then why would someone need to use thinset mortar on a piece of plywood anyway? The simple answer is there isn’t any reason to do so (IF you are using regular flat tile). With flat glass tile, you simply glue the tile on with Weldbond or some other PVA adhesive, let it dry for a day or so and then grout it by rubbing wet grout into the gaps and wiping away the excess.

    However, some people (including myself) like to use rounded and irregularly-shaped found objects in our mosaics, and these are not easily grouted. Instead of the glue-then-grout method, we like to press our objects into a bed of mortar so that the excess mortar presses up slightly around the object and skip grouting entirely. It is also necessary to avoid grouting if your found objects are naturally porous (seashells, bones, unpolished stones) because grout will stain these materials.

    The face of “Solstice Door” mosaic stele was made from a lifetime’s collection of found artifacts embedded in thinset mortar. Note that the stele is a reinforced concrete monument. Plywood would not support the weight of these materials.

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  • Broken Ceramic Tile Mosaics

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

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

    Why You Want Glass Tile Instead Of Ceramic

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

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

    Random Shapes Of Glass Tile

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

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

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

    “Charging Bull” mosaic. Note that the pieces could have easily been cut more randomly: trapezoids, triangles, odd irregular shapes. You don’t have to cut rectangular or square pieces from tile. Why No CERAMIC Tiles In Bright Colors?

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

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

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  • How To Choose A Mosaic Background Color

    The background in a work of mosaic art serves two purposes:

    contrast the colors of the figures in the foreground. suggest motion by arranging the tile in contours around figures.

    The first point is obvious, but the second is often overlooked even though it can make the difference between a great mosaic and a mediocre mosaic. The background isn’t supposed to be just empty space to be filled as quickly as possible with a grid of tile similar to how bathrooms are tiled. Consider Van Gogh’s Starry Night and how motion is conveyed in the directionality of the brush strokes:

    Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night is the best example I can think of for illustrating how brush strokes and lines of tile can be used to convey a sense of motion in visual art. A Good Teaching Example

    A friend recently emailed me a photo of a mosaic in progress and asked me for advice. Specifically, he wanted to know what type of tile and what color would best work for the background of a mosaic of a bass (fish) he had made from the 12mm C3 Recycled Glass Tile. The project was interesting because he wanted to make the background from a different type of tile than he had used for the fish, and there were other color constraints: the bass would be swallowing a large blue glass cabochon gem, and there would be green water grasses at the bottom.

    These constraints made the project a good teaching example for the simple reason that many artists work this way, especially naive artists and artists who work in a more exploratory way (as I do). Instead of copying an existing design verbatim, these artists will create the central figure or figures first, and then select a background color and additional figures based on how well they work with the central figure already in place. This mode of designing by trial and error is a natural consequence of working with limited color palettes. (Tile colors can’t be custom blended to any hue or shade like paint, so you have to select a background colors from what is available.) The trial-and-error mode also comes naturally when you are trying to incorporate specific found objects into a mosaic, such as the blue cabochon gem that my friend wanted to use in his.

    Greenish and bluish metallic glass mosaic tile would be a poor choice for background because they do not adequately contrast the colors used in the bass. Use Contrasting Colors

    The image above was included in the original email requesting my advice. My fresh unbiased eyes could immediately see that the green metallic tiles would not fully contrast the colors in the bass. I could also see that even the blue metallic would not work because the golden sparkle of the copper aventurine dust gives the blue glass an overall greenish cast.

    In fact, using blue tile of any type would be problematic if the blue cabochon gem is used. So I presented two alternatives:

    Use light pink or orange colors for the water, such as might be seen in late afternoon. Replace the blue cabochon with an orange cabochon.

    The first alternative appealed to me for two reasons. First, warm colors such as light pink or orange are more appealing in general. (Basic biopsychology: the brain likes warm colors.) Second, art with non-obvious color choices is usually more interesting. (If the sky ain’t always blue, why do we always have to color it blue without first questioning the instinct to do so?)

    An esoteric digression: This second point touches more sophisticated questions about visual art: Does an object have an intrinsic hue, or are the colors (plural) it reflects at a given instant a function of the color of the light shining on it at that particular instant? The answer is obvious to our eyes but not to our memories. Our memories tend to be more verbal than visual, and we remember things in a more archetypical mode: monochromatic “green trees” and “blue skies” and not the myriad of hues that they are in real life.

    Following Design Fundamentals Won’t Do You Wrong

    My friend decided to replace the blue gem with a golden yellow one and use blue tile for the water. These conservative design decisions work because they follow fundamental principles: The blue tiles contrast the greens of the fish and water grasses and the yellow of the cabochon.

    Of course my friend could have tried light oranges or light pinks for the water, but that would have involved more risk and more trial and error than would have been advisable on an early project such as this. I will write an additional blog post about how this particular mosaic could have been improved, but I will also write about the problems of artistic advice and how advice in general doesn’t work well in a one-size-fits-all mode.

    My friend’s finished mosaic of a large mouth bass swallowing a cabochon gem makes successful use of contrasting colors.

     

     

     

     

     

     

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  • Assessing Glass Mosaic Tile Health and Safety Concerns

    Recently a customer emailed me asking if there was an ASTM-D4236 certification for one of our glass mosaic tile lines. ASTM-D4236 is the labeling and precautionary standards for chronic health hazards in art materials.

    There isn’t an ASTM-D4236 certification for any of our products to my knowledge. They are manufactured as building materials and not as art supplies, and (more importantly) the materials are fairly inert.

    The metal oxide pigments used to color glass mosaic tile are fired into the glass itself and not freely available. Otherwise the tile could not be used in pools and baths or even in walls. As with any source of mineral dust, you shouldn’t pulverize the tile and breath it, but in that case the risk would probably be as much from the silicone dioxide (sand/glass) as it would be with the metal oxide pigments.

    In terms of safety and chemical health risks, I am much more concerned with my painting studio than my mosaic studio. Artist-grade professional paints contain toxic metal pigments which are freely available and not fired into glass, and any dust from drying paint specks is likely to be much more friable (and therefore air born) than dust created by cutting tile.

    Practical Safety Tips

    If you are concerned about minimizing potential risks, then follow these safety practices:

    Rinse mosaic materials prior to use to remove any dust generated by shipping. Use a HEPA shop vacuum to pick up any dust generated by cutting, which you really need to do anyway because there isn’t much if any true dust, but there are a lot of tiny slivers that will cut your hands and forearms as soon as you rub or rest them on work surfaces. Mix grout and thinset outdoors and wear a dust mask. Mixing up these concrete products is much more likely to expose you to silica dust than working with tile.

    Lastly, consider that fact that people work for decades in extremely dusty construction sites and mines where their daily exposure is possibly higher than what a lifetime of mosaic work is likely to expose you to. A few simple precautions and adequate cleaning reduce this exposure even further.

     

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  • Outdoor Mosaic Signs

    In the last section of one of my previous posts, Custom Shapes For Mosaic Backers, I showed some pictures and instructions for how I used 3/4-inch expanded steel to make a backer for an outdoor mosaic. The expanded metal was welded together in 3 plies, some mounting bolts were welded to this, and then the expanded metal was coated in thinset mortar fortified with very small pea gravel to form a solid surface. (Note that the assembly was cleaned with a wire brush to remove oils and dust before the thinset was applied.)

    Built To Stop A Tank

    I used this method of making a backer with built-in mounting bolts for two reasons: First, I could make the shape irregular and still have very strong edges without a metal border (which could have been welded on before applying the thinset if needed). Second, I wanted the backer itself to be incredibly strong because I wasn’t making a sign. I was making a backer for a found-object mosaic, and I didn’t want there to be any possibility of the backer flexing and cracking artifacts or not being durable. Third, I wanted the mounting bolts to be integrated with the backer itself and not secured by some separate frame which held the backer.

    Some Lighter Weight Options

    One negative consequence of making something this strong is the resulting weight. However, there are some options to bring down the weight considerably. The first option would be to use a lighter gauge of expanded metal, or maybe only using one ply instead of three plies and then wrapping that in hardware cloth before plastering with thinset. Another option would be to use the Wedi Board product or a concrete backer in a frame made from 3/4-inch angle iron and weld your mounting points to the frame. I don’t think I would use concrete backer board for this latter option because the edges tend to be crumbly. I would probably use light gauge expended metal coated with thinset even if I set this in an external frame.

    Backer In An External Frame

    If you do go the route of mounting a backer in an external steel frame, there are several things to consider:

    First, remember to paint the frame with at least 3 coats of oil-based outdoor paint after all welding is done and cleaned, including all mounting studs and devices needed to lock the backer board into the frame (such as nuts welded onto the frame to accept a small bolt that keeps the backer from slipping out).

    Why you need a locking device:  You cannot rely exclusively on an adhesive means of keeping the backer in the frame because the backer could potentially delaminate over time. Depending on the size of your mosaic, you may need to use a heavy gauge of angle iron or nest two pieces for each element of the frame.

    Estimate the weight of your finished mosaic and make sure the frame can support it. Make sure the  the corners are double welded and make use of corner braces to help ensure that the bottom of the frame doesn’t pop off if the frame rusted badly over the years.

    For added effect, make the frame part of the art and not an afterthought or just a default to a conventional rectangular frame. Consider a frame that grasps a reinforced backer at several key points instead of a more conventional frame that wraps all exposed edges. Of course, that requires a thicker backer, or at least a backer with a hollowed-out back and thicker outer edges.

    Mounting Bolts Welded Directly To Backer Skeleton

    If you decide to use my approach of creating an expanded steel skeleton covered in thinset mortar with mounting bolts sticking directly out of the concrete, then you need to weld the different plies of expanded steel so that they provide a good place for the head of the bolt to be attached to the central ply of steel.

    A nut is used to hold the bolt onto the expanded steel. The nut and bolt head are welded in place. Note that there are several places in this picture where the different plies of expanded steel need to be welded together.

    Make sure you use a carpenter’s triangle to make sure your mounting studs are vertical. Sometimes you have to tack weld the bolts in place and then bend the weld slightly to get them straight.

    Another concern is the potential for the mounting studs to rust over time. The water running off concrete tends to be slightly alkali and corrosive to steel. I would spray paint the back side of the backer, especially around the mounting studs. You should also consider using larger gauge bolts for your mounting studs.

    Mounting stud from the reverse of the backer. Another coat of thinset mortar should be applied to fill the voids and ensure that all of the expanded steel is covered.

    Before I began mounting the mosaic tile to the backer, I would make sure that the edges of my backer were finished properly and apply extra thinset to cover any bare expanded steel sticking out so that there aren’t any safety or corrosion issues over time. Of course, this is easiest if you did a proper job of welding and cleaning the edges of the expanded metal so that there aren’t any sharp points to begin with. Make the edges of the metal skeleton as robust as possible with thick globular welds and clean these thoroughly.

    Mounting Mosaic Signs

    There are some comments at the end of my post about Custom Shapes For Mosaic Backers, that discuss the issues involved in mounting a mosaic sign to a masonry wall.

     

     

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  • How To Select A Jigsaw For Making Mosaic Backers

    Tools Are Cheaper Than Craft Supplies

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

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

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

    Never Buy The Cheapest Model

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

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

    Never Buy The Lowest Amperage

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

    Don’t Buy A Rechargeable Tool

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

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

    Don’t Buy Features Over Quality

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

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

    Read NEGATIVE Reviews

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

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

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

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

     

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  • Long-Term Art-Studio Experiments and the Pace of Mosaic Composition

    Don’t Rush The Design Process

    It is easier for me to explain what I mean about pace and long term experiments if I discuss my painting instead of my mosaic artwork. Compared to most mediums of visual art, mosaic isn’t typically executed in a rush because the amount of work usually requires multiple sessions in the studio. (You don’t slap on some tile quite as quickly as you do paint.) However,  the point I make about my painting has a lot of relevance to the process of DESIGNING or CONCEIVING a mosaic composition and how you reflect on the work in progress and evaluate color decisions as you go along. Never blindly execute what you initially guessed to be a good decision. The design “mode” should never be turned off if your are trying to make great art.

    I think the highest form of visual art is finding objects in clouds. This is an aspect of dreaming that occurs while we are awake. I like my paintings to resolve into compositions as I go along with figures emerging from a dance of color and texture. Artificial Deadlines Are A Double-Edged Sword

    Accomplishment builds confidence, but what are you accomplishing if you aren’t happy with the results?

    Not long after starting Mosaic Art Supply, I found myself working on painting more than mosaic, at least in the studio time that I set aside for my own projects. (Go figure.) I made the decision to work on my painting in the following way: I would complete a small painting in a single session each night and then write something about creating it (personal significance or techniques) and then publish the painting’s photograph and text online. I didn’t use a blog format, but it was essentially a blog, with pages named for the artwork in question and no dating. Most of my paintings at Riverson Fine Art were created in this way.

    This one-painting-each-night approach was great for getting me accustomed to “finishing” work, but the constant artificial deadline of having to be done that night also made me hectically overwork some paintings (because I didn’t spend enough time looking at what I was painting and felt a rush to go with snap decisions). I also didn’t allow enough time to figure out technical questions before the lack of knowledge showed on the canvas in a clear way.

    It became clear that this exercise of doing rapid experiments each night could only teach me so much, and it had clearly taught me some bad habits that I had to unlearn somehow.

    Kids Don’t Try This At Home

    My solution was to totally change the pace of how I created art and not worry about publishing it or showing it. (The mosaic business was giving me more of a public presence than I wanted anyway.) But I did much more than this: I went to the opposite extreme. I didn’t even think about individual compositions or at least completing them as compositions. I drew up long lists of technical questions I needed to answer (such as how to mix up any color, ANY color I might need, shade or hue), and then I laid out what experiments I needed to do to find the answers.

    More than that, I allowed myself to digress into a series of smaller investigations if I got stumped on a particular color or problem, no matter how irrelevant the issue seemed by itself. It was merely enough that I couldn’t answer the question, and I worked until I figured it out. I wanted to know how to do whatever it was in the event the same issue ever came up later when I started painting figurative compositions again.

    This might seem obsessive on the surface, but I had already painted enough canvasses in a completely unsatisfactory way to know that I wouldn’t have the confidence to complete anything until I was more technically competent.

    In the case of how to mix up any shade or hue, I simply painted a series of mixing grids, such as recommended and discussed in most books about how to paint.

    To get the type of effects I wanted, I also needed to know how these colors looked when imperfectly layered over a canvas textured with peaks of modeling paste so that the layer underneath showed in the valleys. This greatly multiplied the number of variables I had to figure out.

    How would these look when color complements were paired? What about warm on warm or cool on cool? How would they look with dark on light or vice versa? How did making the upper layer more translucent with medium affect the hue of the layer underneath? How did varying the size and type of texture affect ALL of the above?

    Should the texture be rounded or sharp? Should texture run in raised ridges at the edges of figures? What would be the most effective way of duplicating specific results I found pleasing? How controlled or random should the sequence of layering be?

    And then there was my META question: If I mastered all of these variables, could I use the resulting techniques to make quick-drying acrylic paint look as visually interesting and complex as slow-drying oil paint, which naturally diffused creating soft edges and subtle transitions of hue?

    The answer could only be found by executing all of these combinations in a lengthy series of large abstract canvasses that took literally years. Each canvas was painted 10, 20 times, maybe 50 or more. Not 50 layers of paint. I mean 50 uses of the canvas for different “compositions” of multiple layers with all the accumulating texture that provided. Some of my canvasses from this period are almost as heavy as mosaics.

    Finally, just 6 months ago, I felt that I had investigated enough unknowns to have a vocabulary of techniques sufficient to attempt a figurative composition again with confidence. So I started painting figurative works again, or rather, I started trying to paint figurative compositions again, and I felt anything but confident.

    For starters, it wasn’t that easy to stop digressing each time I had a question about hue, texture or other variables in combination. I had gotten in the mode of “find out how” not “wing it to complete the composition.”

    Also, I had to factor in how I developed compositions. I don’t work from a model in front of me. I work from hundreds of remembered models arranged in imaginative compositions. I draw from the imagination. I also work interactively with the canvas to allow figures to evolve from seemingly random strokes. I like to let the design emerge from the canvas in a way similar to how the mind sees objects in clouds, which I think is one of the highest forms of visual art.

    All of this is fairly absorbing and cannot be done if I am having to concentrate too much on how to get the effects I want.

    The long and the short of it is that I finally have a painting near enough completion to show after years of one long extended series of experiments that took over 4 years.

    This painting is unfinished. I am thinking of calling it “Color Dance.” Parallels with Mosaic Art

    In a mosaic, you may not have layering of color as a variable, but you definitely have juxtaposition of color, and you have variegation of color fields and color field transition. You also have how all of these variables are affected by tile size and work lines (andamento: how the tiles are arranged in contours to show motion or  arranged randomly or grid-like). Think about all these variables and how they might be used to make your composition stronger. Of course, you don’t have to go completely mental like I did with painting and try to think about every combination of variables, but do spend some time thinking about what else might be before you begin setting tile in concrete.

    A Practical Way To Experiment In Mosaic

    Draw a cartoon (outline) of your design on the mosaic backer with a pencil, and then just place tile in the different color fields. At first, think about just different pairs of complementary colors, and try to get the basic color layout planned. Then think about how each color field might be made more visually complex by adding a few related hues or shades to the color field instead of using only one hue or shade. Once that is fairly worked out, then think about what size the tiles should be and how they should be arranged. It is hard to go wrong by arranging tiles in lines parallel to the outlines of figures. These contoured work line suggest motion, and this almost always looks more interesting than random patterns or grids. Remember, you aren’t tiling a shower or bricking a wall. You are rendering an image, so take advantage of all the trompe l’oeil you can, especially andamento!

    The meta message is this: You can’t tile over an unsuccessful part of a mosaic the same way you can quickly paint over an unsuccessful part of a painting. This means that designs are enhanced when you do quick experiments with your cartoon BEFORE you start mounting tile: merely lay the tile out loosely on your outline and see how the colors work together. Try different combinations. You can’t try them after the tile is glued down, or at least as easily. Make haste slowly and avoid the need to chisel off glass tile.

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  • Advanced Tips For Selecting A Grout Color

    The primary reason for grouting tiled surfaces is to prevent water from penetrating behind the tile and weakening the adhesive or the backer and the structure beneath the backer. In mosaic artwork, the grout also has a visual function, and that is to contrast (not match) the tile colors. If the grout color does not sufficiently contrast the tile colors, than all the tiles blend together visually, and much of the “mosaic effect” is lost.

    Grout Color Should Contrast Not Match

    There are some novices who doubt my advice about contrasting grout color and even try to match their grout color to the tile colors. These are the people who later email me in a complete panic. They usually use the words “completely ruined” to describe what grouting did to their once beautiful mosaic, and from the pictures they send, I’m inclined to agree with them. (Note that these mosaics can be saved, but it requires either scraping the grout out with a grout removal tool or painting the grout with acrylic paint or some other ad hoc solution.)

    A Medium Gray Grout

    Since experience has shown time and again that the best grout color is one that contrasts tile color, the question becomes which grout color best contrasts ALL the different colors used in the mosaic. For MOST combinations of tile colors, the best contrast is usually provided by a medium to dark gray, with darker being the better guess if in doubt. Always keep in mind that the color of the grout will be significantly lighter when fully cured compared to how it looks when wet.

    A Notable Exception: Lighter Blues

    There are a few notable exceptions to the rule of gray grout being best. The most obvious exception is when you are using gray tile (duh), but the one that usually catches people by surprise is when tiles of lighter blue colors are used. Unfortunately, these are just the shades of blue that are popular for water and sky elements, so this is a significant exception. In this situation, a warm light brown or sand colored grout might be a good choice for contrasting the blue tile, but what if there are light brown tile used elsewhere in the mosaic? Is there a good standby color of grout for this situation? The answer is no, but there is a quick solution.

    Go Look At Grout Colors With Your Tile

    Building material stores such as Home Depot and Lowes usually carry about 30 or more colors of grout, and they have color swatches on the shelves and/or packaging so that you can pick out grout similar to how you pick out paint, only with much more limited options. The trick or tip is to not to try to do this from memory without the benefit of having your tile with you. Take one or two tile of each color used in the mosaic with you to the store and hold them up against the color swatches. I have even gone into the store with small mosaics, just as I have taken in parts of plumbing I was trying to match or replace. Don’t be self conscious about it. The people who work there are accustomed to seeing professionals at work, and you will be quite unobtrusive compared to the building contractors dealing with emergencies. At least you won’t be covered in dirt and holding a toilet seat or something like that.

    Some “Advanced” Tips

    From the many emails and pictures I have received in the past 12+ years, I can state with some confidence that novices tend to regret choosing grout colors as an attempt to add another color to the mosaic. Matching grout color to tile color tends to be even more disastrous.

    If you already have your figures rendered in tile using a relatively small grout gap, and you like how those figures look, then your main objective while grouting should be to not mess up the visual art that was already working, especially if you are a novice at mosaic.

    Of course, even a novice can take a few of each color tile and create an abstract experiment on a scrap piece of plywood and try a novel grout color on it.

    The monochromatic nature of medium gray grout makes it contrast colors intrinsically, in the same way that back and white contrast colors intrinsically. All three are balanced in hue. The keep-it-simple and less-is-more principles really come into play when you decide to second guess some shade of medium to dark gray when grouting figurative mosaic artwork.

    On the other hand, there are all those earth tones to play with…

    Just remember to experiment on a piece of scrap before trying it out on a mosaic where 90% of the work was spent cutting and mounting the tile.

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  • How To Make Custom Shapes For Mosaic Backers

    Rectangular backers are fine for most mosaic designs, but sometimes you want to make an irregularly-shaped mosaic or a mosaic with a custom shape, such as the silhouette of a common object: tree, automobile, flower, turtle, etc. How you make such a backer and what materials you use depends on whether or not the mosaic will be installed in an outdoor or wet location. Note that not every location in a kitchen or bathroom has to be considered as being “wet.”

    First, I will discuss irregularly-shaped backers, and then I will explain how to make custom-shaped backers for both indoors and outdoors. The last section about custom-shaped backers for outdoors should be useful for people making mosaic signs and placards.

    Why You Should Not Buy A Shaped Backer

    If you buy a shaped backer from a craft supplier, then your mosaic will have exactly the same shape and size as all the other mosaics made from that particular backer. Also, most of that craft crapola is designed in China, and it all looks rather dated. The saddest customer picture we ever received was a picture of a beautiful mosaic design (serious, intense, original) executed on the most boring, cutesy, cliche shape of a ladybug. Oh what might have been…

    Irregularly-Shaped Backers

    If you want more of a random “found” shape instead of a specific shape, then the solution is to use a piece of scrap plywood or flagstone depending on whether or not the mosaic is outdoors.

    Indoors

    For indoor mosaics, you can use a piece of 1/2″ cabinet-grade plywood, and a local carpenter or cabinet maker can give you more than you could ever use. Check with friends and their spouses for a few pieces of scrap, or you can buy a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood at a building material store such as Home Depot or Lowes and have a friend cut out what you need with a jigsaw. You can also buy a decent jigsaw for about $75, but make sure you follow the safety instructions and maybe watch a safety video or two on Youtube if you are a novice with power tools.

    Outdoors

    For outdoor mosaics, you should not use wood or adhesive. Wood doesn’t even have to get wet for the humidity in the air to swell and warp it. Instead of the glue-then-grout method used for indoor mosaics, you should use thinset mortar to attach the tiles to a stone or masonry surface. Concrete backer board can be used for rectangular and circular mosaics that have some sort of frame (such as the rim of a metal patio table), but the edges of concrete backer board can be crumbly, and that makes it a lot less useful for irregularly-shaped mosaics where the edges are left unfinished, such as you see in the fragments of ancient Roman mosaics displayed in museums.

    To make an irregularly-shaped outdoor mosaic in the style of a Roman or Greek fragment, use a piece of flat flagstone such as can be found at stone stores, landscaping stores and some higher-end lawn and garden centers. Avoid slate and sandstone, especially the softer varieties. You can get a general idea of how soft or brittle a type of stone is merely by paying attention to how it has been breaking or scratching or weathering in the big piles or stacks at the stone store. Slate is good and flat and smooth, but it tends to be thin and break too easily for most sane people to care about mosaicing on it.

    Custom-Shaped Backers For Indoor Mosaics

    For indoor mosaics, 1/2-inch cabinet-grade plywood is my preferred backer, and it is sold at most building material stores. It comes pre-sanded and is more resistant to warping than the cheaper plywood used for construction sheathing. There also fewer if any internal voids in the plies of wood, so the edges are stronger and look neater. The few extra dollars for cabinet-grade plywood are worth the cost.

    The shape of your backer can be drawn directly on the plywood with a pencil, or you can first draw the shape on cardboard or paper and then cut it out and use it as a stencil and trace the shape on the plywood.

    Cutting the shape out is best done with a jigsaw, which can be bought for about $75, but you can ask friends and their spouses to do it for you if they have one. Most people who work with carpentry or cabinetry will have one, but if you decide to cut it yourself, make sure you watch an online safety video about using jigsaws first. In my opinion, jigsaws aren’t nearly as dangerous as circular saws and table saws, but novices should be extra careful when using power tools.

     Custom-Shaped Backers For Outdoor Mosaics

    Metal isn’t recommended as a mosaic backer, but if you are mounting the mosaic outside, then metal will probably be involved in some way, at least in how the mosaic is attached to the building or post. The most obvious solution is to have concrete backer board set in a metal frame made from angle iron, and this frame can have mounting studs (bolts) welded to it prior to painting it and inserting the backer board.

    I don’t recommend hanging mosaic signs from chains because mosaic work is heavy, and intense wind from storms can turn the sign into a battering ram. Also, the chains would need to be checked periodically for wear, and the artist cannot guarantee that the owner of the sign will do this over time.

    Of course, a frame made from angle iron is really only practical for rectangular shapes.

    My approach for making a custom-shaped mosaic for outdoors was to put the steel inside the concrete. Essentially, all I did was cut out my shape in 3/4″ expanded steel using a cardboard pattern as template, then weld mounting studs (bolts) to it, and then I encased it in thinset mortar, which is a type of sticky concrete.

    Expanded steel 3/4 inch. The 3/4 inch measurement refers to the size of the internal holes, specifically the minor axis (shorter dimension) instead of the longer side-to-side dimension.

    The 3/4″ expanded steel was cut using an angle grinder with a thin cutting wheel because I didn’t have a cutting torch and haven’t yet saved up enough money to buy a plasma cutter. (Are you listening Santa?)

    I used my cardboard template to outline two pieces of expanded steel, and I made sure that the direction of the expanded metal was oriented at 90 degrees between the two pieces. That way when I welded them together, I was sure that the holes would not line up perfectly. Instead, I wanted the holes in each piece of metal to be partially covered by the other sheet.

    This structure was made from scraps of expanded metal I had in the shop instead of two pieces expressly cut out for the job, but notice how I made sure the expanded pattern in the top and bottom layer are still rotated 60 degrees from each other instead of perfectly lined up. A rotation of 90 degrees is optimal for ensuring the holes in the resulting structure aren’t too large.

    Once I had my shape welded together, I welded some 3/8-inch bolts to it to that the finished mosaic could be bolted to a wall. Then the frame was scoured with the stiff wire brushes that are used to clean welds.

    The thinset mortar I used to cover the frame was applied in multiple coats. The first coat was mixed with about 50% fine pea gravel so that the mortar had some bulk to fill the holes in the frame. Note that most pea gravel you see at lawn and garden centers will need to be sieved through 1/4″ hardware cloth or at least have the larger stones picked out. If that seems tedious, then consider how tedious it will be to pick put the large stones once they are coated in sticky concrete but are too big to be pressed into the frame. (Been there.)

    This is the underside of a finished outdoor mosaic backer. Note the three mounting studs. Also note that the top surface (facing down) is a lot smoother than this backside. I made the top surface perfectly smooth by applying a second coating of thinset to the top face and then setting it upside down on a piece of construction plastic.

    Thinset mortar contracts or “thins” as it cures, so there isn’t much point in making your surface perfectly smooth with the first application. Of course you want it level, and you don’t want any large pieces sticking up, but there is no need to try to smooth it to a finished surface with a trowel. If you do smooth it perfectly, you will notice dimples that get larger each day for about a week as the thinset contracts internally.

    Due to this internal contraction and the resulting dimples, I wait about a week before applying this second coat, which mainly involves spreading the thinset on the face with a putty knife or trowel and then turning the mosaic face down on a piece of construction plastic.

    Roll of construction plastic. Grout does not stick to plastics in general, but this stuff is especially good about being stick free.

    Construction plastic is sold in large rolls at building material stores. A cheaper alternative is clingy kitchen wrap such as the Saran Wrap brand. Kitchen wraps aren’t as strong, and they don’t tend to stay put even when taped down, but an easy solution to this problem is to find a large piece of cardboard and wrap it around the cardboard about 3+ layers deep. Then you can lay the covered cardboard on your work surface.

    WARNING AND DISCLAIMER

    Use this improvised method and these instructions at your own risk. Like all the instructions on my websites, these instructions haven’t been rigorously tested in corporate laboratories. Neither can they anticipate all the potential mistakes an individual could make in executing them. As always, if you are installing anything for a client, it is your obligation to evaluate the strength, safety and longevity of your art, especially if it is to be displayed in a public space.

    All that being said, there isn’t too much if anything in these methods that uses materials in a way that they aren’t commonly used or at least in a similar way. Unless you weld things in an amateurish way or fail to clean the welds, then the backer should have a very long life, even outdoors. The only mode of failure I am particularly concerned about is the possibility of the bolts rusting through over time, although that would be a concern with any heavy sign mounted by bolts.

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