• How To Fix Grout Mistakes

    In my previous post, I wrote about how to remove and replace glass mosaic tile to make changes to a mosaic before you grouted it. I also explained why it was good to display the mosaic for a few weeks before grouting so that you had a chance to see the mosaic as a whole with a fresh eye before setting it in concrete.

    But writing this got me to thinking about a common problem that isn’t visible until you grout the mosaic, and that got me to thinking about all the ways in which people “ruin” their mosaic in the grouting process. Fortunately, the mosaics aren’t actually ruined, and there are solutions to each problem, at least in the vast majority of cases.

    Conventional Grout, Not Epoxy Grout

    Keep in mind that all of the mosaic advice on my websites is written for conventional portland-cement grout. If you are using one of the new epoxy-based grouts, then some of what I am recommending might not be possible or might require more work.

    Ways Mosaics Are “Ruined” By Grouting

    Here are problems commonly reported after grouting a mosaic:

    My mosaic is covered with a dull gray or white haze. I let the grout harden on top of my mosaic before I could get it off. There are specks of grout in the pits and voids of my glass tile. My grout is crumbling and falling out. The grout stained my unsealed stone or ceramic tile. My grout is not as dark and colorful as it was when it was wet. I used the wrong color grout. My tiles seem smaller after grouting, or my mosaic isn’t as colorful as it was.

    NONE of the above problems mean the mosaic is ruined permanently, and most are relatively simple to fix.

    A Dull Gray Or White Haze

    Grouting involves pressing wet grout onto the surface of the mosaic, working it into the gaps
    thoroughly, and then scraping off all the excess. But that is just the initial phase of the grouting process. The second phase involves cleaning and hazing, both of which must be done with care not to erode the grout from the gaps or moistening it with excess water.

    If your sponge or rag contains too much water, then you wipe off the top layer of colored grout in the gaps leaving only the sand, and then the grout will look lighter than intended when it is dry. That is why installers only clean the tile so much when the grout is still wet and curing. They err on the side of caution and leave a thin residue that dries into a haze. That is why the process of buffing a freshly grouted mosaic with a clean rag is called “hazing.”

    If you leave a little too much residue, the haze might be more substantial and not wipe off with a rag. If so, no worries. Simply use a Scotchbrite pad or wire brush to scuff away the haze. Do this process wet using a spray bottle to mist the mosaic to avoid breathing dust.

    The Grout Hardened Before I Could Scrape It Off

    This problem can be thought of as an extreme case of the problem discussed above. If you have excess grout hardened on your mosaic, it can be removed. Concrete can be eroded relatively easy if the total surface area isn’t excessively large. For this situation, we has a wire brush of the type used to clean welds, which has thicker and stiffer bristles than the wire brushes used for cleaning barbeque grills. We mist with spray bottles, and once the excess is worked off, we finish up with Scotchbrite pads and rags as described above.

    Specks of Grout In Pits

    Sometimes stained glass and even molded glass tile will have pits in the surface that were bubbles when the glass was molten. Naturally grout fills these voids just as it does the grout gaps, and it doesn’t wipe off. Often times, people won’t notice the problem until the grout is cured and lighter. This is a trivial problem. Mist the mosaic with water and use a dental pick to clean out the voids. You can also use a light gauge wire brush if the problem is fairly widespread, but take care not to erode grout from the gaps.

    Crumbling Grout

    Concrete hardens by binding water, not by drying out. If you doubt this, then think about how concrete can harden underwater. If you let your grout dry out when it is curing, it will be soft and crumbly. Cover your mosaic with a plastic trash bag if the AC or heat or sun is making the air dry. The grout will also be soft and crumbly if you don’t add enough water when you mix it up. Follow manufacturer instructions on the package.

    If you have crumbly grout, then scrape it out with the grout removal tool we sell or an old screwdriver and regrout the mosaic.

    The Grout Stained My Tumbled Stone or Unglazed Ceramic Tile

    Porous materials like tumbled unpolished stone and unglazed ceramic tile can be stained by grout. We prevent this problem by wiping the mosaic with a rag dampened with Tile and Grout Sealer, such as TileLab brand a day BEFORE we grout. We are careful not to get any sealer in the gaps where the grout will need to bond to the sides of the tile, and we have used small artists paint brushes for this purpose.

    If you didn’t know to do this, all is not lost. You can sand off the stained layer with 80 grit sandpaper followed by 120 grit and finer grits if needed. Of course, you don’t use sandpaper. Like any craftsperson in the know, you buy the belts used for belt sanders and cut them up. The belts don’t cost much more than sandpaper, but they last literally a hundred times longer.

    Also, you should wet sand this using a spray bottle to mist and wear a dust mask to avoid breathing the silica dust.

    The Grout Is Lighter Than It Was When Wet

    Grout will always be lighter when it is cured and dry, no matter how dark it was when wet, and this is particularly true for dark colors like charcoal black.

    There are two solutions:

    The first option is to seal the grout with a sealer known as a “stone enhancer” instead of a regular tile and grout sealer. However, enhancers are invisible pore sealers just like regular grout sealers and not a coating that actually forms a gloss layer over the top of the grout. That means there are limits to how much color you can bring out with an enhancer.

    If you need an extra dark grout gap, then consider painting it with artist’s acrylic paint instead of sealing it. Glass tile is non-porous, so the paint should wipe right off the glass and stick only in the porous grout. Of course, you should only do this for dry indoor mosaics. I don’t want to get any emails from dodo birds painting the insides of their tile showers.

    The Wrong Color Grout

    Grout can really change the look of the mosaic, especially if you use wide grout gaps. Grout works best when it serves to separate the tiles visually like a thin pencil line in a watercolor painting. That is why the best choice of grout color is usually a medium gray, unless you are using gray tile. It’s important that the grout color CONTRAST tile color instead of matching tile color. If it matches the tile color, then the tiles will run together visually and not stand out as individual tiles, and the mosaic usually looks poorly as a result.

    There are two alternatives when you use the wrong color to grout your mosaic: Scraping the grout out with a grout removal tool or painting the grout with color as described above.

    My Tiles Seem Smaller or My Mosaic Isn’t As Colorful

    The grout gap always looks wider once it has grout in it. It also has no color until you fill it up with concrete. In an ungrouted mosaic, the colorful sides of the tiles are visible. That means a mosaic with wide grout gaps is particularly susceptible to looking duller when grouted.

    Smaller Grout Gaps For Smaller Tile

    If you use small tile or small pieces of tile, then remember to use a correspondingly smaller grout gap. Sure, a 1/16 inch gap is standard, but if your tile is 3/8 inch, you probably want to use a smaller grout gap if you are rendering the details of an image instead of merely tiling a wall.

    Rounded Tops

    Another solution is to not fill the grout gap all the way to the top. This is particularly important when using tile with rounded corners or a rounded top surface. Think of it this way: If you let only the peaks of the tile show above the grout, then your mosaic’s surface area will be mostly dull concrete instead of colorful glass.


    If you haven’t yet grouted a mosaic with wide grout gaps, consider reworking the areas with the widest gaps. Often that isn’t practical because the problem is widespread, so the remaining option is to rub the wet grout off more aggressively than normal when you scrape away the excess and try to erode some of the grout from the tops of the gaps.

    If you have already grouted the mosaic, then consider using the grout removal tool to scrape some of the grout from the tops of the gaps. This is particularly effective when the tile used has rounded tops. If you get some of the grout off the slopes of the tile so that more of the faces are  showing, then the mosaic can become a lot more colorful. Again, this isn’t as useful an option if the mosaic is wet or outdoors. In those cases, you would have to pay close attention and make sure that enough grout remained to keep the out moisture, and you would need to reseal the mosaic.

    Don’t Give Up Hope

    It is an act of faith to dump wet concrete on top of a detailed picture that you just spent weeks making by hand from tiny pieces of glass. Not surprisingly, most novices expect the worst when anything goes wrong or appears to go wrong, and they are usually convinced their mosaic is ruined. This simply isn’t true.

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  • Procrastination Before Grouting Is A Virtue

    The Pace of Art

    Taking time to reflect on what you are doing can be the difference between producing a mediocre work of art and a great work of art. All too often, we miss opportunities to make something really wonderful because we are too concerned with just getting the job done. When we work on our art at the same pace that we run errands and do other tasks in the modern world, we end up making artwork that is more product than art.

    It Takes Time To Really See

    Like many artists, I have trouble seeing a work of art as a whole while I am actively working on it because I am too focused on the details of specific areas or specific aspects of the work. Ironically, these details usually don’t turn out to be nearly as important as something I’m not even paying attention to at the time. That is why painters let “finished” paintings hang out in their studios for a few weeks before applying the final varnish. After you are supposedly done is when you usually see what needs to be done.

    Display Your Mosaic Before Grouting

    I always display a mosaic in my studio for at least several weeks before grouting it. Before things are literally set in concrete, I want to look at the mosaic with fresh eyes and really see it for the first time. Most often I notice little things, things that might be good to do on the next mosaic or things that aren’t significant enough to justify the work required to change them. But other times I notice fatal flaws, things that make all the difference in the world and have to be changed. What do I do then?

    I have written a post about how to remove and replace glass mosaic tile to change mosaic designs before grouting.

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  • How To Change A Mosaic Before Grouting (Or Afterward)

    Already Grouted?

    If you have already grouted your mosaic, you can still use these instructions, but you will first need to remove the grout using a grout removal tool, which is normally used to scrape grout from the gaps between glazed ceramic tile. It may take a little more care with glass, but this tool can be used to remove grout from mosaics made from small pieces of glass tile.

    How To Remove and Replace Glass Mosaic Tile A Caveat

    Glass tile doesn’t usually pry up in one piece. If you are able to get most tiles off in one piece, then there was probably something wrong with your adhesive or mortar. Expect the glass to come up in sharp pieces and slivers and not be reusable. Never chisel the glass off by banging at it forcefully. If your scraping tool slips past the tile being chiseled, your knuckles and wrists will be headed straight toward razor sharp teeth mounted in concrete. Wear leather work gloves. I wear my welding gauntlets.

    Moisture Helps

    If the mosaic in question was made with a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond, then I use a moistened cotton swab to selectively wet the edges of the tile, taking care not to wet the surrounding tiles too much. Note that if the Weldbond has had several months to cure, it may be more water resistant, but you should still apply water. Keep plastic kitchen wrap such as Saran Wrap over the tile and reapply moisture as needed to let the glue soften for an hour or two.

    If the mosaic is an outdoor or wet mosaic made with thinset mortar, moisture doesn’t really help. For thinset mortar, it is best to make any changes within a week at most. Thinset is hard and tough and it really grips the glass once it has had a chance to fully cure.

    Prying Tools

    I usually use a medium size standard screwdriver to pull the tile up with a combination of scraping and prying. Notice that when you attempt to pry the tile up, you tend to use the surrounding tile as a fulcrum on which to rest the screwdriver, and this is a problem. It can crack or even shatter the surrounding tile, and it is likely to do so because the glue is usually stronger than the glass. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Lay a Popsicle stick or ruler over the surrounding tile and use that was your fulcrum. Of course, you will need to use one hand to keep the ruler from sliding back slightly as you pry. If you let the screw driver slide the ruler away, it will make contact with the tile underneath and damage them.

    Damage To Backers

    Plywood and concrete backer board aren’t as strong as Weldbond and thinset mortar, so they will sometime delaminate when use start prying and scraping and you end up pulling off the top layer of the backer. If this happens, don’t panic. Plywood can be patched with a mixture of sawdust and Weldbond, and concrete backer board can be patched with thinset mortar. However, you can minimize the possibility of this happening in the first place by attacking the tile from multiple angles instead of just working from one side.

    Safety Requirements

    When you pry up glass tile that has been glued down, sharp pieces can break off and go flying across the room. (I try to keep my leather work glove over the tile to prevent this possibility.)

    You should wear safety glasses with side shields. You may even want to wear the plastic safety shield masks that are made for working with power tools. You also want to make sure anyone else around your work area has proper eye protection.

    Another issue is the tiny sharp slivers of broken glass. Keep a vacuum nearby and use it periodically to clean the work area. It is always the tiny invisible slivers that cut you when you wipe the work surface clean with your hand. Use a vacuum instead.

    Wear leather work gloves and be cautious of jabbing forcefully at the tiles. Use deliberate motions and think about where your hand will be headed if the tool slips off the tile: The freshly broken glass is sharper than any steel razor and it is mounted. If you punch your hand or wrist into it, you will be going to the emergency room in all probability.

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  • How To Mix Up Concrete, Mortar and Grout Without Creating Dust

    Concretes, mortars and grouts have the potential to create significant amounts of dangerous dust when the water is first added. There is only 1 part water for every 4 parts concrete by weight, so much stirring is required before all the dry concrete will be wet. In fact, you can create a lot of dust just by pouring the water in too rapidly or from too high above the powder.

    But it is possible to mix up concrete inside a workshop or studio without creating very much dust and collecting what dust you do create.

    How To Stir In The Water

    The water should be poured gently over the top of the powder. Pour the water from a low height and pour it gently against the wall of the container. Stir slowly, spreading the water over the top of the dry material instead of digging into it.. Keep the growing blob of mud over the top of the dry stuff. Gradually use your spoon or scoop to slowly scrape into the dry materials until the blob absorbs it all. Make sure you get all the pockets of dry stuff in the bottom corners.

    Tips Useful for Batches Large and Small. Dust Mask

    Always wear a dust mask when pouring and mixing dry powders, especially when mixing up concrete products.

    Humidifiers and Spray Bottles

    Use humidifiers and misting spray bottles to control dust generation, but keep them away from electric power tools to avoid electric shock.

    Locate the humidifier in the room, not where you are actually working. If your hand or glove gets wet while handling a spray bottle, dry it with a rag before using drills, mixers, etc.  HEPA Shop Vacuum

    A dust mask isn’t going to protect you if you spread the dust all over your clothing or work space. A few days later you will move a box or a board and breath that same dust right in. Buy a HEPA shop vacuum and use it regularly. Use a vacuum bag to protect your HEPA filter, as always.

    How To Get Concrete Out Of The Bag Without Pouring.

    Pouring dry powders and chips from bags creates more dust than is necessary. Concrete should be scooped or shoveled from partial bags or whole bags should be lifted off similar to how a person takes off a shirt. Misting bottles or HEPA shop vacuums are still required.

    For Small Batches

    For small batches (and anything else under a full bag), scoop your material from a bag which is kept stored in a plastic bucket with snap-on lid. Use hand shovels, coffee mugs, ice scoops or whatever you have to scoop it out of the bag-in-bucket. Old coffee mugs and serving spoons from thrift stores can be left inside the bucket for next use.

    For Whole-Bag Batches Sit the bag on one end of the bag in the tub or mixer. Make sure the bag is leaning against one wall of the tub. Slit the bottom seam or panel. Make an X-shaped cut on the bottom panels of concrete bags so that the hole opens evenly from the center of the X. Or cut 3 sides of the bottom panel so that it falls open like a door. Cut open the top seam or panel of the bag so that it can breath in air as the powder exists from the bottom. Lift remaining bag off like a sleeve off a column of powder.

    Remember to cut the top open in step 3 so that the material slides right out.

    Careful With Shop Vac

    I usually keep my shop vac running while doing this, but I am careful where I place the nozzle.
    Suck in the dusty air but avoid piles of dry concrete. The elephant will eat those as well, and
    while that is happening, your vacuum is a machine for keeping the air saturated with very
    fine dust, which is bad.

    Tell your vacuum to use its powers for good not evil. If not, the first time you drop the nozzle to grab or lift something, it will go straight for the open bag of concrete. Or bucket of nails. The elephant is always hungry. He’ll eat anything he can suck up his nose: Tape measure. Keys to the truck.

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  • How To Dispose of Acrylic Paint Rinse Water

    Why You Shouldn’t Pour It Down Drains

    Acrylics are a great alternative to traditional oil paint because they are water based, and so there aren’t any fumes, and you can clean up with soap and water. However, at the end of a studio session, the jar or container that you use to rinse off your brushes between colors will have quite a bit of paint in it, and you should not pour this rinse water down drains because many professional-grade paint pigments are toxic, such as the cadmium oxides used for reds, oranges and yellows. Even if you use “non-toxic” student-grade paints, the pigments and acrylic polymers are still problematic for the waste-water treatment processes, and so these shouldn’t go down the drain either.

    Disposal As Solid Waste

    The solution is to dispose of the material as solid waste. The question is how do you get the water out, which isn’t as simple as just letting it dry out. You may have noticed that rinse water from acrylic paint tends to dry much more slowly than regular water. This is probably due to the acrylic polymers forming an invisible scum on top of the water which acts as a barrier that inhibits evaporation. But there are ways to help the water evaporate faster.

    How To Dehydrate Rinse Water

    My preferred solution to how to get rinse dehydrated is actually a set of solutions that take advantage of waste energy or ambient energy.  In the winter months, the rinse water can be poured into a metal coffee can or other recycled disposable container and set on a steam radiator. You can also pour it into a disposable aluminum baking pan and sit it by a heater vent or AC vent. In the summer months, there is the floorboard of your hot car with the window cracked open slightly.

    I use an old plastic tote that is wide and shallow. This allows the rinse water to spread out and maximizes surface area. I keep the top covered with 1/2″ hardware cloth (wire mesh) to keep out pets and leaves.  If I am painting a lot every day and generating more than my usual amount of  rinse water, I will sometimes put my dehydrator tote next to or under a fan, preferably one that was already running and not turned on just for my rinse water.

    Of course, I don’t try to clean out my dehydrator tote between uses. That would be problematic for several reasons (such as the potential to create hazardous dust), so I just have thin layer after thin layer accumulate on the bottom of my dehydrator, which will eventually have to be disposed of and replaced after several years.

    Golden Paint’s Recommended Solution

    Golden is the leading manufacturer of acrylic paints and mediums, and their website is a tremendous resource of how-to information. They have written a page explaining how to use hydrated lime and aluminum sulfate to quickly precipitate paint solids from rinse water and then filter them out using coffee filters. Keep in mind that hydrated lime and aluminum sulfate are commonly available in the fertilizer aisle of your local hardware store or land and garden center, so we aren’t talking about exotic chemical reagents that you need to special order.

    Golden Paint’s Demonstration Video

    Golden also has a video on YouTube demonstrating how to use their method to precipitate and filter the solids, but I think the demonstration could be improved. Specifically, they show the reagents being poured from bags, which should be avoided in general because pouring creates so much dust. Instead of pouring, slit the top of the bag completely open and scoop from the bag using an old spoon or scoop or hand shovel. There is another useful point they could have shown, especially since these powdered reagents are likely to be used intermittently and stored for extended periods:

    Use Plastic Buckets With Lids To Store Hygroscopic Powders

    Powdered reagents that are soluble in water also tend to be hygroscopic (bind moisture from the air) and clump over time. Examples like sugar and table salt come readily to mind, but the problem can be more than a nuisance. For example, old bags of chemical fertilizer are often unusable because the tiny pellets of fertilizer will “sweat” moisture from the air and fuse into one big lump of material that could never be spread in quantities small enough not to kill plants.

    The heavy-duty plastic bags that many fertilizers and powdered reagents are sold in weren’t really designed for long-term storage and offer limited protection over time. Often times, twisting the plastic bag closed with a bread ties isn’t enough to seal out the moisture from the air. Sometimes all it takes are a few tiny holes in the bottom of the bag, especially if the material isn’t consumed for months. That is why I save old plastic pails and buckets with lids to store things like grout and thinset, and I would probably recommend them for anyone using lime and aluminum sulfate for precipitating the solids from their paint rinse water. Plastic buckets with snap-on lids are relatively cheap, and you can also get them for free from restaurants, bakeries and house painters.


    Scoop from the bag-in-bucket. Cut or fold the bag down as needed.



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  • How To Dispose of Leftover Grout and Thinset

    Grout and thinset mortar are types of concrete and should never be rinsed down drains. That includes the muddy water rinsed from the buckets and trowels used to handle these materials. Remember concrete contains sand and can actually harden underwater, which makes it perfect for clogging pipes.

    Most people find it easiest to wash up their buckets and trowels outdoors using a water hose instead of indoors using a sink. However, you still need to collect as much of the concrete in the rinse water as possible and dispose of it as solid waste for several reasons:

    Sometimes weather will make it necessary to do all your work indoors, including concrete clean up, and so you might as well know how to clean up buckets and tools without using gallons and gallons of water to dilute the concrete and wash it into the lawn.

    Also, if you mix up concrete frequently, the calcium in concrete rinse water can build up and kill vegetation by raising the pH of your soil. (I have used concrete water to balance the pH of my compost heap, which is highly acidic due to all the decaying organic matter.)

    Rinsing Buckets and Trowels with Minimal Water

    Use the trowel to shovel and scrape as much left-over concrete as possible out of the bucket and into a lined trash can.

    Use old plastic grocery bags and newspapers to wipe out the bucket as cleanly as possible. Add 1 cup of water at a time. Stir the bags and newspapers around the bucket with a trowel. Dump the moist dirty mess into the trash. Repeat.

    Do the same for your trowel.

    It is possible to use this method to get your buckets and trowels sufficiently clean to do a final rinse in a sink without fear of harming plumbing in any way.

    What To Do With “Muddy” Water

    However, sometime things will not go to plain either during the mosaic work or the clean up. Sometimes your hand-rinsing bucket or some other bucket will end up with a lot of dirty water with concrete on the bottom.

    Waste slurries such as this should never be poured down a drain. Even if you dilute the concrete so much that it could never form a bond, the sand in it will remain a solid and accumulate in low spots in the piping.

    There is a solution that doesn’t involve throwing away the whole bucket: Stir up the slurry so that it can be poured out into a disposable basin such as an old plastic milk jug with the top cut off or a plastic trashcan lined with a garbage bag. The concrete will harden over night, and you can pour off the water in the morning and discard the disposable container in the trash as solid waste.

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  • How To Enlarge A Mosaic Pattern Or Drawing Using Only A Ruler

    It is easy to enlarge a mosaic pattern or drawing even if you have no confidence in your ability to draw. All you need is a ruler and a pencil.

    For an example, I will show how to enlarge a back and white copy of a painting of mine from years ago called “Singing Love Song to My Art.”

    Example of mosaic pattern made by drawing a grid on a black and white copy of a painting. Verify Proportions

    The larger surface should have the same proportions as your drawing. You can verify proportions  by dividing the width w by the height h of your surface. If this ratio is the same as w / h for your pattern or drawing, then the two have the same proportion.

    proportion = width w / height h

    In our example, the pattern has a ratio of 0.805.

    = 483 mm / 600 mm

    = 0.805.

    If your surface has extra space in one dimension, you can always center your pattern and have extra background space on either side.

    Draw A Grid On Your Pattern

    Use a ruler to draw a grid on your pattern or drawing. The number of grid lines and the spacing between them can be whatever you want, as long as they are spaced evenly, but I usually use about 10 or 12.

    In my example, I want the grid to be 12 cells high, so that means 11 lines spaced at

    600 mm/12 cell


    50 mm/cell.

    Note how the contents of each cell are very simple, just a line or two, something extremely easy to copy. There is no drawing required. Just a few simple lines and curves that anyone who can write should be able to copy. In fact, drawing the grid on the larger surface requires more thought than copying what is in each cell.

    If your pattern still has too much detail in each cell of the grid, then you need to use a finer grid.Try a grid that is say 20 cells high.

    Draw A Grid On The Larger Surface

    The next step is to draw a grid on the larger surface that has the same number of lines as the grid drawn on the pattern. To do this, you need to calculate how far apart the lines need to be spaced. This is found by calculating a ratio for the pattern:

    height of cell / height

    = 50 / 600

    = 0.0833

    Let’s say you want to draw your pattern on a surface that is 215 inches high. How far apart should the lines be spaced going up the height of the surface? To find this, multiply the height of the surface by the ration you calculated for the pattern:

    215 inches * 0.0833

    = 17.92 inches

    In our example, the width of our cells on the large surface should be the same because we used a square grid.

    Note that a ruler is less useful for drawing the larger grid, but yard sticks and t-squares and larger straight edges can be used in the same way.

    Copy Each Cell

    Now you are ready to copy a few lines or curves from each cell. Anyone who can print their name in neat block letters should be able to do this. If each cell still has too much detail to be copied easily, consider using a finer grid that divides the pattern up into smaller cells.

    JPEGs and Digital Photos

    Note that you don’t have to start with paper copy of a pattern. You can use digital images as your pattern. In my example above, I used a digital photograph of my painting as the starting point. I created a black and white copy of it using Adobe Photoshop Elements and then drew my grid using Microsoft Paint. Instead of measuring the drawing with a ruler, I used its dimensions in pixels, and I turned on the ruler and grid feature of Microsoft Paint to know where to draw my lines. If you hold down the shift key as you draw in Microsoft Paint, the line will be perfectly straight.

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  • How To Keep Your Hands Clean When Using Thinset Mortar

    Thinset Mortar is concrete with polymers added for enhanced strength and adhesive properties and is the recommended material for all outdoor and wet mosaics (pools, fountains, etc.). Unhardened thinset looks more or less like wet concrete, but it is sticky almost like honey or tar, and handling it for the first time can be a little intimidating. However, with some basic planning, you can eliminate a lot of the mess and all the stress.

    One approach is to pre-mount your tiles on paper or mesh so that the final installation only involves trowels to spread thinset on a surface instead of placing individual tiles by hand into thinset.

    But what if you want to mount individual tiles by hand and use thinset similar to how you use a convenient bottle of glue to make indoor mosaics?

    Well, it doesn’t make sense to try to apply a small amount of thinset to the back of an individual tile similar to how people will sometimes apply glue to the back of a tile from a squeeze bottle. That approach continually contaminates the fingertips with thinset. Instead, it is more efficient and cleaner to spread a little bit of thinset over a small area of your surface and press tiles into that. Small trowels, old butter knives, palette knives and even popsicle sticks are useful for this.

    These same spreading tools are also useful for pushing the tiles around and making slight adjustments in position, but invariably artists will use their fingertips for this purpose once they “get in the groove” and lose themselves in the creative flow. And then there are all the plops and spills and silly accidents like picking up the spreading tool from the wrong end.

    The question becomes how do you keep your tools and hands clean without consuming a large amount of rags. Remember, this isn’t water or even glue that you are wiping off. It is concrete with sand it it. While you might be able to use the same rag all day when working with Weldbond or some other water-based glue, you can make a rag more of less unusable with just a few wipes of thinset.

    Without a system, you will use up an astronomical amount of rags and still have dirty hands. It just isn’t possible to reach for rags randomly without eventually grabbing one that is already contaminated and smearing wet concrete across everything. And it is always the rag that looks perfectly clean that bites you! When the material in question is thinset, it only takes a pea-sized amount to make a big mess.

    My Three Rag System

    Mosaic and other crafts are more enjoyable and productive when you organize your workstation so that tools and materials are close to hand. This is doubly true when you are working with a messy material like thinset. You’ve got to set things up in a way that takes into account that you will frequently need to clean your hands and tools.

    Here is how I use three rags in different ways to maximize the useful life of each rag:

    Dirty Rag: a contaminated rag lying on the work surface near the art. Wet rag: a rag is floating in a 2-gallon bucket half filled with water. Dry Rag: a clean dry rag lying in the artist’s lap. Dirty Rag

    The dirty rag is placed directly on the mosaic or work table, right beside the place on the mosaic where I am currently mounting tiles. This is the rag used for wiping clumps of thinset from fingertips and tools. (Note that you should try to shake off large clumps of thinset into a garbage pail first.)

    Wet Rag

    The wet rag floats in a bucket half-filled with water. Hands and tools are dipped into the bucket to rinse them off. The wet rag stays in the bucket and is only there to provide something to rub against to help remove any last traces of concrete.

    Dry Rag

    The dry rag in the artist’s lap should only be used for drying hands and tools that are free of concrete and merely wet. Once the dry rag is contaminated just a little bit, it more or less has to be demoted to being used as the dirty rag. With that in mind, you have to be disciplined and resist the urge to grab it to wipe away spills and smears on the mosaic. For this reason, you should have a fourth rag for emergencies and use it only for that purpose.

    Emergency Rag

    In addition to the three rags used for cleaning and drying hands and tools, a fourth rag is needed for cleaning drops and smears on the mosaic itself. Of course, you should always try to get most of the material up using your trowel or spreading tool and use the emergency rag only for the residue so that it lasts longer. Once the emergency rag becomes too contaminated, it is demoted to being the new dirty rag.

    Additional Materials and Tips

    It takes a little practice to be able to lose yourself in your work and still be disciplined and conscious enough to not grab the first rag you come to when you make a mistake. That is why you should have a box of extra rags standing by. You should also have a bucket by your feet for quick disposal of contaminated rags.

    Rinse Your Dirty Rags Outside

    Remember to take a break and run outside to the garden hose and rinse the thinset from these rags before it hardens. These rags might be permanently stained, but they can be cleaned sufficiently to be as useful as new rags in the studio. If you are only an occasional artist, this need to reuse rags might not be such a big deal, but if you work with thinset on a regular basis, the amount of rags consumed can be significant. There will always be some that are past saving, so we try to salvage what we can.

    Use a Garbage Pail

    Another tip is to have an old garbage pail at your workstation so that you can throw old clumps of thinset into it instead your dirty rag bucket. I put scraps of cardboard and trash in my garbage pail to that I have something to wipe my spreading tool on. I try to use the garbage pail as much as possible to take pressure off my dirty rag.

    Recycled Plastic Grocery Bags

    Most artists tend to work until they can’t work any more, and that makes clean up all the more burdensome, especially when clean up involves wet concrete and requires some actual labor. This is when people are tempted to just grab all their contaminated rags and use them to wipe the left over thinset out of the mixing bucket and just throw them all away and be done. Again, this might be acceptable for an occasional artist, but it really isn’t very “green” or sustainable in a studio that frequently works with thinset.

    The good news is that there is a readily available waste material that can be used as a disposable wipe for rubbing thinset off buckets and tools. Plastic grocery bags work very well for this and can be gathered for free in as large a quantity as needed.

    Medical Examination Gloves

    Thinset and grout contain portland cement and are mildly caustic. We wear disposable latex medical examination gloves when we work with thinset to keep it from drying out our skin.


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  • Keeping Art Fresh

    You Can’t Force Freshness

    To make it as a professional artist, you have to keep your art fresh and always be enthusiastic about working on it. The easiest way to do that is to keep a variety of media in your studio and move between them as needed.

    Yes, you need to have discipline and focus and stick to a craft over time to develop any depth of skill in it, in mosaic or in painting or whatever your preferred medium of art happens to be, but sometimes you need a break from the routine to have perspective on what you are doing. Sometimes you need to make little clay sculptures instead of mosaic. Or work with paper cutouts or collages from old Kodachrome photographs from 1960’s National Geographic magazines. Sometimes the most important work you can do is to not bang your head against blockages or monotony.

    The Importance of Play

    As an artist, you will most likely live on small commissions and day jobs and can’t afford to let too much time go by in an unproductive way. Most likely you are painfully familiar with how competitive the world is and how much economic incentive there is to always by sharpening your skills. The question is how to take a break without taking a break, and the answer is alternative mediums.

    Legos Tonight

    I play Legos with my 4-year-old son every day after I pick him up from preschool. We built up our collection of Legos from a few key starter sets and ordering specialty kits like wheels and doors and windows as needed. I am careful to avoid anything that is too theme specific, especially franchise themes like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and stick to generic Legos instead. I want to show my son how to build things he imagines from generic components, not make copies of things that are already saturated in video and other commercial media.

    Used Bulk Lots on Ebay

    The best source of Legos turns out to be eBay, where you can buy them in 10-pound and 20-pound bulk lots and get thousands of used blocks and components for the price you would pay for just a few hundred new pieces. Also, the selection of blocks in the used bulk lots is much more diverse than what you could find in any new set because these bulk lots contain blocks from countless sets of different themes from different years, many of which are discontinued and no longer available. The latest bulk lots I bought probably contained blocks from at least 40 to 50 different sets, and about 50% of the blocks were components I had never seen before: shafts, brackets, panels, hinges, beams, axles, etc. The color selection in these used bulk lots is also more diverse than what you find in a new set for exactly the same reason.

    How To Clean Used Toys

    One concern about buying used toys is that they can be covered in several decades worth of filth, contagious germs and little-kid stickiness. Since Legos and most contemporary toys are plastic, it is very easy to clean them by soaking in a basin of warm water with a small amount of chlorine bleach added. We use one of our large plastic recycling totes and a colander to process the whole set in one  batch. The colander is more or less required to catch all the hundreds of tiny pieces.

    If you are buying toys to make assemblage sculpture, you should also consider cleaning them in a batch before starting work, although I am referring to newer contemporary toys and things that don’t have an interesting patina that defines how the object looks. Antique metal toys and even plastic toys from a few decades ago often have some rust or dirt or patina that can’t be cleaned off without changing if not downright ruining the look of the toy. Make sure you avoid the bleach bath for these type pieces and give them individual attention. I have even seen artists paint a layer of thin acrylic over patinas and dirt to make sure it didn’t come off.

    My Latest Lego Creations

    Enough babbling about how to make art! Here is what I made last night. Let the bidding begin at one million dollars. That is how much fun I had making them. Note that the hoist on the crane works, as does the magnet, and all of these creations were built from generic components without a plan:

    Lego Crane Truck Rear View Lego Crane Truck Front View Lego Asian Taxi Lego Amphibious Duck Vehicle Lego Adjustable Camera Boom Mounted on Rolling Swivel Platform Lego Jet Car

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  • Mosaic Sinks

    Someone recently asked me about how they could make a Moroccan-styled Glass Mosaic Sink, and that got me thinking about different options for making mosaic sinks in general.

    How to Make a Custom Basin from Thinset and Hardware Cloth?

    To make a custom shape such as the simple elegant shape used in the Moroccan sinks I have seen, I would probably use a large ceramic serving bowl reinforced and extended with thinset mortar and hardware cloth (wire mesh). Actually I would probably use the bowl only as a mold for the curved bottom and build the sink up in layers of thinset and fiberglass mesh, Once I had a few layers, I would let that harden. Then I would cement in some hardware cloth and use a 1/4″ rebar hoop to stiffen the outer rim and support the bowl. Make sure the hardware cloth extends past the rebar hoop. Fold this back down over the hoop and lay if flat on the outside. Cover this in 2 coats of thinset,

    Of coarse, you need to have a metal drain cemented in place from the very beginning. I would use the upside-down bowl as a mold to get the curvature I wanted, and I would leave the fiberglass mesh bare in the very top where the metal drain will be placed. I would stick the metal drain  in a hole in the middle of the hardware cloth. I would fold this hardware cloth down on the outside of this shell and made sure the metal drain matches up with the bare fiberglass mesh at the top of the inverted sink shell.

    That is similar to how I made shapes for sculptures. Sometimes I would use an object as a “mold” to define the shape by draping it in mesh covered with thinset, and other times I would weld up a rebar skeleton and cover it with hardware cloth first and then cover this skeleton with thinset.

    How To Use A Conventional Porcelain and Iron Sink As A Mosaic Base?

    I’ve always thought about making a more contemporary mosaic sink, a wall mounted unit or maybe even a pedestal.

    For either one, you could use a conventional sink (glazed porcelain or cast iron enameled with glazed porcelain). I’m always seeing interesting ones in construction dumpsters and beside the road on pickup day. It’s not like you have to wait too long to find one if you keep you eyes open on streets where they were restoring old houses.

    The question is how to scuff up the porcelain so that the thinset sticks to it extra tight. Maybe the artist will get lucky, and the one in the construction dumpster will be 80-years old and used to rinse mops and scratched and stained. If not, I’d probably use a dual-grit rubbing stone an a leather work glove to scuff it up. I do stuff like that wet of course to keep from making a bunch of air-born dust. Remember, a mist bottle is often more effective than a dust mask, and a lot more comfortable when it’s hot.

    You could definitely make an interesting mosaic sink from some of the glass tile I sell.

    However, none of my glass is certified to be safe as a food preparation surface like a dish or a cutting board. This might not be relevant when talking about a counter top, but a sink is different.

    Some people use their sink as a bowl for soaking vegetables and frozen meat. I wouldn’t do that in a sink made from stained glass because I would want to be sure that none of the softer varieties of stained glass were shedding metal oxide pigments. I wouldn’t rule that out in a sink which is subjected to organic acids and spoiled food on a regular basis and chronically damp. You could avoid the problem by using a bowl for soaking food and keeping the sink clean of food residues.

    Recycled Glass Tiles

    The Elementile brand of Recycled Glass Tiles would be an interesting choice for a mosaic sink, and probably the most durable glass material we have for an application like that. Elementile is small and available in a range of colors too, so you could have a fairly detailed design without having to cut it or supplement other types of glass to make up for missing colors. I’m sure this is what I would use. I would use the standard finish Elementile and avoid the iridescent version of the product.

    Stained Glass

    I have seen smaller pieces of stained glass used in some amazingly detailed figures in mixed medial counter tops that ranging from repeating borders in conventional ceramic tiling to found-object mosaics that included artifacts like beach bonfire glass and boyhood collections of arrowheads.

    Use Small Pieces for Mosaic Counter Tops

    I think I would avoid large pieces of stained glass for a sink or a counter top because some of it is very brittle, and all of it is relatively thin: nominally 1/8 inch. Most all of the glass mosaic tile is nominally 1/8″ thick, but none are larger than 1″ x 1″. There is a relationship. When the thickness is relatively thin, the piece size can only be so large before it is too easily cracked by a falling object.

    Smaller tiles are less likely to crack than large ones. Here’s why: With smaller tiles, there are more lines of grout between the tiles. The grout between tile is concrete and actually helps strengthen the face of a glass mosaics to blows.

    In general, I would probably avoid stained glass for sinks and only use it selectively in counter tops and those backsplashes that are less likely to see impacts from dinnerware being slung and slid around.

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