Artist Jill Gatwood uses the following method to make water-resistant foam-core mosaic backers for exterior mosaics, such as the Pet Memorial Name Plaques she does for clients who need something that is lighter weight and easier to ship than stone or solid concrete. The method wraps the foam in three or four successive layers of fiberglass mesh and thinset mortar, and that coating is pretty tough, tougher than stone. (The combination of polymer-modified cement and fiberglass can withstand blows that would easily crack granite of the same thickness.) Continue reading
Many people report having trouble cutting vitreous glass mosaic tile reliably because of the embossed patterns on the back sides, which can interfere with the blades of the mosaic glass cutter, but if you take simple steps to minimize interference and rotation, it can be done.
What I mean by interference is when the blade slips down into a valley between two ridges instead of staying positioned in the desired line of the cut. Continue reading
We recently received a shipment of mosaic glass cutters and the factory included some replacement springs in the crate.
Fits All Brands?
I’m thinking that the springs fit most all brands of mosaic glass cutters, tile nippers and similar pliers that use this type of spring. In fact, they fit all of them we tried in the studio, which was a pile of various brands of cutters and nippers that we had acquired over a 20 year period, all of which had lost their springs almost immediately. You might need to enlarge or flatten the ends of the springs to get them on some brands, but I doubt it. I merely placed the springs on the knobs and squeezed the handles together, and they snapped right on.
An Alternative To Replacing Springs
I never understood why people complained about the springs coming off because it happened almost immediately with every nipper and cutter I ever bought, and you don’t need to have too much dexterity to use a nipper or cutter without the spring.
Here is a video I made for how to use a mosaic glass cutter that was missing its spring:
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.
Recently someone emailed me about how to estimate how many plates would be needed for a medium-sized mosaic of several square feet.
Each type of plate is different in terms of how many useable tiles it will produce due to how round/flat the plate is and how well it cuts. The only way I have found to estimate how many of a particular type of plate I will need is to cut up one of the plates and see how much useable material I get from that one plate. Make sure you look at the pieces critically and not count anything that is too jagged, small or weirdly shaped. Arrange the useable pieces into a rough square, and measure the dimensions. For example, if you get 8 inches x 8 inches, then you know that each plate produces about 64 square inches of tile. Divide that number by 144 to get the square footage produced, which in this example would be 0.44 square feet.
Some types of ceramic dinnerware can be cut with a regular tile nipper, but many types are extremely hard and should be cut with a compound tile nipper, which has compound lever mechanism to multiply the force of your hand.
You can use a hammer to break the plates up into large pieces, but avoid using the hammer to make the individual tile pieces because it tends to crush and splinter the material, and you end up wasting too much of the plate as scrap, especially if there are patterns on the plate you are trying to cut out. A compound nipper is well worth the investment if you are trying to cut out pieces from china with patterns like blue willow or floral prints, and you may want to consider getting a powered tile saw from the building material store if you want to carefully saw them out without losing too much as scrap.
Here are a few more tips about using dinnerware to make mosaic tile:
If you do use a hammer to make the initial breaks, then wrap the dish in an old towel. That will keep shards from flying and help contain the grit and slivers produced by the breaks.
A ceramic and marble file is very useful for smoothing the razor edges of cut dinnerware. Keep in mind that some types of dinnerware are made from some of the hardest ceramic materials known to science, and the broken edges exposed by cutting can be sharper than any knife. Depending on the type of dinnerware you are cutting, something like a marble file may be required before the pieces are useable and safe.
For years, I didn’t own a marble file. Instead, I used a piece of sandstone flagstone and merely rubbed the pieces on that as I cut them. Always remember that you are free to use improvised tools and methods to save time and money and stress!
Avoid Studio Obsession
Setting up and organizing your studio or corner workspace can become an end unto itself and just one more thing that keeps you from working on your art. Keep in mind that great works of art have been created under terrible working conditions and with minimal tools and equipment. The most important thing you can do for your studio is to make sure you work on your art often and frequently. Incremental improvements will be made over time on an as-needed basis as you notice problems with inadequate lighting, incorrect work surface heights and the other general principles of laying out an art studio.
For many years, my art was made on the floor of whatever small apartment I was living in at the time. My workspace was cramped, and often the project had to be cleaned up and put away immediately after each work session to make room for day-to-day activities like laundry or simply to be able to walk through the tiny room.
In the example below, I show rolling tables, rolling shelves and other moveable fixtures that can be rearranged to accommodate large sculptural mosaics. This is not how my home art space was set up to make mosaics back in the day, and this probably isn’t how you should set up yours (unless you live in a large warehouse with concrete floors.)
Use What You Have (And What Can Be Gotten For Little Cost)
Instead of custom-built low tables on wheels, you can use what I once did: a plastic recycling tote turned upside down and slid into position as needed. Old coffee tables and end tables from garage sales are also useful. Keep in mind that in addition to your main work surface, it really helps to have one or two auxiliary tables on the side. This arrangement of tables creates a highly efficient C-shaped manufacturing cell where the operator can reach a wide range of materials merely by pivoting.
Depending on how many different colors or materials you are working with, you may find that one of your two side tables should be an open shelf instead. An old bookshelf made for small paperbacks is an effective and cheap solution as are shelves mounted on a wall if your workspace is in a corner.
If at all possible, have your main work table set against a window so that you can have natural light and look up from time to time to rest your eyes from the intense up-close work
A C-Shaped Manufacturing Cell
In the picture above, notice the main work surface is augmented by an open shelf to the right and a smaller lower table to the right (almost out of camera view). Notice how the small plastic containers of tile could not be reached by a seated artist. If the artist were seated, those containers of tile would be better places by arranging them on the shelf, preferably a more efficient shelf with more levels than the one shown here. The point of the C-shaped manufacturing cell is to arrange things where the artist can reach them without getting up or stretching.
Use A Low Table For Seated Artists
Mosaic is different from painting in that it is best done while the surface is lying horizontally, and this presents a problem in how step back and see the work as a whole as you are working on it. Sure, you can clean off the tools and loose pieces of tile and prop the mosaic up vertically, but this just isn’t practical.
More importantly, it’s difficult to judge how far you are spacing each tile you place if you are looking at the mosaic from a low angle. You need to be looking at it from above. Conventional desks and worktables don’t allow this because they are too high unless you are standing, and that doesn’t make sense for hours at a time. The solution is to use a work surface much lower than what you would use for most other art activities. Old coffee tables are just about the right height and make near ideal mosaic work surfaces, particularly the square ones.
Can You Tell This Picture Has Been Staged?
Once you work on a mosaic, the above picture should make you chuckle with its artificial neatness. I’ve laid out all the nippers, palette knives, tweezers, etc. like surgical instruments. Keep in mind that surgeons have interns and nurses and even other surgeons to assist. That means you have to keep things findable yourself.
That doesn’t mean rows, but it does mean rough zones that radiate out from your current site of active work. The zone can be as simple as tools right, blues top, greens left.
How To Manage Your Immediate Work Area
The place on the mosaic where you are actively mounting tile tends to get ringed with the tools you are currently using (glue, rag, tweezer, pick) and bins of the different colors most relevant to that location. Try to keep the stuff you aren’t using most swapped toward the back of its zone.
Also if you’re like me, you will want to create a special zone where you periodically slam down something you’ve had to search for a minute or two to find. If it keeps getting lost, put it in the special zone.
Why You Can Only Be So Disorganized
You will find yourself reaching for a palette knife as quick as any surgeon reaching for a scapple when you need to do stuff like scoop runny wet mortar before it drips onto an unsealed 250 myo limestone ammonite fossil to stain it forever. You have to work carefully and deliberately and quickly when you fabricate a surface from artifacts, and you have to know what to do when things go wrong.
And things do go wrong when you work with wet concrete and stuff easily stained by concrete.
You can be in a good rhythm, but then you will drop something, and before you know it, you will suddenly have concrete on both hands, plus the past 6 things you touched, including whatever you are currently holding, which will continue to get dirtier until you just drop it and accidentally touch you hand to your face or hair in frustration. And then you laugh like a crazy man or cuss or both and spend the next five to ten minutes bathing things and picking concrete out of your eyebrow.
Contain Your Cutting Slivers
You can’t just cut tile, especially glass tile without creating some dangerous slivers and splinters, so this means you can’t indiscriminately hold your cutting tool over your lap or work surface. Cut tile over a tray or plastic tote to help contain the slivers generated by cutting. Totes with some depth like dishpans and unused litter boxes are more effective than flat trays for catching splinters that shoot out instead of merely falling.
Why is this important? Random slivers lying invisible on surfaces cause more cuts than handling the tile. Inevitably you touch your finger, hand or forearm to the surface, and you have cut yourself before you know what is happening. The cuts are usually surprisingly deep given the size of the slivers. I’ve had one roll a deep cut all the way across my palm when I foolishly brushed a seemingly clean table with my bare ungloved hand.
Keep your shop vacuum in the cell of the workstation if possible and use if frequently with a counter brush like the kind we sell.
I have a wire mesh fitting over my vacuum hose, and it makes the vacuum a lot more useful. I use the wire mesh fitting for vacuuming the dust out of all my small part containers without having to remove the parts: mosaic tile, screws, hardware, fossils, teeth, arrowheads, artifacts. This is huge when you have a room with thousands of open-top containers of small parts.
How To Make A Mesh Vacuum Fitting
I made the mesh fitting from 3/8″ hardware cloth (galvanized steel wire mesh) folded over the end of a hose pipe salvaged from a dead shop vac. The wire mesh was folded under at the outer edges, and I spent a few minutes with with the needle nose pliers nipping and tucking under the sharp ends. Then I wrapped it about three times with duct tape.
What Your Really Need To Know About Duct Tape
Just because you are using duct tape doesn’t mean that your work has to be “halfast” and disposable. You can form up some useful things with duct tape. Also, the environmental cost of making duct tape and disposing it when worn out means that it is actually a very expensive material and should not be used carelessly.
The nozzle I made was wrapped about three times with duct tape. If you leave the sharps turned out, you could wrap a whole roll on there and still get poked if you ever pressed down on it good.
In the tools laid out above, some are more clearly visible than others, so my list begins with the less than obvious and the less visible:
- misting water bottle (not shown)
- glue tray for dipping tiles in glue -use plastic lid (not shown)
- tray of cotton swabs
- tray of assorted metal detail tools: dental picks, tweezers of different type, small pocket screwdrivers, palette knives, butter knives, spoons
- palette knives
- putty knives
- pencil cup full of odd tools: scissors, toothbrushes, pencils, markers, box cutter
- marble file
- mosaic glass cutter
- tile nipper
Grout Mixing Tools
I don’t mix my grout or thinset mortar up in the workstation where I actually position the tile. I prefer to mix up and wash up in a separate place, preferably where things can be hosed down without the possibility of getting concrete in any drains. For this reason, your grout and grout mixing supplies don’t have to be stored around your mosaic workstation.