In progress: my first architectural mosaic

Backsplash mosaic in progressA few weeks ago it occurred to me to ask my local floor tile store – where I’ve been buying grout for years – whether they have any scrap tile I could have. Up until now, I’ve only used vitreous mosaic tiles and stained glass, but it was time to look into ceramic tile as I was about to start working on a kitchen backsplash, which called for larger tiles and cheaper materials.

So I show up with my sturdy shopping cart – the store is a ten minute walk from our house – and the guys there take me to a whole separate warehouse in which huge crates full of scrap and remainders stand. “Knock yourself out,” they say – and there’s piles of stone and glass tile, imitation marble and even occasional pieces of natural slate.

Scrap tile pile

The tile haul that broke the cart’s back

By the time I had the cart about half-full, I had to force myself to stop digging though the crates and head home, but it was too late. I had been too greedy. I had not gone two blocks when the axle bent and one of the wheels started to resemble a soft-edged frisbee.

Anyway, this is how I came to be making this project with all kinds of fancy faux-marble tile for the cost of a short cab ride. The cart, it later turned out, could still be repaired.

New materials, new challenges: to someone used to working with glass, which can be easily nipped and cut by hand, cutting up 1/2″ thick stone tiles into small pieces means making new friends with power tools.

The splash effect of the wet saw, I was glad to discover, is closer to that of the steam iron than that of the garden sprinkler. I could totally use it in the dining room (not having a dedicated workshop space) without drenching the walls. This was a relief because it’s still below zero outside, and I was really eager to get started on this thing since I had finally figured out how to approach the awkward rectangle of blank wall in our kitchen.

Wet saw

Was I ever sick of the sound of the wet saw by the time I finished cutting up those piles of perfect triangles

Framed by a patchwork of cupboards, countertop, wooden butcher-block and existing tile, the 2.5′ space was exposed after we moved the fridge last year to make room for a dishwasher. Ever since then I have been puzzling over a mosaic design that would tie all these odd edges together. Since this would be my first architectural mosaic, I also had to research all the associated mounting options and techniques.

I decided not to attach the mosaic to a substrate such as Wedi, but use only a fibreglass mesh and cement that directly onto the wall – both because I didn’t want to raise the level much higher than the adjacent tile and because Wedi is kind of hard to find here in Canada.

Blank space for mosaic

This is what the blank space in the kitchen looked like. The top row of tiles has now been removed and absorbed into the mosaic design.

There was a single inexplicable row of tiles along the top, which had to be removed, but this was good news, as it meant I could incorporate some tiles that matched the rest of the walls into my design.

Also, I got to use a heat gun for the first time, which was neat. (Favourite line in the manual: “Never use the heat gun as a hair dryer. The extreme heat will burn your scalp and scorch your hair.” Surely there are Darwin Awards nominees among the ones who only skim the heat gun manual and miss this important caution?)

In the end, the wood of the butcher block inspired the color scheme in the lower half of the mosaic, lightening to an off-white at the top where it will be adjoining the white cupboards. It all seemed kind of bland until I decided to include tiny bits of red glass here and there in the darker lines – then it finally looked interesting enough to go ahead with. (Red to match my husband’s collection of KitchenAid appliances on a neighboring counter.)

Since all these fancy tiles I scored are of varying thicknesses, I am also trying out the indirect mosaic method for the first time. Though different heights and textures can be used for great effects in art mosaics, for things that are practical and need to be easily cleaned a smooth level surface is much better.

The face-up tile arrangement on a piece of transparent plastic dragged off the board onto which the sketch is taped.

The face-up tile arrangement on a piece of transparent plastic after it was dragged off the sketch.

The indirect method means that I would lay out the design with the tile pieces face down, so that their faces would all be aligned to the same plane, while their backs would be of different heights. When the design is complete, a mesh will be attached to the back, also smoothing out the difference in tile heights with the adhesive cement.

During my research, I discovered that a good way to keep the tiles from moving around while they are still not glued to anything, is to lay them face down on a sheet of adhesive plastic such as is used to line cupboards. When the mosaic is finished and cemented to the mesh, the plastic that was holding the pieces in place can be easily peeled off.

I still had to test out colours and patterns with the tiles face up before I would commit the tiles’ faces to the tacky paper, so I first taped a layer of non-stick clear plastic over my sketch while I tried things out. I filled most of the space with a rough layout of the design I wanted, and then pulled the clear plastic off, together with the tiles resting on it.

Now I had my sketch in tiles side-by-side with the pencil sketch, over which I then taped the tacky clear plastic. Now it was just a matter of picking up the pieces from their position in the rough design, and flipping them over into their face-down positions on the sticky paper.

The one on the right is the face-down layout on sticky plastic. I really like the negative space image left behind on the left.

The one on the right is the face-down layout on sticky plastic. I really like the negative space image left behind on the left.

This is where I am right now and very happy with the thing so far. The one outstanding question I still have is whether I’ll be able to mount the whole thing as one piece or if the mesh-mounted mosaic will need to be cut up into several smaller sections before trying to cement it to the wall. (It’s a bit over 2.5′ x 2.5′). If you have experience with this kind of thing, I appreciate you leaving advice in the comments.


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