You can tile just about any surface if you have the time and patience. Because I have experience in cutting and working with stained glass, I choose complex patterns and use different types of glass and tiles, but a new crafter could make a random mosaic using tiles made from a few broken cups and plates, a towel, and a hammer. Get creative with this project and you may even be able to recycle something old and make it new again!

Tools needed:

Safety glasses
Masking tape
Drop cloth
Rubber gloves
Glass adhesive (Weld-Bond or E-6000 work well)
Premixed grout or colored grout powder (available at art and hardware stores) and a plastic bowl
Glass (can be stained glass, globs (half marbles), broken plates, ceramic tile, or any item with a flat back that you wish to incorporate into the design.
Rubber gloves
Sponge and bucket of clean water
Old t-shirt (or some other non-terry cloth rag)
Tile cutter (a good glass cutter and breaking pliers are needed for stained glass)
Tile nippers
Grout float or squeegee
Putty knife
Sanding block
Clean, semi-flat surface that you want to tile

Mysts of Avalon small bulletChoosing a Surface


You can tile almost any flat or rounded surface. If the surface is not flat, it will take much longer to complete the project as there is a drying time in between rows of glass to prevent the pieces from sliding. Because mosaics are durable, they lend themselves well to the outdoors. Decorative mosaic address plaques and stepping stones are popular items to make and/or buy. Figure 1 illustrates some tiled elements used in exterior landscaping.

Figure 1: This concrete edging (on left) and flower pots have a decorative mosaic border. As always, the hound is optional.

I prefer to tile functional items, such as a table top, a flower pot, a wooden bench or shelf, a bowl, a picture or mirror frame, a serving tray, and more. For a peek at My Broken Art gallery, click here.

For the purpose of this tutorial, I have chosen to tile the hearth of a fireplace. This is a permanent fixture and may not be suitable for a first time project, but it is large and illustrates the steps involved well. I recommend getting starting with this craft by tiling a pot or frame. While I laid the tile on top of the existing tile hearth, you may opt to create the design on plywood, so that it can be removed easily later if you move or redecorate. See Plywood Base instructions below, if needed. Figure 3 illustrates the fireplace surround and hearth prior to this project.

Figure 2: My Surface, a Lackluster Fireplace

Mysts of Avalon small bulletPicking a Pattern


Choosing a pattern is the fun part of this project. Pick a pattern that represents your interests, the environment, or a theme that you would like to see represented in glass. In this project, I chose a floral pattern that matched my area rug and had an interesting Celtic knot pattern at the base of the center design as illustrated in Figure 3. Once I found the center pattern and decided on a border for the outside edge of the hearth, I improvised with the rest of the pattern incorporating Brown-eyed Susans and vines in with more red "glob" clusters which also represented flowers.

Figure 3: Decide on a Focal Point for the Design

Mysts of Avalon small bulletPreparing a Surface


Ensure that the surface of the piece being tiled is clean and dry. For a dirty area like a fireplace, use an abrasive cleanser and rinse thoroughly. Since I am using stained glass that may let the background color show through, I chose to paint all of the outdated rust tile with a white semi-gloss finished paint. Always tape off any edges (e.g., carpet) that you do not want paint or grout on as part of the surface preparation. Using a drop cloth under your chair and project are always a good idea, too. Figure 4 illustrates a clean and prepped tiling surface–it's already a huge improvement over the previous tile.

Figure 4: Prepare the Fireplace by Painting White

Many surfaces can be tiled. Concrete, wood, metal, and even plastic are good surfaces to cover with this decorative technique.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Choosing a Color Scheme


Now that the pattern is ready, the next step is choosing a color scheme. Since this tile is being set in grout (which is a cement) it is a permanent decision. So choose your colors well. Look for inspiration at the environment that the finished project will be in or what color the object being rendered in tile would be in naturally. Of course, creativity is encouraged and colors that are totally unrealistic to the item are great, too. This is your art and you should use colors that please you.

I choose to use the precious gem colors of ruby, emerald, and sapphire. Since the surround remains white and the carpet is gray, I decided to fill in the background of my piece with stained glass that is white with gray veining–it looks like Italian marble. I also found a dark green glass that had various shades of green veining that looks like green marble. I used this glass in a think border around the edge of the hearth. In between the thick bands of green "marbled" glass, I used polished green and blue glass globs (also called gems or nuggets). These little cabochons are flat on one side with the top rounded and are readily available at craft and home stores. They reflect light well and are available in almost every color imaginable. Best of all, they require no cutting. So my design made use of the green, blue, red globs in the border and red, marbled blue, and brown globs for the flowers.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Transferring the Design To the Surface Object


The design pattern can be transferred to the surface object by tracing or freeform drawing the pattern onto the surface in a pencil or chalk that does not contrast greatly with the surface background. When using glass, think about how the color used to draw the pattern may show through from the surface. If the tiles are glazed tiles or found objects like metal jewelry, tin toys or other solid objects are used, do not need to worry about the color in which the pattern is drawn.

If symmetry is important to the design, I recommend that you find the center point and draw a graph out on the entire surface. In the case of my hearth, the previous tiles provided a graph that made it easy for me to create one side of the design and then follow the exact placement in each of the graph squares (painted tiles) on the opposite side.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Cutting and Breaking Shards


Now that the pattern is ready, the color scheme is decided, and the surface is prepared, the next step is filling in the design with small pieces of glass called shards. Most of this fireplace was done with stained glass that was bought in large sheets and cut down in to 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch squares as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Stained Glass Shards

These shapes are made using glass cutters to score the glass and special designed pliers that apply pressure to the sides of the score to crack the glass along the desired point. Tile nippers are used to break medium-sized shards into small shards by simply "nipping" off a piece of the shard. This technique is also used to round straight edges, but can damage the edge of a glazed piece, so care should be used not to apply too much pressure.

There is a growing trend of recycling broken plates, cups, saucers, and more. I've even found odd lots of plates at the store that were heavily discounted and perfect for breaking and tiling. Figure 2 illustrates how I lined the edge of a wooden shelf with the decorative rim from broken plates. By making the shards smaller, you can strategically place them to form a border for another object. The top and skirt of this shelf were tiled using this technique. Craft stores also have gems and tiles that are prepackaged for use in mosaic crafts. You can find these small tiles in the shape of hearts, flowers, letters, etc. Sea glass (with rounded edges), seashells, coins, and pebbles can also be used for tiling.

When using found objects or even glazed tiles from the store that must be broken into shards for the mosaic, always wear safety glasses and gloves as the glass can splinter into micro-fine pieces. Always break the pieces on a hard surface like the basement or garage floor. Wrap the item in a towel and smash it with a hammer. Once the object is broken into smaller pieces, the tile nippers can be used to shape the pieces and remove any sharp points that may cause trouble later when applying the grout.

It helps to keep each type or color of glass in its own container. That way, everything is organized when filling in the design, it is easy to see when a certain type of glass is running low and to store left over pieces for the next project.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Laying the Tiles


Start with the intricate part of the design first. On the fireplace, I laid the border pattern down by applying the glass adhesive (mastic also works well) to the back of the glass and then placing the piece down on the surface. Twist each piece while the adhesive is still moist to ensure that the shard is pressed down and firmly seated on the surface. There should be a small gap between each of the tiles. That is where the grout (or cement binding the design together) will go later. I laid a green marbled rectangle down, and then spaced in 3 glass globs (2 green gems with a blue gem in the middle) to the right side and rotated this combination around the edge of the hearth. I filled in the corners with a cluster of red globs for accent. Then, I used red globs in the center to form the petals of each of the three flowers and used blue marbled globs in the center of each flower. I used the green marbled glass again to make long, thin rectangular shapes for the stem and roots of the center design. I also cut leaf shapes out of the green glass and placed them coming out of the stem to be consistent with the pattern design in Figure 4. I knew I wanted more red in the design, so I formed clover shapes using red glass globs and placed them throughout the surface as illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Lay the Border and Center Tiles

Then, the fun began! I used the smaller green tiles that were used in the stem and roots of the center design to form curling vines on one side of the surface. I used brown glass globs and a butterscotch-colored glass cut into petals to make brown-eyed Susan flowers that blended into the vine design. I sporadically placed green glass leaves coming off of the scrolling vine. Once one side of the design was done, I got too curious and started filling in the white marbled tiles to see how it would look. Figure 7 illustrates the partially laid tile. Filling in this background of small white rectangles into lines felt like I was straightening a series of big buck teeth. :^D

Figure 7: Adhere the Background Mosaic Shards

Once one side on the design is complete, it is easy to reproduce it on the opposite side using the surface tiles as a grid for accurate placement. After all of the background tiles are in place, let the project set for 24 hours before continuing with the messy part.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Applying the Grout


Now that the tiles are set, remove any dirt or dust that may have settled into the cracks of the project. Then, mix up the powdered grout in a plastic bowl or stir the premixed grout. There are so many types and colors of grout. Some people want a neutral gray or white grout, while others opt for black or some other dramatic color. For this project, I chose a white sanded grout that came premixed in a plastic bucket from the hardware store as illustrated in Figure 8. The sand was gray, so the grout matched the marbled background tile well. Most tiling projects use the unsanded grout in a complimentary color. Prepared grout should be thicker than cake batter. If it is too soupy, add more powder. Applying watery grout could cause the tiles to become loose during polishing.

Figure 8: Apply the Grout to Set Tiles.
As always, the hound is optional.

Spread the grout on to the tile as if you were frosting a cake–be generous with the grout as all the cracks and crevices between the tiles must be filled to the top. I like to wear rubber gloves and massage it in to the tile with my fingers, but this can be dangerous if there are uneven edges. I've ended up with painful microcuts all over my hands at the end of this phase. There's nothing like 100 paper cuts on your fingers when you go to wash up after the project to teach you a lesson about working with glass! I also use a wet sponge to smooth out the seams.

For larger projects work on a section at a time, so that the grout doesn't dry out too much. I divided the hearth into three sections. I filled in the tiles in the center and then scraped the grout away (next step) just to see how it looked. Then, I applied the grout and scraped the two sides of the design. Always let the grout sit for 30 minutes to an hour before scraping back to the tile. It comes up in bigger pieces if it has a little drying time. If it dries too much, water and a sanding block may be necessary.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Scraping Back the Surface


Once the grout has been generously applied to the tiled surface, use a rubber grout float (available at any hardware store), a squeegee, or the cleaned up putty knife to scrap back to the glass. Be very careful not to pry up the tiles when scraping off the grout.

Mysts of Avalon small bullet Polishing the Tiles


After most of the tile surface is free of the grout, go over the entire area with a wet sponge to remove the haze left from the grout by polishing in a circular motion. Some areas become caked with drying grout and it is better to use a sanding block to sand down to the tile for a smooth finish. I used 3 buckets of water to clean up this hearth. Once the water becomes cloudy from the grout residue on the sponge, keep rinsing the sponge and getting a fresh supply of water. Dumping the grout in the sink can cause a clog in the pipes. I always dump the water outside and let the ground filter out the grout, which I then collect into a bag and throw away. This is my least favorite part of the project. But, when you are organized, it can go quickly. Finish the polishing by buffing with a clean, dry cloth. I waited a day before putting the new screen in place and setting other items on the new tiled surface as illustrated in Figure 9.

Figure 9: The Polished Mosaic Tiled Project

Now that I have demonstrated how I completed my project, here is a summary of the steps involved in mosaic tiling an object. Give it a try and let me know the results!

To Mosaic Tile An Object:

  1. Choose a surface for your tiling project.
  2. Pick a pattern for your tiling project.
  3. Choose a color scheme for the design.
  4. Clean and prepare the surface that will be covered with tiles.
  5. Transfer the design on to the surface.
  6. Collect tiles, glass, and other objects with a flat back to use on the project.
  7. Break or cut the glass/tiles into small pieces.
  8. Adhere the tiles to the surface using a glass adhesive or mastic.
  9. Let dry for at least 24 hours. NOTE: Applying grout too soon may cause some of the shards to lift or shift and could ruin the design.
  10. Remove and dust or dirt that may have gotten in to the cracks of the mosaic while it was drying.
  11. Mix the powdered grout according to directions or stir the premixed grout.
  12. Spread the grout onto the tiled surface with a putty knife as if frosting a cake. Ensure that the grout is in all the crevices and there are no air bubbles.
  13. Scrape the grout flat to the tile using a rubber float or clean putty knife.
  14. Smooth down all the grout seams with a clean, wet sponge.
  15. Let stand for 1 hour.
  16. Using a damp sponge and begin polishing the tiles in a circular motion to remove the grout haze.
  17. Continually rinse the sponge while polishing the tile. This may require one or two fresh buckets of water during this clean up part of the project.
  18. Lightly sand any grout that will not lift up with the sponge.
  19. Finish the polishing by buffing with a clean, dry cloth.
  20. Stand back and admire your work. :^)

To Create a Plywood Base:

  1. Tape together sheets of newspaper and trim to form a pattern, or template, of the existing surface.
  2. Cut out the pattern from the paper and trace it on to the plywood.
  3. Use a jigsaw or circular saw to trim the plywood to shape.
  4. Sand all edges of the new base.
  5. Paint the edges to match any other trim, if desired.
  6. Lay the board down and proceed with the mosaic tiling project.
  7. Once the tile is polished and has dried, frame out the area with some decorative molding using a miter saw, so that the raw edge of the new hearth is not exposed.

Pictures and text used in this tutorial are © 2001 The Fifth Choir Designs by Melanie Parker unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

E-mail me!Please contact me if you would like to reproduce parts of this tutorial or need advice on your tiling project.