Thursday, April 2, 2015


Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

This is my latest mosaic project.  It is made out of broken ceramic tiles and was created for the master bathroom of our beach cottage.  I have done a couple other wall mosaics of this type before, all of which were in bathrooms. Mosaics can handle steam and moisture, so they are great option for art in bathrooms.

This is the first time I have documented the entire process, and I'm amazed at how long this post ended up.  My apologies if you were not looking for this level of detail.  The whole process from choosing a pattern to the final installation happened over the course of about 6 months.  This is the story of that journey...



It took me awhile to locate the design for this mosaic. I knew all along it just had to be a sea turtle and I knew it would end up being a 3-4 foot square in size.  Ultimately, I found a picture on pinterest.  It was only a photo link, so I don't exactly know where it came from.  It looks like it was a stencil.  I tried to locate it, but no luck, so I had to create a pattern based on just the photo.  (If anyone knows where this stencil came from, please let me know.)  Now it was time to begin...


First and foremost - I found a good place to work.  It's a good idea to use a sturdy table to do this type of project. Something like a card table may not be ideal since they aren't entirely stable - a knock or a kick can create problems as you are laying out the tiles.  We have a large four-foot-square coffee table in our bonus room, very sturdy and out-of-the-way from everyday living so a project won't get in the way.

I started by creating a paper pattern equal in size to the mosaic I wanted to create.  I took the original picture, and expanded it to the size I wanted.

(1) I taped the pattern to the surface of the table

Turtle Mosaic - Template

(2) The pattern was covered with waxed paper.  The waxed paper was taped to the table with painters tape.  The waxed paper protects your pattern & table from the glue used to adhere the tiles to the mesh.  It works out great because you can see through it, and the wax coating prevents the glue from sticking to it.  (I have read online that some people use saran wrap, but have not tried this.)

(3) Mosaic mesh was placed on top of the waxed paper and taped down.  You can buy mosaic mesh from online mosaic retailers.  I typically buy very large sheets and cut them down to the sizes I want.


These were broken ceramic tiles leftover from the floor installations in our home in Alabama. I had the builder save all scrap tiles.  Dark brown tiles and light beige were the colors of tiles I had available for this project.  I decided to use the dark brown for the turtle, and beige for the background.  The tiles were broken into smaller pieces with a hammer.  See my post on how I go about breaking tiles for mosaics...BREAKING TILES FOR MOSIACS

I have used a variety of tiles when doing wall mosaics mounted on mesh.  The thicker the tiles - the heavier the project and the "more interesting" it makes the installation process.  In this case, I did not specifically choose the thickness of the tiles for this project as they were leftover from our house.


Now finally to the fun part - placing the tiles.  I'll start with a bunch of tips related to how I go about tackling my broken tile mosaic projects:

SORT YOUR TILES INTO SHAPES - I find it helpful to sort my tile pieces before starting.  You will find that tiles tend to break into some standard shaped pieces - triangles, squares & rectangles, triangles with one corner broken off, trapezoids, long narrow pieces, tiny pieces.  You can grab some old cardboard boxes and designate boxes for different types of pieces

EDGE PIECES V INTERIOR PIECES - I don't use edge pieces on the interior of my mosaics (By "edge pieces", I'm talking about the pieces that have part of the finished edge of the original tile still on them).  Edge pieces go on the edges only.  This is my preference - I think the edge pieces disrupt the mosaic if they are in the middle because the edges of the tiles are finished off and slightly different than the broken edges of an interior piece of tile.

Examples of "Interior Pieces" - each side is a broken edge.

Example of an "Edge Piece" - includes a finished edge of the original piece of tile.

WORK IN SECTIONS - I like to tackle large projects like this in sections.  I started with the turtle, leaving the background for later.  

GLUING THE TILES - I typically lay out all the pieces in sections, and then glue that section down all at once.  This is as opposed to gluing each piece down one-at-a-time as I go.  If you go this route, make sure you are working on a sturdy table so it is less likely to get bumped and messed up.

KEEP SPACING CONSITANT - Concentrate on keeping the spaces between the tiles consistent.  I really feel like this makes the difference between a good mosaic and a mediocre one.   Also, I don't ever have any tiles touching - there is always a consistent space.

USE TILE SIZES INTENTIONALLY AND STRATEGICALLY - Pay attention to the size of tiles you are using on the overall project.  Sometimes I concentrate on using similar sizes across an entire project.  Sometimes I mix the small and large pieces.  Sometimes, in order to create perspective, you can use large tiles in the foreground of your design and smaller tiles in the background.  This I what I did with the turtle's fin in the foreground (larger pieces), and the fin in the background (smaller pieces).

CREATIVE LICENSE - For the shell of the turtle, I pretty much followed the design from the photo.  However, on the fins and head - I ended up just following the general outline  (I didn't try to fit pieces that were the exact size of the small areas in the original picture on these parts of the turtle.)  I think I would have lost my mind if I would have tried that!

KNOW WHEN TO WALK AWAY - Placing tiles can go smoothly and quickly, or sometimes be downright agravating.  On this project, I found myself either spending an hour placing tiles, or placing just a couple tiles and walking away frustrated because I stalled out.  My advice - know when to just walk away and try again later. 

BACK UP IF YOU NEED TO - If you have "mosaic'd yourself into a corner" and can't locate a piece that will fit, don't be afraid to back up and remove some tiles so you don't end up with an impossibly shaped area.  Remove a tile or two and back up to create a reasonably shaped area to place a tile.

USE TILE NIPPERS AS A LAST RESORT - Use your tile nippers as a last resort.  Have enough of a varied supply of broken tiles, and make these pieces work.  I'm often asked if I cut each piece to fit each space - and the answer is "Heavens NO!"  I nipped less than a dozen tiles on this whole project.  If you are nipping every piece to fit a specific space, then you will likely hate doing mosaics and this process will be miserable.  Furthermore - if you are using broken ceramic tiles - they can be rather thick and difficult to nip with nippers.

So here is how the turtle progressed...

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

Most of the gaps between the tiles of the turtle were consistent except for the space defining the middle of the shell. I wanted to accentuate this line so I made the gap a little wider than the spaces between the other tiles.  I will use sanded grout, so it should fill the larger spaces quite nicely.  I also decided to use large pieces for the shell and have mostly smaller pieces for the flippers and the head.   In addition, to provide for some perspective (as mentioned above) - I used medium sized tiles on the flipper in the forefront (as opposed to the smaller ones you see in the flippers farther back).


I waited to finish the turtle section in its entirety, and then proceeded to glue the pieces to the mesh.

GLUE - I use Weldbond Glue to adhere the tiles to the mesh.  This glue is featured on many mosaic supply websites.  I believe you can also get it from Ace Hardware.  I have used it a lot and have always been pleased with the results. You can use it to adhere tiles to mesh, or you can use it to glue tiles directly to a base.  The glue is especially useful if you have opaque or see through tiles (glass) because the glue dries clear.  It is shocking to me how well this stuff works!

When glueing the ceramic tiles pieces to the mesh - I applied glue to the raised portions of the bottom of the tiles. Most ceramic tiles have a grid-like pattern on the bottom, so it makes sense to apply the glue here where it will come in contact with the mesh.  The glue will seep through to mesh, but the waxed paper will prevent the glue from adhering to your pattern or your table.

Next on to the background.  Here are a couple more tips on laying down tiles...

USING EDGE TILES - As I mentioned above - I have a strategy when doing these projects with broken ceramic tile pieces -  I use edge pieces around the edges of the mosaic.  This makes it a little more time consuming when choosing tiles but I like how it finishes off the piece.  If you are using edge tiles for your edges, I recommend doing the edge pieces first, and then fill in the rest of the background.

FILL DIFFICULT SPACES FIRST - The next priority in your mosaic is to focus on the pieces that have to be a specific size and there is not much flexibility.  (Think "corners" and "small spaces")  An example of this is seen in the photo below in the space between the turtle's flipper and the upper edge of the mosaic.  Since you need to find specifically shaped pieces to fit into these spaces - do these types of spaces first.

Once all the edge pieces were in place I glued them in place to the mesh.

The next step was to fill in all the field tiles (the remainder of the area surrounding the turtle).

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

Once the field tiles were all in place, I glued them to the mesh.

I let this project dry for days before trying to move it.  When you lift off the mesh from the waxed paper, some of the waxed paper will tear and stick but it can be pealed off relatively easily.  The Weld Bond glue does an excellent job of adhering the tiles to the mesh, however I still tried to be careful when transporting it.  The best way to do this is to slide it on to a board of equal size to the mosaic and carry it.


Before attaching the mosaic to the wall, I primed the drywall area.  Some will tell you that you should not tile directly onto drywall, and it is necessary to replace it with cement board.  This is absolutely true in wet areas like a shower.   However, on relatively dry areas (like this area above the bathtub), or even a kitchen backsplash - I've read opinions that it is just fine to apply tile directly to the drywall, and this is the method I have followed on my projects.  Note that I always prime over the area with a couple coats of primer. I'm not sure if this is necessary or if it even helps in any way, but it makes me feel better about it, so I do it.  You can see the primed area on the wall in the photo below.

The mosaic will be cut into pieces (it's much to heavy to hang vertically in one piece). In addition, the plan was to install the turtle first, let it dry, then install the background.  In order to proceed with the installation - I needed to know where to place the pieces of the mosaic, so I transferred the mosaic pattern on to the wall.

I transferred the image to the wall by using my original paper mosaic pattern.  This is very important because the mosaic will be cut into pieces and you need a guide on the wall to place the pieces so it all fits back together perfectly.  I used transfer paper to transfer the design onto wall, and used a marker to go over the transfer paper markings, so I could see the outline better.

Paper design taped to wall

Transfer paper and pen

Tracing paper underneath to transfer design to wall.

Went over traced design with black marker to make more visitble


The next step was very disconcerting, despite how many times I have done this with large mosaic projects on mesh.  Because this is going on a wall, and my broken ceramic tiles are rather heavy, I had to cut the mosaic into manageable pieces for installation (it would be way too heavy to install in one piece).  Just in case the pieces get mixed up - I used masking tape to number them for reference.

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

The plan was to install the turtle first, and then let it set and dry before installing the background.  I did it this way because it will enable us to tape the turtle mesh pieces direclty to the wall and letting them set before installing the background pieces around them.

Here are a couple of important notes (1) Using a wall adhesive is key as it has the right properties to hold the tiles on the vertical wall.  (2) In addition, if it is not the premixed variety of adhesive - mixing to the right consistency is imperative;  if it is too runny and thin, your mosaic will slide off the wall.  Too dry - and that won't work well either - the tile won't adhere properly.


  1. Adhesive (if using pre mixed- you can skip the items 2-6 below)
  2. Corded Drill & extension cord
  3. Mixing Attachment
  4. 2 Large Buckets (one for the adhesive mix, one for water)
  5. Hose/Water
  6. Dust Mask
  7. Rubber Gloves
  8. Trowel
  9. Notched Trowel (for recommended tile size)
  10. Cleaning rags for hands and to wipe up drips, etc...
  11. Painters Tape (the stickier stuff, not the stuff for delicate surfaces)

I always use two large buckets when mixing mortar or grout.  One bucket for the mortar/grout, another bucket full of water.  The purpose of the second bucket full of water is to keep the mixing attachment clean.  After mixing the mortar, I immediately place the drill attachment into the bucket of water and turn it on to spin off the mortar and clean it.  This provides for easy clean up and the bucket also holds the drill for me.  I wear rubber gloves when working with mortar and grout.  Just the cheap latex kind.

  • Use two buckets (the extra one is filled with water to keep your mixing attachment clean)
  • Use a corded drill with a mixing attachment (a corded drill may be necessary to get enough power (torque) to mix these heavy substances, sometimes the battery powered drills are not quite powerful enough)
  • Wear rubber gloves
  • Add water sparingly - you can always add more water - you can't take it out!
  • Follow the instructions on your bag of mortar - you may have to let it steep before using.  What this means is typically you may have to let it sit for 5-10 minutes after initially mixing it, then another quick mix before applying.
  • Make sure you understand the consistency you are going for.  Too dry - your tile won't stick.  Too runny - your tile will slide off the wall.  Think "peanut butter".

You will be surprised at how heavy the mosaic sections are (the thicker the tiles, the heaver they will be).  You will definitely need to use tape to help the sections stay in place after applying the mesh sections to the wall.  It's also good to have two people for the installation.  My husband helped in a lot of ways.  Tearing the pieces of tape, helping hold the tile on the wall, standing back and verifying everything was straight...)

Apply Tile Adhesive to wall with trowel

Use a notched trowel to create the grooves in your Tile Adhesive.

Tape the sections to the wall as you go to prevent gravity from taking it's toll on your project.

I removed excess tile adhesive in some areas with a screw driver.  You can see in the photo below where I am removing the excess mortar from around the edges of the installed pieces.  You don't want to leave a bunch of gooped up mortar that will be visible in the final piece.

Remove excess mortar with a flat head screw driver.

After the turtle was applied and set overnight to dry - we installed the background pieces around the turtle.  More tape used here as well.

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles

You can see how doing the turtle first, and then the background - enabled me to tape the bottom sections of the background, to the stable and already dry turtle sections.

Once dry, all tape was removed.  I frame my wall mosaics, so I needed to install this before grouting the piece.  I used 1x4 pieces of wood because it is the same as the trim used around the windows and doors of the home.  We used liquid nails adhesive and finishing nails to install the trim.

Note - we didn't miter the corners of these pieces because none of the trim in our home is mitered around the doors and windows.  See photo below...

Photo of trim around bathroom door (no mitered corners)

I used a little bit of wood filler on the nail holes and to even out the spaces between the trim pieces.

Wood filler used on nail holes and joints between trim pieces.


The trim was primed and painted before grouting the mosaic.  I knew I might need to do some touch up on the paint after grouting, but I was OK with that.  I think it is easier to paint the trim first.

Mosaic with trim complete prior to grouting.


Prior to grouting I taped off around the inside edges of the trim.  Taking the time to tape around the inside edges enables me to create a very clean grout line around the entire frame of the piece.  Taking the time to do this extra step has a big impact on the finished piece.  It will also save time later when cleaning up the edges - it's as easy as pulling off the tape. Note - It is important to pull the tape off when he grout is still wet!  If the grout hardens - it may prevent you from being able to remove the tape and create difficult situation for you to clean up.

Tape off interior of frame prior to grouting

Tape off interior of frame prior to grouting

Tape off interior of frame prior to grouting

The piece is now ready to be grouted.   I chose a grout that was similar in color to the background tiles. This will enable the turtle to stand out in the design and the background tiles to more or less blend together.

TIP ON CHOOSING GROUT - Grout colors greatly influence the final look of a piece.  Imagine the difference if I had used a pure white grout, or a very dark grout.  Consider the elements you wish to stand out when choosing the perfect grout color.


Plastic Gloves

Dust Mask

Grout Float, Sponge, Trowel

2 Large Buckets, Corded Drill with Mixing Attachment.

Grouting a wall mosaic.  When grouting a floor - gravity is your friend.  It helps the grout sink into the crevices of the tiles.  On a wall - gravity tends to work against you.  It's difficult to avoid dropping grout on the floor.  It takes elbow grease with a grout float to push the grout into the crevices.  The consistency of the grout mixture, mixing the grout is even more important when grouting a wall.  Too wet - and it runs/drips down the wall.  To dry and it's difficult to fill in all the gaps and it doesn't adhere properly. This time around I think mine was a little on the too dry side.  I had very large gaps between my tiles and I had some issues with bubbles.

Mix grout according to instructions.  Wear a dust mask.

Rinse Mixing Attachment in Bucket of water after using.
I worked in sections first placing grout on the piece with a trowel
Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles
Adding grout with trowel
Then I would use the float to push the grout into the crevices of the tile and spread the grout across the piece.  The float is also used to remove excess grout (as much as you realistically can).  A wet sponge in the next step in the process with help remove the excess grout that still remains.  I'm laughing at these photos because I still have that dust mask on!  I wear it to avoid inhaling any powdered grout while mixing, but I was so involved in my grouting - I forgot to take it off after the grout was mixed and ready.

Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles
Using Grout Float to spread grout, push into crevices and remove excess.
I wiped down the entire piece with a wet sponge after I had covered the piece. You have to keep going over the piece and continue to rinse out your sponge in clean water.  Don't get your sponge too wet.  You don't want to wash away your grout.  Keep going over the piece with a damp sponge and rinsing periodically.  You will want to get a clean bucket of water for the last part of this step.  (It may be necessary to replace your water several times during this process. 
Sponge off excess grout with a damp sponge.
This next step is IMPORTANT - remove the tape around the edges of the piece BEFORE the grout is dry.  I am very happy how the tape created a perfectly clean grout line around the piece.

Remove tape before the grout is dry.

CLEAN UP GROUT - It will be necessary to buff your tiles after grouting.  This is especially true for tiles that are not perfectly smooth.  Mine had some texture to them for sure. Despite how well you sponge off a piece, you will still end up with a slight haze on your tiles.  It becomes more visible as your grout dries.  In  this case, you can see the light grout very well on the dark tiles.  I use an old T-shirt rag to do this.  Buffing the tiles sooner rather than later is recommended.  Once the grout between the tiles is reasonably dry - you can start to buff.  Be careful if the grout between the tiles is a little wet because you can mess it up while you buff.  If you let the whole piece dry completely for a few days before buffing, and the grout cures - it is much harder to remove the haze.

Buffing haze off of tiles with old T-shirt rag.
The grout is still drying in this photo and you can see the grout was still a little on the dark side.
Turtle Mosaic - Broken Ceramic Tiles
The piece is dry and the grout is now a lighter color.

You can see how the grout got lighter as it dried.  I picked out a grout color that was close to the color of the background tiles so the background displayed only a subtle texture, and that left a good contrast between the grout and the darker tiles on the turtle - enabling the turtle to stand out and be the focal point.  You can imagine how different the piece would look with a dark grout - the turtle would look like all one piece and there would be great contrast with the background tiles.  It's a matter of personal preference and how you envision the final piece to look.

SEALING GROUT - I use a basic grout sealer from Lowe's.  The tiles themselves do not need to be sealed.  These are ceramic tile pieces so a tile sealer is not necessary (you might want to seal your tile pieces too if they are natural stone).

The master bathroom walls are currently Lemon Chiffon, a Sherwin Williams the paint color found throughout the home.  My plan is to paint the bathroom a pale blue - Mountain Air by Sherwin Williams which was inspired by the blue quilt on the bed in the master bedroom.  I think the blue paint will play off well with all the beige tile in the bathroom.

Paint Color - Mountain Air by Sherwin Williams

Master Bedroom Photo
For more beach cottage posts see my Beach Cottage page.
For more mosaic posts see my Mosaics page.

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