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Ask the Builder: Making a simple tile backsplash that mimics mosaic

Ask the Builder: Making a simple tile backsplash that mimics mosaic

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This tile backsplash mimics mosaic tile, but it’ s caveman simple to install.

QUESTION: Tim, in a recent column you got me excited about creating something very unique with ceramic tile. The issue is I’m like you and have stick-people skills when it comes to artistic talent. Doing mosaic tile would be impossible for me. Is there some other way I can create a simple but one-of-a-kind tile look that you might only find in my house? What tips do you have for a beginner like me? —Xenia F., Port Arthur, Texas

A: I love to admire mosaic tile installations of all sizes, but to create one does require a second skill set.

The good news is you can create a one-of-a-kind tile backsplash for your bathroom or kitchen using store-bought tiles. The trick is to go to the right store. In my opinion, your best bet for success is a store that only sells tile and stone. In almost all cases, they’ll have a wide variety of specialty tiles that can be combined to create a look similar to mosaic tile.

Many years ago, my wife and I did something similar even though all these wonderful tiles weren't available (or, at least, they weren't to be found in Cincinnati). We used standard 4x4 plain tile for a backsplash but hand-painted some simple flowers on the different blank tiles. We used oil-based paint because it was far more durable than the latex paint of the time. The paint needed to be able to withstand cleaning and not peel or flake off.

It was surprisingly easy to create these painted tiles by just copying some simple flower photos from books. The Internet didn’t exist back then. Now, of course, you can pull up photos of just about anything in seconds. Using fine artist brushes, even the beginner can do a respectable job of re-creating simple images.

An easier way to approach this project is to look for special tiles that have scenes already replicated and baked into the tile. You can get just about any themed tile you want. Do you like sailboats? Easy. How about kittens? Just go to an online search engine and type whatever thing you like in front of the word “tile.” Prepare to be blown away by unlimited possibilities.

Once you locate the decorative tile that you’ll use, you need to mate it with the field tile that will produce the subtle background. Believe me when I say that you should talk with the manager or a seasoned salesperson at the tile store for inspiration and help. It’s possible they’ll not only have backsplashes on display, but they may have a gallery of photos provided by customers. Almost all these stores can get any specialty tile you need.

Be sure to talk with the salesperson about scale. Small tile installations — say, something 12 or 14 inches tall by 30 inches long — scream for smaller tile. Architects are taught all about scale in school. You should take heed and look at displays in the tile store that mimic the area you plan to cover with tile.

Keep in mind that ceramic tile needs to be installed on a surface that’s in the same plane. This means the surface is flat with no humps, dips or depressions. Check your wall surface using a straightedge to make sure the surface is flat. Fill in any depressions with joint compound. Prime and paint it before you’d install any tile.

Assuming you’re a beginner, it’s best for you to use tile that requires no cutting. Take photos of your situation with you to the tile store. Make a drawing with exact measurements of where the tile will go. The tile store employees will help you select something that hopefully will require no cutting.

You’ll probably be able to use tile-setting mastic to put the tile on the wall for your backsplash. The tile store folks will tell you what to use. It’s possible you may have to use thinset, but let them guide you. Thinset is a dry powder mix of fine silica sand and Portland cement. You just mix it with water to the consistency of applesauce.

Be aware that thinset can be bought in either gray or white. If you plan to use a transparent glass tile, ask the tile store experts what is the best adhesive to use. Don’t forget to get the correct trowel to apply the adhesive. The tile size determines the size of the trowel in almost all cases.

Grouting tile is not hard, but it requires some practice. I have a series of tile-grouting videos at You really should watch them. You’d be very wise to create a sandbox test panel with some inexpensive tile and grout it before you chance ruining your one-of-a-kind installation.

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