Q: Your recent column got me excited about creating something very unique with ceramic tile. I have stick-people skills when it comes to artistic talent, so decorating my own mosaic tile would be impossible for me. Is there some other way I can create a simple but one-of-a-kind tile look? What tips do you have for a beginner like me?
A: I love to admire mosaic tile installations of all sizes, but to create one does require a certain artistic skill set that not everyone has.
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 is a store that only sells tile and stone. They should carry the variety of specialty tiles needed to create a look that’s similar to mosaic tile.
Many years ago, my wife and I did something similar, even though there were fewer wonderful tiles available then. We used blank 4-by-4-inch tiles for our backsplash, and we hand-painted some simple flowers on them. 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 copying some simple flower photos from books. Now, of course, you can find photos online of just about anything in seconds. Using fine artist brushes, even a 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 artistic scenes already baked into the tile. You can get just about any themed tile you want. Do you like sailboats? How about kittens? Just do an online search for whatever topic you like in front of the word “tile.” Prepare to be blown away by the number of possibilities.
Once you locate or create the decorative tiles that you’ll use, you need to mate them with field tiles that will produce a subtle background. Talk with a professional at the tile store for inspiration and help. In addition to their backsplashes on display, they may have a gallery of photos provided by other customers. Nearly all of these stores can order any specialty tile you need, too.
It’s also important to consider scale. Small installations — say, 12 or 14 inches tall by 30 inches wide — require a smaller tile, so look at store displays that mimic the area you plan to decorate.
Keep in mind that ceramic tile needs to be installed on a surface that is flat with no humps, dips or depressions. Check your wall surface using a straightedge to make sure it’s flat. Fill in any depressions with joint compound before you install any tile.
If you’re a beginner, it’s best to use tile that requires no cutting. Instead, take photos of the area where the tile will go and bring them with you to the tile store, along with the exact measurements. Using that information, store employees can help you select tiles that won’t need to be cut later.
To put the tiles on the wall for your backsplash, use tile-setting mastic or thinset, a dry powder mix of fine silica sand and Portland cement. Thinset can be bought in either gray or white.
If you plan to use a transparent glass tile, ask the tile experts for the right adhesive for the job.
Tim Carter has worked as a home-improvement professional for more than 30 years. To submit a question or to learn more, visit AsktheBuilder.com.