By Bill Enslen
Looking for something new in your mosaic art? Here’s a fresh idea. Make mosaics using large stained-glass pieces as if making a stained-glass window, instead of using small pieces cut to the stale, standard shapes of squares, rectangles, and triangles. After following that traditional practice for so long, I grew bored with it and wanted something different. I removed my mosaic-artist hat and donned my stained-glass-artist hat for a nice change of pace. After making a few stained-glass hangings, it dawned on me. Why not combine mosaic art with stained-glass art? My first piece turned out beautifully, better than expected, and I haven’t looked back since. Let’s discover how you, too, can make these wonderful mosaics.
The first critical thing I learned when making mosaics from stained-glass patterns is to cut the base material to the exact size of a standard ready-made open-back frame. This avoids having to pay five times the price for a custom frame. I wait for my favorite hobby store to put their ready-made open-back frames on sale for half price so I usually pay about $25 for an attractive frame, including the installation, paper backing, and hanging hardware. My favorite size is 18-inches by 24-inches. My preferred choice of base material is plain 1/8-inch hardboard, which you can get at your favorite home improvement store. I usually get the sheets pre-cut to 2-feet by 4-feet for about $5. So, for a measly five bucks, I have enough base material for two mosaics, which is good if you’re a starving artist on a tight budget. It’s important to know that 1/4-inch is about as thick as you can go in terms of the piece fitting properly into a ready-made open-back frame. The base material is 1/8-inch thick and the stained glass is about 1/8-inch thick, which makes the finished piece about 1/4-inch thick.
Measure and then carefully and safely cut the hardboard to the exact size of the open-back frame you plan to use. Let’s assume you like the 18-inch by 24-inch size. A table saw enables you to make more accurate cuts than trying to guide a circular saw by hand. If a circular saw is all you have, then it can be done, just take your time and don’t rush the cut. Here’s a tip. I found a “refurbished” Skil table saw online that cost only $80 including shipping. When it arrived, it looked and functioned like brand new. I got a fantastic $250 saw for only $80. The key is to search online for a “refurbished” unit instead of brand new. After measuring and marking the hardboard (measure twice and be accurate), ensure you align the saw blade to cut on your cut-line so the resulting piece is exactly 18-inches by 24-inches. In other words, don’t cut directly on the line because the resulting piece will be something like 17.8-inches by 23.8 inches, which may be too small to fit properly in the frame. Every ready-made frame labeled as 18-inches by 24-inches that I’ve bought has been within a hair of 18-inches by 24-inches. There’s not much room for error when cutting the base material, so measure twice and align the blade properly on the cut line. If the resulting base material is within a hair of 18-inches by 24-inches, it’ll fit nicely into the ready-made open-back frame.
When your base material is cut to the perfect size, paint it white. I use bright white ceiling paint primarily because it’s a lot cheaper than standard wall paint. I usually use two coats so the dark-brown hardboard is bright white. The whiter the base material, the brighter the glass will look when you adhere it to the board. If you don’t paint the base material white, the glass will look dull and dreary against the dark-brown board.
Now that your base material is ready, simply transfer your stained-glass design to the board. If you have no drawing skills, find a lovely stained-glass pattern online or at your favorite hobby store and transfer the pattern to the base material. You can find transfer paper at your favorite hobby store for less than $2 a sheet that’s big enough to cover the 18-inch by 24-inch base material. The good thing about transfer paper is that you can use it several times before it’s no good. I’ve eked out as many as nine transfers (i.e., nine mosaics and stained-glass works) before the paper no longer transferred the tracing well enough for me to see the lines clearly.
Measure and cut (and grind the edges if you have a grinder) the stained-glass pieces as if you were creating a stained-glass window. I always use highly translucent or opaque glass colors to ensure you can’t see through it to see the glue when adhered to the base material. For your mosaic, instead of joining the pieces using lead came or copper foil and solder as you would with a stained-glass work, you simply glue the pieces in place over the pattern on your base material using plain white PVA glue (e.g., Elmer’s Glue All or Weldbond), leaving about 1/16-inch spacing between pieces. The spacing can vary up to 1/8-inch, but I wouldn’t go any wider than 1/8-inch spacing because I believe the wider spacing looks amateurish compared to narrow spacing.
When all the pieces are glued in-place and the glue has dried for at least 48 hours, fill the spaces with your favorite grout color, just as you would if the mosaic were done with the standard small pieces of square or triangular shapes. I mostly use medium-gray grout, but my latest preference is charcoal (black) grout. The more mosaics I do with black grout, the more I like it. Grout color can make or break the final look of your mosaic, so if you’re in doubt about what grout color to use, your best bet is to use medium-gray.
When the grout has dried overnight, take the mosaic to your favorite hobby store when they’re having a sale on ready-made open-back frames. My favorite store has a 50% sale every other week, so if it’s an off week, I simply wait a week. Pick several frame styles and colors, and place them over your mosaic, one at a time. Don’t settle for the first frame you find. Ask the clerk which frame he thinks looks best with your mosaic. See which frame helps highlight the colors in your mosaic. I often ask other customers in the immediate area what they think, and they’re always eager to give their opinion. Once you have the perfect frame, the clerk will install your mosaic, apply the paper backing, and install the hanging hardware and wire.
Now you have a beautiful mosaic to hang on your wall or give as a present. The neat thing about it is that it’s usual, not the same boring mosaic style we’ve seen for centuries. It’s basically a stained-glass window installed in a frame with grout in the spaces instead of solder. You won’t see that too often. Well, not until all the mosaic artists in the world read this article and switch to this technique!
Bill Enslen has created lovely mosaic art for 30 years. His new mosaic how-to ebook gives you easy step-by-step details so you can make mosaic masterpieces of your own. Let him show you just how easy it is to make glass mosaic art. With Bill’s help, you can do it. Yes, you can!