The available colors and textures of glass-mosaic tiles make them one of the best ways to improve the look of an otherwise boring home feature. Here we strip a fireplace of washed-out ceramic tile and replace it with dark brown glass-mosaic tile.
Tools and Materials
Tiling jobs usually require the same kinds of tools and materials, most of which are available at your neighborhood home improvement store. Working with glass-mosaics is a slightly different process, however, with some tool/material differences (e.g., no tile cutting tools, extra cleanup precautions).
- Type – Despite the staggering number of tile possibilities out there, it is important to check out your options before jumping into a project. We are installing glass-mosaic in this case, but ceramic, porcelain, terra cotta and natural stone tile are other options with varying costs, sizes and colors. Each material brings with it different hardness and durability that may or may not be appropriate for your application.1,2 Instead of getting bogged down in the selection process online, however, I recommend looking up a few different tile suppliers in your area and visiting their showrooms where you can see the choices first-hand, ask questions and obtain samples. If glass-mosaic is your tile of choice, you will need to choose between paper-faced or mesh mounted sheets.3 Both styles work and will be addressed in this article, but the mesh-mounted method has become more popular as its installation is typically more straightforward and convenient.
- Amount – To estimate the amount of tile to buy, measure the surface area to be covered and add 5% for human error, cut and broken tiles.
- Supplier – Many glass-mosaic suppliers provide material to tile dealers only, but I found that those dealers are usually very accommodating. You may even be offered a discount for homeowners doing their own work (i.e., not using a contractor).
- Price4 – Tile price is usually by the square foot and can range anywhere from $5/ft2 to >$30/ft2.5
In this case, we will install approximately 23ft2 of Bisazza Glass Mosaic Vetricolor 20×20 sheets (color 20.16) at about $12/ft2.6
Thin-set mortar secures the tile to the mounting surface. It is available in various colors at most home improvement stores, usually in 10 lb, 25 lb and/or 50 lb bags. Be sure to check the listing on the back of the mortar bag to ensure it is suitable for use with glass tile. Depending on the application and brand name, a 25 lb bag can cost anywhere from $5 to $15.
Keep in mind the following mortar selection tips while looking:
- Color – Use gray mortar if you plan to use a dark colored grout and white mortar with light colored grout.
- Setting speed – Only use fast setting mortar if you have tile installation experience.
- Latex modification – Latex modified mortar (or non-modified mortar with a latex additive) is usually suitable for glass-mosaic tile installation.
- Unsanded – Use unsanded mortar for walls, fixtures (e.g., fireplaces) and some countertops.7
- Coverage – A 25 lb bag will usually install approximately 35ft2 to 50ft2 of tile. (More accurate coverage specifications should be listed on the bag.)
- Manufacturer’s instructions – Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when installing their product; the recommended methods may vary.
Grout fills in the gaps between the tiles after they are set. It is available in different colors and makeups, depending on the taste of the user and the application, in 10 lb or 25 lb bags or in one gallon premixed tubs. Ensure the grout purchased is sufficient for the surface area to be covered and that the color is desired.8 The typical grout available at hardware stores will cost from $10 to $30 for a 25 lb bag.
In this case, we will use one gallon of Bisazza Fill Epoxy grout (color 405 – Ocra Bruna) from the same manufacturer as the tile for about $35.9
- Spacers – Spacers are small plastic crosses that assist in aligning tiles. The spacer size needed depends on the spread of your mosaics, so take a sample of the mounted tile with you to the store to ensure it will provide the proper spacing. One bag of spacers costs approximately $3 to $5 and will be more than enough for most projects. 1/16" spacers are appropriate for the tile spacing on this job.
- Cement backerboard – Optional. Cement backerboard is a concrete sheet reinforced with a fiberglass mesh on both sides. It is typically used over plywood floors or sheetrock walls in bathrooms,10 but we will only use it to bring the horizontal tile surface to match the carpet height. One 3′ × 5′ sheet of backerboard is about $9.
- Fiberglass tape – Optional. Fiberglass tape provides a backing surface for spackling or mortar when patching holes or gaps in the mounting surface. We will use it on the sheetrock-fireplace interface. A small roll of tape will most likely be enough for this job and will run approximately $2 to $4.
- Spackling – Very optional. Spackling, also called joint compound, patches sheetrock holes and is usually applied over fiberglass tape. If you do not already have spackling available, I suggest using mortar instead. A small, 3 lb tub costs $3 to $4.
- Sealant – Optional. If you are using water-based mortar, you will need to seal it to prevent staining or mold. Sealant often comes in combination with grout cleaner and runs from about $8 to $20.11
This tool is specially designed to remove tile mortar (only necessary if removing tile). Alternatively, we will use a hammer and heavy-duty paint scraper, as there is a reasonably small area to clear (the horizontal surface).12 Various shapes and sizes of scrapers are available,13 as well as powered floor scraping units14 (overkill for a small application like a fireplace). A typical razor scraper will run from $20 to $30.
If you choose to use a heavy-duty paint scraper ($5 to $10, as shown in this tutorial), I recommend getting a stainless scraper and as heavy duty as possible.
Mortar trowels are of varying sizes and come with V or square profile notches, also of varying sizes. We will use a 3/16" x 5/32" V-notched trowel to spread the mortar for the glass-mosaic tiles and a 1/4" square-notched trowel for spreading mortar to attach the cement backerboard. I strongly suggest purchasing a stainless steel trowel (to avoid rusting). Trowels will cost from $3 to $10.
A float is a thick, hard-rubber (or sometimes wood) trowel-like tool. We will use it to push grout into the spaces between the set tiles. It usually costs between $7 and $15.
- Carpenter’s square – Optional. A square helps when cutting backerboard (if used) and may assist in doing the preliminary tile layout. A medium sized rafter square (16" x 24") costs approximately $7 to $10.
- Sponges – If using water-based grout, a tiling sponge (large with an abrasive material on one side) will work best. We will work with epoxy grout, so small, disposable sponges are more appropriate. Tile sponges run about $4 while a package of disposable sponges is around $1.
- Bucket – A bucket may be needed to mix mortar (unless premixed mortar is used) and/or to dilute glass tile cleaner.
- Rubber mallet – A rubber mallet is handy when setting tiles and usually costs around $5.
- Utility knife – This utilitarian tool helps at a variety of steps in the installation. Basic models run about $5.
- Drill paddle – To save time and forearm work, you can use a paddle attachment with a 1/2" drill to mix mortar and/or grout. Paddles cost anywhere from $6 to $25.15
Before installing the new tile, you must remove the old tile (or other floor/wall covering) and prepare the surface for mortar application.
If there are any baseboards overlapping the edge of the tile, it is easiest to remove them before tearing up the floor. Using a flat tool and a hammer, pry the baseboard away from the wall and set it aside. It may help to score the paint between the piece to be removed and the adjacent wall or larger baseboard. Also, use as wide of a tool as possible (e.g., a paint scraper instead of a flathead screwdriver) to avoid damaging the baseboard.
Figure 5. Remove any overlapping baseboards by prying them away from the wall prior to removing the tile.
Remove Old Tile
Old tile is easily removed by breaking it up with a sledgehammer. This is a potentially dangerous activity, however, so be sure to wear proper eye protection. Additionally, lay an old towel or T-shirt over the tile to be broken to contain flying shards. Exercise caution and wear gloves when removing the tile pieces, as edges are sharp.16
When tile is broken up, the underlying mortar is usually left behind. You must remove this to uncover a solid, even surface on which to lay the new tile. The process can be arduous and time consuming, particularly if specialized tools are not used. Before beating out the mortar with a razor scraper or paint scraper and hammer, I recommend wetting the mortar prior to soften it slightly and, more importantly, prevent dust formation. (The scraper shown is a heavy duty paint scraper, but was not made specifically for tile/mortar removal. A scraper upgrade could significantly quicken the process.)
Figure 7. One way to slowly, but surely, remove the old mortar is to wet it then knock it out using a scraper and a hammer.
Figure 8. While removing the old mortar using the above described method, hair or anything else in the area will most likely get covered with mortar sludge.
Removing tile is a messy ordeal, but the worksite will need to be clean before proceeding to the constructive half of the installation. Gather or wipe-up all removed mortar and ensure the mounting surface is reasonably smooth. Although small holes or scrapes will be filled in with mortar and not impact the installation, ridges or bumps of any significance will interfere with laying the tile and should be removed or flattened.
This is also a good time to patch any holes in the drywall or gaps between the fireplace fixture and the adjacent wallboard using fiberglass tape and spackling.17 Once complete, you must let the spackling dry before proceeding. If you elect to use mortar instead of spackling, as I did, the patching can be done during the tile laying process.
Prepare Tile Segments
When doing a typical tile project, laying out the tile involves many steps and options to ensure optimal results. When tiling a bathroom floor, for example, you should arranging tiles so that as many as possible are whole to minimize the number of cuts and improve the overall look. Additionally, a level surface is critical to promote floor longevity in areas with high traffic. With a fireplace, however, these are non-issues. The tiled area is small, the tiles are glass and will not be cut, and the fireplace is decorative and will have only very light traffic, if any.18
Thus, to plan the layout, simply measure the area to be covered and then piece together segments of the tile sheets to fit. Cut the mounting paper or mesh with a utility knife where necessary. Use the cuttings in combination to cover surface area as well. Lay out all of the cut segments together with spacers and measure the overall dimensions to double check your plan.
Mount New Tile
Usually, different surfaces require different methods of tile mounting,19 but once again the fact that the tile installed will be decorative only will allow us to mount the tile to almost any surface using the same method. In this case, the glass tile is mounted to sheetrock (walls), cement (floor or backerboard) and metal (fireplace) using the same thin-set mortar.
Glass mosaic tile is thinner than ceramic tile, so you may need to make some accommodations if switching from one to the other. In the pictured case, I lay a segment of cement backerboard underneath the horizontal tile to raise the finished product to about the same level as the previous ceramic tile and maintain a reasonably even surface with the adjoining carpet.
Measure the areas you will cover and mark the cuts on the board, using a square if needed. One edge at a time and using a straight edge or square, cut the fiberglass mesh on one side and then snap the board by bending away from the cut. Cut the mesh on the other side to finish.
Figure 10. Cut cement backerboard by slicing the reinforcing fiberglass on one side, snapping the board, then cutting the reinforcement on the other side.
After laying out the tile, cleaning the area, and cutting the backerboard (if necessary), mix the mortar per the manufacturer’s instructions on the bag. I suggest mixing only a small amount on the first run to avoid potential waste and to allow yourself to become familiar with the process. A small batch will also allow you to mix without purchasing a mixing paddle. If you do use a paddle, however, do so at low speeds (less than 300rpm).
If using backerboard, you can install it one of two ways; Install the backerboard onto the floor and then install the tile onto it, or install the tile onto the backerboard first and then install the whole assembly. Regardless of the order, however, you apply the mortar in the same manner.
After mixing the mortar per the manufacturer’s instructions, ‘key’ it onto the wall or floor surface using the flat edge of the trowel and then ‘comb’ it using the notched end.20 To comb the mortar, drag either notched edge of the trowel over the surface keeping the trowel at a 45Âº angle to the plane. Use a 1/4" square-notched trowel for the backerboard-to-floor interface and a 3/16" x 5/32" V-notched trowel for the tile-wall/floor/backerboard interface. Good spreading technique will ensure consistent and correct mortar thickness to produce flat and secure tiling.
Figure 11. Mix a small batch of mortar in a bucket (left). Spread the mortar on the surface to be covered with a notched trowel (right).
If you didn’t patch gaps or holes in the surface on which you are spreading the mortar previously, do so as you apply the mortar. Press fiberglass tape over the gap and then spread mortar over the tape, pushing it through the holes to create a flat surface. Allow it to set for five to ten minutes or until the surface is sturdy enough to support the application of combed mortar.
Once you prepare a small area with combed mortar, set the tile into it. If you are using paper-faced sheets, lay them tile-side-down into the mortar; if using mesh-backed sheets, lay them tile-side-up. Use the grout float (or block of wood) and a rubber mallet to beat the tile sheets evenly into place and ensure mortar coverage on the set-side of the tile. Orient the sheets after setting them to maintain proper spacing. Place spacers either in-plane with the tile sheets, which will align four tile pairs, or normal to the sheets, which will only align one tile pair. The advantage to the normal spacing method, however, is that you will be able to easily remove the spacer after the mortar is set. You will only have to remove in-plane spacers if they will not be covered by the grout, but removal will be difficult.
Lay vertical sheets in the same way, starting from the bottom to provide a foundation on which to stack the next sheets. Be sure to use spacers to maintain an even spread.
Figure 14. Separate sheets of paper-faced tile using in-plane spacers laid on mortared cement backerboard.
Figure 16. Set and level the laid tiles using a grout float (or board) to distribute the setting force from a rubber mallet.
In the shown example, I install the tile onto a segment of cement backerboard that is not already laid, and install the entire assembly (tile laid on backerboard with mortar) directly onto the floor. Exercise caution when installing the large (and heavy) assembly to avoid dislodging the laid tiles.
Figure 17. One way to install backerboard is to first install the tile onto it and then to install the whole assembly.
If using paper-faced tile, remove the paper after the mortar has set (about 15-20 minutes after laying the tile). Wet the paper with a water-soaked sponge and then allow the paper adhesive to soften. Test a corner of the paper to see if it will come up easily and reapply water if necessary. Remove the paper by starting at a corner and pulling the paper facing diagonally back along the tile (as opposed to pulling normal to the tiled surface). You may also want to prop up the carpet around the tile to avoid stains or soaking.
Figure 18. Remove the paper facing by wetting it and then pulling diagonally from a corner after the adhesive is sufficiently softened.
Adjust and Clean-up
After removing the paper (or after laying the mesh-sheets), check the alignment of the tiles and make any necessary adjustments before the mortar hardens. Remove any protruding mortar or spacers from between the tiles using a flathead screwdriver or a utility knife; anything not later covered by the grout will make for a serious eyesore on the finished product. Replace any tiles that are pulled up or knocked loose using a small dab of mortar applied to the back.
After the mortar has completely dried (24-48 hours), remove any glue residue from the tiles using a nylon brush and warm water. After or while cleaning, inspect the tile alignment once more for any crooked or skewed tiles, as well as any mortar or spacers that might protrude through the grout. Knock out and re-cement tiles needing adjustment.21 Gently tapping a flathead screwdriver under the tile to be removed with a hammer works decently, but be careful not to chip it or the surrounding tiles. After removing the tiles, scrape the dried mortar off of the back side and clean out the tile location reasonably well using a utility knife or flathead screwdriver. After removing and cleaning all tiles needing correction, mix a small batch of mortar and replace the tiles using a dab on the back of each. Let the repaired tiles dry completely (24 hours) before moving on to the grout application.
Figure 21. Instead of thinking about how much easier it would have been to straighten the tiles while the mortar was still soft, think of how much harder it would be if you waited until the grout was applied.
Grout preparation depends on the grout selected. Many grouts mix with water, but those used with glass mosaic tiles are often epoxy-based. Epoxy grouts usually come in two parts, such as the Bisazza Fill used here. Although a general construct for grout application follows, adhere to the directions included on your specific grout selection, as methods and requirements may vary.
Figure 22. I used Bisazza Fill, an epoxy grout that came in two parts: a pre-mixed solid and the liquid epoxy additive.
Read the grout mixing and application directions carefully, being sure to note any time restrictions. Make any possible preparations you can prior to mixing to allow you the full allotted time to apply the grout. After mixing per the manufacturers instructions (and rinsing any mixing tools used that you don’t want coated with dried grout), apply the grout to the tiled surface using a rubber float. Position the float at a 45Âº angle to the surface and the tile orientation and push the grout into the spaces betwen the tiles by dragging it over the surface. At least 20 minutes after application, wipe off the excess grout using first a dry, lint-free cloth and then a sponge and warm water.22 When the tile looks reasonably clean, let it dry for 15 minutes and then wipe away any revealed grout ‘haze’ using a moist sponge or cloth.26 Repeat as necessary.
Clean and Seal
After the grout has fully dried (24-48 hours after application23), wash the surface using a tile cleaner and a sponge or scrubbing pad. In this case, Bisazza provided a concentrated tile cleaner, called Shine, which instructed at least two cleaning sessions separated by 24 hours. Once completely dry and cleaned, a tile sealant can be applied to prevent mold or staining.24
Finally, complete the tile interfaces by pushing the carpet back onto the tacking strips, nailing the baseboards back on, and touching up the paint.25 Be sure to allow at least 16 hours for the grout to completely set before walking on the tile.
The Old and the New
With a glass-mosaic pit ’o fire instead of a bland ceramic tile fireplace, you will be ready to take on the world one log at a time.
3 Sheets are recommended, but it is possible to do the job with individual tiles. This method is not considered here.
4 Prices listed here and throughout the article are approximations only. Actual prices may vary depending on purchasing situation.
6 Bisazza. Bisazza.com. URL Accessed January 23, 2006. Select About the Company for company information. Select Products and an interactive selection window will open. Select Mosaics, Vetricolor 20×20 then color 20.16(2) to view the tile and grout combination used in this example.
7 Sanded mortar is used for floors and some countertops.
8 Proper Grout Selection. FloorBiz.com. URL accessed January 23, 2006. Acid resistance, polymer modification, chemical enhanced curing and a stain warranty are listed as essential to a high-quality grout.
9 Bisazza. Bisazza.com_. URL Accessed January 23, 2006. Follow the same instructions given above (_Products – Mosaics – Vetricolor 20×20 – 20.16(2)) to view the tile and grout combination used in this example.
11 Tile Perfect Inc. Recall of Stand ’n Seal Grout Sealer Due to Respiratory Problems. News from U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. URL accessed January 30, 2006. Choose your sealant wisely and be sure to properly ventilate the area.
12 Mortar attached to sheetrock or metal surfaces is easily removed along with the tile.
14 Cutting, Shaping and Scraping: Tile Scraper. DIYNetwork.com. URL accessed January 24, 2006. This is an example of a powered floor scraping unit. It would only necessary for large jobs and can be rented.
18 If a very level surface is required (or desired), apply self-leveling primer and self-leveling underlayment per the manufacturer’s instructions.
20 A technique called ‘back-buttering’ is often used when installing tile, but it is not necessary in this application.
21 This is more difficult than it is to fix them while the mortar is wet, but easier than fixing them after the grout is applied (or looking at them for the foreseeable future).
22 You may need to discard sponges and cloths dirtied with epoxy grout, as it is not easily removed. If using water-based grout, simply rise the sponge and reused.
23 Note that the grout may change color slightly while drying.
24 Sealant application may change the grout color slightly.
25 You may need to touch up the paint on the fireplace fixture in addition to the surrounding walls.
26 Although a tile sponge is shown on the left of Figure 24, I recommend using disposable sponges (as shown on the right) if working with epoxy grout.
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