I recently corresponded with an art teacher named Ashley from Cumberland Regional High School in New Jersey. We were planning to do a video call next week to talk about the process of installing an outdoor ceramic mural. Unfortunately, because the Coronavirus has brought everything to a standstill, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I do, however, want to pass along my experience in mural making to Ashley and her students with some photos and notes. This health crisis will eventually pass and I really hope they get an opportunity to make their mural.
Installing a Ceramic Tile Mural
- Tiles (fired to cone 5 or higher if outdoors)
- Hardie board
- Masonry screws
- Fiberglass mesh tape
- Fortified thinset (premixed recommended)
- Aluminum angles
- Construction adhesive
- 1×2 Wood strips (width of mural)
- Tile spacers
- Painter’s tape
- Grout (premixed recommended)
- Measuring tape
- Paper or sketchbook
- Straight edge for cutting Hardie board
- Utility knife and spare blades
- Power drill or corded hammer drill
- Hack saw with miter box or Dremel saw with a metal cutting blade
- Small trowel
- Rubber grout float
- Tongue depressors (applying grout)
Lay tiles out on a flat surface to determine the size of your mural. Determine locations of the tile courses; measure them from the bottom of the mural. Mark this information on the Hardie board or on a separate sketch, with the dimensions, to refer to later.
- Cut Board
Once you’ve determined how large your mural will be, measure and mark the Hardie Board with a pencil. Using a straight edge (a 2×4 works well), cut the board with your utility knife.
- Install Board
Using a level and one or two helpers to hold the board in place, drive the screws through the Hardie board into the subsurface. If the subsurface is wood, a power drill will work but if the subsurface is concrete, a hammer drill may be required.
- Prep Board
Fill any screw holes with thinset. Apply mesh tape over joints (if using more than one sheet of Hardie board). Coat mesh tape with a thin smooth layer of thinset.
- Aluminum Edges
Measure the perimeter lengths of the installed board. Using the hack saw and miter box or Dremel saw, cut the aluminum angles to fit the edges of the Hardie board (see detail of angle ends to make a clean corner). Glue the aluminum angles to the edges of the Hardie board with construction adhesive. Keep the angles in place with painter’s tape until dry.
- Determine Starting Point(s)
Start from the bottom and work up. Use tile spacers between the aluminum angle and the first row. Optional step – Cut and install 1×2 wood boards, using the level, at key courses in the mural design (refer back to your original layout sketch). This will allow you to work on several areas at a time.
- Set Tiles
Begin setting the tiles. Start in the center of the course and move horizontally to the outside edges, use the trowel to “butter” the back of each tile with thinset and push firmly against the Hardie board. Tiles will be adjustable for about 10 – 15 minutes depending on temperature/humidity. Once the first horizontal band is set, move up a row. Keep your level handy and check often. Refer back to the sketch and use tile spacers to make sure the rows align with those in your sketch. This way you’ll be sure to have the proper amount of space by the time you get to the top of the mural.
Once the tiles are set and dried, cover the outside edges of your aluminum angles with painters tape for protection, and begin applying grout in sections. Depending on the type of tiles used this can be done with either a rubber float (if the tiles are flat and smooth) or tongue depressors (if the tiles are sculptural). You can wipe most of the grout from the tile surfaces with a dampened sponge while the grout is wet. Carefully remove painter’s tape while the grout is still wet. When the grout is dry give the tiles a good cleaning with a sponge and warm water.
- Check the weather. It’s easier to tile on a clear, dry day.
- Wear nitrile gloves when using thinset and grout.
- Draw courses and key tile locations directly on the Hardie board with pencil before you start tiling.
- It’s nice to have flexible areas of your mural where you can fill in tiles to adjust for courses that don’t quite match up to your sketch. For example, I used circular tiles fill in the area between the orca tile pattern and otter tile pattern. I was able to use as I many as I needed to fill that left over space.