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How to make mosaics: the tile adhesive method

How to make mosaics: the tile adhesive method

First things first: the tile adhesive method is the same as the thin set method. Got it? Good. It’s a simple point but it can be curiously confusing if you are coming across references to thin set and you don’t know what it is. Our American friends call tile adhesive, thin set and we call thin set, tile adhesive. That’s all there is to it.

The key thing to do before choosing the tile adhesive method is to decide if it’s the right method for you. Tile adhesive is a thick paste into which you press your individual tesserae. The method has lots of advantages but a few significant disadvantages too. Weigh them up carefully and think about whether any of the other methods might suit you better before proceeding.

tile adhesive method practice pieces
The tile adhesive method _ practice pieces. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I don’t claim to be an expert in the tile adhesive method, far from it. The most I can say is that I have dabbled with it off and on over the years but never really embraced it until taking Rachel Sager’s online Intuitive Andamento class available through Mosaic Arts Online. Since then I have found it curiously compelling and liberating as well as a bit scary. Think of those You Tube videos of medical research chimps going outside for the first time. That’s me.

For maestros in the method see work by Rachel Sager, Julie Sperling, Isaiah Zagar, and Dugald MacInnes among others.

The tile adhesive method: pros and cons


  • This method allows you to work with a variety of weird and wonderful tesserae, and different thicknesses are no problem: broken plates with beads, sea glass with pebbles, bottle tops with shells are just some of the possibilities that the method opens up.
  • detail of roundel mosaicYou don’t need to grout – I love the tile adhesive method for that reason alone.
  • It is a less precise method of working with mosaic and the results have a free spiritedness and expressiveness to them which is hard to replicate using other methods.
  • The surface of the mosaic will be uneven, allowing you to be much more creative with textures and the comparative reflexivity of the tesserae than you would be using flatter pieces.
  • The process of making mosaics in this way is quicker than other methods, or at least I find it so, and the results are instant whereas with a conventional mosaic you can only fully appreciate how the work will look at the end after it has been grouted.
  • Your heart lifts every time you hear the sound of breaking crockery and rusting hardware, other people’s rubbish and previously invisible rocks suddenly become hugely interesting.


  • It’s hard to correct mistakes. That can be a good thing as well as restricting. If you press a tessera into the adhesive and decide there and then that you dont like it, then you can obviously scrape off the adhesive, tessera included, and do that part again. However, if you have progressed further into your work and later find that a certain tessera is bothering you, then you have no option but to leave it and move on.
  • You need to prepare/cut/sort your tesserae in advance. You will be working with wet adhesive and cant spend too long fiddling about shaping your tesserae once the making process has begun.
  • It is messy. Very. But you get used to it and there are ways to make it less so.
  • You need to make sure you don’t answer the door while you are working or get distracted by a phone call – excess tile adhesive needs to be scraped off and recycled as you work and at the end of each mosaicking session otherwise it will harden and be pretty much impossible to lay the next tesserae. Not really a con, just something to bear in mind.
  • It’s important to consider the non-mosaicked areas of the mosaic both in the planning stage and while making the mosaic: you don’t want dust to fall into the adhesive, you need to avoid the adhesive bulging up around the pieces and it takes practice to get a smooth finish.tile adhesive mosaic method with bulging and dust
  • The surface of the mosaic will be uneven (also a pro, as explained above).
  • Don’t expect to keep rigidly to a design. You will be putting the adhesive onto the board and therefore on top of any design that you may have drawn onto it so it is almost impossible to work within preordained lines.

The Tile Adhesive method _ what you need:

Materials. There are countless things that can be used in a tile adhesive mosaic so explore, experiment and enjoy. However, do bear in mind that it helps if the downward-facing sides of the pieces you are using have a flatish surface; round shiny beads, for example, are not ideal but you can adjust the thickness of your tile adhesive according to the pieces you use and as long as approximately one half of the thickness of the pieces is embedded into the adhesive you will be fine. Here are some ideas:

Tile adhesive method materials
The tile adhesive method _ possible materials. @Helen Miles Mosaics
made in England mosaic
Emma Biggs’ Made in England mosaic.

1. Sea-worn ceramic shards, sometimes they have interesting textures. Rinse and dry before use.  2. Broken plates, collected and sorted by feature, in this case the manufacturers’ stamp, see Emma Biggs’ Made in England mosaic above. 3. Bottle tops. 4. Sea glass. Bear in mind that the colour of the glass will be affected by the colour of the tile adhesive. Rinse and dry before use. 5. Random items, this is part of a pair of false teeth that I found on a track leading up to a remote village cemetery in Greece… 6. Pills and plastic parts from single use medical equipment. The pills are experimental and might disintegrate over time in the adhesive but I have given both sides a good dousing with hair spray which could help to avert decay. These are included here to encourage you to think of ways to use unconventional additions to your work. 7. Pebbles, keep them fairly flat and uniform to make your life easier. Rinse and dry before use. 8. Watch parts. 9. Shells. Rinse and dry before use. 10. Coins. 11. Broken plates, collected and sorted by colour. 12. Beads. 13. Buttons.

Substrate. This could be marine plywood or a tile backer board.

If you use marine plywood, you will need to prepare the board first – see my tutorial:

If you decide to use tile backer board please bear in mind that it seems to have a remarkable number of different names for the same thing: compressed foam board, Wediboard and Jackoboard are all tile backer boards. It is sold in large sheets of different sizes and thicknesses and is a water resistant, light weight construction board used in bathrooms. For this project I will be using Jackoboard,  available from CDT Tiles.

If you are using a tile backer board you will need to attach the hanging fittings before you start mosaicking. Lawrence Payne of Roman Mosaic Workshops has made an excellent 4.5 minute video on the process called: Tee Nuts – Wire Hangings for Compressed Foam Boards and he also supplies the components. If using a tile backer board, you will also need a Stanley knife, a metal ruler and a pencil.BAL White Star tile adhesive

You can buy tile adhesive as a powder and then add water to get the right consistency or you can buy it in pre-mixed tubs. Above is BAL’s White Star Fibre Enhanced Tile Adhesive for Walls which is a white, water resistant interior grade adhesive.

black tempera paste
The tile adhesive method _ black tempera paste. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Tempera Pigment. As with the adhesive above, you can buy tempera pigment either in powder form or as a paste. A range of colours are available but let’s keep things simple for now and choose black. This is Premium Tempera Paste available online from Specialist Crafts Ltd.

Old spoon to add the pigment to the adhesive.

Large spatula to mix the pigment and adhesive together.

Small plastic food bags, not too flimsy. You will be putting the coloured adhesive into the bag and cutting off a corner to make the mosaic equivalent of an icing bag and you don’t want it to burst. Alternatively, you can just apply the paste directly onto the substrate from the tub. Your choice.

Small spatula and/or various dentists’ tools to remove the excess tile adhesive as you work.

Nippers and tweezers.

tools for the tile adhesive method
The tile adhesive method _ basic tools. @Helen Miles Mosaics

The Tile Adhesive method _ using Jackoboard

Cut the Jackoboard to the required size. Measure out the size that you want and mark it with a pencil. Place the metal ruler on the drawn lines, hold it firmly down with one hand and cut the Jackoboard with the other using your Stanley knife. It is unlikely you will cut right through the board in one go so gently crack open the board along the scored line and then cut again with the Stanley knife to get a clean break.

cutting Jackoboard for the tile adhesive method
The tile adhesive method _ cutting the Jackoboard. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Despite your best efforts you are likely to have rough edges and frayed bits. Just cut them off in the same way as above with the Stanley knife and metal ruler.

  1. Choose materials and do a rough layout of the mosaic so that you can be sure that the materials you intend to use work well together.
laying out mosaic materials
The tile adhesive method _ laying out the materials. @Helen Miles Mosaics

This is especially helpful if you are aiming to have random tesserae ‘fit’ together as with the sea-worn ceramic pieces below:

detail of laying out the mosaic materials
The tile adhesive method _ detail of laying out the materials. @Helen Miles Mosaics


2. Draw in guiding lines. As noted under ‘Cons’ above, it isn’t easy to work to a pre-set design when using the tile adhesive method. However, you can stop yourself going completely off piste by drawing in some guiding lines which will still be visible on either side of your adhesive and will therefore help to keep you on the right path. Number 1 is the centre line and Number 2 is the point where I wanted to place the ‘trunk’ of the tree.

3. Mix the adhesive and enough pigment together until you get the colour you require. If you are making a reasonably large mosaic it’s helpful to put the excess in an airtight tupperware which will keep it moist and malleable. Put about three tablespoons of the mixed adhesive and pigment into your plastic food bag and squeeze it down to the bottom, then snip off one corner to create an adhesive icing bag.

4. Apply the adhesive to a small section of the mosaic by squeezing it out of your plastic bag ‘nozzle’ onto the board and spreading to a thickness of about 4-5mm using your small spatula. Try and get the surface of the adhesive reasonably smooth but Julie will be there by your side if you find this hard to achieve. In this case it was logical to start at the bottom and work my way up but where you start is dependent on the mosaic.

starting at the bottom for the tile adhesive method

 5. Clean up excess tile adhesive regularly and recycle it back into use.

cleaning up as you work

6. Spread the adhesive over the uncovered edges of of the board as you work. This is best done with a finger.

spreading adhesive over the edges of the board7. Keep going until the mosaic is complete.

completing the mosaic
The tile adhesive method _ keep going until the mosaic is complete. @Helen Miles Mosaics

For another project using tile adhesive, try out: How to Make a Mosaic Virus.


  1. JULIE Bensemann

    Thanks so much. Love the way you write easy to follow tutorials that can be understood by those still learning mosaic art

    1. Natalia

      Hola me encanta leer súper explicado todo argentina..el adhesivo viene negro o le pongo tempera en pasta ..y cuál es mejor el adhesivo para azulejos o el de baldosas?

      1. Hi Natalia. I add tempura paste or mortar tone to the adhesive to create the black tone and one I use is the ordinary tile adhesive that you buy to install tiles in your bathroom.

  2. Kevin Miller

    I love your blog! Your directions are clear and concise and imbued with a sense of fun and lightheartedness. I love playing with mosaics!

    1. Phil

      I am planning on setting all the small things I have picked up over the last year’s of my job on a small wooden box . Using a pallet knife or a small trowel up to 1/4 inch thick.
      Do you think a mastic white in color will work?

      1. I think that that would be a great project but I find that white tends to suck the colour out of the things around it. Do you have a little bit of wood that you could do a small practice piece with first so that you can see whether you like it? I mostly use black because it brings up the colours and tends to suit all materials.

  3. Paj Tognetti

    Hi Helen,
    I love your posts; they are so informative and unique. Thank you for taking your time to write and share them!

    I recently visited Ravenna in Italy where they are famous for their mosaics. They do not grout their mosaics, but instead use one type of adhesive for all types of tesserae (sometimes silicone, but more often a cement based adhesive??), which they typically color to match to the colored mirror glass, smalti, and stained glass colors in their mosaics. It was quite beautiful the way the colored adhesive, not only attached the mirror, smalti, and glass tesserae to their bases (usually wood), but was also matched to the tesserae color and became part of the mosaic design. I am also interested in making some mosaics in the ungrouted Ravenna style.

    In your professional opinion, could you please advise me on which type of adhesive I could use, which I could add acrylic or pigments to for coloring, to attach colored (and regular) mirror glass, smalti, and other tesserae to a wood or glass base?

    Is it possible that they used a type of caulk that they colored with acrylics as an adhesive-which also gave a nice, thick texture underneath the tesserae?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Paj, thanks for your question and yes, the mosaics of Ravenna are truly stunning. Are you living in the UK? If so, I would recommend either BAL Turbo Set Flexible Tile Adhesive for Walls and Floors, interior/exterior in grey which you buy as a powder and add water to mix into a paste or BAL White Star Fibre Enhanced Tile Adhesive for Walls which is NOT suitable for outdoors but it comes ready mixed. Obviously if you live in another country you would have to look for alternatives but the simple answer to your question is yes, tile adhesive is what you need. As for pigments, I dont usually add pigments myself to match the tesserae but do use black pigment which is called Premium Tempera paste and comes in tubs of 500g. You will find it online. However, if you live in America I am pretty sure Sherri Warner Hunter supplies specialist mosaic pigments so look her up and see if she has anything that would work for your project. Good look with your project! Helen.

  4. Paj Tognetti

    Thank you Helen! I am living in Italy, and am having a hard time (with the vocabulary/equivalent meanings) in finding products equivalent to thinset (what we would use in the U.S.A). Our ‘home improvement stores’ are extremely limited in what they carry. Here, they typically sell powdered ‘cement based mortar’, which you mix with water for a ’tile adhesive’. Would that be the same as thin-set or just a cement adhesive?
    Unfortunately, Italians are not big on DIY projects; there is not a market for project supplies (like in the U.S.A.), and it is quite hard to find these diverse types of adhesives, grouts, etc.! There is Mapei professional products, but I’m still uncertain as to which one is a thin-set equivalent (or finding someone who understands the differences). Perhaps I can find something in England or online, such as from Amazon Europe?

    In your professional opinion, is it better to use a silicone ‘for mirror installation’ as my adhesive for attaching the colored mirror glass to a wood base, or do you think the powdered cement tile adhesive would be ok and not damage the metal coating on the back of the mirror tiles?

    Thank you again for your advice!

    1. Ah, Italy! From all my years in Greece I am very familiar with the difficulties of finding local equivalents for things which are easily available elsewhere but don’t necessarily easily translate! However, yes, cement based mortar that you mix with water to create a tile adhesive is what you are looking for. Having not used mirror tiles I cannot answer your specific question about whether the adhesive would damage the metal coating on the back of the tiles but perhaps it would be possible to find Italian mosaicists to ask? Mapei is an excellent product – I use BAL but I know that lots of my colleagues use Mapei products here in the UK and it comes highly recommended for mosaics. I notice that Mosaic Supplies in the UK sells a Mapei product which is specifically for mosaics: and I know from having stuff shipped to Greece that they do do overseas orders. I hope this helps! PS. You can email Mosaic Supplies to ask about your mirror tiles – they are always extremely helpful.

  5. Paj Tognetti

    Thank you so much Helen! It is always great to exchange information and ideas with someone-especially who is very well versed in the struggles of creating our beloved projects overseas! Hard to believe that such a beautiful, famous, and important country for it’s art and monuments could be so behind in technology and customer service. I appreciate your product information and referrals!

    Thank you again!!

  6. Mrs Clare Williams


    I am a novice mosaic artist and going on holiday to Greece for a few weeks. I would like to do a little mosaicing on my travels. Do you know if you can purchase tile adhesive in Greece that is similar to the BAL product or can you take some in your hold luggage?

    many thanks


    1. Good question Clare! I did buy some last year in Greece for my class but didnt like it so much as the British equivalent. However, if you are just experimenting and are happy not to have the perfect materials then I think the Greece tile adhesive will be fine. You can buy it at Praktiker which is the Greek (German) version of B&Q and can be found on the outskirts of virtually every conurbation so it depends if you are going to a remote island or not!?

  7. Kimberly

    Hello, wonderful information! Thank you so much. Wondering if this process could be used on a vertical brick wall outdoors? 🙂

    1. Hi Kimberly – yes, absolutely! It’s perfect for that but just make sure that you use outdoor grade tile adhesive and that the wall is clean and dry and preferably reasonably flat. 🙂

  8. Lena Bramble

    Your information is so great. I have never done any mosaic work but will do in the near future. I am starting to work with shells and would like suggestions on how and what kind of adhesive to use. I plans to do large pieces and wall projects. I would appreciate your help.
    Do you have classes in mosaic and where are you located? Please email me re my inquiries.

  9. I enjoyed this tutorial very much. I’ve made a few mosaics using the tinted/embedded thin set method, and am always looking for tips in dealing with working cleanly and smoothly, so appreciate being able to read about your process. Thanks!

  10. Andrie Christophi

    if I begin my mosaic with the tile adhesive method but can not complete it in the same day, could I continue the next day? I mean will the tile adhesive stick to the piece I had done the day before which would have dried or in the future could it crack as the tile adhesive was not laid out together at once at the same time?
    I will be using perdomo mexican smalti.

    1. Yes, you can continue it the next day as long as you take great care to make sure that all the excess adhesive from the first day is thoroughly cleaned away right up to the edges of the tesserae that you have already laid. When you start on the second day the previous day’s adhesive will be thoroughly dry and impossible to work with. However, if you have cleaned off the excess carefully at the end of the first day you will be able to start the following day with fresh adhesive.

  11. Kathy

    Love how you answer the questions I haven’t seen answered elsewhere (ie the difference between tile adhesive and thinset, and so many others).

    I appreciate all you share.

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