How to make mosaics: the tile adhesive method

It’s time to take a look at the tile adhesive method. I have walked you through the direct method using glue, the mosaic mesh method (small and large scale) ,the mosaic fragment method in reverse and now it’s time to take a look at the principles of the tile adhesive method. Canadian artist Julie Sperling, bless her heart, has already contributed a post about the finer art of this method, so this is a prequel for those of you who want to go right back to the basics.

tile adhesive method tesserae
The tile adhesive method: detail of the tesserae. @Helen Miles 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 mosaicDetail from Pique Assiette House, Chartres, France. @Helen Miles MosaicsI am currently clearing out my parents’ country house in the Scottish highlands and all sorts of things are surfacing: homeless board game pieces, a myriad of bolts and screws, broken plates, ceiling light fittings, coils of wire, plastic cake decorations, old cutlery…recently the idea of a large and ambitious outdoor mosaic has been taking shape. The tile adhesive method is the one and only method that would work with such a motley collection.
  • You 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 tile adhesive method_ photo shows bulging of the adhesive and dust. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  • 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:

detail from Pique Assiette House, France
The tile adhesive method_ detail from the Pique Assiette House, Chartres, France. @Helen Miles Mosaics

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.
shells for mosaic
The tile adhesive method _ sorting shells. @Helen Miles Mosaics

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:

  •  Stanley knife
  •  Metal ruler
  •  Pencil
BAL White Star tile adhesive
The tile adhesive method _ BAL White Star tile adhesive. @Helen Miles Mosaics

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. This 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 _ a mosaic project using Jackoboard

  1. 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.

  2. 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
  3. 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. 1. Centre line 2. Point where I wanted to place the ‘trunk’ of the tree.

    drawing in mosaic guiding lines
    The tile adhesive method _ drawing in guiding lines. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  4. Mix the adhesive and enough pigment together until you get the colour your require.

    mixing pigment and adhesive for mosaics
    The tile adhesive method _ mixing pigment and adhesive. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  5. 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.
  6. 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
    The tile adhesive method _ starting at the bottom. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  7. Clean up excess tile adhesive regularly and recycle it back into use.

    cleaning up as you work
    The tile adhesive method _ clean up as you work. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  8. 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 board
    The tile adhesive method _ spread the adhesive over the edges of the board. @Helen Miles Mosaics
  9. Keep going until the mosaic is complete.

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


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