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How long does it take to make a mosaic?

Five black and white birds. 96cm by 63cm. Direct method on mesh.

I know it’s a niggly silly question, like asking how long is a piece of string or the price of love. But actually it’s a question that’s often asked and, if I’m honest, I’ve always rather wondered myself. How long does it take to make a mosaic? I’m up there, in my little studio at the top of the house, in a happy trace, making my latest mosaic and utterly oblivious to the hours passing. Sometimes I look up and realise two hours, three, have just vanished and my lovely precious time is gone and I must rush downstairs, fling on something presentable, and dash off to school to collect the boys. And so the days go by. Sometimes the hours are more, sometimes less. Sometimes I can ignore the unwelcome intrusions of the outside world, at other times the world comes and seizes me by the scruff of the neck and drags me reluctantly back to attend to it’s affairs.

Black and white bird. Floor of the Animal Room, Vatican Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Of course there are variables. The answer to the question ‘How long does it take to make a mosaic?’ depends on many things. The size of the piece, the size of the tesserae, the materials, the method, the style and approach of the mosaic artist, the way the tesserae are laid and so on. Then there’s the planning, designing and preparing aspect of things too. Add on all that pre-chopping (if you’re using stone) and the nibbling to make the tesserae fit, not to mention the wasted time when you make something and then wake up in the dead of night and realise you hate it and rush back the next day to start again. The hours quickly mount up.

Nonetheless, I thought it might be interesting to time myself making this mosaic which is loosely based on the floor of the animal room in the Vatican Museum, Rome. In comparison to the usual knots that I tie myself in over the design of my mosaics, the planning of this one was easy. It’s for an indent (96cm by 63cm) in a guest lavatory for a family who have recently returned home to London after living in Beijing for virtually all of their married life and whose British children have never known British life. All I had to work on was a photograph of the room in their late Victorian house and a sense of the importance of the long awaited home coming.

james' loo.1.
Room with indent where the mosaic will be placed.


Designing the black and white birds mosaic. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

I wanted to do something simple and elegant that referred to the family’s circumstances (five birds have come home to nest) but wouldn’t be too squirmingly personal and it was obvious I’d need to do it on mesh for ease of transport. I tried various versions of birds, striding ones and plumper ones, but I couldn’t get them to behave themselves and not look hopelessly twee, so I stuck with a fairly classic bird and varied it’s wing shape and markings. Two birds are slightly more solid and sombre looking with closed beaks to represent the parents but only the most discerning of lavatory users would notice. I kept a record of my hours (and those irksome interruptions) in my mosaic diary and tried as much as possible to break down the tasks (the chopping, the planning, etc.) so I could clearly see at the end how long each had taken.

Keeping a log of my working hours. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics


And as I worked I discovered one more interesting (for me) thing. Not just how long it took, but how long I could stand. In the entry above I noted that five straight hours is a lot for mosaicking and that from that point onwards my arm was hurting and I was easily distracted. I carried on working but wrote emphatically: six hours and thirty minutes MAX!!!

So here’s the answer to that nagging little question: how long did it take (me) to make (this) mosaic?

Pre-chopping stone: 2 hours

Designing birds, fiddling about with various border design options, laying out the mosaic to it’s actual size and checking sizing and spacing (no point in doing a lovely design and finding out that you have to make tesserae the size of a pinhead to render it), organising space ready for work, shopping for backing board:  7 hours.

Preparing to start the mosaic, laying cling film, then mesh over the design and shopping for the marble: 2 hours

Mosaic design laid out and covered in mesh ready to start work. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics


And then at last, after 11 hours (and that’s quick by my standards), I started the actual laying. The first bird took 2 hours and 30 minutes:

Starting the first bird. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.


Over the following days it was a straight run of mosaicking interspersed with cutting.

And the grand total is: 31 hours of laying

4 hours, 15 minutes of chopping

11 hours of designing and preparation. 

which makes it 46 hours and 15 minutes

So now I know. Is that a lot?

You tell me.

Coming up soon: Goodbye to Gazientep. A visit to The Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Turkey. 


  1. Tracey Cartledge

    Hi Helen
    Very interesting and informative post. I’m impressed that you managed to keep track of the time with so much discipline – and I certainly recognise that panic feeling you describe of having to return to the outside world and rush off to collect kids from school or whatever else it might be!
    Lovely piece, too. Funnily enough, I’ve just been making a mosaic ‘family’ too – mine are two ‘parent’ and two ‘child’ bees, based on the Manchester worker bee in the town hall mosaic floor.
    This record will be such useful reference for future quoting and is exactly what I’ve often intended but never succeeded in doing myself – well done all round!

  2. I arrived here via a link on Twitter and was fascinated to read about your work. I’m a writer and useless at any type of physical art, but you’ve made me want to have a go at mosaics. The results would never be as good as yours but I can see the appeal of working at something so detailed. I’ve looked at more of your work on Pinterest too. What a wonderful gift a personalised mosaic must make.

  3. Hi. Just thought I’d pop by to say ‘hello’. I’ve just given your page a like and wanted to say you’ve inspired me to try using mesh for mosaics. I took an adult evening class in mosaics for 2 years but was disillusioned because we mostly used glass pebbles, beads, vitreous glass etc to make quite blingy pieces, which are ok, and the course was fun, but I love traditional techniques and materials. I studied art history and loved Byzantine mosaics ( a bit ambitious for me though!!). I’ve never used mesh but your description of the process for the birds mosaic is really clear. Thanks : )

  4. 8 days per square metre ?
    would that be fair on a commercial scale.

    I am considering for instance the mosaic at Chedworth
    from time of ordering from Greece to completion,
    I am working on time to transport the ready cut tessera from Londinium to Chedworth via the river Thames and tributaries.
    How would it compare to a Stump work kit order to completion in Elizabethan times?
    we have much history on places and battles, etc., but little on daily life

    1. Contemporary mosaicists roughly estimate that we need a day to complete 12 sq cms. It is impossible to make mosaics for hours on end because of the strain on the arm and back but that is a general rule. I am not very good at maths but that would be a lot longer than eight days. However, the Romans would have done things quite differently with a team of workers each being responsible for different aspects of the mosaic – laying the foundations, cutting the pieces, laying the borders, working on the finer designs etc so their production times would surely have been much faster.

  5. Dan

    by 12sqm you mean a square 12cm in each side? that would make more sense and that’s actually 144sqm… 12 sqm is 3 by 4 cm. I noticed that some mosaic supplies make this mistake so it’s probably common in the business

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