Monday, June 25, 2012

Let me make the mistakes for you

I decided to take on a new project. And by new, I mean never-done-before new.  In my next few blog posts, I 'll share my experiences and you can learn along with me.

2011 was the year of the yard and we spent a good part of our weekends and disposable income demolishing, renovating and planting.  Last month we enjoyed a backyard full of California poppies but once they're gone, they're gone.  We ended up removing 12 large contractor size bags of plants after they'd bloomed. They were choking out all of our other California natives. Carl and I talked about how the space needed some color pop.  So I started thinking about creating mosaics between the stepping stones that delineate the decomposed granite walkways. I have been saving broken pottery pieces for about 10 years...not able to part with my R. Wood plates that dropped out of the cupboard one night and the Mexican platter that was too chipped to use anymore.  So I pulled out the box of shards and did a test in sand- to get a sense of what it would look like.

I quickly realized that I needed more color...reds, oranges, golden yellows. And more graphics- lettering, bold lines, etc.  So I headed to a few thrift stores to beef up my inventory. Back at home, I broke the plates by smashing them with a claw hammer between a heavy folded towel. Then I separated them by color. I also realized I needed more variety in sizes and created a large bowl of smaller shards for the little in-betweeny places.  I found an excellent online tutorial which included a tool and materials list and detailed instructions. Although this project was for a pebbles and stone mosaic, it was the closest to my envisioned project in terms of foundation and style.  I grabbed Carl (those mortar bags are heavy!) and drove to Lowe's for the mortar mix and mixing tub.   It was Sunday night, so I decided that I'd start the following morning. Before going to bed I said to Carl "There will definitely be a learning curve. So I'm starting in the least visible part of the yard!"

This is a small area between the east wall of the house and the fence to the back alley. The orange door leads to the front yard.  These particular stones are the salvaged concrete from our old walkway. They're much larger than the rocks in the other parts of the yard. I decided to start at the very top stepping stone in front of the door. The least visible area.

I gathered all of my supplies, organized my tools, reread the instructions. Turns out the short stool was a great tip. We must be kind to our backs.

First I trenched out the areas between the stones where I would be adding the mortar and tile pieces. I tried to keep the depth consistent- not to deep, not too shallow. Just right.  Then I cut open the mortar mix and poured half of the 55 pound bag into the tub and began to spray it with water. I was working toward a "pudding" consistency so I continued to water and stir until it seemed right. I haven't eaten pudding in twenty years so it was just a guess.

I used the trowel to transfer the mortar to the area between the stones and could immediately tell I had dug the trenches too deep. It was taking way too much mortar to fill the space. So I kept filling up the space until it seemed like it was about the same height as the stones. Then I started pressing in the mosaic pieces. Right around the fourth piece I knew I was in trouble. The mortar was setting way too fast. With each piece of pottery, there was more resistance. And I was only in the first four inches! So...I decided I just needed to get the tiles in there as quickly as possible before I would no longer be able to press them in.

I had envisioned this part as a kind of leisurely process, choosing just the right shape and color, creating a flowing, eclectic array of color and form. No. Not even close. Panic and disarray. Can I add more water? Will it soften it up? Might as well try. Sprayed some water. Tried to  knead it into the hardening mortar. All it did was pool up on top. Geez. Forget that. Brush that water away! I continued adding as many pieces as I could with little thought to what it would end up looking like. I wiped the exposed shards with a sponge, dismayed with the gaping areas of mortar.  Then I looked at the remaining mortar in the tub, I realized it had hardened into a big blob. I wasted a lot.

Surely you understand why there are no interim photos of the process, itself.'s what I learned today:

1. Mix small batches of mortar.

2. Work in smaller areas at one time.

3. Vary the sizes and colors of the mosaic pieces. (I had no time for that today.)

4. Give yourself a break.  It's your first time and congratulations for trying something new.

5. This is a step in the right direction.

6. Never apologize for a corny metaphor. 

Here is my disappointing first patch of mosaic.  But now that you know the story,  I'll bet it's the first section you want to see when you come to visit.

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