Missing Mosaic Tile

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

My brother is trying to salvage the majority of a mosaic floor in a turn-of-the-century bar, but the floor is stepped and he resorted to cutting the tiles and patching it. Now there are big areas without a pattern and I'm offering to paint the pattern on, trompe l'oeil. Maybe you have another solution for this mess.

Some messes don't have simple solutions, and this may be one of them.

You don't explain what you mean by a "stepped" floor, but I'm guessing that over time the floor has developed some irregularities and the uneven surface was more than the tile could handle.

Tile and grout are brittle. When a floor develops ridges, bumps and other problems, tile will crack. Small mosaics handle stress more successfully than large tile, but when the floor has problems the tile will show it.

Take a trip to the basement. Before deciding how to blend old and new sections of tile, I'd take a look at the underlying structure that holds it all up.

Tile should be set on a floor that's rigid as well as flat. You might get clues as to why the floor failed in the first place by starting in the basement. Floor joists and subflooring affected by insects, water or too much dancing over the years won't provide an adequate foundation for tile.

If the floor feels at all bouncy, or shows obvious sags, you may need to brace it from below. Unless you can eliminate up and down movement in the floor (tilers would call that "deflection") the new tile you're piecing in won't last either.

Why try to hide what's obvious? It's going to be tough to blend new parts of the floor with what's already there.

If you had a few boxes of the original tile on hand, they'd make a less obvious repair than un-patterned tile. But just about anything you install now is going to look like what it is. A patch.

Your kind offer to paint the tile raises all sorts of interesting design possibilities. From what I understand, ceramic tile can be painted--that is, paint will bond successfully to the surface if the right primer and paint are used. The problem is going to be durability.

Ceramic tile has a very tough surface because glazes are fired in when the tile is manufactured. Paint is a surface film, and on a floor visited by many feet and the occasional cigarette butt, painted designs are probably not going to last very long.

If your brother hasn't replaced large sections of damaged tile or still has some areas to repair, he might consider having some fun with it and installing a completely different mosaic pattern. It would be a shame to invest a lot of time in creating a trompe l'oeil illusion only to have it ground off by happy revelers on a single St. Patrick's Day.

Long term, and with hopes of a successful business, your brother's best bet might be to replace the entire floor with tile true to the period. In the meantime, he might just buy a round for the house now and again and hope no one minds the floor is showing its age.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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