Introduction: The Starry Night Mosaic Table

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Many years ago, shiannejessica told me she would very much like to make a tile mosaic on a coffee table, using Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" as inspiration.  Being of the DIY persuasion, I proceeded to build her a "coffee table" that Christmas, with the promise that we'd make a trip one of these days to the tile store so she could create her vision.  I put coffee table in quotes, as the table I built her is nearly three feet tall, five feet long, and two and a half feet wide.  My friend, Loren actually talked me down, my original dimensions were more like four foot by six foot.  I have a very bad spatial sense sometimes.

For a variety of reasons, we never actually made the mosaic.  We still have the ridiculous coffee table, which actually sees a lot of use though not for it's intended purpose.  The idea of finishing the table by adding the mosaic has been floated a number of times, but we just never seem to get around to it.

This Christmas, in a moment of inspiration Shianne suggested that we build a new, more reasonably sized table, build a mosaic in it, and give it to my sister-in-law, Michelle as a gift.  This would be an end table rather than an oversized coffee table.  It seemed ambitious and there was a deadline looming, so I of course hopped to it and started building the table!  Shianne and our daughter India both helped out with that part, then Shianne made the mosaic itself, with India taking great joy in smashing tiles and plates for the mosaic shards.  It was a lot of hard work and fun, and a labor of love from our family to Michelle and her family.  

We learned a lot from the process, and the result is beautiful and has drawn a lot of compliments.  Here we'll share with you our methods, our thoughts, and some advice on pitfalls to avoid should you attempt something like this!  

To start off, here's a quick video about the basics:

Step 1: The Inspiration

I am not the most artistically inclined, but even I can see the beauty in Vincent Van Gogh's work.  I had always thought this painting was simply called "Starry Night," but in researching this write up I discovered it's actually "The Starry Night."  It is a nighttime view from his asylum cell of the village of Saint-Rémy, painted from memory the next day.  It is considered by some (myself included) to be his greatest work, though he wasn't personally satisfied with it.

We chose this as the subject matter for the table we built for a couple of reasons.  We love this picture.  We've got just two prints hanging in our house--this is one of them, the other is "Sunflowers," also by Van Gogh.  He was a truly amazing artist, though in his lifetime he sold only one painting.  We also knew Michelle was a fan, she has a Van Gogh or two hanging in her house.  Further, I don't think it's any coincidence that her son's name is Vincent!

Michelle is someone we often have trouble shopping for.  We figured this would be a great way to make a meaningful gift for her that would be functional and beautiful as well.

Step 2: Gather Materials

The table we built was 2 feet tall, with a bed 18 by 24 inches.  For the table, not counting the mosaic, we used:
  • 3   5/8x36" square dowels, cut into 2 pieces 24" long and 2 pieces 16-3/4" long
  • 1   18x24" piece of 3/4" plywood
  • 3   3x3/4" pine boards, cut into 10 pieces 24" long and 2 pieces 19-1/2" long
  • Wood filler or plugs
  • 36   2" wood screws
  • 18   1-1/4" wood screws
  • Wood glue
  • Varnish
  • Latex based caulk
For the mosaic itself we used:
  • A variety of tiles and plates (found both at a used building supply store and the local Goodwill)
  • Acrylic based ceramic tile adhesive (this one had the longest curing time, so it gave us more time to work)
  • "Super Glaze" epoxy resin (I ended up using 3 batches, but it could have been done in much less--more on this in a future step)
  • Some scrap plywood to make a lip around the working surface
  • A ratty old towel that was destroyed in the process
  • A couple of plastic containers that were ruined in the epoxy resin process
Here in Eugene there's a great place called Bring Recycling that, among other things, carries a lot of used building supplies.  We picked  up most of our tiles there, and then found some plates at the Goodwill.  If you can get what you need at a similar place where you live and avoid the Goodwill, you'll save some money.  Bring cost us about $2.40 total for a whole mess of tiles and a bright yellow flower pot, but the Goodwill was charging $1 to $5 per plate, which got expensive fast.  We just couldn't find enough bright colors at Bring.

Here's a (probably incomplete) list of tools used in this project:
  • Drill
  • Circular saw
  • A variety of hammers
  • Screwdriver
  • Masking tape
  • A bunch of clamps
  • Power sander
  • Sand paper
  • Putty knife
  • Paint brush
  • Tape measure
  • Latex gloves
  • Paint stirring stick
  • Goggles
  • Ear protection
  • Respirator

Step 3: Build the Table Legs

The first step is to build the legs for the table.  I don't know what style of furniture this is, it just seemed like a logical and simple way to make the legs of the table.

Each leg is two 24" boards, glued and screwed together.  Start by finishing the ends with sand paper to remove any debris.  Along one side of one board, run a thin bead of wood glue--don't make it too thick or you'll make a mess.  Line up the two boards and then clamp them in place on your workbench.  It was really nice to have Shianne lending a hand on the lining up part, it's definitely one of those things I'm always wishing I had more hands for!

Each leg is then further secured by three screws.  My dad tells me if you glue these right, the screws are superfluous, but I'm not that confident in my woodworking skillz yet.  Start by marking off each screw location, mine were at 1-1/2" in from each side, plus a third right in the middle, each one 3/8" in from the edge so they would be right in the middle of the board.  Next, drill a hole slightly smaller than the screws you're using into the leg.  Using a larger bit, drill a slight countersink so that the screw head doesn't stick up at all.  Finally, install the screws and set the legs aside.

Step 4: Build the Top Frame and Add the Legs

The top frame is designed to have a 24" by 18" board resting in the middle, so the boards used to build it are two 24" long and two 19-1/2" long.  Make sure your top board will fit in the frame before screwing everything together!

Each corner of the frame gets a single screw to hold it in place.  Don't worry about countersinking these, just make them flush--they won't be visible once it's fully assembled.

When that is built, put a dab of wood glue on the inside of a leg and press it to the frame.  Secure that with two countersunk screws, but be aware of where all the screws are, you don't want to accidentally attempt to run one screw through another!  Repeat this for all four legs and move on to the next step.

Step 5: Fill the Screw Holes and Sand

Once the frame is fully assembled, squeeze some wood filler into each of the screw holes.  This will make the finished product look a lot nicer.

Make a blob of filler in each hole, then scrape the excess off with a putty knife.  Most wood fillers will cure in a couple of hours.  Once that's done, sand the dried filler flush with the wood.

Step 6: Install the Rails

The top board with the mosaic is going to rest on a series of rails on the inside of the frame.  These need to be deep enough so that the top board and the tiles fit all the way below the edge of the frame.  This was the first mistake I made, I didn't do this deep enough and I ended up removing all the rails and reinstalling them lower.  At that point, I overestimated how low I needed to go and put them too far down!  The point is, make sure you take some measurements beforehand and you know just how far below the edge you need to install the rails.

Each rail is a 5/8" square dowel.  Cut them to length so there will be a full frame all the way under the top board.  I drilled holes in each for the 1-1/4" wood screws, then put all the wood screws in each board before installing them.  I knew I'd be drilling them from below when I installed the top board, and I didn't want to have to mess around with putting the screws in upside down.

Step 7: Lacquer

Adding a clear lacquer coat to your wood furniture both brings out natural colors, and provides a protective layer.

You'll need a good quality brush for this.  Make sure you lay out some newspaper to catch any drippings!  I also like to use a spacer so the table isn't set directly on the newspaper, as I don't want to have to pick paper off the bottom of the legs.  Also, make sure to use a respirator, lacquer is nasty stuff to breathe!

This is a simple step, but take your time to get things right.  Stir the lacquer, then brush it gently on all the exposed wood surfaces.  Take your time, make sure the brush strokes are smooth and no foreign matter ends up in the coat.  With most lacquers, three coats are enough to really make a beautiful and protective finish for your wood furniture.  

You're done with the table!  Now it's time to break stuff!

Step 8: Break Stuff!

This was definitely India's favorite part!

Find some concrete to do this on, we tried the work bench, but the surface was just too giving for this sort of work.  Make sure you're wearing eye and ear protection!

Lay an old towel you don't care about down on the floor--this will ruin it!  Lay a plate or piece of tile on that, then fold the end of the towel over that.  This will both make it easy to pick up the pieces, and prevent them from flying every which way.  Start hammering!  We tried a number of hammers, but settled on my little 2 pound sledge.

We tried to get regular sized pieces from the first plate, but after that we realized that having a variety of shard sizes would probably be best, and didn't worry about smashing every large piece or throwing out the tiny ones.  This was a lot of fun, but by the end even India was getting tired of breaking stuff!

You should have some containers on hand to hold all the broken pieces.  I used little fake tupperware tubs from the Dollar Tree.

Step 9: Build the Mosaic

Because we didn't want to be limited in building time, we built the mosaic first, then use the tile adhesive to hold it in place.  To accomplish this, and to make sure everything was as exact as possible, we built the mosaic without any adhesive directly on the board that would eventually be the table top.

First, since I knew we would have to flip this over at some point, I built a little lip around the edge of the board.  This was removed later, so it didn't matter how it looked.

Next, Shianne worked from a copy of The Starry Night and roughed out the basic design in pencil on the board.  I thought this was brilliant, I wouldn't have thought to do that!  Once done, we set up the board and various tubs of tiles in front of the couch, put on a movie, and she got to work!  She told me later it would have been nice if we'd found a way to have a single smaller handheld container, but we couldn't think of a way to do that.  Here's a time lapse video of her building the mosaic:

It was mostly a matter of choosing the right colors and shapes from the variety that India and I had smashed up.  There were a few times I took a piece back to the shop and tried to chip off the bottom or break it to make it fit better, but mostly Shianne used what she had to create the picture.

This is another place where I could have saved us some trouble.  Due to the shape of the plates, some of the shards stuck up, quite a bit above the other pieces.  I really should have broken them down more and made sure nothing stuck up!  I ended up having to use three times as much epoxy resin as I thought I would to cover them all the way.

Step 10: Flip and Glue and Flip Again!

Once Shianne had the mosaic finished we had to do the scariest part:  flipping the whole thing over.  With the tiles in the pattern we wanted, we needed to get them upside down and off the top board so we could lay down a coat of tile adhesive.  We were both very nervous about this step, but we prepared well and it payed off.

We found two pieces of plywood that were about the same width, and larger than the mosaic board.  We put the mosaic on top of one, placed that old ratty towel from step eight on top of the tile, and the other board on top of that.  We then clamped this sandwich together and very carefully flipped it over.  The lip I'd added to the board prevented the tiles from sliding off, and when we checked, they hadn't slid around all that much!

Next I added a thick coat (1/8-1/4") of ceramic tile adhesive to the board with a putty knife and then lay that back on the upside down tiles.  We tapped that with a rubber mallet to make sure everything was set, then sandwiched it again, clamped, and flipped it over one more time.  With the adhesive applied, we weren't nearly as worried about this flip.

Step 11: Finishing Touches to the Mosaic

Once flipped back over, it was time to readjust the tiles and add some more where they'd fit.  According to the tile adhesive instructions, we had about 45 minutes.  Realistically, I worked on this for about two hours with no sign of hardening.

The next day, after the adhesive had fully set, I took a dry rag and gently cleaned any fingerprints or residue from the tiles.  Once the resin is set, if there's gunk on the tiles it's going to be there forever!

Finally, I unscrewed and carefully removed the lip pieces.  Be careful not to pull off any tiles with the boards, as the tile adhesive will have stuck to the lip pieces just as well as the tile!

Step 12: Install the Mosaic in the Table

Before placing the mosaic board into the frame, check to make sure no part of the mosaic sticks up above the table's edge.  I messed up and had to drop the rails a bit, then messed up again by dropping them too far! 

Run a bead of caulk around the edge, to prevent the epoxy from dripping while it cures.  I used latex based caulk, as the epoxy resin isn't supposed to interact with latex and I didn't want any surprises. 

Next, firmly press the board down and attach it via the screws already in place, through the rails from below.  Make sure the board is completely seated!  I didn't and ended up with a HUGE mess on my hands when epoxy poured through the crack!

Step 13: Pour the Epoxy Resin

The last step:  pour the epoxy resin.  Our original plan was to use tile grout, but when we realized the tiles weren't all the same height, and the plates and such weren't even going to be flat, we needed a different option.  I remembered seeing americangypsy's awesome bottle cap table, which used a poured resin surface, and realized that would be perfect! 

The epoxy I used was very simple to work with, I just thoroughly mixed the two bottles the came in the package using a paint stirring stick.  You're supposed to be careful not to get any bubbles in it, but I mixed up three batches and ended up with bubbles each time.

To prepare, I taped off the top edges of the table in case of spills.  Using a level, I made sure it was as even as possible so the liquid surface wouldn't be slanted.  Once that was ready, I mixed the epoxy and started pouring.  I used the stirring stick to move the epoxy around and get it into all the nooks and crannies.

I had a different problem each time I poured, so learn from my mistakes!

The first pour seemed to go smoothly . . . until I found out about the holes in the bottom of the table!  I hadn't secured the top well enough and a large amount of epoxy just poured right through.  I built a makeshift masking tape dam, then scooped up what I could and put it back in the table top.  This worked out alright, but the bottom is still all gloopy with spilled epoxy, and some of the bright blue masking tape is permanently embedded there.  At least it's out of sight!  I did this uncovered in the shop, and I had no problems with dust or bubbles, but it was so cold it took forever for the resin to cure.

There hadn't been enough epoxy to cover all the tiles, so I had to do it again.  I moved the second pour into our guest bedroom, with a heater on to keep things up to temp and speed curing time.  This time I had no problems with spillage!  All the bubbles rose to the surface and popped again, but the warmer, moving air carried dust onto the surface.  Not a lot, but I didn't like the way it looked.

When that was cured, I saw that I still had a few tiles peeking out of the resin, and realized I had to pour one more time.  This time, I put a cover over it to keep out the dust.  Unfortunately, this created something of an oven effect, and the resin cured before all the bubbles could pop!  I should have done this last coat at a lower temperature, but with the cover to give the bubbles enough time to get out of the resin.

In the end, there are some bubbles and surface irregularities, but it still looks great!  If I'd been smart about the height of the tiles and preventing spills, I could probably have done this with half as much epoxy, or less.

Step 14: Final Thoughts

I am very proud of this table, as are Shianne and India.  This is probably the most beautiful object I've ever had a hand in building.  I'm really glad I was able to spend the time making it with my family, and then to share it with my extended family by gifting it to Michelle. 

Thanks for stopping by and reading about our experience!  Please take a moment to rate, comment, and subscribe.  I know we'd all like to hear what you think about this, so please share your thoughts!

If you happen to create something similar, make sure to post a picture in the comments below, and I'll send you a digital patch and a three month pro membership!

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