I have a friend who is addicted to creating amazing outdoor tiled fountains. He encouraged me tackled this tile project. I've done a few indoor tile projects, but nothing outside. This was an ambitious undertaking, but I had quite the tile stash from stocking up at a seconds sale at a local tile manufacturer, so I figured, what the heck? I supplemented my tile inventory with some inexpensive green square mosaic tiles and blue/green penny tiles. The plates and flat glass beads are from the dollar store. I used 3/8" copper refrigerator tubing to create dividers between the tiles.
I love the look of green patina on copper, but I live in a dry, warm climate, so the copper is just going to turn dark. I can always scrub it a bit to bring out the shine. Speaking of climate, I don't know how this would work in a really cold, wet climate. The wall is pretty much protected from wind and rain, but if water were to accumulate behind the plates and then freeze, I think that would be a problem. So find a sheltered space on a wall, also you don't have to tile the entire wall. You could just put up a cut piece of cement board in any shape, I used HardieBacker, and create a focal point on a wall. Just be sure to seal the edges, so that no water can get behind the cement board.
- Safety glasses
- Face mask
- Tyvek house wrap
- 1/4" cement board
- Screws for cement board
- Construction adhesive
- 3/8" copper tubing
- Copper pipe hangers or strapping
- Nails for hangers/straps (I used short galvanized roofing nails)
- Flat glass beads
- Ceramic plates, fairly thick, you'll need to grind off the glaze on the back
- Lots of tile and other random ceramic pieces
- Thinset mortar
- Sanded grout
- Dye or concentrated colorant for the grout (I wanted colored grout)
- Grout sealer
- 4 1/2" angle grinder
- Masonry grinding disk for angle grinder
- Dremel with a 545 diamond wheel bit
- Tile cutter
- Tile nippers
You'll need other supplies and tools, such as staples, hammer and duct tape, but these are the main supplies and tools you'll need.
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Step 1: Prep Your Wall
- Staple Tyvek over the area you'll cover with cement board.
- Determine your sizes and cut your cement board. This isn't a shower wall so you don't need to use 1/2" cement board, which makes it a lot easier to cut the cement board. I was able to do it with a few passes of a utility knife. Also, put the largest/tallest piece of cement board where you think it will be exposed to the most water. I put the seam between two pieces up high because I knew water wasn't going to reach up there.
- Screw the cement board to the wall per manufacturer recommendations, which means every 6" or so. But that's easy because the placement is embossed in the board.
- Get an idea of your plate/tubing/glass bead placement and draw on cement board with chalk or a Sharpie. This is just a general idea. My plan changed as the project progressed, but that's part of the fun.
- At this point you can also fill the seams between cement board pieces with thinset mortar. I didn't do this and probably should have. I just filled in the seam as I was tiling over it.
Step 2: Adding Copper Tubing Dividers
- Determine the placement of the copper tubing. I had a few appear to be in front of the plates and so had to cut the plates to allow for the path of the tubing. Other tubing appeared to go behind the plates, so the plates remained solid and the copper tubing behind the plates was cut into two pieces to allow for the plates to be adhered to the wall.
- Cut a piece of copper tubing to the approximate length you want with a pipe cutter. I thought I was going to be able to run a bead of construction adhesive on the cement board and adhere the copper tubing to it. Not how it works.
- Gently bend the copper tubing to the shape you want. This can be tricky as the tubing has a mind of its own and will curve and swerve in all kinds of unpredicted ways. Have patience and ease the tubing into the shape you want. If you're too aggressive, you'll bend the tubing and then you get to start all over.
- See where the tubing is going to go on the wall and trace its pattern, then run a bead of construction adhesive along that path.
- Starting at the top lay the tubing into the adhesive bead and temporarily secure with tape. Then go back and secure with pipe strap or a length of copper strapping, cut the strapping with tin snips. I used short roofing nails, but you could use copper nails.
- The 1/2" pipe straps will be a bit big. You'll need to tap down the strap with a hammer to make sure it secures the tubing against the wall without smushing the tubing.
- Continue along the path of the tubing, adding pipe straps as needed to hold it against the wall.
- If there are any gaps, add additional construction adhesive, but keep the tubing against the wall.
Step 3: The Plates
- Determine your plate placement. A few plates can remain whole, but others will need to be cut with a curve to appear to be divided by the copper tubing. You'll also want to cut a few plates with a straight line to go along the edge of your wall and appear to be drifting out of the scene.
- Trace your plates onto the wall with chalk or a Sharpie. To make it easier to keep track, number your plates on the back up by the rim and write the coordinating number on the wall.
- Put on your safety glasses and mask and get out your angle grinder. You have to remove a great deal of the glaze on the back of the plates or they're not going to adhere to the thinset. You don't have to remove all of the glaze, but you have to remove a lot. This is a loud and annoying process.
- Determine the plate cuts and draw them on the face of the plates with a wax pencil.
- Put your safety glasses and mask back on the get out your dremel. My dremel has one speed: digit amputation. This was even scarier to me than using the angle grinder. Be really careful.
- Dip a paintbrush into a cup of water to wet the cut line on the plate. Using a 545 diamond wheel slowly go over the cut line using gentle pressure. Dampen the cut line repeatedly as you go. This YouTube video offers an informative demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MU4mY7vl4JI
- Once your plates are cut, you'll probably need to do a little adjusting as to where they fit along the tubing dividers. Get them to where you think they'll fit best.
- Mix up a small batch of thinset mortar, be sure to make it good and thick. I made one batch too thin and had to do it all over again. It needs to be the consistency of thick peanut butter. Working on one piece at a time, slather on a ton of the thinset on the back of the plates and plate pieces. Press into place on the wall and secure with duct tape. Don't take off the tape for at least two days. I also tapped in a couple of nails at the bottom of a few plates to hold them in place temporarily.
Step 4: The Flat Glass Beads
- This is easy compared to the plates and tubing. Just squeeze a little construction adhesive on the path you've drawn on the wall and stick up a glass bead, or butter the back of a glass bead and stick it up on the path.
- Leave enough space between beads for the grout to fill in. Be sure to allow time for the adhesive to dry.
Step 5: The Tiles
- Finally ready to tile. I divided my tiles between the two walls, so they'd both come out the about the same number and type of tiles. I also added a couple of ceramic bathroom fish. I thought about adding a school of ceramic chopstick holder fish, but I think I'll save that idea for the bottom of a future fountain project.
- I don't have a tile saw, so I used a tile cutter and nippers. For the green square mosaic tiles and the round blue penny tiles, I used the nippers and they were pretty easy. But I had some thicker round penny tiles that were gorgeous but a pain to cut. I wound up using pliers on those.
- I started at the bottom and worked up. Had to nail in a small piece of wood as a temporary shelf to support the first row of tiles, but from then on I didn't have any trouble. Only mix a small amount of thinset at a time, it'll dry too fast.
- It's tricky tiling behind the plates. I would just do my best to get the tiles back there so you don't see any blank spaces from the front.
- Tiling was more time consuming than I thought it would be, but it was also contemplative. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle but instead of finding pieces that fit, you're making pieces that fit. You're creating the jigsaw puzzle. Just keep in mind to keep equal spacing for the grout.
Step 6: The Grout
- I wanted green grout. How hard could it be? I tried to find it at a big box store, but all the colors I wanted had been discontinued. I went to a specialty tile store and they didn't have a color selection either. They said I could order a special color from a manufacturer, but that would have cost a fortune. Decided to color the grout myself. I went to a paint store and asked them for just a small amount of the concentrated color they use to tint paint. I bought less than a 1/4" cup. That stuff is intense.
- I bought some sanded almond grout because I figured it would tone down the brilliant Kelly green color a bit. I mixed up samples and liked the color.
- I had to mix up small batches because I couldn't grout fast enough to keep up with it drying. But that was okay because I wanted some variation in the grout color. I didn't want it to all be the same. It definitely dries lighter, but after almost a year, the color's still there.
- Coat with grout sealer.
Step 7: Enjoy Your New Artwork!
Yes, I know if I ever sell the house, I won't be able to take the tile walls with me. And a prospective buyer might not love the tile walls like I do. I don't care. Houses today tend to be so cookie-cutter and greige, I'm all for making your home a unique space. So get out there and tile a wall. Me, I have a fountain to build.
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