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How to Make Mosaics – Is Hardboard a Proper Foundation For Mosaics?
Hardboard makes a good foundation for your mosaics as long as you limit the size of the overall mosaic, limit the size of the tesserae, and do not display the mosaic in a wet environment. Avoid hardboard for outdoor applications due to the risk of deterioration. Assuming your tesserae are the size of a quarter or smaller and the overall size of your mosaic is less than 24″x24″, I have found that 1/8″ thick hardboard provides a suitable foundation. If your tesserae are small, it’s surprising how flexible the mosaic is even with grout, meaning it can withstand some twisting before the grout cracks or pieces of glass pop off.If your tesserae are large, or if you incorporate large pieces of colored glass in your mosaic, the thickness of your foundation must be greater because the mosaic cannot resist as much warping (ie the thicker the wood, the more resistant to warping). For example, suppose your mosaic is 24″x24 “, and you use a single piece of yellow stained glass to represent the bright sun that lights up the world. Suppose the diameter of the sun is 10 inches, which makes up a good portion of the mosaic. It is easy to see how a small warping can stress the individual piece of glass , which cause errors (e.g. breaks, breaks off). It’s like ceramic tile on a concrete slab foundation. When the concrete cracks and moves, tension is applied to the ceramic tile, and if the stress is great enough, the tile breaks. Therefore, you must consider the size of the tesserae when choosing the thickness of your mosaic’s foundation.
Over the years, I’ve made many wall mosaics that are 24″x24″ or smaller, and I’ve found that my favorite foundation is 1/8-inch hardboard. It’s the dark brown stuff that pegboard is made of, but without the holes. It is smooth smooth on one side and rough on the other. I only use this material for dry, indoor wall mosaics that will not be exposed to moisture. I use this material because it is: 1) Relatively thin, 2) Relatively light, and 3) Rough on one side so the glue sticks to it well.
1/8-inch thickness allows the finished mosaic to fit into a standard prefab frame. My glass tesserae are about 1/8-inch thick, so the total thickness of the finished mosaic is only about 1/4-inch. This allows me to buy a finished frame for next to nothing. I plan my indoor wall mosaics to be 16″x24″, 18″x24″, or 24″x24″, which are common sizes for prefab frames. If I were to use 3/4-inch plywood or MDF as a foundation, I would need to use a custom frame with enough depth to cover the full thickness of the mosaic (ie, 3/4-inch wood foundation plus 1/8-inch tesserae equals to almost a 1-inch thickness). Custom frames cost up to five times more than standard manufactured frames. For example, by taking advantage of their bi-weekly 50% sale at my favorite hobby store, I can get a pre-made 18″x24″ frame in a lovely style and color that best matches the mosaic, have the mosaic installed in the frame, have it hanging wire installed, and have the paper backing installed, all for less than $25. It is true! Less than 25 dollars. A custom frame can cost as much as $150.
Not only do I save on framing costs, the hardboard is inexpensive compared to 3/4-inch plywood and MDF. I buy a pre-cut section of hardboard instead of a full 4’x’8 sheet. The finished cut section is 24″x48″. Knowing the height of my indoor wall mosaics is typically 24″ (which is the width of the pre-cut section), this allows me to cut the hardboard, giving me a 16″, 18″ or 24″ width for my mosaic foundation. For example, suppose I want my mosaic to be 18″x24″. The finished width of the hardboard I buy is 24″. I measure and cut 18″, resulting in a piece of hardboard that is 18″x24″. The piece fits perfectly in a standard 18″x24″ prefab frame. I measure and cut the hardboard using a standard circular saw and a “rip fence” that I make by clamping a 3-foot level to the hardboard with two C-clamps. The rip stop allows me to push the saw along the straight edge of the level to ensure a straight and precise cut.
I prepare the hardboard foundation by painting it with two coats of white primer. The main reason for painting it white is to have a white background on which the glass tesserae will be glued (Note: I always glue the glass to the rough side of the hardboard). Although I usually use opaque glass, the white background helps brighten it up. The dark brown color of the hardboard makes the glass pieces appear dull and dark, even though the glass should be opaque. The secondary benefit of painting the hardboard with primer is that it seals it. I don’t know if sealing the hardboard does anything, but it makes me feel better to think it’s sealed. I don’t know the material or chemistry of hardboard and how it’s made, so I don’t know if it needs to be sealed, but painting it gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling. I have a habit of sealing everything whether it needs it or not.
After applying the tesserae and grout, you will be amazed at how flexible the mosaic is without causing glass or grout failure (provided your tesserae are relatively small). When I first used 1/8-inch hardboard as a base for a mosaic, I experimented and found that I could bend the mosaic a full two inches without affecting the glass and grout. I was too afraid to bend it more than two inches! After the experiment, I assumed that if the mosaic can bend a full two centimeters, then it can survive any twisting that may occur. Then, after the mosaic was installed in the prefab frame, I realized that the mosaic was installed in such a way that it prevented warping at all. The mosaic was pressed and held in place with the small fasteners on the back of the frame to prevent it from falling out. The only way the mosaic can deform is if it is strong enough to cause the frame to deform with it. I have never had a problem with any indoor wall mosaic warping when using 1/8-inch hardboard installed in a standard prefab frame.
1/8-inch hardboard is also light enough that the weight of the assembled mosaic is not so heavy that you have to remodel your home to create a support structure strong enough to hold the weight of a mosaic. Generally, my 24″x24″ (or smaller) mosaics are light enough to hang adequately using a picture hook and nail installed in drywall. I don’t have to cut into the drywall to install 2″x4″ pieces between the studs and then replace the drywall. This is extremely beneficial, especially when you sell or give away the mosaic (ie, you don’t lose customers that you would otherwise lose if you tell them to hang the mosaic by doing more than hammering a nail into the wall).
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