There are probably lots of ways to do stepping stones. I have my way and it works for me. There are lots of things you can put on stepping stones for your garden, like dishes, stones, marbles, keys, whatever you think will look good in a stepping stone. This type of mosaic is actually called Pique Assiette, which roughly translates to “stolen dishes”.
I’m not a big fan of really orderly designs, with symmetrical elements or tidy circles of pieces arranged in a regimented way. No, I tend to go for the intuitive and fast method of working.
First of all, although I’ve seen lots of sites that say otherwise, this is NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN. It has sharp shards from dishes, it has caustic cement and requires some strength and lots of common sense. I am cutting myself all the time and keep bandages handy and I’m way past childhood.
Secondly, I’d like to say, if you are going to make these, use the proper precautions with mortar and grout. These are caustic materials, they require that you use dust masks when mixing to avoid breathing in the caustic dust. They require that you use rubber gloves to avoid getting the caustic cement on your skin. That said, read the package, note the cautions. Don’t go leaving this stuff around children and pets! Clean up when you are done and don’t leave this stuff in bowls to harden into cement that you will never get off.
You may wonder why I have a photo of a pail of water? Well, the next precaution is NEVER NEVER rinse off anything with cement on it down a drain. It will set and your drains will be plugged! Ok, so why the pail? That’s where I do all my rinsing of gloves, mixing bowls and implements. I let the cement settle for a day or so and then gently pour off the water into a garden path and scrape the cement that settled into the bottom of the pail into a bag and put it in the garbage. There won’t be much but, hey, better in the bag than in your drain.
An important note about dishes and tile to use. If you use tile that is meant for indoor use or dishes that are porous under the glaze you will have this nasty thing happen.
The moisture will seep under the glaze and when it’s cold the water will expand and pop the glaze right off the dish or tile. I know, because it’s happened to us. So make sure the dish is really dense and not porous and use tile that is very dense and meant for outside use.
The last important note. Wear goggles when snipping dishes. Broken pieces have a way of flying out and hitting someone. Be careful, for obvious reasons with shards. Don’t wipe away little shards with your bare hands, use a dust brush.
Ok enough warnings. On to the fun stuff. As I said I like the intuitive way of creating stepping stones. But having said that I don’t judge what others may like. Creativity is self-expression after all.
You will need:
A concrete stepping stone
Dishes and/or tile
a work table
a pail of water
old cotton socks
Gray or White Mortar or quick set ( I use it in powder form and add water)
a jar of clean water
a bowl for mixing mortar and grout in ( I use old stainless steel mixing bowls)
a trowel for applying the mortar
something to scrape between the pieces to remove too much mortar, like an old knife.
two-wheeled glass cutter or tile nippers
sanded grout ( it comes in colors, so have fun)
Step 1- Getting ready to start
I buy concrete stepping stones from the local home building supply store. We used to make our own, but honestly, it wasn’t worth the effort. Stones are about $2 or $3 to buy. They come round or square.
Put a concrete stepping stone on a work table so you don’t have to be bent over the whole time while creating it. You’ll thank me later. I like to cover the work table with plastic first to save it for other uses. Also, it’s a good idea to put the block of cement on a few little blocks of wood to raise it off the table surface and make it easier to get your fingers under when you finally pick it up to move it.
Step 2- Cut up the dishes and tiles
Put on your eye protection! I wear glasses anyway so that’s mine but really protective goggles are worth it. As mom would say it’s all fun till some one puts an eye out, right?
Cut up the dishes into bits and pieces using nippers or two-wheel cutters or tile cutters. For cutting up tile, use the scoring wheel on the tile cutters to score the tile and then break it with the tile cutters. If you don’t know how to use one ask the clerk in the tile store, they’ll usually be happy to demonstrate.
Play around a bit with the arrangement. You could arrange them all before hand on an area approximately the same size as the stepping stone, or your could do it my way and just arrange them right on the mortar and wing it.
BIG NOTE: watch out that when you put pieces down on the mortar that you don’t leave nasty points sticking up. You’ll know you did, painfully, later when you are smoothing grout over the pieces and snag your fingers on a point.
Step 3- Mixing the mortar
Put on your Dust mask! Put on your Rubber gloves! Seriously!
Wear your rubber gloves! I like to mix with my hands, encased in rubber gloves of course. Don’t do this bare handed! It’s caustic. see warnings above!
Put the powdered mortar in the mixing bowl. You will have to guestimate here for the amount of mortar. Add water from the clean water in the jar, a tiny bit at a time. Mix up the mortar to a peanut butter consistency.
I like to use stainless steel mixing bowls that I find in thrift shops, they work well, and are reusable.
Get it to a peanut butter or just slightly thinner consistency by adding the water to the mortar ( this applies to grout also) very slowly as it will become too thin very quickly if you add too much.
Spread the mortar over the stone using a toothed trowel.
Lay each piece on the mortar and try not to squish up mortar between the pieces. You’ll need that space to put grout in later. If it happens, and it will, just remove it with a blade like tool. I cut and fit dishes as I need to as I go along.
You’ll have to move fast, mortar sets up on a hot day really fast, you’ll have only about 20 minutes! In fact I wasn’t fast enough on this one and it started to dry out and nothing stuck. So I scraped off the dry mortar and just buttered a bit on, for each section I had left to finish. Ok, it’s cheating a bit, but it did work.
Note: When we are doing a big project, we just mix up tiny amounts of mortar at a time and apply it to each piece as we stick it down. When the mortar gets too hard, we just clean out the bowl and mix up another tiny amount. Be careful, this stuff is sticky and keep the top of your dish pieces wiped off. Keep your skin protected and make sure you read the safety precautions! Once mortar sets it’s cement and you won’t be able to remove it from the surface!
Step 4 -Take a break
Now that you have all the pieces mortared down, take a break and enjoy a cool iced tea. When you can’t move the pieces with your fingers, the mortar has set. We’d actually done the mortaring in the evening after a long day and stopped altogether to go in and watch movies. Of course, we cleaned up all the mortar mess like the bowls and implements first in the bucket of water! Then the next morning I was ready to grout.
Step 5 -Grouting
Put on your dust mask and rubber gloves!! Mix the grout in a bowl adding just a little bit of water from the jar at a time. Again I like to mix with my hands.
Get it to a peanut butter or just slightly thinner consistency.
Let the grout “slake” for a few minutes, no more than 5 and with your gloves on still from mixing it by hand pick up a handful and start “smushing ” it all over the surface.
Be sure to fill in each space between the pieces well. I use sanded grout always.
Step 6, or Why should I save old cotton socks?
I like to use old cotton socks to remove the grout from the surface. Some people like to use old sponges but I’ve found it’s just too easy to remove the grout from between the pieces with sponge. Dry old socks work well and you can turn them inside out and use the inside too. Once you have most of the grout removed from the surface leaving only a bit of hazy layer, let it sit. Break time again! Not too long, just 5 minutes and then back to work! Come back and with a clean sock shine up the pieces.
Step 6, Enjoy
Enjoy the work you’ve just produced. Sit back and tell yourself what a genius you are! Then after your new wonderful stepping stone has had overnight to set and cure, dig it in to your chosen spot in the garden path.