For centuries, decorative tiles have transformed the mundane elements of a house—namely floors and walls—into works of functional art. This Old House reader Rosi Zingales is a master at this type of disguise. In her submission to our online Salvage Challenge, she demonstrated how to turn a blah brick fireplace into a showpiece by decorating the hearth with swirls of vintage blue, white, and black tiles. The mosaic recalls the waves at the beach near her 1970s ranch house in Hampton Bays, New York.
When I e-mailed Rosi to tell her how much I loved her work and to see if she'd lend a hand with my salvaged tile project, she was happy to oblige. "But if you like what I did inside the house, you should see the outside," said Rosi, who forwarded me another shot of her handiwork. This one was of her home's concrete foundation, the front of which is completely covered in colorful tiles.
Though Rosi's style is more atomic than antique—she prefers tiles from the 1950s to the late-19th-century ones that I favor—I knew she'd be able to teach me a few tricks. Plus, it's always more fun to work in twos. So follow along step by step to see how we blended Rosi's creativity and tiling know-how with my salvage-sleuthing abilities.
Create a Vintage Tile Tabletop Like Ours
Part of the fun of making this table was rooting through the tile crates with Rosi at Olde Good Things in New York City. Our first find was an 1890s 6-by-6-incher depicting a Spanish Colonial mission, for $45. This, we agreed, would be the centerpiece. Next were four flowered accents, $8 each, and 30 yellow-and-white marbled tiles from an old fireplace surround that we bought in bulk for $40. We also uncovered the wrought-iron table base with a recess for a glass top in a dusty corner of the shop.
Lay Out Your Design
Lay out your tile design on a 1/8-inch-thick Masonite board that's cut to the inner dimensions of the tabletop's recess, and set it inside the base. (Seal the porous board—front and back—with a coat of polyvinvyl glue, such as Weldbond, first so it won't absorb the tile adhesive.)
Set the Spacers
Set ⅛- and ¼-inch spacers (sizes vary based on the layout) between the tiles to hold them in place.
Mark the Edges
Mark the tile bottoms where they overlap the edges of the table, being careful to follow the contours of the top.
Slice the Tiles to Fit
Wearing latex gloves and protective glasses, use a wet saw to slice the tiles along the pencil lines.
Grind the Tile Edges
Smooth jagged edges with a grindstone (shown) or tile file.
Check the Fit
Replace the tiles in their grid to check the fit. If there's still a slight overlap, take off the excess with the grindstone.
Stick the Tiles in Place
Working from the center out, remove tiles one at a time, spread ceramic adhesive on their backs, and then stick them on the board. Use a thick mastic, such as Henry 314 ($9 at hardware stores), which allows you to build up a bed under thin tiles so their surfaces are all level.
Replace the spacers and let the adhesive set for 30 minutes, then remove them.
Weigh Down the Tiles
Position a flat board on top of the tiles, and weight it down. We used pattern weights from Rosi's costume shop (she makes clothes for theater and film), but bricks or a couple of phone books will do.
Wait Before You Grout
Wait 24 hours for the adhesive to dry before removing the weights, popping the board out of the table base, and grouting the tiles.
Use a sanded grout for filling gaps ⅛ inch wide or wider. Spread a thick coat of grout over the surface, and then work it into the gaps.
Rosi's Tip: "For small tile jobs, I use an old rubber spatula, instead of a trowel, to work the grout into tight spaces. It's more flexible, and it spreads the grout like cake frosting."
Clean and Seal
Remove the excess grout from the tile faces with a rubber scraper. Spritz with water, and sponge off any remaining residue.
Fit the tiled top back in the base, and let it set for 48 hours before applying a sealer to the grout lines.
Then go ahead and use your stylish new table.
(Note: This table is fine for occasional outdoor use, but it should not be left out during rain or snow.)