Using Decorative Tile Outdoors

How to create an eye-catching design for your terrace or patio


photography by DAVID MCDONALD

AS GARDENERS, WE USUALLY LEARN the hard way that structure in the garden is as critical as planting. Stairs, paved pathways, and terrace or patio surfaces are often the most important, and overlooked, structural elements. Yet we are in constant visual and physical contact with paths and stairs, and there is no reason why they cannot be as much a source of aesthetic and tactile pleasure as the plants in our gardens.

When I moved into a 1930s Spanish colonial house in Vancouver, British Columbia, I inherited concrete sidewalks and stairs that, while in good repair, had been painted with bright red enamel for 60 years. Besides being hideous, the stairs were dangerous because of our constant, algae-inducing rain, and after a few nasty slips I decided it was time for a new, more foot- and eye-friendly surface. Decorative tile seemed like a natural choice.

Tiling is both easy and practical, and allows you to create structures that truly complement your plantings. It’s a great way to disguise or dress up old stairs and paths with texture and color, and is also easy to incorporate into new construction. Decorative mosaic work is the fun part of this project. Your designs can be as elaborate or as simple as you want. For inspiration and ideas, check out your local library or bookstore for books on decorative tile designs. (Unless you’re feeling very confident, it’s a good idea to work your design out on paper first.) Here, I chose a geometric design with a vaguely Mediterranean feel using natural slate in green, terra-cotta, purplish gray, and buff tones to complement my favorite foliage colors. But other kinds of tile, such as ceramic, will also work perfectly well—you can even incorporate pebbles, glass beads, or whatever else can withstand the elements. Pay a visit to your local suppliers to see what the choices are for outdoor use in your area. Whatever tile you use, make sure that all the tiles are approximately the same thickness. Before purchasing tile, determine how much you’ll need by figuring out the surface area of the stairs or path you’ll be tiling (height x width), allowing a bit extra for mistakes or last-minute changes in the design.

A word of caution: make absolutely sure that the undersurface or your work area is clean and sound—there should be no crumbling concrete, and the surface should have a slight roughness or “tooth.” You may need to clean the surface first using concrete cleaner, a pressure washer, or a stiff brush. If the surface has been painted or sealed, or if it’s extremely rough, you’ll need to grind the surface with a scarifier, a walk-behind machine that can be easily rented.

There is something wonderful—almost therapeutic—about working with bits of tile and ending up with something solid and beautiful and practical. You will discover the Zen of tiling, and your friends will be impressed out of all proportion to the amount of work actually involved.

  1. Measuring the tile Start with the largest pieces. Because the area that gets the most wear needs to be the most solid, I started with the treads of the stairs and saved the more decorative and fragile mosaic detail for the risers. Measure the slate very carefully and mark the lines to be cut with a pencil. Precision at this stage will save you the frustration of having to recut the tile.

  2. Cutting the tile A water saw is an invaluable tool for tile cutting. It’s similar to a wood saw, but has a diamond blade cooled by a stream of water and a sliding tile bed. Because it cuts through slate like butter, it’s great for making even tiny mosaic pieces. Before cutting, be sure to wear protective eye goggles and a respiratory mask, so that you avoid breathing in slate dust. Line your penciled mark up with the blade and slide the piece of slate through the blade to make the cut. Make sure the tile fits properly into the design, and recut if necessary. As with any power saw, be alert-make sure you know where the blade is with respect to your fingers at all times.

  3. Mixing the mortar In a clean plastic container, mix together clean water (or acrylic additive) and the dry thin-set mortar according to the instructions for the product you are using. Acrylic additive creates better adhesion between the tile and subsurface and improves water resistance. Mix only as much as you will need for about an hour’s work. Don’t let the mortar become too runny, and make sure it is thoroughly mixed. After a short resting period, known as slaking, it is ready to use.

  4. Placing the mortar with the trowel Using a notched metal trowel, apply the mortar so that there are even, one-half-inch ridges of mortar across the surface. These ridges will flatten out when you press the tile against them. It’s a good idea to lightly moisten the backs of the tiles with a damp sponge to remove any dust that may interfere with surface adhesion. If the back side of the tile is especially uneven, apply a bit of the mortar to the low points. (This is called “backbuttering” in tile talk.)

  5. Tiling the treads Take a clean tile (backbuttered, if necessary) and carefully lay it down on the mortared tread. Push it down gently, making sure it’s level and that there are no points where the tile is not in contact with the mortar. Using tile spacers (or your own visual sense), make sure that the grout lines between the tiles are the width you want, and that the tile is properly positioned. This is where the importance of careful measuring pays off, since recutting at this point is frustratingly messy. Let the tile set without disturbing it while the mortar bonds.

  6. Tiling the risers Having tiled the treads above and below the riser, apply mortar, again in ridges, to the surface of the riser. Because this is a vertical surface, use plastic tile spacers to prevent the tile from slipping downwards. (If you’re using smaller, lighter mosaic-size pieces here, this will be less of a problem.) Build your design carefully, making sure the grout lines are the correct width, and insert spacers to hold each piece in place. Smaller pieces will sometimes need to be backbuttered. Let set.

  7. Grouting Let all the tiles set overnight. After you’ve made sure that each is securely attached to the undersurface. you can remove the plastic spacers and apply the grout, which is available in a natural gray or tinted various colors. Mix the grout in a plastic container (different from the one in which you mixed the mortar) with clean water according to the product instructions. Don’t make the mix too wet. After a brief slaking period, pick up the grout with a rubber float and, holding the float at an angle, force it between the tiles. With the float, clean off as much excess grout as possible. After the grout has set and the grout remaining on the tile surface has formed a dry film, clean off the surface with a clean, wet sponge. Rinse with clean water and wipe again, making sure not to disturb the grout between the tiles.

  8. Drying and Repair Let the entire project dry undisturbed for another half-day. You may then give it a final wash. It is now ready for use. Because of exposure to the elements, an occasional tile may come loose from time to time. When this happens, simply remove the tile and the surrounding grout, clean the back of the tile and the undersurface, reapply a bit of thinset mortar, and reset and regrout the tile. It’s a good idea to keep a small bag of the grout you originally used so that the color will match perfectly.

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