Combining different colors, textures, and shapes within a tile installation is by no means a new concept. Tile setters have been mixing elements in their installations and setting custom inlays since before I was alive. More recently however, with an influx of irregular shaped mosaics, including waves, pebbles and other curved shapes, being used as accent strips or waterfall features, these shapes are being kept intact instead of cutting them straight in line with the surrounding field tile. “Scribing” these mosaics into their surroundings not only shows off their natural beauty, but it also makes them the focal point of the installation.

While there are times when a focal point is desired, there are also times when a more discreet smoother appearance is appropriate and scribing can achieve that as well. The perfect example of this is a curbless shower with a pebble pan. In my opinion, scribing the pebbles in the surrounding floor tile is a much smoother, more natural look than cutting them straight at the transition or just filling them in up against the straight floor tile along a factory edge, depending on the client’s needs of course. We typically don't see cut pebbles in nature so I don't want to see them in my tile installations. The key to a successfully scribed accent or transition is consistent spacing, a smooth transition and a natural appearance. Just because you have the ability to make these precision cuts doesn't mean that everything you do requires them. Know when to execute and commit to executing at the highest quality possible.

This is the back of a niche with pebbles scribed into the middle of a tile. It was my first attempt that wasn't along the edge of something. It was done with a combination of core bits to take out the initial piece, milling bits and to remove the remaining tile before polishing the edges. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Typically, I like to template the space that I'll be setting the tile in with 2” strips of Luan Plywood and hot glue that I've ripped down on my table saw. This gives me an overall view of the space so I can make adjustments to my layout prior to cutting anything. The nice thing about using a template is having the ability to make minor adjustments to avoid slivers or unnecessarily difficult cuts that may cause issues later on in the install. There's nothing worse than going through all the trouble of making all these precision cuts and breaking one of them on a simple cut that could have been avoided at the start of the project. I want to make this process as simple as I possibly can.

After I have my template made, I'll lay it over the field tile that I've laid out on the floor or other work space, make my adjustments, and trace it with my marker. After I have the total space accounted for, I'll dry lay the mosaic that I want to cut in and make sure that it's lined up properly and in a manner that avoids smaller than necessary pieces of field tile. Sometimes I'll use a straight edge to keep it in line if needed but usually, with the way that mosaics interlock, just using a measuring tape will suffice.

Island Stone pebbles cut into the field tile and being dry laid prior to installation to ensure spacing is accurate. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Tracing the mosaic onto the field tile is where some people have issues. The key, for me, is to keep my marker perfectly vertical at all times. This will maintain a perfect ⅛” grout joint between the field tile and the mosaic. The more detailed you are in the tracing process, the more intricate your scribe will be, resulting in better overall results. Get into every little nook and cranny and don't skip over anything. A detailed tracing will help set your project apart from the rest. The next step is to label your pieces so you know where they go after cutting. I like to put painter's tape on each piece and mark them all in the same direction so I know which way they face. The more obsessive you are with this step, the easier it will be to line everything back up.

A successful cutting process is entirely dependent on your tooling. Using high-end premium diamond tools will not only make the process faster, it will also yield better results in the end. It's important to know that every tile is different and what works on some may not work on others. My suggestion is to use a wide variety of different tools in case you need to switch up your technique as you cut different tiles. I use an assortment of premium blades, polishing pads and shaping bits all from Helix. My go-to blade is the 4.5” K-Skribe. It's a smooth semi-continuous rim made for precision cutting. I also use a few different course and fine grit milling bits and some dry polishing pads to polish the edges after I'm finished cutting.

Cutting in the pebble scribe on the Bihui work table with the Helix K-Skribe and cordless grinder. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Polishing the edges is the final step that finishes off the process. Do not skip this step thinking that grout will hide the cuts. It will not. If you're not planning on polishing the edges then don't even attempt this technique. I like to use a good work surface with integrated clamps to hold the tile in place while I'm working on each piece. When I have a big open space to set up and work from, I like to use my Sigma work table. While it was designed for super format installations and sold in pairs, halves can also be purchased and used in smaller applications like this. The clamps that come with the table slide into the channels making up the structure, locking them into place to keep the workpiece stable while it's being cut, grinded and polished. With a footprint of about 6’ x 6’ there's plenty of space for what you're working on, all of your tooling, and lunch as well. If space is limited, a nice option for a smaller area is the Bihui work table, with a footprint of just over 1.5’ by just under 4 feet. It still has integrated clamps that work great keeping everything in place.

Ceramic tile ready for cutting is being held in place on the Sigma work table with the integrated clamps. My downdraft bucket sits below hooked up to the iQ426 HEPA vacuum. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Another thing to consider when you're getting your scribing setup together is dust extraction. Sitting outside in a cloud of dust isn't the best option and can leave a bad taste in your client’s mouth. A proper dust extraction setup shows that you not only care about your own health but also your client’s home. Being clean shows your professionalism and clients appreciate you being aware of your surroundings. I use the iQ426HEPA Cyclonic Dust Extractor, and I hook it into a downdraft bucket. You can use any bucket you have laying around, but I like a smaller three to four gallon bucket for this.

A porcelain tile from the turtle scribe shower clamped into the Sigma work table ready for cutting. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Simply drill or cut a hole the same size as your hose an inch or two above the bottom so all the larger pieces fall to the bottom and the dust is pulled into the vacuum—as long as you keep the blade on your grinder spinning downward. Sometimes I'll even lay a spare piece of foam board over three quarters of the top of the bucket to increase downward air flow. The trick is to always pay attention to the direction that the blade is spinning to keep everything going into the bucket and not up into your face.

With a limited work space, the Bihui work table fits into smaller spaces and holds the tile with their version of the integrated clamps over the downdraft bucket and iQ426 HEPA vacuum. Photo: Ken Ballin.

Setting the finished pieces is fairly straightforward but still requires some patience. Be sure to keep your spacing uniform and don't be afraid to use spacers and wedges to keep things in place before the thinset dries. Make sure you are taking steps to keep the mosaic at the same finished height as the field tile. A perfectly flush finished surface is key. I even like when the mosaic sticks out from the field tile just a hair when it's installed on a wall just to give it a little something extra, but I would keep everything flush in a floor application to minimize premature wear.

Every tile is different so don't get discouraged if you're having a hard time getting things just right. I still get frustrated with some tiles that don't seem to want to do what I want them to do. Patience is key. Take your time, get your technique dialed in, and don't be afraid to show your clients what's possible. Scribing your mosaics is a great way to set yourself apart from your competition and take your business to the next level. Do something different, push your limits, and see what's possible. On to the next adventure!