Sunday, July 26, 2015

Turning A [Cement] Lemon Into [Art] Lemonade!

Once upon a time, I moved into a house, and it had precious little curb appeal- save for a cluster of flowering hydrangeas- to keep it from being just a big ol' box with cement steps.  I have gardened and window-boxed and planted my way to loving it more, but, oh, those steps.

Our steps.  Even those cute toes and pretty flowers couldn't save them.
 Cement is virtually the universal material for front steps in our area's older homes.  While all of the new construction has pretty wood front porches, we have this set of steps that never sees sunlight, faces north, grows moss, and gets slimy in the rain.

My hostas try valiantly each year to block the view of the monster.
By a series of serendipitous events, I had a surprise week off from both teaching and taking classes this summer, and set about turning my giant cement lemon into lemonade.

It began with a power washer. That alone made my steps and walkway so much nicer that I considered stopping there, but my kids and I had already smashed enough tiles to fill three five-gallon buckets, so there was no stopping. (Note: Children LOVE smashing tiles. You will too- think about whatever is making you cranky and swing that hammer.)  This being the first time I have ever power washed anything, can I just say, wow.  It's so immediate and satisfying, like yanking out a tall weed or vacuuming after several toddlers eat crackers in your living room.

Seriously, who knew?!  I now want to power wash the whole world.
It turns out that tile stores have lots of tiles that they don't want and struggle to give away.  My local store was delighted to offer up an entire pallet of free mismatched three-of-these-and-two-of-those tiles.  Most people buy whole crates of tiles at a time, but I only needed a few of each from their freebie pile.  Perfect.  They were so happy to see the tiles leave their warehouse that they loaded my car with them for me.

Getting underway.
This is how it looked a couple of hours into the process. Promising but daunting. The thin set adhesive was forgiving and slow to set, so pieces could be rearranged several times as needed.  It got easier as I figured out that I should approach it like a puzzle- edges first then fill in the middle.

After a few days, the pieces were on, and I faced the task of grouting. Grouting is hard. Grouting is necessary. Grouting makes me dread mosaics. If I ever have a project like this to do again, it would make sense to pay a pro to do that part, so that I could spend my time doing something nicer, like getting cavities drilled or pouring lemon juice on paper cuts.

Why not stop here?  It looks pretty good... who needs grout anyway...
This is what it looked like when the different steps were at varies phases in grouting- ugly. Lots of hand wringing.  There would have been nail biting too, if there hadn't been so much cement jammed under them.

The edges of the grout were the part I dreaded most. It needed to look straight and crisp. Yes, I know they make special tools for this. Yes, I do actually have those tools, many more than needed, to do this task. But because I.just.can', and I am just weird and special enough, it actually made sense to invent a new way.

Frosting my cement cake.
Behold!  A giant pastry bag of grout!  As it turns out, my skills at decorating cakes lent themselves beautifully to creating mosaic steps.  It made edge lines much easier to tackle, and they didn't have the weird varied thickness I was avoiding.

This is not how the pros do it. I frankly don't know how they do it.
Once the steps were dry,  I sponged it down and inspected closely to make sure that water/ice won't seep behind in the winter.

Aren't the striped tiles the best?
 In the end, I decided to do the steps on the side of our house too.  
It should be said- I love them!  Artful, imperfect, and fun.

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