grouted tiles

Stairway inlay

I hand-painted the last coat of glaze (FIMO glaze) on each of the tiles so that the grout would remain unglazed. I resanded and refinished the wood as well. It's nearly the color of the old stairs and wood's hard to capture the color and finish here. The heat gun I used is a Bosch 2-setting (600° and 1000°) model.

marbled inlay - up close

new stairway wall with inlay


I used a V-shaped gouge to make lines in the polymer and wiped paint into the grooves to simulate grout. The whole thing looks richer and much more like exotic mosaic tiles. Another coat of finish and I'll take a final picture.


Thanks for all your e-mails on this project. We have added the first coat of finish to the wood. I was particularly interested in comments from Carol Zilliacus who recommended gouging out a "fake grout" channel in the polymer and filling it with acrylic paint. I'll let you know how this goes.

Another thing to clear up. I heat the polymer with a commercial paint stripping/heat gun, that has a nozzle about 1 1/4" wide. I have not tested the temperature of the gun (it has two settings) but it seems to be much hotter than the small guns I've seen in craft stores.

The thin inlaid clay sets up very quickly but getting it thoroughly baked can be challenging. I inlaid a drum we were making and when Blair added the clamps for the drum head, the clay underneath the clamps crumbled.

Just for a test, I took the crumbs and put them in the oven to see if rebaking would help. Sure enough, it hardened completely when rebaked. I easily cut out the broken areas and re-inlaid them. I fired that sucker good....fanning the gun back and forth so that it didn't burn the clay but making sure to take enough time to get the pieces thoroughly done.

Firing the very thin inlay does not take long. I recommend firing a test piece. Try to break the fired piece. If it crumbles, you need more time. On the drum project, under-baked clay was a problem because of the stresses it would undergo. On the stair project, the clay won't be under stress. I made sure to thoroughly bake the clay at the bottom of the stairs where it might get kicked.

Sanding and finishing are all that remain to be done on this stairway inlay. To give our hallway more light, Blair removed half the wall on one side of the stairs. He routed out a 1 1/2" channel in the oak cap board for a polymer inlay.

It was a challenge to design a pattern that would look good in an 11 foot by 1 1/2" stripe. I thought a simple repeat might be too boring. Since I'd been playing with marbled canes at the NPCG retreat, I decided that might work.

I made up one 15-color striped cane from a palette of favorite colors. I would cut a slice of cane, twist it to combine the colors, score it with a needle tool to make the movement and run it through the pasta machine on the next-to-the-last setting (7). I cut 3/4" squares from the resulting thin marbled pieces. (See how Ann Dillon was doing this at the Retreat.)

After priming the wood channel with glue (I let it dry), I carefully inlaid the unbaked pieces. I've found that the polymer bonds to the wood more securely if you have a middle layer of glue.

Once I had all 500+ squares in place, I covered them with waxed tissue and rolled them smooth.

It takes only a few seconds of the blast from the heat gun to "heat set" the pieces (you can watch the glossy surface turn dull). Later I went over it again to completely fire the pieces, reheating and pressing down firmly on the warm pieces to get rid of any bubbles.

In these pictures we still have not given the project its final sand and quick-dry finish. This will darken the wood so that it matches the stair treads. I'm a little nervous about the sanding since the marbled pattern only affects the very thin top layer of the polymer. I think I'll investigate coating the pattern with transparent liquid polymer. I'd like the polymer to have a glossy finish.

All the clay in this project is CFC clay.

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