The Grout Look: Or How Broken China Mosaics Nearly Broke ME

Ah, Pittsburgh-- Land of Slopey Yards. And I-- owner of one such Slopey Yard-- grew weary of straining my skinny, flabby girl-arms dragging a lawn mower up a bunch of concrete steps every two weeks just to mow my whopping 15-feet of grass.

I mean, talk about overkill! Might as well just take a chainsaw to a dandelion while I’m at it.

So one summer, I had the bright idea that I would use those same skinny, flabby girl-arms to dig up all the grass in my front yard and replace it with cedar chips, creeping phlox and stepping stones made of broken china. It’d be idyllic! So rejuvenated! So cottagey! And I’d never have to mow again!...


Did you know that fifteen feet of grass automatically expands to the size of Heinz Field when you attempt to dig it up by hand?

It does. And let me tell you, the Steelers don’t really like it when you’re out there interrupting training to take their turf away. (“Can you move the huddle a little to the left, Hines? I need to get that clump.”)

Anyway, digging up the yard was ONE project. (Much blistering, weeping and indelicately sliding down the hill ensued.)

And making the stepping stones was another.

And to be completely honest with you, I look back upon both projects with about the same amount of, er, love.

I DO like how the stepping stones turned out, I must say. But if you’ve been on this site much, you probably know me by now: I have no barometer whatsoever for what is “Enough” to try to tackle. It is my Achilles Heel. (Which was pretty sore at this point, by the way, what with indelicately sliding down the hill.)

So was ONE stepping stone good enough for me to attempt as a central feature?

Oh NO-- I needed to make THREE of them, having never mosaiced before! Because three is some Magic Decorating Number inside our brains. And the Brain did say, “The number of the count should be three, no more, no less.”

How can you argue with that?

“And since you’re already making three,” continued the Brain, “then why not make SIX, so your best friend’s mother can have a set for her own yard? What a nice Mother’s Day it would be for her, if you gave her three handmade broken china stepping stones! How happy she would be!”

Stupid, zealous Brain.

But wide-eyed and earnest, I went to work on the first stepping stone-- assembling china that had already suffered structural indignities at my hand. I went to Construction Junction, our local architectural salvage place, and got myself some colored tiles that coordinated with the china. I rummaged through my craft drawers and came up with some floral display marbles that matched the china, as well. Mosaic adhesive? Check! Tile grout? Check! Plain concrete stepping stones? Check, check, and check! Tile nippers? Got ‘em! All was good.

So let me tell you what the Grout People DON’T tell you on the back of the grout packaging.

Oh, they’ll tell you that you need a damp sponge to remove some excess grout. They’ll tell you that you need to work in small areas at a time. They’ll tell you to wear rubber gloves. All very good advice!...

They do NOT tell you that the mosaicing project-- which will eventually be very beautiful and you will be happy you made-- is extremely gloopy to work with. So gloopy you will worry it’s a disaster and maybe even HATE IT a little, while you’re working on it.

They do NOT tell you that you will need more damp paper towels than the Brawny Man can provide. EVER.

And they are entirely mum about suggesting that you should, perhaps, wear something that can properly support The Grout Look.

One single stepping stone, one foot across, and there was grout on my cheek, my sleeves, my jeans, and in a knee-high pile of wet, grouty paper towels. I finished the first stepping stone and looked balefully at the five undecorated cement discs still sitting in a stack beside me.
They taunted: “Look, we’re waiting. The Brain said SIX.”

Yeah, yeah, zip it.

I washed my face and went back to work, wondering why, if the Brain was so gung-ho on aesthetically-pleasing odd-numbers of objects, then let the Brain grow some darned fingers and help out a little.

Slowly but surely, I went to work on the other two stepping stones for my front yard. More broken china. More salvage tile. And me encased in enough grout to make a chalkware statue.
But finally-- FINALLY-- there were three completed! What a sense of accomplishment! I stood back, arms folded, and surveyed my work.

“Hi,” said the three blank stepping stones in the stack next to me. “Um, so exactly what are we doing for Mother’s Day again?”


I was half-way through my fourth stepping stone of the season when the Brawny Man phoned and told me about the de-forestation because of this project of mine. He said while he certainly appreciated all the business, the mosaicing really had to stop for a while. For the greater good.

So when Mother’s Day arrived, the Brain was forced to view ONE as the number of stepping stones for visual splendor. My friend’s mom WAS pretty delighted to have it, at least, which made me happy. And the ones in my yard have held up well.

But when friends tell me off-hand that they think they want to try mosaicing—and say it in that breezy, devil-may-care way, like it’s some innocent decoupage or something—I shake my head in wonder...

Ah, the innocents. Are they really up for the Grout Look?


Oh-- Before we go today-- I was “tagged” by two fine folks along the Internet highway to list Seven Weird Facts you all otherwise wouldn’t know about me (you know, without, say, a gumshoe on my trail)... So while I usually do just one blog article per week, this week is a little different. You can click here for the tag response. I don’t want to not fulfill my duty as part of the greater Web Community. :-)


Oscar said...

it's amazing how seriously we take certain projects

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story! Full of humor and convincing description. Believe me, I've been there myself! Thank you so much for sharing this! Please, write more! I can introduce you to the pleasures of mosaicking tons of things around the house :D hehehe. Kate from Buzzard Flats on

ThriftShopRomantic said...

Ah, Kate, thanks SO much for the offer of mosaicing things around your house... But, um, I'm on a grout-free diet plan now, and will have to pass. :)

Glad to know I'm not the only one who has known some of the challenges of this particular craft. I'm sure I'll revisit it again someday.

Anonymous said...

I love these stepping stones especially the rose one. I understand you get plain stepping stones. then do you put broken china then grout or grout then china on top then go over.
Can you give me directions. I would like to do this. They would make great presents too. I love it. Please e-mail me at By the way, I came across this website. I love what you have done.
I go to thrift shops. I also go to yard sales to decorate. Thank you for your creativity. It is very catchy. SS.

Stella said...

I came upon your blog while researching whether broken china could be used for stepping stone mosaics. What I loved about what you wrote is that I now know that I am not the only person in the world who conceives these grand projects and then discovers that they are impossibly more huge and involved than one could have ever imagined...but this is never discovered until the project is well underway. I am in the process of replacing part of a lawn with mulch and (stepping stones-?). I was glad to read what you had to say. A kindred spirit! And, by the way, good job on those beautiful stones!!!