Pebble mosaics offer a stunning alternative to common paths

Plenty of homes use concrete, brick, or other common materials for pathways and patios. For homeowners who want to give their property a little more artistic flair, pebble mosaics are a simple but eye-catching project.

Pebble mosaics can range from a repetition of common shapes to larger detailed scenes. You can also create individual mosaics on stepping stones, which can then be placed around your property as needed.

Coming up with a design is the first step in building a pebble mosaic. Whether you want to try a complex layout or a simpler one, it helps to sketch it out ahead of time. You might consider working out a repeating pattern, or incorporating smaller mosaics among larger, more traditional stonework.

Once you know what you'd like to do, you can go about collecting stones for the project. You can either order them from a supplier or use stones you have collected on your own.

If time isn't an issue, you can simply collect some appropriate stones over the course of several months whenever you go for a walk. Jeffrey Bale, writing for the magazine Fine Gardening, says stones should ideally be smooth with flat sides; stones that have been smoothed by water are particularly useful. Some parks, beaches, and other areas forbid you from removing stones, so make sure you have permission to do so.

Sort the stones so you can group them by similar qualities such as color and size. Rinsing any dirt or grit off the stones will let you get a good sense of their color.

You can do a test layout of your mosaic pattern before setting it. Jennifer Stimpson, writing for This Old House, recommends using a framework with three inches of sand to experiment with the design and make any changes. Take a photograph once you are satisfied with how the stones are placed.

One option is to work on a smaller scale by creating stepping stones with pebble mosaics on them. SFGate says you can outline the shape of a stepping stone on a piece of plywood by tracing the edges. A mixing bowl can be useful for establishing a circular stepping stone, while square stones should be outlined with a ruler and straightedge.

If you are placing stones directly on site, you'll first need to excavate the area. Stimpson says you should dig to a depth of six to eight inches. Allow at least one extra foot around the intended border of the mosaic to allow for edging. Bale says you might need to dig deeper or situate your mosaic on a concrete slab to prevent damage if the ground is prone to frost heaves.

The excavated area should first be filled with a layer of paver base and crushed rock to provide drainage and support for the mosaic. You can then add and lightly moisten a mortar base to hold the stones. The mosaic should be at the same grade as the surrounding ground or slightly higher to avoid collecting water; the mortar base should be about half an inch below the grade, since the stones will bring the mosaic up to the correct height after they have been added.

Working on an overcast day will give you more time to work with the mortar before it sets. For larger projects, Bale recommends mixing one batch of mortar at a time so the material doesn't set before you get to it.

Begin setting the stones in the desired pattern. To avoid displacing mortar, dig some of the material out before placing larger stones. Ideally, the stones should be tightly packed together with a minimal amount of mortar showing.

The stones won't be even with each other after they are placed, so you'll want to periodically level them out. Stimpson says you can accomplish this by putting a board over the stones and striking it with a rubber mallet.

Add edging forms after the pattern is complete to ensure that the pattern stays in place. Add some extra mortar to any noticeable gaps, mist the mosaic, cover it with plastic sheeting, and leave it to cure overnight.

After the stones have dried, add a topping mix and brush it into any remaining gaps. Saturate this mix and again cover it with plastic sheeting to seal in the moisture and allow the mortar to cure. The more topping mix you add, the harder the pattern will set.

The water applications will wash away much of the excess mortar, but you may notice that some is persistently clinging to the stones. Bale says you can apply hydrochloric acid to a rag and carefully wipe off any excess mortar.

When creating stepping stones, it is essential to build a form first. The magazine Family Handyman says you can make a simple form out of plywood and add the dry mortar mix. You can then lay out of the pattern, tap the stones until they are level, and moisten the mortar. Tapping the form with the rubber mallet during this process will help dispel any air bubbles in the mortar.

Allow 48 hours for the mortar to cure before removing the form. Adding stone sealer to the stepping stones will help make the stones' color stand out more.

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