I’ll admit it; I’m addicted to craft stores because I love to discover things I can repurpose for a totally new use in the studio. One of my favorite repurposing finds is craft foam. I use it for work surfaces, burnishing, and most of all, texturing.
A while back, a customer commissioned me to make her a tile for her home address marker. The resulting tile got me thinking, how can I make similar tiles in a more productive way, so I could readily sell them to more people? Craft foam saved the day once again with these individually numbered tiles.
Craft Die Cutter
As a result of the address tile project, I now own a computerized die cutting system to help with my intricate designs (1), but I haven’t always had one, so don’t despair if you don’t own a die-cutting machine. Craft foam is very easy to cut with an X-Acto knife; if you can trace lines with a pencil, you can cut craft foam. When you’re first starting out, I suggest using the craft foam available at your local dollar store. This foam is generally thinner than what your craft store sells, but still holds up well after multiple uses and cuts very easily with a sharp blade.
I draw my designs with a digital illustration program, but you can also draw them by hand and transfer the design from paper to foam for cutting. Since these are address tiles, I not only want the number to be prominent, but I also want the design to flow whether the tiles are displayed vertically or horizontally. I group several tiles together in the design as it facilitates easier placement of the textured foam further into the project.
Digital die cutters range in prices from about $100, to over $1000. There are less expensive electronic stand-alone models, but with them, you’re limited to purchasing dies from the manufacturer. The model I chose to purchase was KNK’s Zing Cutting system, which is right in the middle of the cost curve. My criteria for choosing the Zing was the large size of the cutting area (14×24 in.), variety of material it can cut (I’ve even used it to cut plastic extruder dies), good online customer support, bundled software, and the ability to import a wide array of file types. If you’re only going to cut thin craft foam and you’re okay with cutting on a smaller scale, a less expensive die cutter may be an option for you.
Patience, practice, and experimentation are key to learning the machine. It really is interesting to experiment and see how all the features work. Tip: Make sure to check out YouTube videos. I looked at these while I was waiting for the machine to arrive so I was more familiar with using it right out of the box.
Choosing and Cutting with a Die Cutter
A digital cutter cuts anything you can draw; however, I keep the minimum visible foam area to lines of 1⁄16 inch or greater. You’re cutting on a sticky-back mat and very fine lines of craft foam are difficult to lift off the mat without stretching and tearing the foam. It’s very tempting to cut an interesting pattern you find online, but remember, many of these designs are copyrighted. I adapted my tile design from historic Moroccan tiles, but simplified it here for my address tiles. When drawing your design, draw more than one, so you can see how the design flows when the tiles are placed horizontally or vertically.
If you’re cutting the foam manually, you can transfer your design by placing the paper over your foam and tracing the design with a ballpoint pen. It will leave an impression in the foam that you can then go over with a pencil to emphasize if needed. Use a sharp X-Acto blade and place the foam on a sheet of cardboard or chipboard before you begin cutting. If your cutting area comes close to the edge of the foam, you may want to tape the edges down to the cardboard for extra stability. A single pass with the blade is all that’s needed to make the cut.
Tile Work Surfaces
When making tiles, I prefer to work on ¼-inch-thick HardieBacker® cement board (see sidebar on page 37). It holds up well with multiple uses, and is very absorbent. You can cut directly on the surface without marring it, and it wipes down easily without the surface degrading as drywall sheets would. I cut it into manageable board sizes with a jigsaw fitted with a carbide blade (working outdoors with a mask). Alternately, you can score it with a utility knife and snap it along a straight edge, but I have much more success with the saw. On some of my boards, I cover the reverse side with a 2-mm thick sheet of craft foam, which I purchase in rolls. The foam is non stick and perfect for rolling coils, re-working scraps of clay, and for working with slabs without having them dry out. HardieBacker® board comes with an embossed grid on one side, so you’ll want to use the smoother side for your work surface—although there is a slight texture on this side as well. I cover the edges with utility tape to make sure any rough spots aren’t exposed when I’m working with clay.
Rolling Foam Patterns
Roll out slabs that are a bit thicker than you want your finished tiles to be. In my case, I roll the slab to a 3⁄8-inch thickness. As I want my finished tiles to only be four inches tall, they don’t need to be overly thick. Compress both sides of the slab in all directions with a wide, firm rib, flipping the slab by sandwiching it between two boards to transfer it from one board to another to turn it over (2).
Next, place your cut foam pattern directly on the clay (3). Your layout will greatly depend on the size of the foam you’re cutting and most efficient use of the slab you rolled out. I’m laying out three rows of numbers: 1–3, 4–6, and 7–9. Craft foam does have a slight stretch to it, so if your pattern is intricate, be sure to place it on the clay against a straight edge used as a guide for accuracy.
Now, roll over the foam firmly with a rolling pin until the surface of the clay and the craft foam are flush. Since the craft foam is only 1 mm thick, your slab is thinned only slightly (4). While I want the tiles to have a coherent design from tile to tile, I don’t want them to have a cookie-cutter look, so before removing the foam pattern, I add texture to various areas of the exposed clay with a pony roller and textured craft foam—you can use any texture, including stamps, scraps of lace, or any of your favorite impression tools (5). Once you’re satisfied with the texture added to your tiles, lift the craft foam from the clay to expose your slab.
HardieBacker® cement boards (shown right) can be used with a variety of handbuilding techniques, just as you would use drywall boards. The boards absorb moisture from wet clay, making slabs immediately workable. Ceramic artists use them to work on because they’re lightweight, easy to cut, and don’t contain plaster. Photo: Courtesy of James Hardie Building Products Inc.
Trim off any excess clay, cover it with another piece of HardieBacker® board so it’s sandwiched between two facing sheets of board, then allow them to firm up. Trim the tiles once they’re a stiff leather hard. This helps prevent warping and your slab won’t be damaged by your straight edge when cutting. Drying time will depend on the temperature and humidity in your studio, so check it from time to time. Mine can sit like this overnight and I’m able to cut them the next morning.
With a metal ruler and a straight edge, carefully measure each tile horizontally and vertically, marking cutting lines with the tip of a needle tool, or lightly score with a sharp knife tip (6). Once all of your guide lines are in place, cut your tiles using the metal ruler as your guide, making sure you’re cutting straight down with your knife. If the tiles are cut with any angle to your blade, the edges won’t line up properly once mounted.
Next, dull the edges of each tile just a bit by burnishing them with a piece of craft foam (7). You don’t want to take any measurable amount of clay off the tile, you just need to take the edge down so it isn’t sharp once fired. When all the edges are done, lay them in a single layer, flat between two boards, until they are completely dry and ready for bisque firing. For larger tiles, I bisque fire them vertically, but for these small tiles, they just get bisqued in a single layer, flat on the kiln shelf.
Best Practices for Firing Tile
Cover the bisqued-fired tiles with an underglaze, allow them to dry, then wipe off select areas with a damp sponge to highlight the texture (8). Glaze both tops and sides of the tiles if you’re using a stiff (non-runny) glaze. Wipe the edges and the base with a damp sponge after dipping. Although commercial tile setters can be convenient space savers when glaze firing, I find that if you’re firing clay to vitrification, there will still be some slumping due to the lack of support in the middle of the tiles. With these address tiles, they’re small enough to fire flat on a kiln shelf, but for large flat tiles, a thin layer of silica sand placed on the kiln shelf allows movement of the tile during the firing and helps avoid cracking.
Most homes now, at least newer homes, tend to have neutral color schemes. Since I’m offering these as mass-produced tiles, I try to glaze the backgrounds fairly neutral and contrast the address numerals in two or three different color options. This way, I can bring an entire box to shows and people can mix and match to get just the right set of tiles for their particular home, effectively selling to many different customers as opposed to making an individual custom tile for just one.
Nancy Gallagher received her BFA from Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and further studied functional pottery with Bill van Gilder. She works and teaches at her studio in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. To see more of her work, visit http://gallagherpottery.com.