How to make tile coasters that look expensive but aren’t

This past Christmas, my husband Eric and I carried on our holiday tradition of gifting handmade goods to our friends and family. Being that we had exhausted our bag of tricks the Christmas before, we had to go out and find something new to create.  I decided to make coasters mainly so that Eric and I could both participate, me by doing the image transfer and him by using his woodworking skills to make the holders. Family and friends loved them! Of course, they could just be being polite. So, I’m going to share my secrets with the world. Disclosure: I did not pioneer this process so they are not technically my secrets but we’re going to overlook that part.

What you’ll need:

  • 4″ tumbled marble tiles. (I got mine at Home Depot and they sell 9 of them for $4. Keep in mind that not every tile in the bunch will be suitable for this project.)

    IMG_0007_2

    With the tiles bundled up like this, it’s really hard to see if you have good ones or bad ones. It’s a crap shoot. Pro tip: buy 3-4 packages and take the good ones out. Then return the bad ones to Home Depot. 🙂

  • Liquitex Matte Acrylic Gel Medium. (I got mine from Hobby Lobby – using a 40% off coupon but Michael’s also carries it – typically found in the paint section.  You don’t need to use Liquitex brand. Any acrylic gel medium will do.)

    IMG_0618

    I’ve created about 50 individual coasters with this bottle and I still have about 2/3 of it left.

  • Laser printed image.  This is important.  The image needs to be printed with toner, rather than ink, so use a laser printer, or a copy machine, not an inkjet printer. ** A quick word about images: I use a 3.8″ image, rather than a 4″.  The tiles are just slightly under 4″.  Also, if your image has words, it is very important that you “flip” the image horizontally, otherwise, your words will transfer to the tile backwards. No bueno.**

    Notice how the words on the bottles are backwards.  This is important

    Notice how the words on the bottles are backwards. This is important.

  • Cork or felt for backing the coasters.  Personally, I like the cork.  I bought mine at Michael’s and one roll does a lot of coasters.IMG_0009_2
  • Foam brush. I suppose you could use a regular paint brush, but I like the evenness of the coat that I get with the foam. It’s important that the acrylic be applied evenly.
  • Spray polyurethane matte finish, clear. The matte finish makes the tiles look more natural, in my opinion.krylon
  • Optional – an old tooth brush and an old cookie sheet.

Step 1:  Choose your tiles.  Like I said, not every tile in the package is going to be suitable for this project. Some of them may have holes in them that go all the way through the tile.  This would defeat the purpose.  Rule of thumb, the smoother the better.

This is an example of a bad tile. There is a hole that goes all the way through.

This is an example of a bad tile. There is a hole that goes all the way through.

Step 2:  Use a damp paper towel to wipe the tiles down and remove the dust.  You don’t want that transferring to your acrylic gel.

Just wipe

Just wipe.

Step 3:  Use a foam brush to lightly coast the  tops of the tiles with the gel medium.  LIGHTLY.  Don’t glob it on.  In this case, more is not better. Let this dry completely.

A nice light, complete coating.  The gel is slightly shiny when wet but will dry transparent and matte.

A nice light, complete coating. The gel is slightly shiny when wet but will dry transparent and matte.

Step 4: Lightly coat your laser printed image with the acrylic gel.  Same rule as before – do it lightly, but completely.

Make sure to get the entire image gelled up.

Make sure to get the entire image gelled up.

Step 5:  Center the tile face down on the gelled up image.  Give it a little press to ensure good contact, then go ahead and flip it over.  Smooth out all of the air bubbles using a credit card, or the back of a spoon, or anything else you have handy that won’t damage the image.  Remember, it’s moist at this point so it’s a little fragile.  Be gentle.

Center it as best you can.  It's easier when it's upside down like this.

Center it as best you can. It’s easier when it’s upside down like this.

Smoooooth.  Be gentle.  Don't rip the paper or you'll have to start all over.

Smoooooth. Be gentle. Don’t rip the paper or you’ll have to start all over.

Step 6: Dry those suckers.  You can go au naturel if you want and let them sit over night, being extremely patient and not peaking.  Or, if you’re like me and not really the patient sort, then you can pop those babies into the oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes.

Step 7:  This is where things get messy.  One you have your tiles dried or cooled, it’s time to check out what we got.  To do this, wet the paper and peel it off.  It won’t come off cleanly.  It’s going to tear and split in half and leave behind a bunch of paper fiber.  Now onto the hard part.

Sometimes it comes off nicely, other times it doesn't.  Don't worry if it doesn't peel up like this for you.  The next part is the same regardless.

Sometimes it comes off nicely, other times it doesn’t. Don’t worry if it doesn’t peel up like this for you. The next part is the same regardless.

Step 8: Remove the paper fibers.  Yeah, that sounds easy but it’s not really.  I use an old toothbrush to gently remove as much of the fiber as I can, then you just got to rub.  And rub.  And rub. Keep your fingers moist, but not so wet that you can’t get good traction on those stubborn fibers.

If you use a toothbrush, remember to be gentle.  Scratching too hard will damage the acrylic and leave a scrape in your image.

If you use a toothbrush, remember to be gentle. Scratching too hard will damage the acrylic and leave a scrape in your image.

Sometimes the best tool for the job is one God gave you.  Just keep rubbing until all the paper is gone.

Sometimes the best tool for the job is one God gave you. Just keep rubbing until all the paper is gone.

Step 9: Take your coasters out into a ventilated area and give them a good coat of that polyurethane.  Let it dry, then repeat it two more times.  You want your beautiful image protected against dastardly cups and glasses.

Step 10:  Back the tiles with cork or felt of something that will protect the table they are supposed to be protecting.  We use the self adhesive cork and we make doubly sure that it sticks by giving it a little E-6000 glue insurance.  Note: E-6000 is awesome, but it is kind of slow to dry.  Don’t spread it on, then stack up your coasters.  It will come through the cork and bond with the tile beneath it.  Ask me how I know.

So, that’s it.  You’ve got some brand new, handcrafted coasters! Similar sets sell on Etsy for anywhere from $25 to $40.  I even saw some plain tiles (no images) going for $18.  Sheesh!

One of the best things about this process is how customizable it is.  I made some coasters for my in-laws using images of Disneyland ride posters.  I made some for my sister using vintage bicycle advertisement posters.  I also purchased some pre-made graphics from Etsy by searching for “coaster printables.”  You can use family photos, old postcards or scrapbooking paper.  Sky’s the limit.