Another question people always ask me is "How do you get the pieces like that ... all even?" Or it's slightly annoying counterpoint, "You just smash all those dishes, huh? Just throw 'em on the ground ... must be a great way to relieve stress."
On the contrary, I do NOT just smash dishes. Maybe I did that once with one stack of plates because I may or may not have been having a full on yelling fight with my husband, but it really didn't make for much of a controlled mosaic and it certainly didn't do much for the conversation. Except maybe, he knew I don't normally do that to my plates and realized how ticked I really was. (Oh yeah, news flash. Deliriously happy couples also have good old fashioned air-clearing fights once in a while. But that's a whole other post.)
If you google "how to mosaic" at all, you are going to get a really crappy tutorial about just putting any old dish stuff in a pillowcase and tapping them with a hammer. Guess what? That looks ugly and sad. And it shreds the pillowcase to pieces, which I don't think they make very clear, either. I know that's not what you want to make. You want to make something pretty. So they will tell you to use proper eye protection and blah blah blah, but they don't tell you how to make a pretty mosaic.
If you want to make a controlled pattern and get the designs from the dishes that you really want to display, you will need the proper tools. You need different tools for different kinds of dishes. And you need to be able to tell the difference between the different kinds of dishes. I'm here to help you.
This isn't precise, but there are about three different kinds of dishes that you will encounter: porcelain, china, and pottery. That's not entirely precise, but it's a good basic breakdown. Porcelain is generally very thin and is translucent. You will know it is porcelain when you hold it up to the light and you can see light through it. (Confusingly enough, some handmade pottery is also made of porcelain, but that's also a whole other post.) For mosaic purposes, porcelain is generally thin, often made in Japan or England, and is great for mosaics.
China is a generic name for ironstone, earthenware, dishes, restaurant ware, vitrified china, ceramic, etc. It is made in various ways over the years, with a lot of different kinds of density. I won't bore you with the details, but this is basically what you are going to find on the tables of most people. And some of it is great to mosaic with and some of it lousy. It will take you lots of time and practice to figure out what you like to use and what you don't like to use, but if it has some flat surface to it, you can probably use it.
Pottery is made of clay. Porcelain clay. Or other kinds of clay. But it is generally thicker and sturdier than china. Pottery is wonderful but hard to mosaic with because it's thick to cut and when it's handmade, isn't uniform in thickness. If I'm going to hammer-smash anything, pottery is probably it because you get really tired cutting thick pottery after a very short amount of time.
Now, there are two kinds of cutters. Tile nippers and rotary cutters. Tile nippers have two flat nips that look like teeth. Rotary cutters have two wheels. You use a rotary cutter on porcelain and tile nippers on china and pottery. You can also use a rotary cutter on most china, but not on pottery. It is probably going to be too thick for the wheels to get around.
You cannot use nippers on thin porcelain. It will make you cuss.
Tile nippers shatter porcelain into shivers and weird shapes. Porcelain is just too thin for the nippers to pinch the porcelain into a clean break.
So just to sum up: Nippers for china and pottery but not porcelain; rotary cutter for porcelain and china but not pottery.
You can get tile nippers from the tile department of a hardware store. I got my rotary cutters from a craft store. They cost between $12 and $15 each. (Unless you get your nippers from the thrift store for a mere $1.75 SCORE!)
To cut with nippers, you put the nippers teeth perpendicular to the edge of the dish. I generally try to cut a plate in half, then quarters, then eighths. It doesn't always work, but you get a better cut when you keep cutting your pieces in half than if you try to cut off just a bit at a time off a large piece. I have cut thousands of dishes now, so I've had lots of practice, but it doesn't always go the way you want it to. The more you know the kind of dish you have, though, the better your chances of making a good cut from the get-go.
I have several pairs of nippers. They get worn down after a while. But the worn ones are good for thicker pottery. The newer ones are good on thinner china. Robb got me the set on the right for Mother's Day five years ago now and just see where they've taken me.
To cut with the rotary cutters (which you could also use on glass. I just don't like working with glass very much.) You line up your wheels deep into the place where you want the cut to be. Nippers start a crack that becomes the break. Rotary cutters actually cut into the porcelain and pinch it apart. You get a good, controlled cut with rotary cutters, but they take a lot of practice. The screws that hold the wheels on get loose and you have to tighten them pretty often (the wheels are adjustable so you can make beveled cuts).
And there you have it. The right materials, the right tools, lots of practice is how you get those nice even pieces for your own mosaic projects. Happy nipping.