Handcrafted stepping stones look great in the garden, the front yard or just about anywhere you can show off a piece of art.
Stepping stones are easy to make - with adult help - and can be wonderful personalized mementos of a child's or family's art. One or several might be a project to do with Dad on Father's Day, or a kid-adult project for any time.
You can make stepping stones from scratch or from kits available at garden and craft stores. From scratch, figure $3 to $7 per stone; because you have to buy materials in bulk, you'll have enough to make at least three or four stones for about $20. Kits to make single stones run $10 to $20.
At Seattle's Stevens Elementary School recently, Phyllis King's first-grade class poured and decorated 23 mosaic-topped stones for the school auction. The children used marbles, glass and tile chips, bits of copper and other objects to decorate each stone. The stones were so popular the students ended up making more as special orders after the auction.
With the help of Marguerita Hagen, a Capitol Hill artist and parent at the school, King perfected a simple process for making the stones from scratch, pouring and decorating three or four at a time.
Hagen, who has helped kids make hundreds of stones and decorated pathways, including the ones in front of Stevens Elementary, used a different process with students at Lake Forest Park Elementary School. She purchased precast plain stepping stones at a garden store ($1 to $4 each), then had the kids "frost" each stone with mortar and decorate.
Purchased kits usually come with a simple mold, concrete mix, decorations and instructions.
Here's how to make your own from scratch or by using precast stones:
Materials you'll need
-- 60-pound bag of gravel-free sand-and-cement topping mix, about $3; a bag makes three or four stones.
-- 50-foot roll of zinc roof stripping, about $15 (or scraps at least 6 feet long; a roll makes about eight molds), and duct tape; or premade plastic stepping-stone mold, about $4.
-- Shallow (at least 3 inches deep by 16 inches square) cardboard boxes lined in plastic, or 16-inch or larger-diameter plastic plant saucers at least 3 inches deep; a few shovels full of sand or dirt.
-- Vegetable or spray oil.
-- 5-gallon bucket or plastic-lined wheelbarrow and large trowel for mixing; water.
-- 15-inch chunks of chicken wire cut to fit inside each mold or several bent hangers per stone, to strengthen concrete.
-- Colored tile chips, bits of glass, mirror, marbles, other decorations.
-- Paper face mask and gloves.
Stepping stones from scratch
To make a mold using zinc strips, draw a simple shape (for example, a 15-inch-wide flower, star or circle on paper), then with adult help bend zinc roof stripping around the shape. Use duct tape to connect the ends.
Spray or rub the mold inside with vegetable oil, then place it in a large plastic plant saucer or a plastic-lined shallow cardboard box. Pack damp sand or dirt firmly around it.
If you're using a plastic mold, rub or spray it with oil (it doesn't need support around it).
Molds can be reused, but stones take about three days to dry. To make several stones at once, you need several molds.
With plastic molds, sketch the mold shapes on paper; with zinc molds, use the original paper patterns. Arrange decorations on the paper. Some kids like to put names, dates, suns or animal figures on their stones.
Now mix the concrete. Wear a paper face mask so you don't breathe cement dust. Wear gloves to protect hands.
Stir a half-bag of topping mix in a big bucket, enough for about two stones at a time. Use just enough water (start with a quart) to turn the smooth sand-and-cement mix into a thick sludge. Using an old cup or the trowel, fill the prepared molds. To get bubbles out of the mixture, run the trowel through the mold in a tic-tac-toe pattern.
Next push a layer of chicken wire or several bent coat hangers into the concrete to give it strength. You shouldn't be able to see the wires from the top, which should settle smoothly.
Wait about five minutes (a good time to wash your hands) so the concrete thickens up. You then have 10 to 15 minutes to decorate before the surface hardens.
The stones need to dry about three days before they can be removed from the molds and placed in the garden. For extra protection, top with concrete sealant.
Using precast plain stepping stones
-- Plain stones come in many shapes ($1 to $4).
-- Tile-setting mortar ($2 to $5 for a 5-pound bag).
-- Colored outdoor grout ($2 to $4 for a 1-pound bag).
-- Grout sealer ($8 a quart).
-- Trowel, bucket for mixing, plastic gloves.
Trace stones onto paper and use the pattern to lay out decorations, or work freehand.
Mix mortar per package directions, then give each stone a "frosting" about a half-inch deep. Press the decorations into the mortar quickly before it begins to harden.
Wait a day for the mortar to dry completely, then mix and spread colored or natural-toned grout around the decorations to seal the edges and add to the design. Give the grout several more days to dry, wipe off the excess with a damp cloth and top with grout sealer.