Plywood and Geckos - Simple Steps to pool decking pizzazz

Pools are an exploding business here in Southern Oregon with more homes boasting them every summer. I knew when we were choosing our new in-ground pool that it would become a popular hangout and I was drawn to the idea of doing something artsy with all that cement my husband and our concrete-ologist pal were planning on pouring.

While I was at the local flooring store I noticed a gecko mosaic in the center of their showroom floor. It was then I decided I would look into embedding mosaics in our new pool decking.

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"It is through nature that the teachings come, and it is to nature that we will all return." - Jamie Sams and David Carson, Medicine Cards

A Personal Choice

I knew I wanted sea life mosaics because I love the Pacific Ocean, which isn't far from where I live, and also maybe the Aquarian in me wanted a say. Other then that, I was open to whatever fun and crazy designs were available. I spent hours and hours searching the web, but was disappointed so many makers highly recommended against installing mosaics in the decking due to frost damage and cracking under stress, as the typical thickness for mosaic tiles was 1/4 inch. One company though, not only made thicker mosaics, but had a couple pages with instructions and good photos showing how to install mosaics in decking, amongst other possibilities. Grieco Designs in Fort Worth, Texas had a huge assortment, with colors vibrant and eye-catching, which made it all that more difficult to choose. After much contemplation and poll taking in the family, from which I gathered far too many varying opinions, I decided to go with my soul. I then carefully selected designs that were representative of the point I was at in my personal healing journey.

During this course I'd begun studying animal totems and medicine. It must have been in my blood, because I took easily to the belief that certain animals are sent to us in the course of our lifetime to bring a message or omen, and to accompany us as we travail this obstacle course we call life. Here's what I chose...

  • Lizards...dreaming
  • Dragonflies...illusion
  • Frog...cleansing
  • Dolphins...breath
  • Turtles...Mother Earth
  • Sun...a personal choice for my sustenance and protection

And lastly, but most poignant...the manta ray. I'd been practicing meditation, to relax, to re-center my position on Earth, when a mental journey came to me and at one point I fell toward the ocean. I expected to land on a dolphin, my favorite mammal, but instead a giant manta ray leaped out of the water and caught me, taking me under the surface. The water wasn't deep, but it was murky and along the way I saw blurry items on either side of us. I strained to see what they were, but was mentally made aware I needn't worry, that I must focus on what was in front of me, another hazy object. I mentally questioned the manta what was ahead. Manta remained silent, and I got a sense to enjoy the ride. Now, manta ray brings me peace when I think of or see one. Its symbol for ebb and flow, to glide along in life, reminds me to not grasp tightly to anything.

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The Quick List

1 – Choose your mosaics

2 – Make plywood templates, outlining approximately 3/8 inch larger than the mosaic. Write 'UP' on the side you want facing skyward, otherwise you'll make a backward impression!

3 – Lube those babies up with Vasoline!! Not enough and you’ll be chiseling them free!

4 – Press the template into the cement and place rocks or bricks on top to keep the wood from floating, or rising up out of the cement. Not too much weight or they’ll sink.

5 – When cement is set, drill screws part way into the template at several points and gently pull up.


Nature Strikes!

Work Time!

The procedure for installation seemed easy enough, but since no one I knew, including the cement guys, could help me with it, and the Grieco guys hadn't had any emails back from amateur installers like me, I was on my own.

First I imagined where to place them. The diving board was perfect for the pair of dolphins I chose. The frog had to face the creek behind our fence where dragonfly larvae morph and emerge. And of course the dragonflies had to be teasing the frog. The sun at the entry steps at the north end of the pool seemed right, and the manta ray, so grand and striking, just had to be closest to our back door on the west side, the first mosaic to catch the attention of guests rocketing from the house toward the water, and maybe slow them down a bit.

There are a couple points to consider before purchasing and placement.

  • Slipping - the larger the mosaic, the more slippery surface you'll have. There are products available that can coat tiles with a slipproof texture. Check your local hardware stores or shop online to learn more.
  • Freezing - anything in shade during winter will have more chance of accumulating never-thawing ice, if you live in a colder, wetter climate. (The little guy in orange (right) got hit hard in 2006. I saved the pieces, but we'll see if he can ever look as good as new again)

I bought five geckos, two large and three small, to represent our family. They were made in brilliant oranges and greens and tans and I had them rounding the edge of the pool, toward the entry steps. I was warned by their maker at Grieco that they'd be too small to cut a detailed template from, that all their little toes would simply be ripped out with the template. How did they do it then? Visit their web page and you'll see gecko mosaics in their photos. Did I say those guys were good? I halfway heeded their warning and went for round feet without the toes, versus their suggestion of drawing a simple round circle on the wood template to contain the critter. The Grieco guys were very helpful, very honest about their product's capabilities, but after all was said and demolished, er, done, I’d change a couple of their instructions.

If you check out Grieco's site, they have an illustrated page on how to install. You'll love their photos! Those guys are GOOD!


First Impressions!

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It was a very hot day when they poured the cement, climbing to well over 100° by afternoon. Extracting the templates later proved futile, as the decking hardened quicker than anticipated and without enough petroleum jelly on the wood each template stuck like glue. Some had sunk too much, becoming lost in the cement and I was on my hands and knees scoping for the outlines of baby geckos. The manta floated just enough that in measuring the mosaic within the cavity I learned I’d have to chisel, grind or break out the entire bottom of the design in order to have enough depth for the mortar and tile.

Bits, and sometimes large portions, of cement lifted away with the template. The sun design had some overlapping cement I should have paid attention to and wiped off while it was still wet (check out the photo in the 'Work Time' column). The critters that got it the worse were the ones beat on, yanked on and cursed at by a hot and tired hubby. I couldn't blame him. It was very hot weather and frustrating work, but in order to salvage the rest of the designs I fired him and finished the rest of them on my own. It took several days as it turned out. YIKES! But I took my time with a hammer and screwdriver, a real pain you-know-where.

The outlines turned out jagged and no matter how much I tried shaping them with the dremel they still looked raggedy because of their missing chunks. I hoped the grout, chosen as close to the same color as the cement, would disguise the missing cement. No such luck.

Shape, Glue, Press!

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The Good (not great)...

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A sad day for ray...

Two months after the cement was poured a crack appeared that began from the house and headed straight for the manta's impression. I decided I'd work on the other mosaics while I kept an eye on the travel of the crack. Good thing, because it eventually went all the way through the manta's spot.


But that wasn't the worst of it. The weather turned too wet to finish work so I stored the giant manta in my closet. That winter a deep, prolonged freeze had me pouring salt on a couple places where the ice wouldn’t melt. The next morning I discovered the cement had bubbled up like Vesuvius erupting. I wish I’d received the warning not to ever use salt. Three cups of salt did $6000 worth of damage and still spreading. We have to completely redo half of our cement, which includes the manta impression! At least I can do it better next time. Well, that’s another hub…

...the bad

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...the ugly!

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Changes I would make...

1) Thicker plywood. I went with the recommended 3/8 inch by the mosaic maker, same as the mosaic thickness, but now believe 1/2 inch would have served me better. I’d rather fill in and level with mortar than have a cavity too shallow.

2) Slap on lots of lube (Vaseline)! You don't want your wood to stick...; )

3) Watch the temperatures that day, too. Ask your cement guy/gal about the temperature effects, and when the decking might set (when you can walk on it). I’d remove them even before this, but hey, ask the experts at

So all in all they turned out, well, decent. Not as spectacular as if I'd been doing this sort of work for five or ten years, but for my first try I get enough compliments to make me happy. Would I do it again? Definitely.

Comments 3 comments

chris kelley 7 years ago

Fantastic job! Want to go professional?

Jill Lesh 7 years ago

Hey Cathy, this a top notch article. It is very interesting and complete. I am sure that if I had an in ground pool I would give it a try. Great job!!

Cathy profile image

Cathy 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Thanks! Never say never on that pool!

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