These outdoor steps make a bold statement with small pieces of trim tile. (Tim Carter)

I’ve got an exciting outdoor patio project I’m about to start. But I need your help. This is a multilevel patio that will be connected by several sets of steps. I’m leaning toward an orange-red terra cotta clay tile for this project. The issue is I just don’t want to end up with a big blob of orange/red in my back yard. I feel I need to incorporate extra accent color. Do you have any ideas? I’m looking for something that will last for many years. — Terry C., Cambria, Calif.

I can relate to your dilemma. Years ago, I built two red paver brick patios for my wife. Steps were part of the design. While the brick did come in subtly different shades, when the patios were done they were giant blobs of red brick!

Years after I built the patios, I’d sit out there on summer evenings and think about how I could have done things differently, especially when it came to the step risers. I believe you’re going to like my suggestions. Let’s get started.

You’re not the first person to have this low-level anxiety. The same thing can happen when a person paints a room. At first the walls are screaming color because nothing is on them and the room is empty. But adding furniture, paintings and other things back into the room tames the wild beast of wall color.

Think about how your patio furniture is going to offset the wide expanse of the tile. We had just traditional dark green wrought-iron patio furniture on our red brick, and I was amazed at how it toned down the brick. Patio furniture with cushions, texture and fabrics could go a long way to create the overall look you’re thinking about.

My first suggestion is to incorporate tiles of different color and design into the stairs. When you approach even a low set of steps, your eyes are almost always focused on the risers (i.e., the vertical surfaces). Your brain is doing the math so that you raise each foot just enough to clear the riser so it lands on the tread (i.e., the horizontal surface).

Take advantage of this and put some colored tile on the riser instead of the same terra cotta tile you’re using for all the flat patio surfaces and the treads. There are endless choices of glazed tile meant for outdoor use that will stand the test of time if installed correctly. I can think of no fewer than 10 colors and patterns that would go very well with a standard terra cotta tile.

Always be sure the accent tile you decide to use is made to withstand exposure to the outdoor elements where you live. While it doesn’t get bitterly cold where you live, some people do have freezing conditions, and the tile they use needs to be made to withstand freeze/thaw cycles without crumbling.

You may even be able to locate an accent tile that speaks to something you like, the flavor of your setting, or it communicates a theme or feeling you’re trying to create with the patio setting.

For example, let’s say you like everything ocean. You might find tiles that have all sorts of sea creatures or other maritime scenes baked into the clay. Maybe you love flowers and the accent tiles are all sorts of different flowers that appeal to you. The possibilities are almost endless.

You can extend this accent tile idea into the flat surfaces of the patio. You may find tiles that can be used to outline different seating areas on the patio. Other tiles can be used that may tell a story. Some tiles can be used to create a pathway within the terra cotta tile.

Don’t forget you can use potted plants that rest in decorative pots to also help add different colors and textures to the patio. My wife would fill many pots of different sizes and in different groupings at spots on the patio. My favorite annual flowers were ones that were a deep red in color.

To ensure all this hard work stands the test of time, you need to make sure the tile is put on a base that’s not going to fall apart or crack. This means you, or your contractor, need to install a poured concrete base that contains lots of steel reinforcing rods.

I’d paint the steel with a special paint that resists rust and salt spray. Recently, I was able to see accelerated salt-spray tests of metal paints, and a paint called X-O Rust outperformed all other paints.

The concrete should be no less than 4,000 pounds per square inch in strength and at least 5 inches thick. I’d place the steel rods both directions at 2 feet on center, making sure they end up in the middle of the concrete.

The steel holds the concrete together in the event it wants to crack and displace. You can’t afford any cracks to form and spread. These cracks would telegraph through the finished tile.

Modern techniques and materials might be in order for you, too. Crack isolation fabrics and membranes are commonly used to help prevent cracks from telegraphing through to the finished tile. I’d look into these and make sure the manufacturer states they can be used in your setting.

Try to do all the tile work on overcast days with the temperatures in the 60 F range. Hot, sunny weather is the worst to install patio tile. The cement mortar can dry too rapidly leading to poor bonding.

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