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Removing Ceramic Tile

DEAR TIM: It is time to remove the 18-year-old ceramic tile in one of my bathrooms. The tile is a smaller octagonal tile that is adhered to a cement board which is nailed to my wood subfloors. I tried breaking the tile with a hammer, but the tile shatters into what look to be pieces of glass. Is there a way to easily remove the tile from the cement board? What is the fastest and easiest way to remove the ceramic tile? Debbie P., Wilmington, NC

DEAR DEBBIE: I don't know if there is a best way to remove ceramic tile. Each tile reacts differently to force, and the different types of adhesive can make the chore difficult to nearly impossible. Over the years, I have taken up more than my fair share of ceramic tile, and there are several tricks that I have learned.

The first thing to do is stop hitting the tile with a hammer. Based upon your description of the tile, it sounds as if you are dealing with porcelain tile. Porcelain tile is extremely hard, and has a very high quartz content. These characteristics cause it to react as if it were glass. Each hammer strike creates conchoidal fractures in the tile. The resulting shards have smooth curved edges that are just like a chipped-flint arrowhead. These edges can be razor sharp, so be extremely careful.

If you haven't already assembled certain tools and safety gear, do so now. The common tools, I use to remove ceramic tile, are a stiff-bladed 3-inch putty knife, a small hammer, a flat garden spade and possibly an iron pry bar. You must wear wrap-around safety glasses, medium to heavy leather gloves and a long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt.

A gardening spade makes quick work of removing the ceramic tile and the underlying cement board. PHOTO CREDIT: Kelly Carter

A gardening spade makes quick work of removing the ceramic tile and the underlying cement board. PHOTO CREDIT: Kelly Carter

You are in luck that your tile is adhered to cement board. This will make the job somewhat easy. Many years ago, ceramic tile was commonly adhered to fresh concrete that was poured between the floor joists of houses. The tiles were actually mortared to the concrete mix, and once cured, the tiles and concrete became one unit. The only way to remove this matrix of material is to use a four-pound hammer and lots of muscle power. It is miserable work.

If you are trying to remove the tile so as to save the cement board, it is a waste of time in my opinion. It is grueling work to try to remove ceramic tile in an effort to salvage inexpensive cement board.

I feel it is a far better idea to remove the cement board and tile all at the same time. You want to start removing tile where the ceramic tile ends and a different flooring material, such as carpet or hardwood flooring, begins. Do not try to start this job in the middle of the ceramic tile floor.

To remove the cement board and tile at the same time, you may have to remove some of the tile and cement board separately at first. I use the small hammer and putty knife for this task. Individual ceramic tiles come off a floor or wall with less effort if you remove the grout surrounding the tile. The edge of the stiff putty knife can be used to pulverize and remove the grout. You can also use small electric tools with special grinding wheels to do the same thing.

Once the grout is removed from around a tile, try to pop the tile off the cement board by driving the stiff putty knife under the tile at a low angle. The blade of the putty knife should be nearly parallel with the floor. Strike the end of the putty knife gently with the hammer. The tile will either break in several pieces, or it may pop off all at once. Try to remove an area of tile from the floor that is about 8 inches wide and perhaps 2 inches from the flooring material that touches up against the tile.

After the tile has been removed, and you can see the cement board, strike the cement board with your hammer to pulverize it. It will take a few hammer blows to achieve this, but the cement board will disintegrate. Remove the debris so the wood floor is exposed. I prefer to use a wet-dry vacuum to get up all of the small debris.

Take the flat garden spade and drive it between the wood subfloor and the cement board. Try to get about 6 inches of the spade under the cement board. Lift up on the handle to lift the cement board. Move the spade left or right if possible to start to pop up the cement board from the wood subfloor. Once you get the cement board to move up, it will readily detach from the wood subfloor as you drive the spade farther under the cement board and tile.

The roofing nails used to attach the cement board to the wood subfloor will be somewhat problematic. You will feel them as you try to move the spade under the cement board. When this happens, move the spade left or right to try to bypass the nails.

If the nails have a smooth shank, they will offer little resistance to lifting forces. The trick is to create a gap between the cement board and the wood subfloor. Once you can get the cement board to lift up, it is only a matter of moving the spade farther under the cement board and then using the spade as a lever to pry the cement board off the wood subfloor.

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5 Responses to Removing Ceramic Tile

  1. Tim,
    I am going to help my sone remodel his 1960's bathroom. Tackling the shower first, It looks as though the wall tiles are set into mortar. Was this a common practice back then? I'm thinking that mortar was applied to a mesh backing to create a surface connected to the studs. If this is right, I'm assuming ewe just have to muscle the walls out, with a heavy hammer, until were down to the studs. Am I right in assuming this?

  2. Wow! Thanks, Tim. I have this very issue in my bathroom and have gotten every opinion from my fellow DIYers like, tile over top of the tile, remove the tile and leave the cement, to "Cement in the bathroom? What???"
    I am more of a remove it all and start clean kind of guy and this little tutorial was very enlightening. I defiantly feel confident in my initial assessment of getting rid of the subfloor and lay down a new one.

  3. Hi Tim,

    I want to redo the small hex tile in the bathroom of the apartment I just bought. It was built in 1916 (and for what it's worth, I'm on the third floor). There were numerous small cracks running all over the floor, and several loose tiles. It looked like concrete was underneath the handful of tiles that had come off entirely.

    After doing some research, I thought I could do it myself (though I haven't done this before). Using a cold chisel and a mallet, I took off a 8x4 inch section of the tile to see exactly what I'd need to redo. What I found was confusing.

    The tile is firmly adhered to about an inch of concrete, and I can't remove the tile without breaking off this layer. Underneath the concrete I found pipes that connect in a T shape. Next to them (i.e., on the same level) were 2 corners of some flat material (I think wood, but it was hard to tell) nestled into the corners of the T between the crossbar and downstroke. Between the wall and the top of the T, there seems to be just inches of dusty, gravelly fill. I can't dig all the way to the bottom, but it definitely goes down for at least an inch or two. (I have a picture, since this is hard to describe.)

    Have you seen this before? Do you have any advice on figuring out the solid part of the subfloor? And do you think there's any chance this is still a DIY project?

    Krista

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