Saturday, January 7, 2017

How To Salvage Floor and Wall Tile

If you are remodeling, you might have wall, floor or fireplace tiles worth salvaging for resale or to re-use in the new version of the house.  Or you may need to remove intact tiles from "over here" to replace damaged tiles "over there". Removing tiles intact is not a difficult project. It requires a little hand strength, and a few common tools that can be used on other projects. It takes time more than anything else.

I will explain some tile removal techniques, using a 1980s shower stall as the victim example.

This is a typical wall installation - the wallboard or backer board, some mortar (called "mud) to build the thickness up to match the edge tiles, a layer of wire mesh embedded in the mud, and then the thinset mortar that holds the tile to the mud.   Floor tiles do not usually have the wire mesh, and may be laid right over concrete. 

The typical layers: wall or backer board, "mud", wire mesh, thinset mortar, tile

The trick to removing tile is to remember that if you try to pry tiles straight away from the wall, the adhesive force between layers is strong.They will break.  You need to apply force to the weaker junction between layers.
Figure out where to start the removal so that you destroy as few tiles as possible. You need enough room to insert the grout blade and the mason's chisel and use the mallet. Possible spots are at the edge of a tub surround or tile wainscoting, a doorway, at a broken tile, or a partial tile.
If you have to start in the middle by destroying a tile, be sure to cut the grout first to keep the damage confined to one tile.


Most of these tools are useful in other projects, so consider them an investment.  Swap meets, garage sales and Craigslist are places to acquire the sledges and chisels inexpensively.
  • Masonry chisels of appropriate widths  - you may need more than one.  The ideal chisel will be slightly narrower than the tiles you are removing.
  • Small mallet. I use a 2-pound, short-handled mason's sledge.
    Do NOT use a rubber or wooden mallet. They absorb the shock that is needed to separate the tiles from the thinset.
    Do NOT use a construction hammer.
  • Painter's tape
  • Safety goggles
  • Dust mask rated for cement dust
  • Gloves
  • High-speed rotary tool (Dremel or similar tool)  with grout removing blades
  • Multitool  with grout removing blades. This is a little harder to control than the rotary tool.
  • Caulk removal hand tool or carpet knife
  • Manual grout removal tool and blades
  • Old rugs or towels for bathtub padding and protection.
 To remove the mesh and mud after you have salvaged the tiles:
  • Pry bars
  • Wirecutters
Someone asked about using one of the miniature circular saws ... my objection to them is that you can't see where the blade is cutting.  I might use one to cut out unwanted rows, but not near a tile I want to keep.  Angle grinders with diamond blades are good for removing unwanted tiles, but a bit hard to control for many people.

Cutting the Grout

Cutting through the grout between the tiles isolates them from the force applied to the neighboring tiles. It reduces the chances of breaking tiles.  If you don't cut through the grout, you can separate several tiles in one chunk, which sounds like a good thing, but it is likely to break tiles at the edges of the chunk because you are pulling them up, in the direction the adhesive is the strongest.
Tiles separating as one layer is BAD!
  1. First, slice through any caulk and grout around the edges on a backsplash or tub surround.
  2. Then make cross cuts at the corners (shown in red) cutting completely through the grout into the mortar.
  3. Slice along the edges of the tiles (shown in blue).  You do not have to remove all the grout now, just cut through it the full depth of the tile.
Where to cut the grout for square tiles

Subway Tiles: If the tile was laid with an overlap, make cuts at each intersection, then along the rest of the edge.  It is easiest to start with the top of the "T" and then do the right angled cuts. If you have to leave a tiny bit of grout to avoid nicking the tile, that's OK.
Where to cut the grout on a brick pattern.

What about small basket-weave or hex mosaics?  I have never tried to remove them intact. If I had to do it, I would use a very small grout blade to cut the mosaic into smaller chunks, perhaps 4x4, and try removing it in pieces.  Because the individual tiles are tiny, they are less likely to break. The weakest point will be the grout, not the tile.

What about penny rounds, bubbles, and curved tiles? The thought makes me cringe, but if you need to take them out intact, use a "side cutting" bit in your rotary tool and cut around the curves.  If the curve is gentle enough you can use a narrow grout blade and make overlapping straight cuts.

Supporting the Wall Tiles

Despite cutting the grout, sometimes the tiles will just fall off the wall a few tiles away from where you are working. To prevent them from falling and breaking, tape across all the rows. If the tile is exceptionally desirable, use more tape than shown here, and wider tape. And put padding below the tiles just in case.

Tape to support tiles, with the tile I just removed at the left end of the row.

Removing the Tiles

Now that the grout around the tiles is cut and the tiles are supported by tape ... what next?  Unfortunately I don't have a picture of these steps.

Wear safety glasses because chips of tile and thinset might go flying.

Where to tap or use the multi-tool masonry blade
  1. Place the chisel so the point is at the intersection of the tile and the thinset, almost parallel to the wall, but aimed slightly under the tile.
  2. Push the chisel firmly into the intersection with one hand.
  3. Tap the end of the chisel with your mallet.

    : What makes the tile separate from the thinset is not brute force. You are not hammering the chisel under the tile, you are using the chisel tip to transmit a shock wave through the thinset and break the adhesion between it and the tile.  Ideally, the tip of the chisel barely moves and the tile pops loose.

    It's a bit like the flick of Hermione's wand ...  and it takes practice. If you can, practice on tiles you don't want to salvage.
  4. Repeat the tapping until the tile either breaks or separates from the thinset.

    Using the grout blades: Sometimes the danged tile does NOT want to come loose. If so, use the grout blade to make a shallow slice into the thinset under the tile. Then try the chisel and mallet again.

  5. Remove that tile from the tape supports, set it aside and go to the next one, working from empty space into the field of tiles.
Removing wall tiles, row by row, with one broken one

Salvaging Only Part of the Tile

Borders and stripes:  If you only want the fancy tile, remove the grout between the border tiles and the rows of field tile above or below the border. Also remove the grout between the  tiles you want.  Destroy a tile next to the fancy tiles to make room for the masonry chisel.

Decorative Accents and Medallions:  If you want to salvage a few individual fancy bits, slice through the grout around them and smash a neighboring tile or tiles to get access for the masonry chisel.
I would remove the entire field of tiles just for the practice. 

Replacing Accent Tiles:  If you like most of the tile, but want to change a few accents without disturbing the rest of the field, it is possible.  Cut the grout around the one you want to remove and then cut the tile into bits.  Pull or pry out the shards.  Clean up the thinset bed and insert the new tile. Regrout the area.

Removing the Rest of It: It's HAMMER time!

After you have the tiles off, you can forget the delicate tapping.  Yes, this will damage any drywall or plaster and lathe under the mesh and mud.

Wear gloves and safety glasses! 
  1. Pry up the edge of the wire mesh, insert the chisel under the wire and hammer it in. 
  2. Pry up that chunk.
  3. Work your way around the edge, folding the wire and mud out of your way or cut the mesh with the wire cutters to remove chunks.
Removing the wire mesh and mud from the wall

The New Tiles

 We replaced the 1980s tub and the tiles of the surround with something less 1980s. What you see here is the red waterproofing compound and the protective liner of the new tub.  There are spacers at every corner and the lowest row is shimmed up so flexible caulk can be applied.

The tiles are being installed in several segments so the adhesive has time to set up.

The replacement tiles

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