Near the top of the list of difficult jobs to avoid is tile removal. But somehow you drew the short straw and it’s time to get on with it. It’s discouraging to ask for professional advice and hear “it’s not that easy” every time. But you do have some options to make the job less challenging. Sometimes you can even remove tile the easy way (more on that later). So with a wish that all the tile you encounter can stay right where it is, here’s our guide to how to remove tile. Be sure to check out the world’s worst tiling jobs, too…I mean, why not?
What I Didn’t Know Then…
1. Remove the underlayment (and the tile with it). Sometimes old tile is installed poorly. While that’s awful for the previous owners, it may actually help you. We’ve seen tile installed on Hardiebacker or other materials that were barely secured to the sub-floor. When that happens, it’s often easier to lift up large pieces of the backing material—and the tile just comes with it. It’s rare, but this is one way to remove tile the easy way and avoid working in progressive layers.
2. Please wear eye protection. Years ago, this author had the distinct misfortune of remodeling a bathroom with a mud wall. This sounds much more innocuous than it is. It’s an old construction technique where tile is set in concrete or mortar that is held together by metal mesh. A mud wall is more fitting for a nuclear fallout shelter panic room than a bathroom. When a future owner wants to remodel, it’s a real mess. While foolishly trying to chip away some edge tile with hand tools, small shards drew blood as they flew through the air. Protect your eyes. And consider using power tools, which we’ll discuss below.
3. Remove baseboards and any trim in the way. Gently remove baseboards and trim with a thin pry bar if you plan to keep it. On older homes, there may be a lot of detail in this molding that you don’t want to have to recreate if you can reuse the original.
What Lies Beneath – How to Remove Tile the Easy Way
4. Determine the type of underlayment. This is related to our first point but assumes you have to progressively remove the material as expected. Choose a starting place and break through the tile. You’ll likely find one of several things under the tile: Plywood, plank flooring, backer board, or cement. Hopefully, you don’t find another layer of tile (been there, done that)! You might be able to get a foothold under the underlayment and pry it up, in which case the tile might break up and pop off as mentioned earlier. Don’t plan on salvaging the underlayment. You want to start clean, and it could be concealing mold or water damage. Your underlayment should almost always come up after you remove the tile. In either case, get a feel for what you’re up against and how it’s fastened to the floor.
5. Remove tile. You can get to work with some elbow grease, claw pry tools, and a hammer, but there are some powered options. For small wall areas, like when renovating a 1920s bathroom, you can use a multi-tool in combination with a pry bar. For larger flooring spaces, we suggest using a rotary hammer with a Makita SDS-Max floor scraper. We like letting the tool do the work, and for tile removal, this fits the bill. This is how to remove tile the easy way.
6. Clean the subfloor or underlying wall. Once you get all that tile and any backer board off, you need to prep the surface for the new tile. If it was over flooring, then this could involve removing screws. It might also include going over the surface with a scraper to get rid of the remaining thinset. Or, it could be both. In either case, you can’t lay down new tile or even backer board until you’ve got a smooth, flat surface to work with. Anything with more than a 1/16-inch variance could give you trouble. On bathroom wall tile, that may include grinding down old mastic.
We hope you’ve learned something from how to remove tile. If you’re a Pro and you have tile removal tips, add them in the comments below—or contact us with your own Pro tips.