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Ceramic Tile Repair, Installation and Maintenance

Sometimes the most disgusting tile wall can be repaired... sometimes not.  Let's keep a positive outlook...

How do I replace a broken ceramic floor tile? Is it the same procedure to replace a broken wall tile?

The tiles on the walls in my tub and shower enclosures are loose? What happened?

Can the loose tiles be reattached to the walls without totally gutting the bathroom?

I just grouted my shower tiles, and there is a whitish residue on the tiles.  I have tried to wash it off with all sorts of cleaners, but it won't come off.  What do I do?


How do I replace a broken ceramic floor tile? Is it the same procedure to replace a broken wall tile?

Replacing a broken tile can be very easy or very hard, as with most things in real life! The type of adhesive and the substrate... the material the tile is attached to... determine the difficulty of removal.

In modern homes, wall tiles are generally set in adhesive, while floor tiles are set in either adhesive, thinset, or mortar. Mortar, or mud, is still commonly used for bathroom and shower enclosure tile floors. Thinset is like mortar in that it is a cement-based product. It differs from true mortar in that it may be applied directly over plywood or tileboard without the need for the metal-mesh reinforcement necessary for mortar.

Replacement of floor and wall tiles is similar and for the purpose of this discussion will be considered the same, unless I make special note of some unusual situation.

If the wall or floor has been damaged by moisture, then you should also read "The tiles on the walls around my tub and shower enclosures are loose? What happened?" .

1) Remove the grout from around the tile(s) you want to replace...

The grout bonds and seals the area between the tiles, protecting the floor underneath from the moisture which can eventually loosen the tiles and damage the substrate. If you try to remove the tile without removing all of the grout first, there is a chance that the adjacent tiles will chip.

If the grout is a soft, unsanded wall grout, you can scratch it out with a utility knife, being careful not to slip and scratch adjacent tiles (oddly enough, you will find that as the blade dulls, it does a better job).

If you are dealing with a sanded floor grout, which tends to be tougher than wall grout, you may have to use a small cold chisel to get the grout out, especially if the grout line is very wide (over 1/4"). However, once you break the surface of the grout, you may be able to go back to the utility knife with the dull blade. There is a tool called a grout saw that is intended to remove grout. However, it is useless unless the grout line is wide.

DON'T FORGET TO SAVE A SAMPLE OF THE GROUT TO TAKE TO THE STORE FOR A COLOR MATCH!!

2) Remove the broken tile...

If the broken tile is loose, simply lift it out and go on the next step. For floor tiles, rap on the edge of the tile, using a hammer and a small cold chisel or other suitable tool (in other words, whatever you have handy, such as a screwdriver). Do not touch any of the adjacent tile, because you may loosen or chip them. A few carefully place whacks may loosen a tile set in mortar or Thinset.

If the tile is set in adhesive, as are most wall tiles, or well adhered to the mortar, every piece of the tile is going to fight you during the removal process. You will probably do some damage to the floor or wall underneath the tile during removal, but it is of little consequence once you install the new tile.

You can use a cold chisel to break a tile into pieces, but you must be very careful to not damage adjacent tiles. I usually use a carbide drill bit, 1/4" to 1/2" diameter, and drill a series of holes in the tile, making it easier to break apart. Once you have a hole in the tile, you can use a chisel or screwdriver to pry/break the rest of the tile out.

3) Prepare the hole and set the replacement tile...

Vacuum out all debrus, and scrape out any lumps or bumps in the mortar or adhesive. Test fit the new tile to make sure it 1) sits firmly without excessive rocking, and 2) doesn't sit higher than the other tiles. Scrape out more remaining adhesive/mortar if necessary.

Apply a 1/8" layer of adhesive to the back of the tile with a putty knife. It is not necessary to use a special grooved tile adhesive applicator for a small repair such as this.

Do not apply the adhesive closer than a half-inch to the edge of the tile. You don't want the stuff to squeeze out into the area between the tiles when you place it. Just more of a mess to clean up later!

Press the tile into its place with a slight wiggling motion, which will spread the adhesive and assure a good bond.

4) Let the adhesive dry for 24 hours and apply matching grout...

If any more than a slight amount of adhesive squeezed out between the tiles in the last step, use a utility knife or a thin screwdriver and scrape as much of it out as you can.

Mix the grout per instructions on the label. I always mix no less than 2 cups of grout, regardless how little grout I actually need. By doing so, you are more likely to get the proper mix of chemicals and pigment.

On these small jobs, I find that a damp sponge and/or fingers are a great combination for pushing the grout into the cracks! The grout, being a cement product, will tend to beat up the hands, so if you are the delicate sort, wear good fitting rubber or latex gloves.

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The tiles on the walls in my tub and shower enclosures are loose? What happened?

Loose bathroom tiles within a tub or shower enclosure almost always indicate that moisture has gotten behind them.  A cycle seems to occur in tiled enclosures, especially enclosures built before the advent of waterproof tile backer boards.  Over time, moisture leaks between the tiles, around loose grout or caulk, and is absorbed by the porous wall behind (be it plaster or wallboard). 

Since there is no easy way for this moisture to escape, it continues to build up over years till the tiles separate from the wall.  Because the grout between the tiles acts as an adhesive between the tiles, the loose tiles may only become apparent when (1) repairs are made to the grout or caulk or (2) when the wall is disturbed by cleaning or even by simply leaning on it, causing obvious movement in the wall.

Loose bathroom floor tiles outside of an enclosure can also mean a moisture problem, especially when the loose tiles are around the toilet.  They can also mean the original installation was not done properly, and simple use has cause the tiles, over years, to loosen.

In either case, the tiles will need to be removed and cleaned prior to reinstallation.  If the walls are damaged and soft, they will also need to be repaired or replaced, depending on the extent of the damage.  Read next question for more on this topic.

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Can the loose tiles be reattached to the walls without totally gutting the bathroom? If so, how it this done?

If the damage is limited to a few rows of tile, a repair can be accomplished for much less cost than a bathroom renovation. After all, that's why we do it ourselves, right? And, even if you don't do it yourself, you'll still save a bundle doing a repair.

(Note: The repair discussed here is on drywall, not plaster. Because plaster walls are constructed in different ways, the repair procedure will vary depending on the extent of the water damage, and the type of lath the plaster is set into. Some plaster repairs can be done using drywall as a starting point, using shims to approximate the wall level and drywall compound as a leveler.

Remove all loose tiles, cut out damaged wall, and allow the enclosure to dry out...

If the walls are solid, even if the paper has come off, you should be able to reglue the tiles with ceramic tile adhesive after proper cleaning.  If the wall is falling apart and mushy, remove tiles until at least a half a tile's width of sound wall is exposed. Cut out the wall with a drywall saw so that you have at least a half tile's width of solid wall exposed around the area to be patched.  Remove only as much tile as you need to expose good wall.

The tile removal will tear the drywall paper, but the mastic will adhere to the gypsum underneath well enough for the purposes of this type of repair.

If you plan on reusing the old tiles, you may want to keep any that have been cut in some sort of order so that you will have less problem reinstalling them.   Of course, it is always easier if you can obtain new tiles, since the cleaning of the mastic and remnants of drywall off of the tile backs can be a chore.  The only way to know if you can get a match is to take one to a quality tile store and cross your fingers!

The adhesive on the backs of the old tiles does not have to entirely removed, but there should be no large lumps, or the tile will be unattractively raised above the level of the other tiles.  You can more easily scrape the old adhesive off it you warm it with a heat gun set to low temperature.  You can use a putty knife or a single-edge razor blade holder to do the actual removal, but be careful.  A utility knife and/or a pair of pliers (both used carefully) are used to remove the grout around the edge of the tiles.  Caulk, being a softer material, will yield easily to a utility knife or razor knife.

You will also want to remove the grout from the edges of the tiles on the wall bordering the repair.

Choose your patching material...

Once you have allowed adequate time for drying, you must choose a replacement material for the wall.  There is a water resistant drywall... so called "green" drywall.  It is as easy to cut and work with as standard drywall.  However, it is not totally waterproof, so it has been abandoned by most contractors for use inside enclosures.

The other alternative is tile board, which is a waterproof cement product with a special facing designed specifically for use in tub and bath enclosures.  The drawback with this stuff is that it is harder to work with than drywall.  Either material will last longer than the original drywall... the tile board will last the longer of the two.

Because of the ease of use, the "green" drywall has the edge in repairs, while in new installations, only tile board should be used. To get the longest life from the "green" drywall, be sure to 1)completely cover the face of the drywall with mastic... this will waterproof the face, and 2) do not run the drywall all the way to base of the tub/shower pan. Leave an air gap of at least 1/2 inch around the entire base. Do not fill it with mastic.

Install nailers as necessary and patch the walls...

You can use pieces of 1/2" plywood to bridge across the seams if they don't end over wall studs... they rarely do!  Simply cut a piece of the plywood long enough to bridge the "floating" seam, and at least 4" wide.  Hold the plywood in place on the wall so that half of the 4" dimension is behind the wall.  Use drywall screws to attach the plywood in place.  Do this for all seams, including between wall studs. The exposed plywood will act as "nailers"... actually "screwers", though I doubt that this tweak in the terminology will take hold, for obvious reasons.

Install one or two 1 1/4 drywall screws in the old work at any point it overlaps a wall stud. This will help to pull the old wall back to the studs so that it will be reasonably level with the new patch.

Now, you have a place to make solid screw attachment for the patch.  Put the patch in place, and drive screws through the patch into the plywood along all edges at about 4" to 6" spacing.  If you want to be really picky and have the strongest possible job, you can apply some construction adhesive or tile mastic to the plywood before installing it.

Cut the patch to fit your opening. Before screwing the patch in place, apply some construction adhesive to the plywood nailers. There should be a slight gap around the perimeter of the patch. Apply ceramic tile adhesive to these gaps, and smooth it into the face of the patch, leaving no lumps.

If you wonder why drywall taping is not mentioned, it is because it is unnecessary for this type of repair. It is intended to stabilize and prevent minor surface cracking in unsecured seams, and, in this repair, all the seams have solid backing.

The face of the loose tiles, and the tiles adjacent to them still on the wall should be thoroughly cleaned with a scum remover and all residue of caulk or soap should be scraped clean and wiped down with denatured alcohol. Once the walls are dry and the tiles clean, it is time to reinstall the tiles.  Apply a thin coat of adhesive to the back of each tile and press it into the wall.  If the glue oozes out from between the tiles, you are over applying and should pull the tile off, scrape the excess adhesive off, and restick the tile. When you are done, any adhesi ve that may be on the tiles or between them can be removed with a razor.

Install grout as necessary...

The next step is to regrout the walls.  The premixed grouts are convenient and work fine as long as white is the color you need.  Other colors must be mixed.  I discourage the use of premixed grouts for any but the smallest jobs.  They dry very quickly and don't clean up as well as dry grouts.  Also, use a latex-fortified grout... they are more waterproof and flexible than standard grout. Follow the directions on the grout package carefully, and do a thorough job of cleaning the faces of the tile of grout residue, or you will have to use a special acidic cleaner later to remove the "haze". After the grout dries, you should caulk wherever the tiles meet the tub/shower.

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I just grouted my shower tiles, and there is a whitish residue on the tiles.  I have tried to wash it off with all sorts of cleaners, but it won't come off.  What do I do?

There are a few possible causes for the residue.  If you didn't clean the tiles completely enough during the grouting process, there may be an actual layer of portland cement bonded to the face of the tiles.  This can be removed with a grout cleaner that contains phosphoric acid.

Sometimes, the actual pigment in the tile grout will adhere to the face of the tile.  This is unaffected by the grout cleaner, but can be removed with either denatured alcohol or lacquer thinner.  Many modern tile grouts contain latex additives that add more flexibility and water resistance to the grout.  You may have even added it yourself during the mixing process.  These additives can also cling to the tile face, and can be removed with the above mentioned solvents.

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