Repairing, Removing and Replacing Ceramic Tile

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Dear NH,

I need to replace my bath tub, which will require removing a few rows of tile near the tub. How do I remove ceramic tile so I can reuse it?


Dear LMJ,

Removing tile is always risky. The removal of the first tile is the riskiest task in this project, for sure! If this is any consolation, once you have that first one removed, the rest will most likely yield to your advances with less fuss. One assumption I am going to make is that your tiles are installed over some sort of wallboard. If the tiles are set into a mortar (cement) bed on the wall, or are glued to a rigid cement-based board, you may have no choice but to break them off or actually gut the wall. Being the optimistic sort, lets assume the first more favorable scenario… and then move on.

The first and perhaps most important step is to scrape out all the hard grout from the perimeter of the tiles you want to remove. You want to try to isolate the tiles from each other as much as possible. This is true even if you do not care to save the tiles, since you will still find them difficult to remove, especially the first one! Also, the flexible caulking between the tub and the tiles and in the vertical corners must be scraped out. Both removal chores can be accomplished with either a sharp utility knife or a razor blade mounted in a special holder. Hard caulks will soften with heat, so the use of a heat gun (low setting) or even a hair dryer will ease the task. The grout should scrape out easily since wall grout is rather soft.

Once all the tiles are grout and caulk-free, do a little tapping on the tiles to see if any are slightly loose. Probably the luckiest thing that could happen would be to find a tile that was already loose due to some water seepage. Loose tiles are most likely found near the corner of the tub below the spout or showerhead. If you can locate a loose one, the rest will often come off easily. This condition is often not apparent until you begin removing the grout and caulk. In fact, many regrouting/recaulking jobs can unexpectedly turn into small renovations because of this sneaky deterioration in the walls behind the tiles.

Gently but forcefully push a thin putty knife 2"-3" wide between the first tile you want to remove and its longtime neighbors, moving around the edge and breaking any leftover grout sealing them together. Pry them away from the wall, one at a time. Work around the tile, nudging and prying upwards to gradually separate it from the wall. Watch out for the corners of the tiles… the easiest to chip. The paper face of the wallboard will tear (remember our assumption earlier), but that is OK. Here is your "moment of truth"… if the wall is mortar, you will probably not be able to remove the tiles without breaking them.

Even with all the care and patience you can muster, there is still a strong chance that you will break or crack one or more tiles during this procedure. My worst nightmare… and I have lived it… is to break a tile by dropping it while cleaning off all the old glue and grunge… another necessary step to complete before reusing it! It is important to stress that working too quickly will virtually assure breakage. But if you do break tiles, don't despair... see this as an opportunity to be creative. You an replace the tiles around the base of the wall with another color that compliments the existing tiles, or even design a unique tile pattern from the wide variety of tile styles available today!

Dear NH,

In the process of remodeling our kitchen, I have pulled off all the old ceramic tiles and am now facing the old dried cement on the plaster walls. Is there a relatively simple way to remove the cement without destroying the wall plaster so that the new tiles can then be installed? Any help is gratefully appreciated.


Dear PB,

There is a product on the market, made by a company called Jasco, appropriately named Jasco Adhesive Remover. This product should do the job. Chemically, it is a cousin to paint remover, with methylene chloride as the main active ingredient, so expect the paint to come off the wall along with the old adhesive. If you can't find the Jasco product, you can try regular paint remover or even a "furniture refinisher" which shares some of the solvent characteristics of paint remover but with less strength.

Watch out for fume accumulation!  These products can be both toxic and flammable!

Dear NH,

I need to remove my broken ceramic soap dish from the tiled shower wall. Is it done the same way as removing a broken tile?

SW from Temple Hills, Maryland

Dear SW,

No. The removal method depends on the way the soapdish was mounted. There are two installation methods commonly used depending on the design of the fixture. By the by, these methods also apply to other ceramic fixtures such as towel bars, toilet paper holders and toothbrush holders.

The first method is the retrofit method where a specially designed ceramic fixture is mounted using a metal or plastic plate that is attached to the wall with screws or wall anchors. The ceramic fixture is shaped to slide tightly over this plate and then gently tapped with a cloth-protected hammer or wood block to seat it firmly. You can tell if your fixture is this type by looking underneath it for a wide opening with tapered edges. You might even be able to see the mounting plate. To remove the fixture, simply tap it upward with your hand, a rubber mallet or a hammer covered with a nice soft towel to cushion the ceramic from cracking (unless, as in your case, the fixture is already broken).

Traditional permanent ceramic fixtures are held in place with a glob of plaster that "keys" or spreads into a hole in the wall cut behind the fixture. The plaster sets very hard to hold the fixture in place. To remove the fixture without damaging the surrounding tile requires you to break the ceramic fixture apart. Otherwise, you will pull the tiles off the wall and break the wall to boot!

Since possibly sharp pieces of ceramic are going to be flying around, it's wise to wear eye protection and skin protection. Put a soft tarp underneath the fixture to collect the broken pieces.

There are two steps to freeing up the fixture. First, you should scrape off any grout or caulking that seals the perimeter of the fixture. You can do this using a heavy duty utility knife. Be careful not to cut yourself! Second, you should drill a number of holes in the fixture with a carbide masonry drill bit to weaken it. This will lessen the amount of force necessary to break it into pieces. The holes don't have to be large… 1/4 inch is fine… but they should be fairly close together to form a "breaking line" which will yield more easily to the chisel.

Now that you are emotionally prepared, begin to whack the fixture apart with a hammer and chisel… a piece at a time! Using a chisel (either an old, dull wood chisel you don't care about or a masonry "cold" chisel) concentrates the force in a small area of the ceramic so that you have less risk of breaking the wall or cracking the surrounding tiles with the impact.

This is not a quick job, so don't expect to be done in five minutes. The quicker you try to finish, the more likely you will damage surrounding tiles. Take your time and measure your force, using the least amount you can that still gets the job done!

Dear NH,

I have a repair problem that I have not been able to find a solution to (although I have spent many hours researching on the web and talking to local tile repair people). The ceramic tile on my floor, installed in 1986, has one tile that is badly cracked. I was told it is impossible to replace because the entire floor may crack.

I had bought a product to repair ceramic tile which is like a paint. However, the color doesn't match and it has a shiny finish while my tile has a matt finish. Any suggestions would be appreciated.



I can't imagine who you have been talking to... no tile guy I know, for sure! Ceramic tiles are the easiest type of floor to repair. Not effortless (since it can require some strength and patience), but rather easy in the "aesthetic" sense. If you have a matching tile and can get a close-enough grout color, the repair will over time become absolutely invisible as the grout ages. The hardest part in my experience is getting a color match for the tile... unless you are lucky enough to have a box hidden somewhere in the basement!

Having worked on many tile repair jobs, the only situation that I can recall where a "small" tile repair cannot be done is if ALL the tiles were installed poorly. Occasionally, I will encounter a floor that was installed using "thinset", a Portland cement-based tile adhesive. It is a powder and must be mixed on-site with cool water. Sometimes if too dry of a mix is used, too much moisture will be drawn off into the subfloor (plywood or cement slab) and a very weak bond will form. Then during repair, the entire floor will begin to loosen up when one tile is removed! Even trying to loosen the grout will sometimes cause adjacent tiles to dislodge. This "Rube Goldberg" scenario can cause a single tile repair to grow to an entire floor replacement! Other than that, I can't imagine a tile job where a single tile cannot be extracted successfully.

Here's a link to our article on tile replacement techniques...