Nevin Quaife
Nevin Quaife

CANADA

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CERAMIC TILE | Remove & Repair

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?

  • 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!

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.

  • 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!

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?

  • 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!

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.

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 abound my tub and shower enclosures are loose? What happened? .

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!!

Remove the broken tile...

If the broken tile is loose, simply lift it out and go on the 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.

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.

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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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 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 adhesive that may be on the tiles or between them can be removed with a razor. 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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Handyman receives alot of questions regarding various jobs that require a handyman or do-it-yourselfers. I have compiled an entire library of questions and answers that will not only aid the homeowner but will also serve as an invaluable sourse of informtion for all handymen specializing in any area of repair for the home..

BASEBOARD HEATING

CABINETS - HANGING

DECK BUILDING

FANS - HANGING

GARAGE - INSTALL OPENERS

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For a complete list of handyman tips and suggestions, please visit my handyman library for help with your project.

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