How to Remove Ceramic Floor Tile

Woman removing old tiles.
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Overview
  • Working Time: 8 hrs
  • Yield: 100 square foot floor
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0

When you want to replace a ceramic tile floor with another flooring material, you usually are faced with the task of removing the old ceramic tile. While it's possible to lay some types of flooring material directly over the ceramic tile, this can increase the overall thickness of the floor to such a degree that it's not practical. Sheet vinyl can usually be directly laid over ceramic tile, but if you are installing hardwood, laminate, or new ceramic tile, you'll generally have to remove the old ceramic tile before laying the new flooring.

Removing ceramic or stone floor tile is a job that is simple in technique but difficult in terms of effort. In fact, it can be backbreaking work, especially with older installations. Doing your own removal can, however, save you a significant amount of money since the job is so labor intensive.

Thin-Set Tile Installation vs. Mortar Base Installations

In older traditional ceramic tile installations, the tile was set into a base of solid mortar that was often reinforced with steel lathe. The mortar bed usually was applied over a layer of tar paper covering the subfloor. Removal of such a floor can be extremely hard work, involving hours of breaking up the mortar base and laboriously cutting away the metal lathe to free slabs of mortar and tile from the tar paper underlayment. Be prepared for a long, hard weekend of work if you're dealing with this kind of installation. The process involves a lot of hammering, prying, and cutting the metal lathe into manageable pieces. A similarly difficult job is ahead of you if the tile was installed on a concrete slab.

The job is somewhat easier if the tile was installed over an underlayment of plywood or cement board. Thin-set adhesive came into popularity in the 1970s, allowing tile to be adhered directly to a plywood or cement board underlayment. This system quickly replace the traditional mortar-bed system. With a thin-set installation, the bond between tiles and underlayment is relatively easy to break. It is still hard work, but you can take solace in the fact that you're not facing a solid mortar base.

Removing Ceramic Floor Tile

Our example of floor tile removal uses basic hand tools on a ceramic tile floor that was laid over a plywood underlayment. The process is largely the same if you have cement board as an underlayment. Although we are using hand tools, there are also power tools available to simplify the job. A hammer drill with a chisel attachment can make quicker work of this job, and is highly recommended if the tile is installed over a solid mortar base or over a concrete slab. Hammer drills can be rented at tool lease outlets or home centers. A hammer drill can wreak havoc with a plywood or cement board underlayment, though, so be prepared for some subfloor repair work if you use this tool.

Be aware that tile removal can generate a huge amount of dust. It's a good idea to tape off your work area with plastic sheeting to protect your ventilation system and ensure ​dust particles do not travel needlessly through your home or office.​​​​​

Always wear a dust mask, eye protection, hearing protection, and heavy-duty work gloves when demolishing tile. The hammering and ​chiseling action can kick up shards of tile or mortar that could cause serious damage to your eyes. Tile pieces also can be very sharp when broken, so wear long sleeves when doing this demolition.

Ceramic tile demolition can generate a significant amount of waste, especially for large floors. You may want to consider leasing a roll-off dumpster to handle the debris.

Protective workwear
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What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Dust mask
  • Eye protection
  • Flat pry bar
  • Hammer
  • Hearing protector
  • Heavy-duty work gloves
  • Flat-edge shovel
  • Floor scraper (bully tool)
  • Masonry chisel
  • Sledge hammer
  • Boxes or wheelbarrow for carting debris
  • Circular saw (where needed)
  • Scoop shovel
  • Broom
  • Shop vacuum

Materials

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Masking tape
  • Contractor's trash bags

Instructions

  1. Prepare the Work Area

    Before you begin, take some time to prepare your working area so you don't accidentally damage other things in the room.

    Use a flat pry bar and hammer to remove all molding, trim, door frames, and doors that will interfere with the tile removal. This prevents them from getting damaged or covered in dust during demolition.

    Cover heating ducts and open doorways with sheets of plastic to control dust. Tile demolition can generate a significant amount of fine dust that can travel throughout the house unless controlled.

  2. Find a Starting Point

    Begin at the edge of the floor in a spot with easy access, such as a doorway. Wearing your dust mask and safety goggles, use the sledgehammer to break up the tile along the grout lines.

    Be extremely careful, especially when dealing with porcelain tile. The sharp edges can cut like glass.

    Tile demolition
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    Caution

    Be judicious in the use of a sledgehammer. Repeated heavy blows can damage floor framing. Use only the amount of force necessary to break up tiles so that the floor scraper can do its work.

  3. Separate Tiles With Floor Scraper

    Once you have some of the tile removed from hammering at it, find a space to get the floor scraper underneath the tile to pry it up. The more tiles you can pry, the less hammering that will be required, which makes the job go smoother.

    Slide a floor scraper under the attached remnants of tile and pry them off of the subfloor's surface. Put a little muscle into it and they should pop off. A flat shovel can also work for this job. Many floor scrapers are made to use either face up or face down, so try both ways to see what works best. Using it the right way can make this task much easier.

    Alternate hammering and scraping to make your way across the entire room, removing all tiles.

    Hammer and chisel on tile floor
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  4. Remove Adhesive and Grout

    You may need to use a hammer and masonry chisel to remove thin-set adhesive and grout that remains stuck to the underlayment after the tiles have been removed. This depends on the scope of the work and the requirements of the new flooring, but generally, you want to get the floor as smooth as possible after removing the layer of tile. Your new flooring will likely require a smooth underlayment and these smaller tools can help you achieve that.

  5. Remove Underlayment (if Necessary)

    Depending on the condition of the underlayment and the requirements of the new flooring, it may be simplest to remove the existing cement board or plywood underlayment at this time. If the underlayment is badly damaged, or if the new flooring requires a different type of underlayment, now is the time to remove and replace the old underlayment.

    This is usually best done by cutting the underlayment into manageable sections, using a circular saw with the blade set to the same thickness as the underlayment. Once the underlayment is cut into sections, it can be unscrewed or pried up for removal.

    Tip

    If you are installing new ceramic tile, existing cement board underlayment can often be reused as the base for the new tile, provided it is intact and firmly bonded to the subfloor. Or, thin sheets of new cement board can be applied over the old layer to create a fresh base for thin-set adhesive and new tile.

  6. Clean Up

    Use a scoop shovel and broom to remove debris. Sturdy contractor trash bags can be used to hold debris for disposal. Check with local authorities on disposal requirements; you may need to arrange for the transport this material to a specified construction waste disposal site.

    Complete the cleanup by using a shop vacuum to remove any remaining dust.

    Clean up with shovel
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