Depending on where they are and how they're installed, removing ceramic tiles can be either a nightmare or a relatively simple job requiring little effort. Stripping all the ceramic tiles from a wall or floor, rather than just trying to remove one or a small number, will also be easier simply because you're not worrying about damaging the surrounding tiles. Here are a number of different situations in which you’ll be removing ceramic tile and some ideas on how to do it right.
Ceramic Wall Tiles on Cement Board or Gyproc
This is by far the easiest situation. If you want to protect the underlying wall, take a three-inch, stiff putty knife and hold it at a very low angle relative to the wall. Starting at the edge of the wall, place the blade against the mastic and give the handle a solid tap with a hammer. In most cases the knife will slide under the tile and by simply lifting the handle up, the tile will pop off the wall.
Removing a single tile from a wall can be trickier. In this case, your first step is to remove the grout surrounding the tile using a rotary tool, a thin chisel, or a grout removing tool. Once you've taken care of the grout, use your stiff putty knife again, tapping the end to slide it under the tile.
Removing Tiles on Concrete Board
Removing floor tiles laid on cement board is more work than wall tiles but the methodology is similar. Choose an edge, where flooring and the wall come together, and start by removing any edgings or moldings. Now, you may be able to remove a starter tile using your putty knife, but more likely, you will need to remove the grout around a few tiles first.
Once you get a few starter tiles off the floor, break up the underlying cement board by banging on it with your hammer and discard it. Now you've created a small opening where you can slide a flat-bladed shovel under both the cement board and the ceramic tiles. Lifting up the shovel from underneath will break the cement board and the grout holding the tile so you can remove it. Repeat the process, sliding the shovel under the cement board then lifting and you can get rid of the floor in chunks.
Old Ceramic Tiles Laid Directly onto a Cement Base
This is by far the most difficult situation to deal with and thankfully this installation technique isn't used anymore. There are lots of old homes with ceramic tiles installed right onto a cement base. Once the mortar has cured, the concrete base and the floor tiles are in reality a single piece. There are only a few ways to remove ceramic tiles in this situation. One solution is to break up the tiles with a sledge hammer. However, it's a back-breaking, labor intensive project, and you risk damaging the base if you’re not careful.
The easier solution to this problem is to use a chisel and a hammer. You will want to start at a broken tile, if you have one, or in an area with loose grout so you can get the chisel under the tile. As you get the chisel tip underneath, tap the end of the tool with your hammer to work it further in. These tools will also work to chip away at the old thinset mortar adhered to the floor, which can’t be removed with a sledgehammer. It will be a time-consuming job, but one that will get you a good, clean subfloor to proceed from.
A Safety Reminder
No matter whether you're removing a whole floor or wall of tiles or just a single tile, remember you need to wear wrap-around eye protection, good quality work gloves, and a dust mask. Obviously, it's also a good idea to place protective covering on the floors and walls around where you're working.