How to remove a tile floor

29 Sep, 2020

So, you’ve decided to remove your tile floor by yourself. It’s a big job, even in a little bathroom, but putting your own sweat equity into your home is a great investment, and very rewarding, as long as you know how to do it right. We’ll help you with that by listing the tools you need, giving you step-by-step instructions, and covering the most common challenges you might face in the process of removing your tile floors. 

(Note: If your floor is very old or asbestos tiles are a concern, make sure you get it tested before you start demoing by yourself. Better safe than sorry.)


Step 1: Gear up!

Removing tile is messy, dusty, labor intensive work. There will be nails and mortar and tile everywhere. Pieces of broken tiles can fly up at you, and can be as sharp as glass when they are broken. Protect yourself by wearing long sleeves, jeans, and closed-toe shoes with thick soles. Heavy-duty work gloves, safety goggles, and a mask for the dust should all be first on your shopping list, along with knee pads if you want them. Ear protection will be important if you choose to go the powertools route, which we’ll go into more detail about later. Tarps and plastic drop sheets will also be important, to protect or cover anything you can’t remove from the room before you start. 

Next, you’ll need all the actual equipment for removing the tile floor. There is more than one way to remove tile, and each floor is different, but we’ll be laying out three different options for you that should do the job with most any kind of tile. 

A basic hammer and chisel are all you need to get started. Chisels come in a lot of different varieties. Cold chisels (named for their use by blacksmiths to cut metal while it was cold) are a great choice for shattering tiles. A masonry chisel would also be appropriate, and a plugging chisel is a great help when removing mortar or grout, as well as any adhesive from the underlayment.  

A pry bar and sledgehammer are the next step up when it comes to removing tiles, and can keep you off your knees a bit more. Even just taking a sledgehammer to your tile can be an effective enough method for removing it, but can damage your subfloor, destroy your underlayment, and just generally cause more damage than you intend if you’re not careful, so it’s best to do so sparingly. Having a pry bar helps you get under the edge of the tiles and pull up most floors with minimal collateral damage. 

A rotary hammer with a thinset removal bit is what you want if you’ve got a lot of floor to demolish, or if you’re just very eager to take a powertool to your ugly old tile. 

No matter what tools you choose, a bucket and shovel of some kind are essential, along with a broom and heavy duty vacuum


Step 2: Clearing the area

The first thing you have to do before you can remove your tile is empty the room of everything you possibly can so you can actually get to the floor you’re planning to demolish. Demos are messy work, and there’s going to be tile dust everywhere, so pack away everything that you can, and cover anything you can’t. 

Remove the sideboards from your room so you can get to the edges of the tile. Do this carefully, unless you’re already planning to buy new sideboards and don’t care about protecting your old ones. Remove any appliances or fixtures. (Think cabinet toe kicks, fridge, stove, dishwasher in the kitchen, and toilet, vanity and tub in the bathroom, as applicable.) Make sure you turn off the water or power first for anything you want to remove, and close off any exposed pipes.

Tape some plastic over any vents in the room to keep dust from getting everywhere, and hang a drop sheet over the door to keep the dust in as well if you want. Now you’re ready to start breaking tile. 


Step 3: Removing the tile

There are two ways to start taking up your tile. First, you can look along the edges of the room, and under your appliances and fixtures, for a spot where you can get under the edge of a tile and start pulling it up. If there’s no obviously good place to start, you can just pick a tile and start breaking. (Close to a corner away from the door is a good place to start.) 

Take your hammer and chisel to your tile. Break it up and put the pieces in your bucket. Once you’ve cleared enough space you can switch to your prybar or rotary hammer to get most of the tile up. Switch back to the hammer and chisel for the edges of your room if you’re worried about damaging your walls or cabinets. Use your broom and bucket frequently to clean up the debris, and don’t worry about breaking up the tile as much as you need to in the process. 

The difficulty of removing tiles depends a lot on what’s under them. Underlayment is the norm, and the easiest to remove. You should never tile directly over linoleum, old tile, particle board, or straight onto your subfloor, but plenty of people pull up their old tile and find just that, so be prepared to put in some extra work if you find anything unexpected under your floor. And don’t be afraid to consult with an expert if you find anything you don’t know how to handle alone.

Don’t worry though, a lot of the more common challenges you might find are completely DIY-able. If you need to protect your subfloor from damage, or want to preserve the old underlayment, you’ll need to be careful as you remove your tile, and rely more on your hand chisel. If your tile is on top of your subfloor, check under your counters and appliances and make sure that an underlayment plus your new tiles won’t be too thick to fit under everything. A tile adhesive remover can help get rid of any stubborn adhesives, mastics or contact cement you can’t get rid of, but if you use one you’ll need chemical resistant gloves and goggles, a mask, and plenty of open windows and/or fans. 


Step 4: Clean up

If you’re planning to replace your underlayment, which is always a good idea, you can check your subfloor for damage while you’ve got access to it. If it’s not in good condition you might as well replace it too while you have the chance. 

When removing tile, it’s important to get your surface as clean and smooth as possible. A pristine surface is very important when you install new tile, and you don’t want all your hard work to go to waste, so make sure to scrape away any leftover rough patches and fix any problems you find. Clean up any old nails or screws, and screw down any creaky spots while you can. Vacuum your subfloor and your underlayment. Every bit of dust or debris will make it harder for you to lay down your new tile, so take your time with this final step.


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