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Several months ago, while visiting a jobsite in a mall, I watched a worker attempt to remove a single tile. As he took the hammer and chisel from his tool kit, I tried to suggest a less-drastic approach, but he would have none of it. For him, tile removal amounts to all-out warfare. By the time he finished, seven tiles lay broken, with another seven knocked loose.

Now, rather than tying up customer traffic for only one or two hours, this single-tile repair became a loud, raucous nuisance. Worse, razor-edged chards of porcelain were shooting out 15 feet or more from the repair area as he worked.

“Happens every time,” he complained afterwards.

He was not only talking about the dozens of tiles he had removed throughout the mall but, more likely, every tile removal job he had ever had. It was only then that he asked if there really was an easier way. I assured him that if he used the right tools and the right approach, tile replacement could be a source of profit instead of frustration.

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Removing Perimeter Grout

The first step is to identify the tile being replaced, and remove the grout and other materials from around its perimeter down to the surface of the setting bed. If the setting bed is covered with a membrane system, it is difficult, but possible, to remove the offending tile without damaging the underlying membrane (e.g. slit the tile/adhesive layer into slivers with a dry-cutting diamond blade).

The grout and adhesive can be removed by hand with a conventional grout saw, or with power tools. Very efficient specialty grout removal tools are available, and are an absolute must for any installer regularly involved in this kind of work. The reciprocating types are easy to use, and relatively safe for joints ⅛-inch or wider.

Dry-cutting diamond blades, mounted on circular saws or angle grinders, are also used (Image 1), but they are very aggressive and can be used safely only on grout joints wider than ¼-inch. Extreme care must be taken with these blades by both operator and assistant; the operator’s attention is focused solely on cutting, while the assistant follows the blade with a vacuum nozzle to help keep the huge dust clouds generated by the blades to a minimum.

Regardless of the tool used in this phase, all of the grout and hard material should be removed around the perimeter of the tile, or group of tiles, being replaced (Image 2). By removing the grout, the stress created by the extraction of the tile will not jump to – and possibly damage – other tiles. This is the key to safe and controlled removal.

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Removing the Tile

Sometimes, especially if the offending tile was improperly adhered to the setting bed, a single blow of the hammer can remove it. Usually, though, the tile will have to be removed in pieces. Over concrete, a hammer and sharp chisel can be used to get the tile out. Over wood floors, the dry-cutting blade and vacuum technique is preferred. If the tile is already cracked, drilled through, or otherwise damaged, it is important to exploit these weak spots, whatever the approach.

When using a hammer and chisel, keep the chisel from touching any tile other than the one being removed; the shock from the chisel may damage the edge of the surrounding tiles. Over wood floors, hold the chisel at an angle parallel to the floor, instead of at a right angle to it; going with the direction of the floor imparts less shock on the surrounding tiles. Keep in mind that a dull chisel will cause more damage than it cures.

If there is no room to maneuver, use a ¼-inch chisel as you would a pair of tile nippers, chipping off small bits around the perimeter of the tile. As more of the setting bed is exposed, a larger chisel, or a lower attack angle, can be employed (Image 3).

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Removing Adhesive Residue

Once the tile is removed, all traces of adhesive must be removed for the replacement tile to sit flush with those surrounding it(Image 4). This can be done with a hammer and sharp chisel, or by scraping with a trowel or knife. When the excess material has been chipped or scraped out, use a vacuum cleaner to remove the fine dust and chips, and prepare the void for the replacement tile.

Replacing the Tile

For best results, the replacement adhesive and grout should match the originals. If in doubt, use a latex, acrylic, or epoxy thinset rated for use with porcelain, which should be strong enough for most floor applications. If the repair area will see traffic quickly, a quick-setting thinset should be used.

The same applies for the grout if early service is desired, but a perfect match with the original color may be difficult to impossible, depending on: the type of grout used to fill the joints; the wear; the dirt the floor was subjected to; any sealers that may have been applied; and what cleaning products were used to maintain the floor. Even how the grout was applied can impact the color.

If the original color can be identified, and is still available, it should be used to grout the repair tile; otherwise, consult some grout-color samples or charts for the closest match. To keep the color issue in perspective, it is a good idea to remember that even grout powder left over from the original installation will probably not match exactly.

Allowing the Materials to Cure

The most important part of the repair – whether the adhesive and grout materials are normal or quick-setting – is to allow the materials to cure undisturbed. During the plastic phase of a cementitious product, movement will do no harm, but flexing or compressing uncured adhesive or grout can substantially reduce the strength of an installation or repair. Keep barricades up for as long as possible – no less than the minimum time required for a complete cure.