Gilles' Outlet

June 12, 2008

Removing ceramic tiles without breaking them

Filed under: Uncategorized — Gilles @ 4:19 am

Two ceramic tiles are carefully removed.

Skill Level: 2 (Basic)

Time Taken: About 20 minutes

It is often necessary to remove ceramic tiles without breaking them. For instance:

  • You want to match an existing tile job and need to bring a sample to the store,
  • You need to gain access to a shower faucet concealed behind a tiled wall.

Removing tiles without breaking them is only part of the job. If you plan on re-using them, you will also have to clean up the back of the tile. That means removing old mortar or adhesive. Finally, removing tiles usually damages the substrate and you’ll have to patch it up before you can tile over it again.

I have about 70% success with the following technique (for 100 tiles removed, I’ll break at most 30). The key is to progress slowly and refrain from using brute force.

In this article, I’ll show how to remove two tiles, both set with mortar directly over drywall.

This blog sometimes illustrates dangerous tasks and removing tiles is one of them. Be sure to wear the necessary safety gear. That includes but is not limited to: gloves, safety glasses … I cannot be held responsible for anything which may or may not happens to you or anyone as a result of reading and / or applying procedures described in this blog . Be safe. Always consult a professional.

Left: The first tile to remove. It is a ceramic tile which was ripped in half to serve as a baseboard. This is a common practice.

With a utility knife, I cut through the paint, caulk,  mortar and grout all around the tile. I used a dull blade: no need to waste brand new, sharp blades here. They get dull in seconds.


Right: There was a thin line of grout at the bottom so I cut through it. I wanted to remove most of the grout / mortar (about 1/4” deep in this case).

It is important to remove as much grout as possible before attempting to remove a tile. Failure to do so will greatly increase your chance of breaking the tile. Do not rush.

Left: After freeing the tile from all around it sides, I gently inserted a stiff putty knife between the tile and the substrate. I gently tapped the blue handle with a hammer to help the blade go in further.

I repeated that operation on the other side of the tile (right on the picture). Again, it is critical to be gentle with the hammer.


Right: I inserted the flat side of a mini pry bar at the top of the tile and gently pushed it in. The tile came without a fight.

The tile separated from it substrate. As you can see, part of the drywall came off. There is even a screw visible.

The substrate will have to be patched before tiles can be re-applied. In this case, I’ll just fill the void with drywall joint compound.

If the tile is to be reused, its back needs to be cleaned. I usually take tiles outside, lay them on a piece of carpet face to clean up. I then spray them with water to control dust and use a belt sander with a 40 grit belt to grind the mortar off. It usually takes a minute per tile and it can get a little messy.

Now, let’s remove a small tile set on the wall. It is part of a decorative border around a corner shower unit.

A critical tool for this task: a grout saw. This is essentially a small piece of steel onto which diamond powder was deposited. It makes removing grout between tiles much easier, especially when grout lines are at least 1/8” wide.

This saw was purchased at my local Harbor Freight store for about $5. So far, I have used it to remove about 4 linear ft of group and it is still working fine. I can feel it is not as durable as more expensive saws but it has served me well for a very reasonable price.

Left: I used the saw to cut the grout on the left and bottom side of the tile. the saw is pressed against the grout and a back and forth movement performs the cutting, like a regular wood saw.


Right: The tile after the grout was cut. I went as deep as I could. In this case, this was the substrate (drywall).

Cutting the grout will reduce the risks to break adjacent tiles during the removal.

Left: Using a dull utility knife, I cut through the caulk and paint on the left side of the tile. The tile is no only held by mortar under it.


Right: I inserted the flat side of a mini pry bar under the left side of the tile and gently pushed it in.

The tip of the pry bar dug a little bit into the drywall. This is OK.

Left: With the help of a hammer, I gently tapped the pry bar under the tile. Again, it must be gentle or the tile will break.

Under normal circumstances, I would hold the pry bar with my left hand but I was taking the picture.


Right: The tile popped off. It is difficult to see on this picture but the drywall will slightly damaged: the pry bar created a low spot as I was prying.

Again, the substrate will have to be fixed and the back of the tile cleaned before reuse.

Tools Used:

  • Stiff Putty Knife
  • 20oz. Brick Hammer (any hammer will do)
  • Mini pry bar with flat side 
  • Utility Knife + Dull Blades
  • Diamond Tipped Grout Saw

Materials Used:

  • None

1 Comment »

  1. Great lesson on tile removal. Could you add some steps on the clean up of the tile?

    Comment by James — September 19, 2011 @ 3:23 am

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