Replacing a bathtub without having to replace all the tile

Removing and Reusing Ceramic Tile

The Natural Handyman

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Dear NH,
I need to replace my bath tub, which will require removing a few rows of tile near the tub. How do I remove ceramic tile so I can reuse it?

Dear LMJ,
Removing tile is always risky. The removal of the first tile is the riskiest task in this project, for sure! If this is any consolation, once you have that first one removed, the rest will most likely yield to your advances with less fuss. One assumption I am going to make is that your tiles are installed over some sort of wallboard. If the tiles are set into a mortar (cement) bed on the wall, or are glued to a rigid cement-based board, you may have no choice but to break them off or actually gut the wall. Being the optimistic sort, lets assume the first more favorable scenario… and then move on.

The first and perhaps most important step is to scrape out all the hard grout from the perimeter of the tiles you want to remove. You want to try to isolate the tiles from each other as much as possible. This is true even if you do not care to save the tiles, since you will still find them difficult to remove, especially the first one! Also, the flexible caulking between the tub and the tiles and in the vertical corners must be scraped out. Both removal chores can be accomplished with either a sharp utility knife or a razor blade mounted in a special holder. Hard caulks will soften with heat, so the use of a heat gun (low setting) or even a hair dryer will ease the task. The grout should scrape out easily since wall grout is rather soft.

Removing and Reusing Ceramic Tile

Once all the tiles are grout and caulk-free, do a little tapping on the tiles to see if any are slightly loose. Probably the luckiest thing that could happen would be to find a tile that was already loose due to some water seepage. Loose tiles are most likely found near the corner of the tub below the spout or showerhead. If you can locate a loose one, the rest will often come off easily. This condition is often not apparent until you begin removing the grout and caulk. In fact, many regrouting/recaulking jobs can unexpectedly turn into small renovations because of this sneaky deterioration in the walls behind the tiles.

Gently but forcefully push a thin putty knife 2"-3" wide between the first tile you want to remove and its longtime neighbors, moving around the edge and breaking any leftover grout sealing them together. Pry them away from the wall, one at a time. Work around the tile, nudging and prying upwards to gradually separate it from the wall. Watch out for the corners of the tiles… the easiest to chip. The paper face of the wallboard will tear (remember our assumption earlier), but that is OK. Here is your "moment of truth"… if the wall is mortar, you will probably not be able to remove the tiles without breaking them.

Even with all the care and patience you can muster, there is still a strong chance that you will break or crack one or more tiles during this procedure. My worst nightmare… and I have lived it… is to break a tile by dropping it while cleaning off all the old glue and grunge… another necessary step to complete before reusing it! It is important to stress that working too quickly will virtually assure breakage. But if you do break tiles, don't despair... see this as an opportunity to be creative. You an replace the tiles around the base of the wall with another color that compliments the existing tiles, or even design a unique tile pattern from the wide variety of tile styles available today!


Reviewed February 2018

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