Replace a Floor Tile

Advice on how to replace floor tiles at the John Bridge Tile Forums

• Replacing a Floor Tile

- John P. Bridge

When I install tile floors in people’s homes I always make sure there are extra tiles at the end of the job. They will be kept in an out-of-the-way spot — the attic, a corner of the garage, the crawl space, etc. — in the hope that they will never be needed. But occasionally they are needed.

The tiles we install nowadays are ten times more durable than those installed only a decade ago, but still, they are ceramic tiles, and they can be damaged. The most usual place for a tile to suffer a blow is directly in front of the refrigerator. Someone opens the door, reaches for the water bottle or some other heavy container and drops it on the floor.

The tile that is struck, if it has been properly installed will not crack or break, but it will be pitted. In some cases the pit might be described as a crater. The severity of the chip and your tolerance for blemishes will determine whether you replace the tile or whether you repair it by some means — filling the pit with matching enamel paint, for example.

But let’s say the blemish is so severe or your tolerance is so low that replacing the piece cannot be avoided. We’ll start by removing the grout from around the tile.

The tool to use is called a “grout saw.” It is a small hand tool that can be purchased at tile suppliers, at home centers and at some hardware stores. The grout saw consists of a handle to which a small blade is attached. The business edge of the blade is coated with carborundum particles. The tool is not expensive, and the blades are replaceable.

The grout saw works by rubbing the blade back and forth in the middle of the grout joint. As you work the tool, avoid contacting the edges of the tiles. Take your time and stay in the middle area of the joint. Eventually, you will cut (wear away) a line of grout all the way to the substrate, be it concrete slab, backer board, or some other flooring material.

In this manner, you must cut the grout all the way around the tile to be removed. This will relieve any pressure that might occur on adjacent tiles as you remove the damaged piece. I can’t stress this enough. If you get in a hurry here, you will be replacing more tiles than you anticipated.

When the grout has been sawn all the way around, you can break or pulverize the tile with a hammer and remove the fragments with a cold chisel. You will also have to remove any setting material (thin set, dry set, etc.) that remains on the substrate. Make a smooth surface for the replacement tile to be set upon.

The next step is to remove the grout that remains attached to the sides of the adjacent tiles, and this is probably the most tedious part of the operation. I find it convenient to use a very small cold chisel and a hammer. The chisel is not hit hard but only tapped with the hammer, so as to avoid damaging the edges of the tiles as the grout is chipped away, bit by bit.

The reason for removing all the grout is because the new grout will not match the old, and it is better to have the entire joint one color than to have half of it one color and the other half another.

If, however, the tiles you are working with are very soft, such as Saltillo, raw terracotta or very soft glazed tiles, then the chisel should not be used. You can attempt to somehow wear the remaining grout away, or you can simply leave it in place and live with it. In any case, using the chisel will almost certainly result in damaging the edges of the tiles.

Installing the new tile is fairly straightforward. Use the same type adhesive that was used in the original installation, whether this is a cement product or some sort of glue or mastic. Allow the repair to set at least 24 hours or the time recommended by the adhesive manufacturer.

If you know the original grout brand and color, use it, even though it will not match initially. It will blend in eventually. If you don’t know the original color, you must try to make a match as best you can. You can make a sample of the grout you intend to use, let it dry and compare it to the existing grout. An inexact process? Yes.

Before applying the grout, dampen any existing grout that the new material will contact. Just dampen it; don’t soak it. This will prevent the existing grout from immediately drawing the moisture from the new grout and weakening it.

Place the new grout, allow it to begin to firm up, and then wash the surface of the tiles and joints with a sponge or soft cloth, moving more or less diagonally across the joints. The sponge or cloth should be wet but not soaking. Make repeated passes, wringing the sponge or cloth thoroughly each time. When the joints are uniform and straight, stop.

You’re finished, except for wiping the haze from the tiles after the surface dries. This is done with a dry, soft cloth. If there is still residue on the tiles, you can rinse them again with the sponge and clean water. Wring the sponge thoroughly, though. Not much water at all.

Protect the repair for at least 24 hours.

To preclude the necessity of making this repair in the future, stay out of the fridge.

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