Wall Tile Replacement

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• Replacing a Wall Tile

- John P. Bridge (November 2000)

Replacing wall tiles is quite a bit more difficult than replacing floor tiles. The wall tiles I’m talking about are the standard 4-1/4 in. tiles that are made from white “slip,” the same material used in figurines. Standard wall tiles also come in a 6 in. by 6 in. size.

Joints are usually wide enough in a floor tile installation to allow the use of a grout saw to cut the grout down to the substrate. This is not possible with wall tiles, because the joints are narrow, and there are spacer lugs formed into the tiles themselves which are in the way. The spacer lugs actually cause the tiles to contact one another under the surface of the grout, making it extremely difficult to remove the tiles.

I have heard people mention using small rotor-type tools (Dremel and others) to remove the grout from between wall tiles, but if you slip just once with an electric tool, you can ruin tiles adjacent to the one you are trying to replace. The job could go on a long time at that rate.

I have found it convenient to use a utility knife to scratch the grout from between the tiles. You will certainly wear down a number of blades in the process. You can also use pieces of hacksaw blades gripped in locking pliers to wear the grout out of the joints. Be very careful not to harm the edges of the adjacent tiles.

To remove a tile, you must remove most of the grout from around it. This relieves pressure from adjacent tiles when you begin the removal process. You won’t get all of the grout out, but you must at least get down to the spacer lugs.

You will not, of course, proceed unless you have a replacement tile on hand. Having a damaged tile in the wall is better than having something there that will look worse.

With a small chisel and a hammer, make a hole in the center of the tile to be removed, and then chip away small portions of the tile, working from the center out toward the edges. Don’t get in a hurry. This is especially important when you approach the edges of the tile. You must be very careful not to damage the adjacent tiles.

Do not hit the chisel toward the adjacent tiles. Rather, strike the tool in a manner that directs the force of the blows away from the tiles which are to remain. Again, take your time.

Do not attempt to pry up on the tile. This will almost certainly cause damage to other tiles. Just keep knocking small pieces away one at a time.

When the tile itself has been removed, you must remove the setting material that remains in the void. This will usually be thin set mortar, but it might be mastic or some other glue. You’ve got to get this out so that the new tile will go in flush with those around it.

Installing the new tile may entail removing some or all of its spacer lugs. Ceramic tiles may look all the same size, but I can assure they are not. In many cases the replacement tile will not fit into the hole unless something is done to adjust the lugs. You can nip them off with biters, or you can break them off with common pliers. You can also file them down with course sandpaper. This would be the prudent thing to do if you only have one replacement tile.

Regardless of what type of adhesive was used in the original installation, you can use thin set mortar to attach the new tile to the substrate. Use the white thin set that is formulated for wall tiles. Allow the repair to set overnight before grouting. Grout with dry wall tile grout.

In some cases, people want to replace tiles because they have had holes drilled through them. I should point out that in certain situations it might be easier to cover or disguise the hole than to replace the tile. If you can find or mix an enamel paint to match the tile surface, you can fill the whole with thin set or grout and paint over it. The repair will not be perfect, but it may be all that is needed.

There are also available small decorative ceramic pieces that are made to be planted onto existing wall tiles. These are sometimes called “spotters,” and they may be the answer to your repair needs.

In my opinion, wall tiles that have hairline cracks should not be replaced. If they are not unsightly, leave them alone. There is always a chance of damaging other tiles in the field. It is very possible to end up with a worse situation than the one you set out to rectify. I have been there. Don’t go there. Aloha.

My friend Uri Schwartzberger owns a specialty tile plant in Australia. Among the other neat little gadgets he produces are “spotter tiles” Visit Uri and have a look. To Aussie Land way down on the bottom of the world.

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