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Unread 03-20-2022, 11:23 PM   #1
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Help - tile falling off

I need some advice. First time tiler, doing full bathroom remodel.

I installed 1/2" Hardibacker for the tub surround, using Flexbond modified thinset and mesh tape to finish the seams. The next week I applied Redgard (a few coats) and finally started installing the tile after a few weeks later, which is where my troubles began.

The tile is the Daltile Restore subway tile from Home Depot with 1/16" spacing. Using the same Flexbond thinset, which I measured by weight and mixed according to the instructions using a 1/4" notched trowel. Only got about 5 rows done. I troweled vertical lines and pushed each down firmly with a bit of sideways wiggle. Although the instructions for the tile stated to tamp them down with a rubber mallet, I skipped this step since all of the youtube videos I watched never did that.

Unfortunately the next day I realized I had some lippage on 2 tiles, so I used a chisel to carefully remove them with the intention of just re-doing them. They popped right off, with a clean tile back and the thinset well adhered to the Redgard on the wall. Then I used a diamond sander on an oscillating Dremel tool to remove the thinset and suddenly a few of the adjacent tiles fell off the wall as well, with very clean backs again. Tried a chisel and hammer to remove the thinset instead, and still a few adjacent tiles popped off.

At this point I am unsure how to continue. There is still a lot of the dried thinset on the wall that I need to remove down to a smooth surface (and touch of the Redgard) before I can install the tile again and continue the installation up the wall, but I am concerned that so many of the tiles have fallen off in the process when they feel firm to the touch.

Questions :
What's the best way to remove this dried thinset without damaging adjacent tiles?
Is it normal for the adjacent tiles to fall off due to the vibrations of the Dremel?
Do the clean backs of the tile indicate that there is not enough adhesion taking place or is it normal that the bond would break at this interface?
Should I wash or soak the tiles before putting them on the thinset next time? How else can I improve adhesion? Back butter each one?

If anyone has experience with removing a few tiles, please let me know if I can do this better! Thank you
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Unread 03-21-2022, 12:21 AM   #2
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Adding some photos for reference. I can see that my ridges are maybe not as smushed down as they could be.
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Unread 03-21-2022, 05:16 AM   #3
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Hello Jandree. Removing the thinset without damaging the adjacent tiles would be kinda pointless. I would bet that the other tile is not adhered well either. Might want to remove everything and then clean the thinset off and start over.

It's only normal for dremeling to knock other tiles off iffin they're not stuck, which is the case here. The tiles need to be soaked. If you put some tiles in a bucket of water and they start bubbling that would confirm that. Afterwards they should stick. Backbuttering will help.
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Unread 03-21-2022, 05:59 AM   #4
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You went too slow. A classic problem with subway tile, removing one tile causes others to fall, then you see that nothing is stuck except the cuts.

Way back when, before thinset was invented there was a different technique used just for white body wall tile ("white clay" being very porous as compared to red or brown clay tile, which is fired until molten). We used the tub from the Target tub saw, 30" square galvanized tub like people used to wash clothes in. Fill the tub with tile, pour in water and wait until the bubbles stop. Take the tile out, place it vertically so that the water drains. This tile needs to be set within the next 10 minutes or it gets soaked again.

Without going into all the details, the lesson here is that once the tile is set on fresh pure cement, the cement is liquified by the water in the tile and the porosity of the clay draws the cement into the back of the tile. The bond will never break, the glassy cement and the clay body become one.

Your trouble is a lack of water. Thinset is mostly cement, but with additives to slow down the set and keep it sticky longer. Depending on the thinset, it may also have a chemical bond (like glue), which cement does not have. Cement relies on a key and lock style bond, a mechanical fastening as opposed to chemical. Your key did not go in your keyhole, so no bond for you.

Maybe the HVAC vent is blowing, a fan is on, it's a hot day, the water was too warm, lots of reasons including the type surface you are bonding to. Most likely cause, however, is that you notch the thinset on the wall and it sits too long before being tiled. If this happens, it must get recombed with the notch trowel to bring it back to life.

Long time ago, the was a guy named Rufus. His hands were really big. He could hold 9 pieces of 4x4 wall tile in one hand and in one smooth motion, all those tile would be set on the wall using just the one hand. Row after row like this, really fast. The whole back wall of the tub surround in one go. It looked horrible, crooked and uneven. Then, he beat it in. The beating block can be any flat wood, like a 1x4 about 10 inches long. 2x4 is too heavy to do well. Usually used with a rubber hammer, but any hammer will do, or even no hammer.

While the thinset is still fresh (you see it's all about the speed) the tiles are beaten flat. So, don't be too skimpy with the thinset. You need a bit of movement, not with all the tile already bottomed out on the board. The beating block is turned diagonally, spanning multiple tiles and then lightly given a smack with the hammer, quickly moving to the next spot bang bang bang all over the wall. Bang too hard you will crack tiles, just get the wall nice and flat. Lighting is critical. Best is an overhead "wall washer" can light to show the lippage. If you do not have this light and one is installed later it will show very badly and have shadows from lippage. Beating the wall is crucial to it being flat.

The larger an area you spread with thinset, the flatter your wall will be if you use the notch trowel thoughtfully and don't just ride up and down with the waves in the board. But, the large spread is going to result in exactly the problem you show above if you are not really fast in setting and beating in the tile. Each tile does not need to be perfect or flat. It needs to get up on the wall fast. Once the wall is beaten, it will take a set and you won't be able to move the tile, but you can't beat the wall if it has spacers in it. First, beat it in gently. Then, put a level on the top row and tap it a little and make it level. Spacers go in as needed to make it level and evenly spaced.

Hope that helps, gotta go.
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Unread 03-21-2022, 02:41 PM   #5
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After you set a row, pull one tile and look at the back of it. You should have good transfer of mortar, at least 90% coverage. If not, your mortar is probably too dry.

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Unread 03-21-2022, 03:00 PM   #6
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Hardiebacker is notoriously thirsty. IOW, it tends to suck a lot of water out of the thinset, making it stiffer so it doesn't flow well. Usually, if it's properly coated with RedGard, that isn't as much of an issue. Also, you'll notice that you can still see the trowel notches...with the moderately non-flat back of the tile you have, 1/4x1/4" trowel probably isn't enough thinset, as when it's smushed flat, that leaves like 1/8" or even less if it's not a square-notched trowel, so the ridges on the back of the tile may not have any thinset under them if you fully flattened the thinset out while embedding it. Also note that those ridges behind the tile can accumulate moisture over time and leads to efflorescence and maybe other issues.

Sometimes the tile come with a little bit of dust on their back from the factory, and that can make it harder to get a good bond, too.

So, a few things I'd recommend:
- with a white tile, especially if you plan a light-colored grout, you really want to be using a white thinset. This tends to cost a little more, but it can make a difference in how the grout looks when you're done
- it may help to wipe the surface dow with a damp sponge prior to applying the thinset. You don't want liquid water on the surface, but damp is fine. If you didn't have RedGard on it, it would definitely need moisture first.
- while you can sometimes get by not burning thinset onto the back of your tile, it always will improve the ultimate bond strength when done properly
- when you think you've got a tile properly embedded, occasionally pull it back off and look...it should have full coverage on the wall and the back of the tile. If not, adjust your technique.
Jim DeBruycker
Not a pro, multiple Schluter Workshops (Schluterville and 2013 and 2014 at Schluter Headquarters), Mapei Training 2014, Laticrete Workshop 2014, Custom Building Products Workshop 2015, and Longtime Forum Participant.
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Unread 03-21-2022, 03:04 PM   #7
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Welcome, Jandree.

I'll strongly disagree with soaking your tiles before installing. When using the thinset method of setting tiles (what you're doing), you can have the substrate or/and the tiles damp if you want, but absolutely not wet. Ever.

Looks to me as though your mortar was just too dry on the surface when you attempted to set the tiles. Perhaps the mortar was mixed with too little water, or perhaps the spread mortar had exceeded its useful open time, or a combination of the two.

My opinion; worth price charged.

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Unread 03-21-2022, 06:18 PM   #8
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Greg did mention to let the water drain out of the tiles which is critical. I've done this a few times with 4 1/4 wall tiles in the middle of the summer. It does buy some time even when using thinset.

I never did use a beating block on it since my mud walls were already flat. The beating block was mostly used when tiling over fresh mud, which wasn't very often for us.

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