removing your old tile flooring

Replacing the Kitchen Floor: Removing Old Tile Flooring

Yes, it’s true, I’m still here! Not doing too many house projects these days, but I do have a backlog of posts I swore I’d get to, and now, nearly a year and a half later, I’m starting to chip away at it.

oh ugly tile flooring, how I won't miss you
Oh, ugly tile flooring, how I won’t miss you!

If you recall from our previous kitchen projects, our floors were just awful – gross tile flooring that looked like it belonged in a prison, certainly not in a family kitchen. It had to go, but it was an intimidating project. Loud, dirty, physical, expensive, time-consuming, critically important – a daunting list of modifiers for a couple with a baby.

We pulled the trigger on it because as baby started eating solid foods, I quickly discovered just how terrible it is to clean tile floors multiple times every single day. All I wanted was a floor I could sweep! The kicker was that as he became more mobile, it would be harder and harder to keep him off of the kitchen floor as we did any work on it. So, in July 2018, we took the plunge and rented a hammer drill…

Part 0: Prep

Before you get to wield hammers and go nuts, there’s a bit of work to do. First, remove all the trim around the perimeter of the room. You don’t want anything on top of your tiles. The quarter round needs to be replaced, but if your new flooring is the same thickness or thicker than your old flooring, you can hang onto your baseboards. We started fresh with ours.

removing all the trim
Removing all the trim with a trim puller and hammer

We also needed to remove our kitchen island, since it was installed on top of the tiles. Ours has two outlets, so we needed to disconnect the electricity and move it out of the room. It was pretty funny seeing it hanging out in the dining room.

hey, you don't belong there...
Hey, what are you doing there?

If you have a radiator, time to remove that as well. This was less of a big deal than I thought it’d be. We closed the valve with the knob and used a big pipe for leverage to unscrew the collar. From there it was just a matter of team lifting it and bringing it to another room. I wish I’d known how easy this was when we were painting walls!

The big pipe is a huge help wrestling the collar loose
The big pipe is a huge help wrestling the collar loose

I’d highly recommend moving your fridge out of the room as well – it just wasn’t possible for us. It doesn’t fit through our interior doorways, and it was raining on and off outside.

Part 1: Tile Flooring Removal

This was the part I was nervous about, because once we pulled up the tiles we were IN IT. Then we’d find out how much more work needed to be done before we could install our new LVT flooring (more on the new flooring in a later post).

What’s Under Your Tiles?

A lot about how your tile removal process goes depends on how good of a job your installers did. Ours did not do a good job. We suspect our kitchen was originally hardwood, and some sort of disaster at some point necessitated hasty and frugal floor replacement. Turns out all that was under our tile flooring were a couple layers of thin subfloor.

I wouldn’t have known that this was a no-no and clear evidence of cheap construction until I started researching what COULD be found under the tile flooring after we ripped it up.

Tiles don’t flex so they need to be installed on top of a hardy, inflexible surface. Subfloor doesn’t tick those boxes. You’d need some sort of backer board under your tile flooring, on TOP of the subfloor. If this sounds heavy, it is. I suspect that’s why our previous floorers cut corners, since our original hardwood was far lighter and didn’t need extra reinforcement underneath.

No Turning Back

Anyway, I researched different ways of demoing tile flooring and recommendations ranged from “grab a hammer” to a multi-step process involving lots of expensive tools. We chose something in-between. My husband is more of a smash-it-with-a-hammer guy, I’m more cautious.

Timid beginnings
Timid beginnings, “just to see”

I rented a hammer drill with a wide chisel attachment from our neighborhood tool rental place. An overnight rental was ~$30. We put baby to bed, cranked up his sound machine, and got to work! I hammered at a shallow angle to the side of the tiles and usually they would pop up from the thinset quickly. My husband used a regular ol’ hammer and a wonderbar to pry up the tiles with similar speed.

Power tools are fun
Power tools are fun!
in progress
Tile flooring demo in progress – we’d just move the fridge out of the way when needed
The aftermath
Yeah, this was fun to clean up. Gloves mandatory!

If I were doing this part again, what would I recommend? I’d still get the hammer drill for two reasons: 1) when we came across stubborn tiles, the hammer drill was very helpful to blast them away and 2) the hammer drill in general removed the tiles much more cleanly. This was helpful for cleanup purposes (much easier to remove whole undamaged tiles than shards) and for donation purposes later on when we had stacks and stacks of useful tiles to give away.

This part didn’t actually take very long and it turns out, this was the easy part of the tile flooring removal process. We gathered up all the tiles and pieces, swept and vacuumed and swept and vacuumed, and were left with a floor that you really oughtn’t walk on with bare feet:

Bumpety bump
Bumpy gross craggy subfloor! You can see where we tried to chisel off the thinset – gouge city.

Trust me, I tried breaking up the thinset with the impact hammer and various chisel bits – nothing was working to loosen it from the subfloor. All it did was either gouge the subfloor (UGH) or turn the thinset to craggly crumbles, still stuck to the floor. Plywood and thinset, they just love each other so much!

Part 2: Floor Leveling

My heart sank when I saw what was underneath the tiles as we ripped them up. The thinset was stuck like crazy to the subfloor, all craggy and ragged and definitely not suitable to install LVT on top of. In my mind, we had two options – pry up the subfloor and start from scratch, or try to smooth out the existing subfloor. I wish we could have gone for option 1, but it wasn’t an option for us. The subfloor was screwed, not nailed, into the joists and most of the screw heads I could see were badly damaged.

Right Tools for the Job

So, what do you need to smooth out an expansive mountain range of thinset? Enter the grinder:

But more importantly, the grinder’s partner in crime, the diamond cup wheel:

An overnight rental for both grinder & wheel was $60. Less exciting but no less important was this vacuum shield for the grinder wheel that I bought at Home Depot just before we ground down the thinset. You fasten it over the grinder wheel and hook it up to your shop-vac so you’re not immediately blasted in the face with thinset dust. Alas, this was another $60, but I’d consider it mandatory.

Some other important things you’ll need:

  • knee pads (trust)
  • respirators
  • safety goggles (not glasses, this gets REAL dusty)
  • earmuffs
  • extension cords, so you can move around tethered to your shop vac
  • plastic sheeting & tape, so you don’t coat your life in thinset dust
  • shop-vac with HEPA filter bag (this dust is ultra-fine)

Grind, Grind, Grind

Because we couldn’t function with kitchen floors all chewed up for more than a day or two (we also enter and exit the house through the kitchen) we had to get going quickly. The next night, we sealed off the kitchen as best as we could, fired up the HEPA-filter-bagged shop-vac, and got to work as soon as we put baby to sleep.

loud, dusty manual labor
Loud, dusty manual labor

Folks. This was LOUD, physically demanding, dirty work. If I only have to do this once in my life, that would be very nice.

There’s not too much technique to this. You just fire up the grinder and grind, grind, grind away till you’re down to the subfloor, as smooth as you can get it. Having a partner is great, since it’s exhausting and nice to switch off. When I’m tired I’m much more likely to “call it good” even though pretty good subfloor isn’t really good enough when you’re laying new flooring on top of it.

the grinder
The grinder takes a rest after its hard night of work
relatively smooth
Relatively smooth

All in all this took up about 2-2.5 hours to grind, take breaks to let the dust settle, and reassess the floor with fresh eyes. We did some touch ups early the next morning, but we were confident that the floor was as smooth as it was going to get.

Part 3: Cleanup

Alas, this was the part I was unprepared for. Sure, I expected to sweep and vacuum and sweep again, but we’d taped off the kitchen with plastic sheeting pretty well – at least as well as I always do when I’m sanding drywall – and put everything in the kitchen in cabinets. What could go wrong?

What Went Wrong

I’ll “ruin” the suspense here by telling you that 1.5 years later I’m STILL finding thinset dust around the kitchen. (And it’s not because we didn’t clean thoroughly afterwards.)

the layer of filth on the pendant light
The layer of filth on the pendant lamp. THIS is why you wear a respirator!

The dust didn’t just coat the kitchen. The ENTIRE first floor of our house was covered in thinset dust. Take a moment to imagine the entirety of your first floor covered in a thin, but remarkably stubborn, layer of dust. A duster is no match for this stuff. Nor a dishwasher! It’s sticky and awful and required that I hand-wash every single appliance, hand tool, cup/bowl/plate/piece of cutlery/etc… I’d say “you get the picture” but honestly, unless you’re ever met with this sort of horrifying scene, I don’t think you possibly could.

My biggest tip for future thinset grinders is this: DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE DUST. Pretend the thinset dust is the ebola virus and tape your area off accordingly. NO gaps of ANY kind. It gets into cabinets and drawers no problem. It finds any sort of tiny hole in your protection and swarms it.

It took me weeks to get the house back to mostly recovered. Having to manually wipe down every exposed surface (and inside every cabinet) was truly awful.

Lesson learned. But I hope never to have to apply it!

Another related tip, don’t underestimate how MUCH dust there is. Meaning, don’t assume your shop-vac can hold all of it in one go. Get extra bags, or plan on emptying out your bag a few times. It’s tough to recognize when it’s full because the dust in the air increases so gradually, but keep an eye on it.

Onward and Upward

None of the awful cleanup took away from the fact that we had removed our hideous, hard-to-clean tile flooring and now had (mostly) flat subfloor ready to have new flooring installed atop it. In the next post, I’ll talk about how we chose our new flooring and walk through the whole installation process.

3 Comments

  1. reading this was like watching a horror movie! Good thing I knew there is a great ending that resolves the suffering.

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