Removing Floor Tiles and Thinset

How hard can it be to remove a few floor tiles? Harder than you think…. and it will take longer… and it will be dusty. I’ll show you the hard way, then the slightly less hard way.

2 tiles lifting up First, a story. I was sitting down for dinner in my house recently. My house is a glorius monument to the 1980’s with a fetching pink kictchen, and matching blue counter tops. I also have (had) 75sqm of white tiles - which match the white walls, white trim, and white ceilings. I was eating dinner when I heard a strange cracking sound. A few minutes later my tiles started lifting up off the floor.

Why would 25 year old tiles start lifting off the floor? 3 reasons:

  • the original tiler was an idiot who did not set them properly
  • the tiles were jammed against the skirting boards, and had no expansion joints
  • I installed heating. The slab was cold, but the air temperature was a nice 24C

A bad tiling job that can’t expand or contract when the temperature changes has nowhere to go except up, and up it went.

Should I Remove the tiles?

I briefly considered re-laying the same tiles - but if I was going to re-tile, why use the same dull 80’s tiles? New tiles with professional installation looked to be about $100sqm… or $7500 probably more like $10k. Ouch! I discovered I could get some awesome bamboo floating floors for $34sqm. To lay a floating floor, the tiles would need to be removed.

Before removing the tiles, let’s have a look at how tiles are usually fixed to the slab. The tiler will use a mortar-like mix called “thinset” to glue the tiles to the slab. The tiler does this by mixing the thinset, then using a specially shaped trowel to spread it onto the slab. The tiles are then laid on the wet thinset, and aligned using small clips (spacers).

Once the thinset has bonded to the concrete and tile (generally at least a day), the tiler will come back and put down grout between the tiles.

Ideally, the thinset has bonded properly. The grout will prevent lateral (sideways) movement of the tiles.

There are a few different types of thinset:

  • mortar like thinset, much like the mortar used between bricks. It may or may not crumble away when power tools are used on it.
  • fortified - like standard thinset, but tougher. It is getting closer to concrete strength.
  • flexbond - contains polymer, allowing for movement in the tiles. It may prevent cracking or lifting.

If your tiles were laid prior to the 80's, the thinset may contain asbestos. In rare cases, tilers may have used old thinset supplies containing asbestos into the 80's. If there is a chance you have asbestos present, get it tested and call in the professionals. Tiles are not worth death or sickness.

How Do I Remove the Tiles?

lifting tiles with a spade I started lifting tiles, and they were lifting easily. In some cases, I could use a spade to lever them up. The thinset was another matter. It seemed incredibly tough to shift.

Being a developer, I started by googling, and found this page: StackExchange on tile removal.

That page gives the impression that a rotary hammer drill (power chisel) or angle grinder with wire brush will make short work of it. I already owned a rotary hammer drill. I grabbed a cheap grinder from bunnings, with the meanest looking wire brush I could find.

Prep Work

Room protected with drop sheets

Removing thinset will throw up a ton of dust. Use plastic drop sheets ($1 from bunnings) to block doorways and furniture. Try and keep the dust confined to your work area.

While using power tools, make sure you wear a respirator or class 2 dust mask, along with hearing and eye protection.

Concrete dust is not nice stuff. It contains silicates which are known to cause various lung conditions. It's probably carcinogenic too. Make sure you wear a respirator while working AND while cleaning up.

Wear a hat or a cap. Concrete dust is hard to get out of your hair.

Tool 1: Rotary Hammer Drill

Me, using a hammer drill to remove tiles

The first tool I tried was my rotary hammer drill. For those who haven’t seen one, it is the bigger, meaner brother of a hammer drill. A regular hammer drill can hammer while drilling and uses normal size drill bits. A rotary hammer drill can hammer while drilling, as well as hammering without spinning. This means you can put chisel attachments in it, and go to town.

Heat is the enemy of the rotary hammer drill. I have managed to set two Aldi Hammer Drills on fire by working too long without letting the drill cool down. I have an Ozito now, which so far has survived the abuse I have thrown at it. The tip here is to let the drill cool down periodically.

I used a 20mm spade bit, and enlisted the help of my mate Jared. It turns out that removing 75sqm of tiles with a rotary hammer drill takes a very, very long time. We only got one third or less of the area done (in 1 day), and managed to snap the spade bit. I also discovered I had a second type of thinset that was a bastard mix of mortar and tar. Tiles bedded on that stuff did not lift and had to be smashed apart with the hammer drill.

Verdict: Get something bigger

Tool 2: Angle Grinder with Wire Brush

If you believe Stack Exchange, this tool is all rainbows and fairies - ripping up thinset without any issue. At my house it just produced massive showers of sparks every time it hit thin set. This is not good. Sparks mean the brush is being ground away. I destroyed 90% of the brush within 5 minutes. This is the Windows Vista of tools… full of promises, but only brings disappointment.

Verdict: Epic fail

Tool 3: Trolley Mounted Demolition Hammer

I decided to bring in the big guns. I hired a Trolley Jack Hammer from Kennards with a ‘Tile Smasher’ attachment. Kennards call it a “vinyl lifter”, but the tool actually has “Tile Smasher” written on it. This jack hammer was great. I put it on the maximum height setting and started smashing through. You can’t rush this machine, or you wil just have to go back and have a second go. Slow and steady, guide it along. I found that I frequently had to lift the trolley up off the ground to get enough angle - which is less bad than you may think, as this thing has a built in shock absorber!

Again, heat is the enemy. Make sure you let the attachment cool down. I worked 15 minutes at a time, then spent 5 minutes clearing debris while the tile smasher cooled down. Some websites suggest cooling it in water. I’m sure it is expensive, so better to be cautious.

The total cost was about $170 for 24 hours hire (this included the jack hammer and the attachment).

Verdict: Get this

Trolley jack hammer Jackhammer attachments Jackhammer in action Another jackhammer action shot

Tool 4: Angle grinder with diamond grinding wheel

I still had a few missed patches with thinset left (I had to rush with the jackhammer), so I’ve been using an angle grinder with a diamond grinding cup wheel. Bunnings sell the grinders for $40 (100mm Ozito) with a 3 year warrenty. The warranty is handy, as the grinder stopped working within about 15 minutes. As a result, I’ve been using a 230mm grinder with a 100mm wheel - which is like putting a car tire on a road train.

Bunnings also sell the diamond grinding wheels - for $70. You can get two diamond grinding wheels from Ebay for $32.

If you think the other tools made a lot of dust, you ain’t see nothing yet. This tool will turn everything in your house grey. I fabricated a ghetto dust hood using a clear plastic container, duct tape, and a shop vac. At the very least you will want to cover everything you own with drop sheets.

You can use a spray bottle and water to keep the dust down (and keep the wheel cool) - just don’t get the grinder wet, you don’t want to electrocute yourself (hopefully). If you do go down this path (water, not electocution), you will get “mud” flug out the side of the grinder. You can use cardboard to “fence” your work area and protect your walls.

Verdict: Works great, but dusty

cheap grinder Home made dust hood


Here are the before and after photos:

Before starting Tiles removed


You will have a lot of broken tiles, a lot of dust, and big piles of thinset. If possible, get a skip. If not, you are going to have to borrow a ute and do a dump run.

To clean the room, follow this process (Ensure you have your dust mask on):

  1. Manually carry all the larger tile pieces out to your dumping pile
  2. Use an outdoor broom (the wider the better) to sweep up all the dust and thinset, then shovel it straght into a wheel barrow. This stuff can probably be used as fill or drainage aggregate - or just dumped.
  3. Use your indoor broom to sweep up. The softer bristles should pick up a lot of crud.
  4. Use a shop vac to pickup anything remaining. You could use your regular vacuum, but don’t come crying to me if Mr Dyson explodes.
  5. Mop.

This may seem excessive, but if you don’t follow these steps, you will have dust everywhere. You will be finding dust in 6 months time.

Final Thoughts

This has taken a lot longer than I planned. It has taken 3 or 4 full days and a lot of running around. My house is dusty, and my family is living on concrete floors. Before you go down this path really think about whether you have enough time and patience.

Would I still have done it, knowing what I know now? yes. Would I do it again in another house? probably not.