Removing mortar from a backsplash can be a daunting task, but with the right tools and techniques, it can be done efficiently and effectively. Mortar is a mixture of cement, lime, and sand that is used as an adhesive to bond tiles to surfaces. Over time, mortar can become stained, cracked, or damaged. When this happens on a backsplash, the best solution is often to remove the tiles and mortar entirely for a fresh start.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the full process of removing mortar from a backsplash, from preparation to clean up. We’ll review the proper tools, materials, and step-by-step instructions to help you successfully tackle this project. With some elbow grease and perseverance, you can strip away old mortar and get your backsplash looking like new again.
Why Remove Mortar from Backsplash
There are a few common reasons you may need to remove mortar from a backsplash:
- Remodeling the kitchen – If undertaking a full kitchen remodel, you may want to replace the existing backsplash with new tiles and mortar. Removing the old backsplash completely provides a blank slate to work with.
- Damaged tiles – Backsplash tiles can become cracked, chipped, or stained over time. It’s often easier to remove the entire backsplash rather than attempting spot repairs.
- Failed or deteriorating mortar – Mortar can deteriorate or fail over the years due to moisture issues, improper installation, or natural breakdown. This allows tiles to come loose or fall off.
- Change of style – Homeowners may simply want to update their backsplash’s look by removing the old tiles and mortar and installing something new and fresh.
Whatever the reason, removing existing mortar from a backsplash is usually the first step in the process of replacing or renewing it. Doing this properly will create the ideal surface for a successful new backsplash installation.
Preparing for Mortar Removal
Before starting demolition, take some time to prepare your workspace. Mortar removal can be messy, so protect any surfaces, furniture, floors, etc. near the backsplash area.
Here are some tips for preparing for backsplash mortar removal:
- Use painter’s tape and plastic sheeting to cover walls, countertops, floors, and cabinets near the backsplash. This will protect surfaces from damage during the mortar removal process.
- Clear out the area around the backsplash as much as possible to allow free range of motion while working.
- Remove any dishes, appliances, rugs, curtains, etc. from the workspace.
- Turn off all sources of water to the backsplash area to prevent leaks or flooding. Shut off the main water valve if needed.
- Have all necessary mortar removal tools and materials on hand before starting work. This includes hammers, chisels, putty knives, screwdrivers, and more.
- Wear safety goggles and a face mask to protect yourself from debris, dust, and splatter during the removal process. Rubber gloves are also recommended.
- Prepare a waste bag or bin nearby to collect and dispose of all mortar debris and fragments.
Proper preparation saves time and frustration. By protecting the surrounding space and having the right gear ready, you can dive right into removing mortar efficiently and safely.
Tools for Removing Mortar from Backsplash
Having the right tools for the job makes removing mortar much simpler. Here are some essential tools to use:
Hammer and Cold Chisel
A mason’s hammer and cold chisel are key for breaking up large mortar areas and prying off tiles. Use the chisel to chip away at mortar joints and edges. Combining tapping hammer strikes with the chisel removes stubborn spots.
Wide flexible putty knives allow you to scape mortar smoothly from the surface. Opt for sturdy stainless steel putty knives in a few different widths.
Flat head and Phillips head screwdrivers help pry off tiles that are stubborn. They also remove any remaining grout or debris from crevices.
Safety Goggles & Mask
For protection, always wear ANSI-rated splash-proof safety goggles and an N95 face mask when removing mortar. A particle mask also helps filter airborne dust.
Wear thick work gloves to protect your hands from sharp debris, chemicals, and repetitive stress injuries during demolition. Waterproof rubber gloves prevent skin irritation.
Plastic Sheeting & Tape
Cover any nearby surfaces with plastic sheeting and secure with painter’s tape to protect from splatter and debris.
Have a large trash bin or construction bag nearby to collect mortar fragments, tiles, grout, and other debris as you work.
Special nipper pliers can snap tile edges to break it away from mortar. Helpful for tiles in good shape that you want to preserve.
A compact oscillating grout saw with carbide blades can cut into grout and mortar seams between tiles to separate them.
How to Remove Mortar from Backsplash
Once you’ve prepped your workspace and gathered the right tools, follow these key steps to strip mortar away:
1. Score Grout Lines
Use a utility knife or grout saw to score along the grout lines surrounding each tile. This will reopen the mortar joints so tiles can release. Apply light pressure and go slowly to avoid damaging good tiles.
2. Chip Away Mortar
With a mason’s hammer and cold chisel, start chipping away at the mortar around tiles and in grout joints. Apply forceful but controlled taps. Angle the chisel both under tile edges and directly into joints to break the mortar’s grip.
3. Pry Off Tiles
After clearing away mortar behind tiles, carefully pry them off using a putty knife or screwdriver. Wedge the tool underneath each tile and twist gently to pop them off. Take care not to gouge or puncture the wall surface underneath.
4. Remove Remaining Mortar
Once tiles are removed, use a putty knife, chisel, or screwdriver to scrape off any remaining mortar stuck to the wall surface. Hold tools at a 45 degree angle and scrape in smooth strokes until only bare wall surface remains.
5. Clear Debris
Frequently stop to sweep away mortar debris and fragments using a broom and dustpan. Dispose of all tile pieces, grout chunks, and mortar in your waste bin as you work.
6. Smooth Surface
With a putty knife, lightly smooth the stripped wall surface side-to-side to flatten. Be careful not to gouge the drywall or plaster. Wipe the surface clean with a damp rag once finished.
7. Remove Accessories
Use a screwdriver to remove any backsplash-mounted accessories like towel bars, soap dispensers, or cutting board hangers, filling any holes as needed.
Helpful Tips for Mortar Removal
Follow these helpful pointers to improve safety and efficiency during backsplash mortar removal:
- Work slowly and carefully. Rushing can lead to damaged walls or tiles.
- Wear eye and ear protection. Safety goggles and ear plugs reduce injuries from debris.
- Use drop cloths below the workspace to collect fallen fragments. Reduce clean-up later.
- Let tiles soak if mortar is stubborn. Spraying tiles and joints with water can soften old mortar before prying.
- Take breaks to avoid fatigue. Mortar removal is physically demanding work.
- Keep tile fragments whole if possible. intact tiles can often be reused in the new backsplash.
- Use thick plywood behind the backsplash if drywall is damaged during removal. This provides support for new tiles.
- Apply painters tape around unremoved tiles to protect from chisel slips during removal.
- Consider chemical mortar removal products if scraping proves ineffective. Special cleaners help dissolve mortar bonds.
With care, patience, and the proper tools, the process of removing mortar from a backsplash can go smoothly. Keep these tips in mind for the best results.
How to Dispose of Removed Mortar
Once you’ve removed the backsplash mortar, proper disposal is important. Here are some options for disposing of mortar debris:
- Regular household trash – Smaller amounts of mortar debris and fragments can go directly into your garbage bins for weekly pick-up. Double bag to prevent dust and tears.
- Rental dumpster – For larger volumes, rent a small dumpster to collect debris, then arrange for dumpster pick-up when finished. Helpful for big remodeling jobs.
- Waste removal service – Hire professional junk haulers to come remove and dispose of mortar debris if quantities are beyond your ability to handle.
- Recycling center – Some recycling plants accept masonry materials like concrete, mortar, and tile fragments. Call ahead to check policies in your region.
- Hazardous waste collection – Mortar made before the 1980s could contain asbestos. Require hazardous waste disposal if unsure of mortar date.
Sweep up all traces of mortar thoroughly and contain it for safe disposal. Never dump it down drains or into backyards, storm drains, or vacant lots, as this can lead to environmental fines. Handle with care and dispose of properly.
What to Consider Before Replacing Backsplash
Once the messy mortar removal is complete, the fun part comes next – picking a new backsplash! Before installing new tiles, keep these planning tips in mind:
Select New Tile Type
The possibilities are nearly endless when choosing a new backsplash tile style. Consider materials like glass, ceramic, porcelain, metal, and natural stone.
Take careful measurements so you can purchase the exact amount of tile needed. Include inner corners and allow for cuts.
Choose Mortar Type
Research mortar options to find the best match for your tile type and application. Many premade blends are available.
Buy Spacer Clips
Plastic tile spacer clips allow you to install tiles evenly spaced for clean uniform joints.
Map out the tile layout on paper to plan for optimal use of whole tiles and minimized cuts.
Prepare the Surface
Fill any gouges or holes in the wall and smooth the surface so new tiles adhere neatly. Prime painted walls before tiling.
Watch a Tutorial
Find a YouTube DIY tiling tutorial for guidance on mixing mortar, applying tiles, proper spacing, grouting techniques, and sealing.
With the right tile choice, tools, and preparation, you can transform your backsplash into a stunning focal point once again.
FAQs About Removing Mortar from Backsplash
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about removing mortar from a backsplash:
What is the easiest way to remove mortar from backsplash tiles?
The easiest method is usually scoring the grout lines with a utility knife, then tapping a chisel and hammer along the joint edges and underneath tiles to release the mortar’s hold. Apply controlled force to pop tiles off.
How do you soften mortar to remove tiles?
Spraying water on the backsplash over several hours before removal will soften and weaken the mortar. Hot water works best. Vinegar, lemon juice, or chemical tile removers also soften mortar when applied liberally.
Can I use a multi-tool to remove backsplash mortar?
Yes, an oscillating multi-tool with a grout blade attachment can be very effective at scraping and cutting away old mortar between tiles. Work slowly along grout joints. Wear eye protection from debris.
What solvent removes mortar?
White vinegar diluted with water in a 1:2 ratio helps dissolve cement-based mortar when sprayed generously on the surface. Let it soak in for several minutes before scrubbing and scraping. Avoid getting vinegar on good tiles.
How do I remove thinset mortar from a concrete wall?
Use a chisel and hammer to chip away at areas of thinset mortar on concrete. Aim for the mortar joints first. Next, hold a chisel flat against the surface and tap firmly to scrape off remaining bits. Rinse the concrete with water.
Can mortar be dangerous if it contains asbestos?
Yes, mortar manufactured before the 1980s could potentially contain traces of asbestos fibers. Contact a hazardous materials specialist for safe removal if the mortar dates to pre-1980 construction. Always wear an N95 mask when handling old mortar.
What is the best mortar mix for a new kitchen backsplash?
Premixed, polymer-modified thinset mortar is ideal for most interior backsplash projects. It provides excellent adhesion and flexibility. Make sure your product is compatible with your choice of tile material.
Removing mortar from a backsplash takes some determination and elbow grease, but the results are worth it. With the right preparation, tools, and techniques, you can strip away failing mortar to reveal the blank canvas needed for a fresh start. Always wear protective gear, work carefully, and dispose of debris responsibly. If the scale feels too large, don’t hesitate to call in a professional.
Follow this comprehensive guide to make your mortar removal project safe, efficient, and successful. Once you put your beautiful new backsplash in place, the hassle of removal will pay off each time you enjoy its seamless and revitalized appearance. With your skills and hard work, you can achieve a kitchen backsplash makeover that you will be proud of for years to come.