How to Remove Small Tile Backsplash

Removing a tile backsplash can be a tedious and time-consuming process, but with the right tools and techniques, it can be accomplished successfully as a DIY project. This comprehensive guide will walk you through all the steps and considerations for removing small tile backsplash in your home.

Assessing the Tile and Adhesive

Before starting demolition, take time to examine the existing tile and adhesive to determine the best method for removal.

  • Tile type – Ceramic, porcelain, glass, and natural stone tiles are the most common. Porcelain and natural tiles tend to be more durable and firmly set.
  • Tile size – Smaller tiles like mosaics can take longer to remove versus standard 4 inch tiles.
  • Adhesive type – Modern latex/acrylic based adhesives are easier to work with. Older organic mastic adhesives are extremely hard to dissolve.
  • Wall material – Drywall can be damaged more easily versus cement board or plaster walls during tile removal.
  • Grout lines – Narrow grout lines take more precision versus wider grout line spaces.
  • Installation quality – Improperly installed tiles with uneven adhesive coverage will be easier to dislodge.

Thoroughly inspecting the tiles and feeling around the edges can determine the best removal plan. Tapping on tiles can reveal a hollow sound for tiles weakly bonded.

Gather the Right Tile Removal Tools

Having the proper tile removal tools will make the demolition process much smoother. Standard tools needed include:

  • Safety gear – Gloves, eye protection, knee pads, N95 dust mask
  • Hammer or mallet – A 3-4 lb. hammer or rubber mallet provides controlled tile breaking.
  • Chisels – Tile chisels in various sizes help pry up tiles and scrape adhesive.
  • Pry bar – A sturdy pry bar is useful for leverage and pulling up stubborn tiles.
  • Shovel and dustpan – For removing tile debris and adhesive chunks.
  • Putty knives or paint scrapers – Flexible blades fit into grout lines and aid adhesive removal.
  • Oscillating multi-tool – Quickly cuts through tile and adhesive with specialized blades.
  • Wet/dry shop vac – Sucks up adhesive dust, tile shards, and debris as you work.

Having extra blades and chisels will ensure you can keep chipping away throughout the project. Safety is paramount, so be sure to wear thick gloves and eye protection at all times.

Prepare the Tile Removal Workspace

Before starting demolition, set up the workspace to make the process smooth and safe.

  • Clear the area of any items or furnishings that may get damaged by falling tiles or debris.
  • Spread drop cloths or tarps below the tile area to catch shards and adhesive chunks.
  • Have a separate container ready for disposing of broken tiles, grout, and adhesive scraps.
  • Sweep and mop the floor space before laying down drop cloths to prevent debris from scratching floors.
  • Ensure sufficient lighting and ventilation, running any fans or opening windows as needed.
  • Turn off power supply to any outlets in the tile area and cover them to prevent sparks or electrocution.
  • Fill a spray bottle with water to keep tiles and Adhesive damp throughout removal.

Taking time to prep the workspace makes the demolition process faster and contained. Take steps to protect nearby surfaces from damage throughout the project.

Initial Tile Removal Steps

With your tools gathered and workspace prepped, you can begin tackling tile removal using this initial process:

1. Score Grout Lines

  • Using a utility knife or oscillating multi-tool, score along the grout lines surrounding each tile.
  • Apply firm but controlled pressure while scoring, trying not to cut into the wall material itself.
  • Scoring grout lines will weaken the tile adhesion and prep the surface for prying.

2. Start Prying Tiles

  • Position a pry bar under the corner of a tile and apply upward force until it pops up.
  • Alternate using a chisel and hammer to chip away at edges if the pry bar alone doesn’t work.
  • Aim to remove tiles in small sections rather than one by one for efficiency.

3. Remove Adhesive Residue

  • As tiles release, scrape off any adhesive bonded to the wall using a chisel or putty knife.
  • Apply water or adhesive solvent to dissolve mastic and make scraping easier.
  • Avoid gouging into the wall material itself as you scrape.

4. Dispose of Debris

  • Properly dispose of broken tile shards, chunks of grout, and adhesive globs as you work.
  • Dropping them onto tarps or into a container helps keep dust controlled.
  • Wear a dust mask and safety glasses to prevent inhaling fine debris.

Work methodically in manageable sections while taking safety precautions. Avoid rushing the process to prevent accidents or injuries.

Full Tile Removal Techniques

Once you’ve removed the initial easy tiles, tackling the fully bonded middle tiles requires added demolition techniques:

Pry Behind Tiles

  • Slide a pry bar or oscillating multi-tool blade behind tiles to sever the adhesive bond.
  • Apply steady pressure and leverage tiles up and away from the wall.
  • Focus on a single tile at a time, working horizontally from one side to the other.

Undercut Adhesive

  • Use a chisel, utility knife, or multi-tool to undercut adhesive beneath tiles.
  • Cutting into the mastic underneath will make prying tiles off easier.
  • Take care not to gouge into the wall surface when undercutting.

Break Tiles into Pieces

  • Position a hammer and chisel at an angle to crack full tiles into smaller segments.
  • Breaking tiles into pieces prevents flying shards and makes removal easier.
  • Wear eye and hand protection when breaking apart tiles.

Apply Heat

  • Use a heat gun to soften some adhesive types like mastic for easier scraping.
  • Apply heat evenly across adhesive until pliable, then scrape with a putty knife.
  • Avoid applying high heat levels that could damage the wall itself.

Dissolve Mastic

  • Apply adhesive solvents like acetone or denatured alcohol to old mastic adhesives.
  • Let the chemical dissolve the sticky mastic then scrape off with a putty knife.
  • Ensure proper ventilation and avoid chemical contact with skin.

Use a combination of methods to dislodge stubborn tiles safely. Take breaks to prevent fatigue and frustration during this physically demanding process.

Remove Damaged Wall Material

Inevitably, the forces involved with prying and chiseling will cause some damage to the underlying drywall or other wall materials. Here are tips for removing damaged areas:

  • Inspect walls thoroughly once all tiles are fully removed.
  • Use a utility knife to cut and slice off any loose wall material or paper coating.
  • Scrape off small damaged sections down to solid material.
  • Cut out large damaged areas into uniform squares or rectangles.
  • Ensure any rotted or mildewed underlying material is fully excavated.
  • Vacuum and clear all debris before repairing or replacing wall sections.
  • Plan to skim coat, spackle, or install new drywall in damaged areas.

Removing compromised wall material is key to having a smooth surface for new backsplash installation. Be diligent about cutting away all loose sections for proper repairs.

Clean and Prep the Surface

With tiles and adhesive fully removed, the final step is cleaning and prepping the exposed wall for eventual backsplash replacement:

Remove Adhesive Residue

  • Scour the surface using abrasive pads, brushes, or sandpaper.
  • Apply adhesive solvents like denatured alcohol and let sit before scrubbing.
  • Scrape away any remaining stubborn adhesive chunks or globs.

Wash and Disinfect

  • Mix mild dish soap with hot water and scrub the entire surface.
  • Rinse thoroughly then disinfect with a spray like Concrobium or bleach solution.
  • Let the wall dry fully before moving to next steps.

Make Repairs

  • Skim coat, spackle, or install new drywall sections in damaged areas.
  • Sand any rough patches smooth for an even surface.
  • Fill any holes, cracks, or gaps with wood filler and let dry completely.

Proper cleaning and surface prep leads to optimal adhesion with the new tile backsplash. Eliminate any remaining debris, grime, or irregular texture.

Tips for Easier Tile Removal

  • Always demolish tiles before removing countertops to avoid damage.
  • Start removal along the top row, using gravity to your advantage.
  • Apply painter’s tape along the perimeter walls to protect the finish.
  • Work in small sections, no more than 4 square feet at a time.
  • Let tile shards and mastic fall onto tarps rather than into drywall.
  • Keep multiple pry bars and chisels at the ready to alternate tools.
  • Wear knee pads and work from a low stool to save your back.
  • Avoid power chiseling, which can easily damage walls.
  • Take regular breaks to avoid fatigue and potential injury.

With some finesse and strategic demolition, the tedious task of removing a tile backsplash can be successfully managed as a DIY project, saving on the expense of hiring contractors. Just be sure to allot plenty of time and take safety precautions throughout the process. In no time you’ll have a smooth, clean slate for installing an updated backsplash.

Frequently Asked Questions About Removing Tile Backsplash

What is the easiest way to remove tile backsplash?

Scoring grout lines with an oscillating multi-tool then prying tiles off with a flat bar is the easiest method. Breaking tiles into smaller pieces also helps release the adhesive grip. Heat and solvents make mastic removal easier.

How do you remove backsplash without damaging drywall?

Work slowly and carefully, avoiding power tools that can gouge drywall. Use painter’s tape along seams for protection. Cut tiles into sections rather than prying off whole tiles. Scrape adhesive gently using plastic putty knives instead of metal.

Can you remove backsplash and put it back?

Tiles are brittle and prone to breaking during removal, so it is very difficult to remove and salvage backsplash tiles intact. Grout also crumbles apart during demolition. It’s recommended to plan for new tile installation after removing an existing backsplash.

What solvent removes mastic?

Denatured alcohol, acetone, and mineral spirits are common solvents used to dissolve old mastic adhesive. Always apply in a ventilated area and allow the chemicals time to penetrate and soften the adhesive before scraping away.

How do you remove mesh backsplash?

Mesh-mounted mosaic tiles have a mesh sheet adhered behind them. Use a multi-tool to slice through the mesh layer, then pry tiles off section by section. Alternatively, power chisel against studs to rapidly chip away entire mesh sheets.

Can you put new tile over existing backsplash?

It’s not advisable to install new backsplash tile over an existing one. The layers of old adhesive and grout make it too uneven for proper thinset adhesion. The weight can also cause the tiles to eventually detach. Removing old tile completely is best.

How do you remove adhesive from drywall after tile removal?

Scrape off as much old adhesive as possible, then scrub with dish soap and water. Mix baking soda and vinegar into a paste to scrub more. Wipe residual adhesive oils away with denatured alcohol. Avoid excessive sanding, which can damage drywall paper.

What is the gray adhesive behind tile called?

The gray adhesive commonly found behind old ceramic tile is often mastics glue. Some mastics contained asbestos, so take precautions. Have it tested before removal if unsure. Modern latex/acrylic adhesives are white or tan.

Can I put new backsplash over painted drywall?

Painted drywall alone usually cannot support new tile. The surface needs to be sanded for adhesion and a tile-approved substrate like cement board installed over the painted drywall before tiling again.


Removing an outdated or damaged tile backsplash takes time and physical effort, but is a project a motivated DIYer can certainly accomplish. Carefully assess the adhesive type, prepare your tools, and work systematically to chip away tiles and residue without damaging walls. Focus on safety and proper cleanup to get your backsplash area ready for fresh new tile. With some patience and perseverance, you can demolish the old backsplash and gain a clean slate for an updated, long-lasting tile installation.