How to Remove Subway Tile Backsplash

Removing a subway tile backsplash can be a tedious and time-consuming process, but with the right tools and techniques, it can be accomplished successfully. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to remove subway tile backsplash completely and prepare the surface for new tile or other backsplash materials.

Gather Materials and Tools Needed

Removing tile backsplash requires having the proper equipment and supplies handy before starting demo. Here are the materials and tools needed:

  • Safety gear – Safety glasses, dust mask, ear protection, gloves
  • Hammers – Ball peen hammer, small sledgehammer
  • Chisels – Cold chisels in different sizes
  • Pry bar – Flat pry bar and cat’s paw for stubborn tiles
  • Putty knives – For scraping off old adhesive and grout
  • Dustpan and broom – For cleaning up tile pieces and debris
  • Shop vacuum – For collecting dust and small debris
  • Tile nippers – For breaking tiles into smaller pieces
  • Sponges – For cleaning surface area
  • Utility knife – For cutting mesh off back of tiles
  • Screwdriver – For removing grout between tiles
  • Bucket – For collecting tile pieces and grout debris
  • Tile adhesive remover – Solvent for removing thinset mortar
  • Grout saw – Specialty saw for removing thick grout
  • Eye and ear protection – For safety while breaking up tile

Gathering all these supplies in one place will make the demolition and removal process faster and more efficient. Safety gear like glasses, mask, and gloves should always be worn to protect from flying shards and debris.

Clear Surrounding Areas

Before starting demo on the tile itself, thoroughly clear the area around the backsplash. Remove everything from counters, stovetop, and surrounding walls so broken tile pieces don’t damage anything.

Cover nearby surfaces like countertops with drop cloths to protect from dust and debris. Empty out lower cabinets and shelves underneath the backsplash area so there is enough room to work.

Make sure no dishes, glassware, appliances, wall hangings, or decorations are nearby that could get broken or damaged while removing tile. Clearing and protecting the surrounding space is an important first step in the process.

Knock Off Any Loose or Damaged Tiles

If any of the subway tiles are already cracked, broken, or loose, knock these off first with a hammer and chisel. Haphazardly removing these will make prying off the rest of the intact tiles much easier.

Use a hammer to gently tap the chisel behind loose tiles to knock them free. Wear safety glasses to prevent flying shards from the breaking tiles.

Try to remove tiles without damaging the drywall behind them if possible. This will make drywall repair easier later. Stack the removed intact tile pieces to reuse or recycle later.

Score Grout Lines with Utility Knife

Use a sharp utility knife to score along the grout lines between all the tiles. Don’t try cutting all the way through the grout yet, just scoring lightly along the lines.

This weakens the grout so it will break off easier when prying the tiles. Be sure to hold the knife at a 45 degree angle when scoring for best results.

Make straight cuts and uniform scores for ease of grout removal later. Having weakened grout lines will help release the subway tiles from the setting bed.

Chisel Out All Grout from Between Tiles

With the grout lines scored, now use a chisel and hammer to knock out the grout completely between tiles. Hold the chisel at a 45 degree angle and gently tap to break up the grout.

Remain patient and methodical in order to remove all grout without damaging tiles. Take care around the corners and edges where grout tends to stick. Removing grout first allows the tiles to come off cleaner.

Use a small screwdriver to get into tight corners if needed. Discard all the loose grout debris into a dustpan or bucket as you work. Wearing a mask prevents inhaling grout dust.

Pry Tiles Off Row By Row

With the grout removed, the tiles will be ready to pry off the wall. Start at the top row and work horizontally using a pry bar. Wedge the flat bar directly behind each tile and pull backwards.

Apply steady pressure until the tile pops off while bracing your body. Be careful not to gouge into the drywall behind. Continue along prying off tiles one row at a time.

For stubborn tiles that won’t budge, use a sledgehammer and cat’s paw for extra leverage. Tap it gently behind the tile to provide added force to loosen it. Stack all removed intact tiles to reuse or recycle later.

Remove Any Remaining Tile Adhesive

Once all whole tiles have been pried off, inspect the wall for any remaining thinset mortar or mastic. Use a putty knife or chisel to scrape off patches.

For adhesive that has really bonded onto the drywall, use a solvent like adhesive remover applied with a paintbrush. Let the solvent sit for a minute before scraping again.

Removing all traces of the previous tile adhesive will allow the new backsplash to adhere properly. Be patient and thorough with this step for best results.

Clean and Sand the Wall Surface

Now that the tiles and all adhesive have been removed, thoroughly clean the exposed wall area. Sweep up all debris and use a shop vac to collect fine dust.

Wipe down the full backsplash area with a damp sponge to clean. Once dry, sand down the wall using 100-150 grit sandpaper. This deglosses the surface for better adhesion with new tile.

Finish by vacuuming up all sanding dust. The wall is now prepped and ready for a new backsplash tile application.


How do I remove stubborn subway tiles?

For tiles that won’t pry off, use a cat’s paw tool for extra leverage. Position it near the tile edge and tap lightly with a hammer. Apply steady pressure backwards on the tile until it releases. Be patient and take care not to gouge the wall.

What tools do I need to remove subway tile backsplash?

The essential tools are a hammer, chisels, pry bar, putty knives, safety gear, dustpan, and vacuum. Utility knives, screwdrivers, nippers, and grout saws will also be handy for removal. Have these tools assembled before starting.

How do I keep tiles intact when removing?

Work methodically and slowly when prying to avoid breaking tiles. Use a pry bar instead of hammer directly on tiles. Score grout lines before removal and wiggle tiles loose carefully. Stack intact tiles as you remove them to reuse elsewhere.

Can I salvage the subway tiles for other projects?

Yes, removed intact subway tiles can be salvaged and used elsewhere, such as for a craft project. They can also be recycled. Just be sure to clean and sterilize them thoroughly first before using again.

How do I protect walls when removing tile backsplash?

Cover nearby surfaces with drop cloths and empty out shelves or cabinets below the backsplash area. Use care when prying not to gouge into drywall. Knock tiles into a bucket to contain debris. Repair any wall damage before applying new backsplash.

Is it cheaper to remove or install over old backsplash?

Removing the tile completely is generally the better option over installing over old tiles. Covering over existing tiles rarely adheres well or looks seamless. It is more cost effective to take the time to demo the old tile and start fresh with the new backsplash.

What do I do with old grout and tile debris?

Sweep up all old grout and tile pieces into a dustpan as you work. Contain debris in buckets to carry outside easily. Some tile pieces can be recycled, but most can go directly into your regular trash receptacle. Just be sure to contain it well so it doesn’t blow around.

How do I get thinset mortar off drywall effectively?

Use an adhesive remover or solvent specially formulated to break down thinset. Apply it to the adhesive with a paintbrush and let it sit for 1-2 minutes before scraping. Retreat stubborn areas as needed until all adhesive is removed from the drywall.

Why is it important to prep the wall after tile removal?

Prepping with cleaning, sanding and debris removal ensures the new backsplash will adhere properly. Any remaining grout, dust or adhesive will prevent maximum adhesion. Make sure the wall is deglossed, smooth and clean for best tile bonding results.


Removing an existing subway tile backsplash takes time and physical effort, but following proper techniques will make the process manageable. Always use safety gear and exercise patience when prying off tiles. Thoroughly prep and clean the wall afterward for proper application of a new backsplash.

With the right tools and meticulous technique, those outdated subway tiles can be removed completely to make way for a fresh, updated backsplash design. Just be sure to allot enough time and take care not to damage walls in the process. Doing a complete removal will provide the ideal smooth slate for new tile installation.