Backsplash tiles can transform the look of your kitchen or bathroom by adding a touch of style, color, and texture. However, over time, tastes change and you may decide you want to remove or replace your existing backsplash. Taking backsplash tile off can be a tricky task, but with the right tools and techniques, it can be accomplished successfully. Here is a comprehensive guide on how to remove backsplash tiles from your wall.
Assessing Your Backsplash Tile
Before you begin prying tiles off the wall, take some time to assess your current backsplash situation:
Type of Tile
- Ceramic, porcelain, or glass: These tiles are installed using mastic adhesive and will pop off the wall more easily. Mastic can be softened using a heat gun or chemical solvent for easier removal.
- Natural stone: Stone tiles like granite, marble or slate are heavier and often set in mortar, making them more difficult to remove. The mortar will need to be chiseled off.
- Metal or plastic: These backsplashes use adhesive and can usually be pried off, but the adhesive may take some work to remove completely.
- Mastic: Tile set in sticky mastic will be the easiest to remove. Heat and chemical solvents can soften the adhesive.
- Mortar: Mortared stone is bonded tightly and will take more force to detach from the wall. Be prepared to chisel.
- Peel-and-stick: Modern peel-and-stick tiles will come off cleanly and easily. The adhesive strips can then be scraped off.
- Subway tile: Long stacked tiles cover more surface area and have more grout joints that will need cleaning.
- Large tiles: Oversized tiles have fewer grout lines and leave bigger sections of wall exposed when removed.
- Mosaics: Small mosaic tiles have tons of grout and many more individual tiles to pry off and clean behind.
Condition of Grout
- Cracked or crumbling: Grout in poor shape will come away easier as tiles are removed. Vacuuming is recommended to contain dust.
- Intact grout: Hard, durable grout will likely stay bonded to the wall and require scraping to fully remove any residue.
- Grout haze: Any remaining grout film is easier to wipe away before it hardens completely.
Gather Your Materials
Taking on a backsplash removal project requires gathering the right tools and supplies ahead of time:
- Safety gloves, goggles, mask
- Flat pry bar
- Putty knives
- Heat gun or chemical solvent
- Chisel & mallet
- Utility knife
- Grout rake / grout saw
- Sponges & buckets
- Tile nippers
- Dustpan & vacuum
- Drop cloths & painters tape
You will also need a clear workspace and somewhere to discard broken tiles and debris. For mortared stone, you may need a helper for removal.
Protect Surrounding Areas
Before you begin demolition, properly protect counters, floors, appliances and other surfaces from damage:
- Use drop cloths to cover countertops and range below the backsplash area.
- Carefully tape off edges above the backsplash with painters tape to keep the ceiling or upper cabinets from getting marked up during tile removal.
- Sweep the floor and place drop cloths below the workspace. Push appliances out several feet to allow workspace behind.
- Remove items from counters, drain sinks or cooktop area, and clear any dishes or glassware from neighboring cabinets to prevent vibrations from cracking or rattling items.
- Turn off power to outlets covered by the backsplash so there is no risk of shock.
Thorough prep work keeps the work zone contained for less cleanup later.
Prepare the Tile Surface
To help the tiles release more smoothly, a little preparatory work can assist the removal process:
Heat Gun Method
For backsplashes installed with mastic adhesive, use a heat gun to warm the surface and soften the old mastic:
- Set heat gun to low or medium setting to prevent burning the wall surface.
- Wave heat gun slowly over tiles and mastic to warm, keeping the gun 6-10 inches away.
- After several minutes, test a tile’s corners to see if it is loosening. Reheat if needed.
- Take care not to overheat, as excess heat can damage drywall behind.
Chemical Solvent Method
In lieu of a heat gun, chemical solvents can help dissolve the mastic:
- Apply solvent like acetone or mineral spirits directly to mastic using an old cloth.
- Let it soak in for 10-15 minutes before testing tiles for readiness. Provide ventilation against fumes.
- Reapply more solvent and allow additional time if tiles don’t release.
Solvents may not work as well on silicone-based mastics. Avoid using too much liquid solvent.
Pre-cut Grout Lines
Scoring grout lines with a utility knife before prying tiles can assist the process:
- Lightly trace along grout joints with a sharp utility knife to provide some initial separation.
- Be careful not to scratch the wall behind the grout line with excess pressure.
- Pre-cutting grout allows the tiles to pop off more independently of each other.
Removing the Tile
Once prepped, it’s time to start taking those tiles down. Work methodically and safely:
Pry Up Tiles
- Begin at the top corner of the backsplash by inserting a flat pry bar under the edge of a tile.
- Angle the pry bar downwards against the wall to lift upwards gently. Start tiles slowly.
- Work across from one side, removing tiles fully before moving lower rows.
- For stubborn tiles, use added pressure or light taps with a hammer against the pry bar handle.
If tiles are set in mortar, use a chisel and mallet for removal:
- Hold chisel 3-4 inches down from top of tile and gently tap straight into joint.
- Once mortar is loosened, pry tile forward to break the bond underneath.
- Make sure to wear safety goggles during chisel work to prevent debris flying into eyes.
Cut Peel-and-Stick Mesh
For peel-and-stick backsplashes, simply cut through the adhesive mesh:
- Use a sharp utility knife to cut through the sticky mesh backing in strips.
- Peel entire strips of tile away after slicing the adhesive. Scrape residual adhesive off with putty knife.
Remove Damaged Tiles
Badly cracked, broken or loose tiles can be taken down first. Use pliers or nippers as needed:
- Initially remove the obviously damaged tiles to open up work space.
- Carefully nip away stubborn broken pieces or use pliers to tweeze cracked fragments free.
- Scoop up sharp broken bits promptly to prevent cuts on hands.
Clear Away Remaining Adhesive
Once all whole tiles have been detached from the wall, it’s time to clean up any stubborn leftover adhesive:
Scrape Off Leftover Mastic
- Use a stiff putty knife or chisel to gently scrape the wall surface.
- Try not to gouge into the drywall paper or scrape too aggressively. Work at an angle.
- For extra sticky mastic, apply more solvent chemical and let it penetrate for 10-15 minutes before scraping again.
Grind Down Mortar Nubs
- Exposed mortar blobs or ridges can be ground smooth with an electric hand grinder.
- Use a stone grinding wheel attachment and eye protection during grinding.
- Vacuum dust immediately to keep it contained.
- Avoid overgrinding too deep into drywall. Wipe wall with water after to remove stone dust.
Remove Mesh Adhesive
- Rub along entire adhesive strips to detach from wall fully, balling up used mesh.
- Spray residual glue spots with adhesive solvent like Goo Gone® and wipe clean with a rag.
- For thin glue residue, plain hot water, oil or WD-40® can help remove the last sticky areas.
Clean Up Grout Lines
Removing tiles is only half the job – the empty grout lines also need to be cleaned out for a smooth surface:
Clear Grout Debris
- Use a narrow grout rake or grout removal saw to scrape out old grout and crumbs from open seams.
- Maintain a low angle to avoid digging into the drywall. SWipe debris into a dustpan.
- For haze or thin layers, wipe grout residue away with a sponge and water.
Re-wash Stained Lines
- Grout joints may have absorbed grease or dirt over time. Use a degreasing dish soap and water applied with a small stiff brush.
- Let the soap solution sit for 5 minutes before scrubbing with the brush. Rinse thoroughly.
- Repeat scrubbing if stains remain. Let wall dry fully before inspection.
Seal Grout Lines
- Once grout lines are cleaned, seal the gaps to prevent absorption of new dirt or stains.
- Use a sealing product like grout sealer or silicone caulk and follow product instructions.
- Wipe away any excess sealer and allow proper drying time before replacing tiles.
Remove Adjoining Countertop Tile
Joined counter and backsplash tiles should be removed together for the cleanest look:
- Break caulk bead between wall and countertop using a utility knife.
- Carefully pry up any countertop tiles adjoining the backsplash area and scrape away adhesive.
- Remove sink clips prior to tile removal if needed to get underneath.
- Use care around an inset cooktop to avoid damaging the unit. Lift away perimeter tiles first.
- Take time removing any final tiles around plumbing, electrical or countertop seams.
Patch and Prep the Bare Wall
With tiles removed, repair any wall damage prior to installing the new backsplash:
Fill Gouges and Nicks
- Use joint compound, spackle or drywall patch to cover any gouges, scrapes or holes made during removal.
- Allow compound to fully dry and sand smooth for the best results.
- Spot prime repaired areas and allow to dry completely before applying new backsplash.
Wash and Sand the Wall
- Use TSP or other mild cleaner with water and sponge to clean bare wall and remove any lingering residue.
- Lightly sand wall surface with fine sandpaper to help adhesion for the new backsplash.
- Wipe sanded wall with damp sponge to remove all dust before installing replacement tiles.
While tackling a backsplash removal, keep safety at the forefront:
- Wear protective goggles, gloves, long sleeves and a filtering face mask during demolition to prevent cuts and limit dust inhalation.
- Work carefully when handling chisels and hammers to avoid personal injury or property damage.
- Take your time and don’t rush the removal to avoid breaking tiles unexpectedly and causing harm.
- Dispose of broken tiles carefully and promptly to prevent sharp debris underfoot.
- Follow all solvent manufacturer safety recommendations closely and provide adequate ventilation.
Slow and steady removal keeps both you and your home safe!
Tips for Easier Removal
Removing backsplash tile takes time and elbow grease, but these tips can help make the process easier:
- Always start removal at the top and work down methodically. Less chance of slipping and breaking lower tiles.
- Heat or solvents are very helpful for softening mastic adhesive before prying.
- Pre-cutting grout lines allows tiles to release more independently without cracking neighbors.
- Begin removal with any damaged, broken or loose tiles first to open up work space.
- Have a helper when removing large format tiles or mortared stone tiles – they are heavy!
- Keep the work area contained and well protected for minimum dust and damage.
- Make clean up easier by staying on top of debris removal consistently during the project.
- Address wall repairs quickly so patches have time to fully cure before new backsplash is installed.
Removing a tile backsplash prompts many common questions:
Can I simply cover over existing tile instead of removing?
It is not recommended to install new tile over old because:
- The multiple layers of tile build up the wall surface unevenly.
- Grout lines will eventually show through the new tile.
- Mortar and mastic adhesives need a flat, smooth surface to bond well.
- Moisture issues can develop between untility old and new tile over time.
What about using a heat plate instead of a heat gun?
While a heat plate can provide radiant heat to warm tiles, a heat gun is preferred because:
- Heat plates take a very long time to heat up the tiles and mastic.
- A heat gun provides instant, focused heat that can be moved around as needed during removal.
- Plates lack adequate temperature controls compared to heat guns.
Should I refinish the drywall before installing the new backsplash?
Refinishing the drywall is recommended for best results:
- Sanding smooths the surface and allows mastic and grout residues to be fully removed.
- Priming creates a fresh surface for the new backsplash adhesive and grout to bond tightly.
- Finishing makes dents and repairs blend in for a seamless look.
- Provides opportunity to reposition outlets or plumbing fixtures as needed.
Can backsplash removal harm my wall or require replacement?
With care and patience, existing drywall can usually withstand tile removal:
- Prevent major gouges by using proper tools at proper angles.
- Heat/solvents minimize adhesive damage during prying.
- Immediately patch any inadvertent holes or divots that do occur with joint compound.
- Severe damage may require cutting away the damaged drywall and replacing that section.
Is it okay to leave up partial sections while removing?
It is best to take down the entire backsplash at one time:
- Leaving random tiles missing creates an unfinished, disjointed look.
- Adjoining tiles are more prone to accidental cracking and breaking off.
- Makes it hard to remove all adhesive residue with areas still covered.
- Allows full access for grout line cleaning and wall refinishing/priming.
Removing backsplash tile involves careful preparation, the right tools, safety measures, patience and persistence. With diligence, even tiles installed tightly in mortar or decades-old mastic can be successfully removed. Avoiding wall gouges, controlling debris, promptly making repairs and containing the workspace makes for smoother demolition and easier installation later with the new backsplash. Do not hesitate to call on professional help if certain stubborn tiles refuse to budge without damage. Taking the proper time and care with removal allows for a fresh, clean slate to install an updated backsplash design of your choosing.