Remove tile adhesive the right way: Tools & techniques

A father and son remove tiles and tile adhesive in the bathroom.
Removing tile adhesive is more fun in pairs!
  • Difficulty
    medium
  • Cost
    Around £35 per day to rent the tools
  • Duration
    Depends on the size and condition of the base surface and the tools used

Introduction

You may have once enjoyed a ‘70s style in your kitchen and bathroom, but tastes change. If you’ve had enough of the mass of brown flowers and the sea of turquoise tiles, it’s time for a renovation. Even if you’ve not outgrown your old style, wall and floor tiles eventually wear down through constant use. This leads to a washed out look that’s no longer homely and in need of a makeover.

Once you’ve removed the tiles, you’re faced with the even more stubborn task of how to remove tile adhesive from the wall. The best removal methods and tools to use will depend on the type of adhesive, where it’s located and how much you want to remove.

Take as much care with this work as you would laying new wall or floor tiles. The smoother the surfaces after you remove tile grout, the easier it will be to lay fresh wallpaper or tiles later. If you’ve moved on from floor tiles, check out our guide on how to install laminate flooring yourself.

Tip
Top Tile Tips
If you’ve only got a single damaged tile, check out our guide on replacing individual tiles. We’ve also got handy tips on how to renovate your bathroom and kitchen tiles if you don’t want to replace your tiles.
You need

Planning

The same goes for this DIY project as with all others: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Before we drill into the various pros and cons of different tools and methods, you should first think about how you’re going to protect yourself and your walls.

Protective clothing

It’s vital to wear clothing that covers your entire body, including overalls, a hood, safety goggles, respiratory protection, work gloves and boots. This is especially important if you’re using a router or drill to remove old tile adhesive residues from floors or walls, since the tiny dust particles that are produced can be harmful. Read our “Safety comes first” article for further DIY safety information.

Dust protection in your home

If you think you can remove tile adhesive without dust, think again. Even if you only work in small areas with a hammer and chisel, you cannot escape dust production. Fine particles find their way into every conceivable crevice, especially when using heavy machinery and power tools, so close off any gaps in your doors, windows and light switches.

It’s also a good idea to cover the room you’re working in with plastic sheeting or special fleece covering. Don’t ventilate the room while you work, as this will stir up the dust. Instead, ask someone to vacuum around you while you work.

Tip
Tip
If your walls are already smooth, consider whether you need interior insulation. In old, unrenovated buildings, for example, you lose about a quarter of your heat through exterior walls, but exterior insulation isn’t always possible. Look online to find out your options – just remember to clarify any legal requirements with your landlord.

Step-by-step instructions: Let’s go!

Here’s where it gets more detailed. What does the base surface look like? Which method and tool give the best results? Is there anything to consider when removing tile adhesive residues on specific surfaces?

Step14

Check the base surface and primer

You need:

It’s a good sign if the wall behind remains intact when you remove the tiles, but you still need to check how stable it is. Does the wall crumble as soon as you tap it with a hammer? If you find a lot of weak spots, consult an expert or tile specialist before you damage your wall unnecessarily.

Step24

Determine the tile adhesive before removal

You need:

Before you remove the tile adhesive from your tiles, find out what you’re dealing with. The most common adhesive in the home is mortar, which is essentially cement mixed with water, but there are other types of adhesives that aren’t easily recognisable. If in doubt, take a few samples of your tiles and the adhesive residue to a tile specialist or DIY store to get a professional assessment.

Below, you’ll find a rough overview of the different types of adhesives:

  • Cement-based adhesive: This adhesive – dry mortar and cement mixed with water – is the traditional type used in most homes.
  • Flexible adhesive: Like cement-based adhesives but with added plastics, this type is sometimes called fast-setting adhesive. Often used in areas that need quick-drying materials, like stairs.
  • Dispersion adhesive: Very strong and contains a lot of plastic, this has a similar composition to wall paints. It’s best suited for laying tiles on smooth surfaces, such as over existing tiles or plasterboard, but is used infrequently. The tools outlined in our instructions below will not do much to remove this type of tile adhesive. Instead, use paint strippers or bile soap, but the latter is preferred as paint strippers emit harmful gases and irritate the skin. Bile soap is better, especially on drywall and gypsum boards. Soak the tile adhesive in bile soap and water, before rubbing it with a sponge until it comes off.
  • Reaction resin adhesive: A cement-free mix of synthetic resin and curing agents, this adhesive is often used in the commercial sector. It sticks very strongly to difficult surfaces like metal and glass. If you want to learn how to remove this tile adhesive, you’ll need a concrete grinder.
Step34

Tools you need to remove tile adhesive

You need:

The tool you use will depend on the type of tile adhesive you’re working with, how strong the base surface is and how big the area is.

 

Hammer and chisel: This toolset is only suitable for small wall surfaces. On solid masonry, you can use both tools to carefully knock off the remains of cement-based tile adhesive or mortar. Place the chisel at as acute an angle as possible to the base surface and gently tap it with the hammer. With little force, the tile adhesive should (hopefully) come off easily.

Pro: No need to buy or borrow power tools.

Con: This method requires more effort and time.

 

Electric drills with chisel bit attachments (e.g., rotary hammer): Suitable for larger areas with either cement-based or resin-based adhesives. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the tool beforehand. Take care when using a power tool on soft or damaged walls, as a rotary hammer can sometimes do more harm than good. If the wall is too soft, you’ll tear off huge chunks of plaster and your drill will leave large marks in the surface.

Pro: Faster than using a hammer and chisel.

Con: Difficult over large areas and can damage the wall.

 

Sanders: Ideal for minor unevenness and small surfaces. Choose from a range of sanders, like a random orbital sander with special sandpaper, a cordless disc sander polisher or a multifunction tool.

Pro: Less time-consuming than using a hammer and chisel.

Con: Only suitable for small surfaces and minimal adhesive residue. That said, sanders are also used when finishing the wall to create a completely even and clean surface.

 

Concrete grinder/plaster grinder/floor grinder: These are best suited to floors and large areas with particularly stubborn reaction resin adhesives. A concrete grinder with a diamond sanding disc or wheel is best, and you can rent these as required. Ask a professional for help if you’ve never worked with one of these machines before.

Pro: Takes less time than other methods and requires less physical effort. You also achieve a better result if you operate it with precision and care. Since less pressure is required, these machines don’t slip off the wall as easily and cause less damage on the surface.

Con: These machines are expensive. If you rent one to remove old tile adhesive, you will need to be taught how to use it. That said, you’ll still have saved time by the end of your project.

Step44

How to remove tile adhesive from different places

You need:
  • Remove tile adhesive from floors: Floors are usually very solid, which means you don’t have to worry about damaging them as much. You can start the process immediately with powerful machines and tools. If there’s not much adhesive residue, you can save yourself some grinding work by sanding the floor instead.
  • Remove tile adhesive from joints: If adhesive gets into joints when you’re laying new tiles and it dries, you have no choice but to remove it manually. Try scraping it out with a flathead screwdriver, grout scraper or chisel, before washing it out with a sponge and water.
  • Remove tile adhesive from porcelain tiles: If you want to reuse individual tiles, carefully scrape the adhesive residue off the back of each one with a hammer and chisel or use an angle grinder with a wire brush attachment. Make sure your tile is secure when doing so. If there’s adhesive residue on the front of the tiles, try using warm water and a steel wool scrubber or scouring pad. If necessary, scrape off large residue deposits with a blunt screwdriver before wiping. Special mortar remover is also available in any good DIY store. Professionals sometimes use highly diluted hydrochloric acid as a last resort, but we advise against this due to its dangerous and harmful properties.
  • Remove tile adhesive from granite: Granite usually has a rough surface, which tile adhesive sticks to incredibly well. If you want to preserve the surface texture of your granite, you can use a chisel and, if necessary, an angle grinder with a knotted brush attachment for small areas. You could use a sandblaster on larger areas to make the process easier, but always consult an expert before doing so.
  • Remove tile adhesive from autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) blocks: This is best done manually, since AAC blocks are somewhat delicate. Instead of a chisel, use a firm spatula with a wide contact surface.
  • Remove tile adhesive from glass: Your method for removing adhesive from glass will depend on how strong the bond is between the two materials. First, try spraying the adhesive with warm water and scraping it off. If the bond is firmer, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to remove the adhesive without damaging the glass.
  • Remove tile adhesive from wood: Cement-based tile adhesives on wooden surfaces like floorboards can only be removed with a lot of patience. If you don’t want to damage the wood, it’s best to soak the adhesive first and then carefully remove it with a hand scraper or spatula.
  • Remove tile adhesive from plasterboard: It’s almost impossible to remove tile adhesive from plasterboard without damaging the surface. Again, start off manually. Be prepared to repair the plasterboard later and reseal the surface with a waterproof filler.

 

Warning
Caution: Take care with underfloor heating!
If there’s underfloor heating where you’re working, you must take extra care as the covering substrate layer is often thin. Start by working manually with a hammer and chisel. If you feel the ground is strong enough, you can then move onto a rotary hammer and chisel bit. Make sure you use it at a 45° angle to avoid damaging the floor. A grinder may also be suitable, depending on the floor’s condition.

How to remove tile adhesive: A brief guide

  1. Seal up any gaps in doors, windows, light switches, electrical appliances, etc.
  2. Put on your protective equipment.
  3. Use whatever tools are appropriate for the surface – a rotary hammer, angle grinder, router, manual tools – and work the residue until it’s completely removed.
  4. Check the wall or floor for damage and repair it if required.

Final points to consider

Here are a few more tips on how to remove old tile adhesive, so none of your questions remain unanswered.

How do I dispose of the tile adhesive once it’s off?

Depending on its type and base, tile adhesive is either an organic substance comprising mainly of metallic elements (as is the case with cement-based adhesives) or a chemical compound consisting of mixed plastics.

Mortar, the cement-based tile adhesive that you’ll most likely find on your walls, can be disposed of in small quantities in your normal household waste bin (just remember to pack it in well). In larger quantities, however, mortar is considered a waste product of construction and should be taken to a specific plant, tip or scrap yard.

Did you know? 98% of construction waste is reused to make things like roads.

Reaction resin adhesives, like all other solvent-based adhesives, are chemical compounds. As such, you must take them to a hazardous waste collection point to have them properly disposed of.

What if I find asbestos while renovating?

Any hazardous materials that you find in your home – including asbestos – must be disposed of properly by specially licenced companies.

Unfortunately, asbestos is still widely present in existing buildings and was also used in tile adhesives in the past. Since mineral fibre is classified as a carcinogen, legal regulations apply to the handling of this hazardous substance. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website contains information on handling and managing asbestos, including details on the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 law. According to these regulations, you have a “duty to manage” the asbestos in your building, which involves determining whether asbestos is present before you start your DIY activities. Consult the HSE website for more information.

Can I also hire someone to remove tile adhesive?

Would you prefer to use a professional from the start? If so, it’s worth contacting multiple companies to get estimates and find out who can offer the best service and price. Getting someone in is even more worthwhile when you want more work done on top of removing tile adhesive (such as re-tiling, plastering or installing laminate). This also makes it more worthwhile for the tradesmen themselves.

If you do it yourself, you’ll save a lot of money. However, difficult working conditions – like unstable flooring, damaged walls, an asbestos presence or underfloor heating – can all make it much more worthwhile to hire professional help.

Of course, nothing can deter you if you’re an enthusiastic DIYer! Before you begin any project, check out our DIY knowledge section. There, you’ll find lots of tips and tricks that will make your life easier when it comes to using tools.

Still don't know what to do with your free space after you remove your old tiles and adhesive? Let us inspire you with our huge range of DIY trends and home ideas. Whatever you end up doing, we wish you unwavering success!