How to Remove an Old Concrete and Tile Floor

by Jim Bessey

 

You may have a bullet-proof bathroom floor. Up until the last two decades of the 90s, concrete and tile bathroom floors were common. The guys who installed these super-strong floors were as much masons as tile men. You could drop an anvil on a concrete floor and barely chip a tile. In fact, you could fire a .38 from below and the floor would stop the bullet. Seriously.

tile over concrete floors in blue and pink

These old tile over concrete floors last forever! Notice the threshold?

Thirty years later, most of us want these GONE. “That floor will never wear out,” you silently scream. You’re right; it won’t. The decision to replace a poured-concrete-under-tile bathroom floor is usually made on looks alone–as in, “I can’t stand to look at this thing one more day!” The tiles are tiny, in pastel shades of pink and green or blue, and they have sparkles in them, for Heaven’s sake!

OK, how do you get rid of a floor like this?

“you’re probably the kind of person who enjoys making his or her own gravel from boulders”

Smart people pay professionals to do the dirty deed. But some folks–maybe you–love to tackle difficult, dusty, back-breaking jobs themselves. Why? Perhaps you just hate going to the gym, and you need a really good work-out. That’s fine, even commendable. Before you give it a try, consider this list of…

Tools and things you’ll need for the job:
●    Plastic sheeting for sealing doorways and protecting nearby floors
●    Box fan for the window, if you have a window
●    High quality dust mask(s)
●    OSHA-certified safety glass or goggles
●    Good work gloves
●    Knee-pads or kneeling pad
●    Buckets or bins for hauling debris
●    Hammers large and small
●    Prybars large and small
●    Diagonal cutters or pliers for removing old fasteners
●    One or two cold chisels (sometimes)
●    Tin-snips (usually)
●    Tools for removing your toilet

Discouraged yet? If you’re still reading, you’re probably the kind of person who enjoys making his or her own gravel from boulders. Or you have a teenage son or two who need to ‘learn a good work lesson.’ (That excuse works well for me!) Let’s talk first about…

Safety issues:

Removing tile and concrete, in many cases over one inch thick, creates a big mess. Flying bits of ceramic tile can be very sharp, and cut like a scalpel. The concrete dust is a skin and eye irritant, not to be taken lightly. Don’t let this kind of dust filter into the rest of your house. (TIP: Seal off any forced-air heat registers in the room)

Furthermore, if the floor comes out in big chunks, these will be heavy. This type of floor can easily weigh 10 pounds per square foot. Not only that, there’s almost always some sort of wire mesh down near the original wood floor. That stuff will cut you wide and deep. Work carefully, methodically, and never use more force than you can safely control (though you will be tempted to do so).

Always wear gloves, safety glasses, dust mask or respirator, and protective clothing like jeans and sweatshirts (even if it’s summertime).

Removing the floor itself…

Isn’t terribly difficult. It’s just dusty and sweaty and slightly dangerous. Never try to work around the toilet–you’re sure to break it. (That’s a mess you don’t want, trust us.) If you’ll be working with the bathtub in place, protect the front of it from flying chips. Ideally, both tub and vanity are not in the room. In that case, you can begin removing the floor from either open area. Oftentimes, though, replacing the floor is the whole job. You have to find a place where you can get leverage beneath the concrete; that’s the tricky part.

If the doorway is the only place you can start, begin by removing the old marble threshold. Don’t worry, it will break. Poke a prybar beneath it and carefully apply pressure. Once the marble cracks, pry one part up and out. This gives you a spot to continue prying and breaking up the concrete beneath those ancient tiles.

You can use a sledge-hammer…

But that can send tile chips flying around the room. Use the sledge, instead, to create fractures in the concrete–not to “bust up” the tile surface. Your goal is to break up the floor in small sections, about the size of a dinner plate. The wire mesh underneath will rip, if you’re lucky; or you’ll have to use the tin-snips to cut it as you go. Often, that wire is nailed or stapled to the wood sub-floor. Be wary of sharp, rusty fasteners.

Use buckets or bins to haul away the debris.

Don’t try to carry big slabs, unless you love back pain. When the old floor comes up in larger sections, use the sledge-hammer to crack those into pieces. Slide an old piece of wood underneath to allow the concrete to fracture easily. Have we mentioned how sharp the wire mesh is? Cut it, bend it around the little pieces, and always wear good work gloves (not the brown cotton ones).

Eventually you’ll be down to just dust, some bits of black felt paper, and a few old fasteners stuck in the wood floor. Use a dustpan and brush to gather as much of the dust as possible. Save the vacuum cleaner for final clean-up. Pull or pry-up any old staples or nails–don’t kneel on those!

When the old floor’s all gone, you might need to repair or patch some sections of the sub-floor. Unfortunately, you can’t know what you’ll find beneath that bullet-proof concrete and tile surface until it’s out. Be sure your sub-floor and joists are in good shape before you move on to installing whatever new floor you’ve chosen. Then it’s break-time!