The new year brings with it an urge to improve many aspects of your life, so why not channel that impulse into tackling some home fix-it projects? Here’s what you should know about fixing a broken tile — and whether you should do it yourself or enlist the help of a pro.
Project: Fixing a broken tile on a floor or wall.
Why: Your tile floor or wall will look better without that crack.
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Basics steps: The process of replacing a tile is fairly straightforward. Essentially, you chip out the bad tile, replace it with a new one and regrout. While that sounds easy enough, you need to know what to watch out for so that you can spot damage that may lead to a bigger repair job.
It’s a good project for you if: “Anybody that has any basic handyman skills can do it,” says Chris Harper, general contractor and partner at Harper Construction in Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s more a practice of patience than it is a skill.” That said, a homeowner may encounter a number of unexpected challenges, causing the project to grow bigger, Harper warns. If that happens, it could be time to call in a pro.
Things to consider: Cracked tiles can be caused by a variety of problems, ranging from something heavy dropped on the floor to a subfloor issue. The unfortunate result is an unsightly broken tile marring the look of your floor or, in some cases, your backsplash or wall.
Fortunately, replacing a broken tile is fairly simple if everything goes as planned. One contractor said he’d seen clients try to glue broken tiles back together. But this isn’t ideal, since you’ll probably always be able to see the fault lines.
Instead, you can use a cold steel chisel to chip out the tile. This is delicate work that requires applying the right amount of pressure. Some people find it helpful to break the tile before they chip it out. “Most of our guys break the tiles so they don’t damage the rest around it,” says Joe Smith, general contractor at Owings Brothers Contracting in Eldersburg, Maryland.
If you’re removing a tile from a shower wall, it’s going to be difficult to dig the tile out without damaging adjacent tiles if the grout is still in place, notes Robert Jenkins, remodeling contractor at Bobmahalo in Wahiawa, Hawaii. “Dig the grout out if it’s not cracked out already,” he says. You want to scrape out all the thinset or mortar down to the substrate.
Once the tile is out, you need to use a flat scraping tool to scrape out the old mortar down to the substrate so that the new thinset will stick. Next, apply the setting material to the back of the replacement tile, place it and let it dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Once it’s dry, you can grout it.
Bear in mind that even if you use the exact same grout color, it might not match perfectly. Grout color changes over time as it accumulates dirt and wear. “One tip we do tell people who are going down this path is if you replace a tile, consider regrouting the entire area,” says Jef Forward, creative director of a Forward Design Build in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “If it’s a bathroom, 5 by 8 [feet], yes, I would consider it.” For a larger room, Forward suggests regrouting a smaller area — maybe 3 by 5 feet — so that you can blend the grout a bit more.
These are the steps, assuming that removing the tile goes smoothly. But it’s possible that when you pull up the cracked tile, you’ll discover a cracked subfloor. “If the tile is cracked from an impact, sometimes that damage can extend through and crack the substrate below,“ Forward says. If you see a big crack, you need to follow it beneath the tiles to assess the damage. “The consequence is you may have to pull up perimeter tile,” he says.
Sometimes your tile may need to be replaced, not because it’s broken or cracked, but because it popped out on its own. This can be caused by setting product that wasn’t properly mixed, and in some cases the whole floor may need to be redone for the proper setting bond. So what do you do if you see a crack in the substrate? In general, small cracks can probably be filled and safely retiled, Forward says. But cracks running beneath tiles likely require the help of a professional to assess the situation.
A note on mess: If you’re using a grinder to remove the grout surrounding a tile — which helps for getting leverage — you may want to have a vacuum attached to the grinder so that dust doesn’t go everywhere. It’s also smart to have some surface protection for the tiles around your work area. You’ll want to put down cardboard or some protective material where you place your tools so you don’t accidentally crack more tiles.
And finally, if you’re reading this article and are building or renovating, John McCloskey, a general contractor at J. Francis Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has this tip: “If you’re fortunate enough to [own] the property when the bathroom is being renovated, have the foresight to order attic stock of the tile.” Attic stock is a 5 percent buffer you order when you’re originally laying tile so that you don’t have to try to find a matching tile when one breaks.
Who to hire: A professional tile layer or, for bigger jobs, a general contractor
Cost range: $100 to $500, depending on how long it takes
Typical project length: Two to eight hours
Permit: Not typically required
Best time to do this project: Since it’s an indoor project, any time of year is fine.
How to get started: Make sure you have the replacement tile on hand. Decide whether to DIY or hire a pro.