Demolition: The Bathroom

Meet the challenges posed by tubs, tile and glass block with these guidelines.
By: Mark Clement

When I walk into a bathroom, I'm often struck most by the tile. It usually tells the bathroom's story, and when that's an ugly tale, it's time for the tile to hit the bricks.

Way back when—before plywood—bath tile was installed in a mortar bed. The carpenters installed a crib work of beveled 2-by-4's between the joists and poured what amounted to a 3-inch-thick mortar slab over it. They laid their tile on this slab.

The reason for this architectural-history note is that if you have this in your house, you need to know what you're dealing with. It pretty much boils down to this:

  • If the tile is in fine fettle, consider keeping it. It's probably vintage stuff.

  • If it must come out, the entire system must come out. In other words, the tiles don't come off—you have to break out the whole slab. Lots of work here.

  • Another option is to cover the old tile with new tile. Check with your tile dealer about products for preparing the existing tile for a new tile. This can be done only if the base tile is in decent shape, with no major cracks or floor dips and not too many peeling or missing tiles.

  • Adding new tile raises the finished floor height—you'll need to add transitions in the thresholds.

Newer houses' tile will be set on plywood, drywall or even cement board. Often, these tiles can be muscled off with a flat bar or a tile-stripping bar (you can rent these). Other times, the mastic that holds them in place is so tenacious that you'll end up destroying the substrate in this process—the substrate comes with the tile as you break it up. Be prepared to remove and replace the entire substrate before installing new tile.

As for glass block, when it's time for that to go—whether it's a window, a shower surround or some other detail—the key is not to sledgehammer the glass to pieces (although you can do that) but to break the seal between the mortar or mastic joints that hold it together. If you can't break the bond easily, revert to option 1 and smash it to pieces. Just make sure that you have a place for the glass to go and that you wear protective gear.

Finally, when it's the tub's turn, be ready for some work. Newer tubs have a flange around their top rim that tucks under the drywall and is nailed to the studs. Long story short, you need to expose this flange to get it out. If you're removing a tub with jets, be ready for it to be hardwired somewhere inside the framing. You'll have to delete and cover that connection. And disconnect any plumbing you can get to so the tub can move without damaging existing pipes.

Cast-iron tubs can really pose a challenge. They're in so hard that I think old-time builders sometimes used to build the house around them. And they're heavy. If you can free the tub from its surround and have enough friends to hoist it and carry it out of the house, good. But if you can't free it—or fit it through the house—get Sluggo and break it up.

You can do this because cast iron, while heavy, is very brittle. That means it breaks. This is one of the few places where the Clement Demo Doctrine of no sledgehammers takes five. An 8-pound Sluggo is the way to go. Before blunt-forcing the tub, I recommend covering it with a thick drop cloth (this shrouds the shrapnel) and then pounding it to dust. Please note that the resulting pieces will be scalpel sharp, so wear gloves even when picking them up.


Various other hand tools can knock out tile and rip out substrates easily enough, but when the going gets tough, you need a few specialty tools to clear the path:

  • Tile-stripping bars. They can divorce wedded tile from its clingy subfloor spouse.

  • A 14-pound chipping hammer. It works like a jackhammer, and it can get you through and under stuck tiles and break up mortar joints. (They're available for rental.)

  • Safety gear. Eye protection is vital. Gloves are a must. I also recommend long pants and long-sleeve shirts to keep everything from dust to high-speed ceramic shrapnel off your skin.

The other tool you need is your brain. Work smart. Be careful of pipes and wires, and remember the Clement Demo Doctrine: Even though you might be swinging Sluggo for the fences, your job is not to kill your house but to leave yourself with a substrate from which that dream bathroom can grow.

Mark Clement is a remodeler and author of The Carpenter's Notebook and The Kid's Carpenter's Workbook, Fun Family Projects! Find out more at

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