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The Best Way to Remove Thinset From Concrete

The best way to remove thinset from a concrete floor
The best way to remove thinset from a concrete floor

I can’t believe it! It’s already week 3 of the One Room Challenge makeover of my master bathroom!

In case you’re joining in for the first time, the One Room Challenge is a 6-week event (put on by Linda at Calling It Home) where a whole bunch of designers are crazy enough to agree to makeover a room in 6 weeks and post their progress every week. If you missed them, you can see where I started in week 1 HERE, and see the design plan in week 2 HERE. Or if you want to skip ahead, you can see week 4 HERE, week 5 HERE and the reveal in week 6 HERE.

In every makeover, it seems there is always (at least) one week where things don’t go according to plan (commonly referred to as The Week From Hell).  This week was that week for my bathroom makeover.

The Deliveries

I actually started out the week feeling pretty good…I had ordered most of the major bathroom pieces, and they were all shipping very quickly.

Even Chanel approves of the floor tiles
Even Chanel approves of the floor tiles

The floor tiles* arrived and none of them were broken! This is a first for me, especially with 24″ tiles (I did have them delivered to the store and picked them up myself which I think helped a lot…I’m pretty sure it’s the shipping that usually does them in.)

The tub
The tub

The bathtub* was delivered, and it is beautiful…even if it is still in the garage :)

The shower doors* and the toilet also came in.

And then the purchase that I was really looking forward to got delivered…the vanity*.  I took one look at the box and was immediately filled with dread. There weren’t any really obvious signs of damage but the sides of the box were pushed out a little…like something had been dropped on it. I was hoping that it was all in my imagination.

Unfortunately, not so.  The marble top and the wood support at the top of the vanity were both broken (whatever fell on it must have been really heavy!) Anyhow, now we begin the waiting game to see when the replacement arrives.

From there, things just got worse…

The Problem

So my goal for this week was to get the floor tiles installed, which (as you may have guessed) did not happen.

The problem was that whenever my mother and I install something, we want it to last…so we always do a very good job of making sure everything is firmly attached. And to our credit, the things we make don’t fall apart :)

However, my mother and I installed the blue and white tile floor that was in my bathroom originally…

Needless to say, removing those tiles (and the associated thinset) was much harder than I anticipated!

One tile down, many more to go!
One tile down, many more to go!

Getting the tiles off, was tough, but we managed to do that in an afternoon. We started out with a screwdriver and hammer (worked but very slow!).

Reciprocating saw / tile scraper blade
Reciprocating saw / tile scraper blade

And then moved to a tile scraper* attachment for the reciprocating saw* which did a decent job, relatively quickly.  I did go through quite a few scraper blades doing a fairly small floor…I found out afterward that there are a couple other tools that probably would have worked even better (see below).

The thinset on the floor
The thinset on the floor

Since I’m putting down new, large-sized floor tiles, getting the old tiles off was just the first step.  To prevent the tiles from cracking, the floor also needs to be level.  After the old tiles were removed, there were still large areas of thinset stuck to the concrete that were obviously not level.  So I needed some way to remove it, and the reciprocating saw / tile scraper combo wasn’t doing it.

The First Solution

Tile chisel, via amazon*

Since I’ve never tried to remove thinset from concrete before, I did what most DIYers do in this situation…I googled it.

Rotary Hammer Drill, via amazon*

Everything I read said to buy a 2″ tile chisel for the hammer drill.  It will chisel the thinset off the cement like butter, they said.  Yeah…not so much.  It was working but was taking so long I thought the whole 6-week challenge would be over by the time I got the mortar off the floor.

So I hired a guy to do it for me.  He came out of the bathroom after an hour with the hammer drill in 2 pieces (yes, it literally fell apart!), and had only cleared about 1′ square of floor space.

As a side note, I do think this hammer drill / tile chisel combo would have worked better for removing tiles than my reciprocating saw / scraper blade did.  I’ll know for next time!

The Second Solution

Flooring removal machine
Flooring removal machine

So I figured, there must be a tool for this! (I know I’m not the only person who has ever tried to remove thinset from a concrete floor).

I went to the Home Depot rental department and asked them what kind of a tool I could rent that would get this job done.  They rented me a rather large “floor removal” machine that certainly looked like it would get the job done!

And it worked really well for removing the top layer of thinset. (I think this would be the mac-daddy of tile removal solutions…if I were doing it again, I would rent this machine to take up the tiles).

However, there was still about 1/4″ of mortar covering large sections of the floor, which just would not come off.

The Final Solution

Angle grinder with thinset removal disc
Angle grinder with thinset removal disc

Back to google again to see if I could find some other way…

And that’s when I saw it, a solution that looked like it would actually work!  It was on a blog (House of Hepworths) and I’m not sure how I missed it the first time.

They had the exact same problem and ended up using a Floor Maintainer with a Diamabrush to grind the thinset off the floor. I rushed over to my local Home Depot rental center, and of course, (since I was in the makeover week from hell) it was already rented out.

 

Double-Row Diamond-Cup Grinding-Wheel, via amazon*

But they did have a smaller version that attaches to an angle grinder*. (I used the 4″ disc, but probably could have gone with the 5″ one).

The smooth concrete
The smooth concrete

And what do you know, it worked!

The dust
The dust

A few words of caution…it creates a lot of dust! I felt like I was in the Sahara Desert in the middle of a sandstorm.  If you decide to take this on, make sure to wear a ventilator and goggles. (Actually, I think a hazmat suit would be better). Take everything out of the room that you can, and enclose the area as much as possible. I had all of the doors to the bathroom closed, and still ended up with a thick coating of dust on everything in my bedroom and closet.

Dust Shroud for Angle Grinder, via amazon*

I also noticed (after I finished), that you can get a dust shield* for the angle grinder that connects to your shop vac. This would definitely be worth trying!

With this tool, I think the clean up from this job took longer than the work. But it’s finally done!  Now, I can start the tiling :)

Hopefully next week, I will have some prettier pictures to show you.

Click HERE to go to week 4 of my master bathroom makeover.

And don’t forget to check out the rest of the talented designers that are participating in the One Room Challenge.

Have comments or questions on the best way to remove thinset from concrete? Tell us in the section below.

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4 Responses

  1. Nicole Q-Schmitz
    | Reply

    Holy tamoly! I’ve installed a lot of tiles in my day, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to remove them, and clearly it’s not something I would want to do by reading this. I might even have contemplated adding a thin layer of floor leveller on top to avoid it – but your floors turned out great! Looking forward to next week :)

    • Wanda
      | Reply

      Hi Nicole…I don’t think I’ll be removing any tiles anytime soon, either! In hindsight, floor leveller over top of the tiles might have been the best option. In any case, it was definitely a learning experience :)

  2. Ugh! What a pain! At least it’s finally done! Hopefully it won’t take too long to get the replacement vanity.

    • Wanda
      | Reply

      Thanks, Sam! Yes, I’m very happy this part of the makeover is done :) And I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the vanity…

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