Canadian Woodworking

How to replace a broken floor tile

Author: Allan Brittnell
Photos: Lead photo by Adobe Stock
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: February March 2023
floor tile
floor tile

If a tile breaks it will need to be repaired. With the right tools and a bit of know-how, this is a project that won’t take long.

Accidents will happen. If, for theoreti­cal example, you happened to have dropped an empty wine bottle onto the floor while you were taking out the recycling and it left a crack in a tile, that blunder will haunt you every time you walk through the room. Cracks can also allow moisture to seep into the subfloor, so you’ll want to repair the damage as soon as pos­sible. Luckily, replacing a cracked tile is something any reasonably handy DIYer can tackle.

That said, if there are several tiles cracked in the same area you might have a structural or installation issue that you should investigate first.

Start with the Grout
Removing the grout surrounding the broken tile is a good place to start. Whatever tool or method you use, be careful not to damage any of the surrounding tiles.

Grout removal

Break and Remove
You can use a combination of tools to break up and remove the damaged tile. A cold chisel and hammer will likely do most of the work.

Grout removal

Ensure It’s Level
Once you have the broken tile removed, and the cavity where the new tile will go cleaned up, insert the new tile, check for level and adjust if necessary. Also ensure the new tile sits below the existing tiles, as once you apply thinset to the floor the new tile will sit higher. You don’t want the new tile to sit proud of the existing floor.

Grout removal

At an Angle
Apply grout to the area around the open joints and work it into the narrow gap. Use a rubber-bottomed float at an angle to the gaps to work the grout into the joint.

Grout removal

Tools for the task

For starters, you’ll need a replacement tile. Hopefully, your contractor left you with a few extras for just this purpose. If not, you’ll have to hope the supplier you bought the tiles from still stocks that particular style or try to find a close approximation.
To remove the grout you’ll need a man­ual grout saw or a powered rotary tool or multi-tool, and a cold chisel or power scraper to remove the old mortar.

For the installation you’ll need a notched trowel, a grout float and a grout sponge. You may also want to pick up some plas­tic spacers so you don’t install the tile crooked. They’re available in increments of 1/16″, so measure the existing grout lines accurately to determine the size you’ll need.

Finally, you’ll need thinset mortar and grout that colour-matches the existing material.

Out with the old

The first step will be to remove the old tile without damaging the tiles around it. If the tile is at the edge of a wall, you’ll have to remove the trim first.

Use a grout saw, rotary tool or multi-tool to remove the grout around the tile. If you’re using a power tool, be careful not to nick the adjacent tiles. If you don’t have any of the aforementioned tools, you can slowly scrape away the grout with your utility knife and replace the blade when you’re done.

To remove the old tile, try prying it up with a cold chisel. If that doesn’t work, lightly tap the tile with a hammer to break it into pieces, again being careful to not to damage any neighbouring tiles.

Cover the area with a towel to catch debris and wear eye protection and work gloves so you don’t cut yourself when removing the sharp-edged shards.

With the old tile out of the way, use a hammer and chisel or a power scraper to remove the old mortar, being careful to not go too deep and damage the subfloor. Vacuum the work area thoroughly before you move on to the next step.

In with the new

You’ll be using thinset mortar to secure the tile in place. You can buy it as a powder or in premixed containers. Premix is handy, but powder is cheaper and will store for the long-term in a cool, dry loca­tion. Once opened, a premixed container will eventually dry out and harden.

Before you lay down the thinset, dry fit your tile in place to make sure it sits evenly in the opening. At this point, the top sur­face should be slightly lower than the tiles around it. Use a notched trowel to spread the adhesive evenly across the entire open­ing. Try to lay the tile as flat as possible when putting it into place and use your spacers – two per side on all four sides – to make sure it’s centred.

Use a level to make sure the new tile isn’t sitting proud of the ones around it. If so, you’ll have to pull the tile out and remove some of the thinset.

About 30 minutes after you’ve set the tile in place, remove the spacers, being careful that you don’t shift the tile. Let the thinset set for at least 24 hours before you move on to grouting.

The finishing touch

Hopefully, you have some leftover dry grout powder from the original installation. If not, you’ll have to try to find colour-matched material. If you’re replacing only one tile you’ll need only a small about of grout.

Mix the grout according to the instructions on the package. You’ll want it to be roughly the thickness of peanut butter or toothpaste. When in doubt, it’s better to have the grout a little drier than too wet.

Use a rubber-bottomed float to apply the grout. Apply it at an angle, using enough pressure to push the grout all the way into the gaps around the tile. If you hold your float parallel to the grout lines, you’ll end up scooping out the material you’ve just laid down.

Once the grout is in place, hold the float at about a 60° angle and use it to scoop up as much excess grout as you can.
Next, soak a grout sponge in clean water and thoroughly squeeze it out. Again, work­ing at an angle to the tile, wipe the surface of the tiles once. Flip the sponge to do a second pass and then rinse the sponge and repeat until the tiles are cleaned. Give one final rinse with clean water. Once the grout has set, remove any hazy residue with a damp cloth.

Avoid stepping on the new tile and those adja­cent to it for 24 hours – and dropping heavy objects on it after that.

Minor Chips

If a tile has a minor chip in the surface, you can fill it with epoxy and then channel your inner Vincent van Gogh and paint over the epoxy in a shade that blends in with the rest of the tile. After it’s thoroughly dried, apply a tile sealer to prevent the paint from chipping.

Grout removal

Counter Measures

If you’re installing a tile backsplash, instead of grout, use caulking to seal the bottom row where the tile meets the counter. This will pre­vent grout from cracking if the counter flexes. If the existing grout is starting to chip, remove it all (as described above) and replace it with colour-matched caulking.

Grout removal


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