A floor covered with ceramic tile is about as durable and low-maintenance a surface as you can get—until a cast-iron pot slips from your hand, or you drop the wrench when tightening that elbow joint under the bathroom sink. But even then, you'll be glad to have tile underfoot, because replacing a broken or chipped one is pretty simple to do. "It's a job most any homeowner can handle," says Joe Ferrante, a tiling contractor who's worked with the This Old House television show for nearly 20 years. On the following pages are Ferrante's steps for a perfect repair. Just make sure to follow one critical piece of advice. "Take it easy with the hammer," he says, "or you'll end up breaking more tiles."
Remove the Grout
• Put on safety glasses to protect your eyes from chips and dust, then rake out the grout around the broken tile using a carbide-tipped scoring tool.
• Apply just enough pressure to remove the grout but not so much that a slip will gouge the neighboring tiles.
Loosen the Tile
• Apply painter's tape around the edges of the adjacent tiles to protect them.
• Drill evenly spaced holes into the tile's broken sections with a 1/4-inch ceramic bit. This helps free the pieces from the substrate and makes them easier to chisel out.
Chisel Out the Pieces
• Working from the center out toward the edges, gently tap out the broken pieces with a hammer and a narrow (3/8- or 1/4-inch) chisel. If you don't have a tile chisel, a cold chisel or even a flat-blade screwdriver will also do the job. Start with the chisel at 90 degrees to the floor, then switch to a 45-degree angle after you penetrate the glaze.
• Once the broken tile is removed, use a wider chisel to clean all the old thinset off the substrate. The same technique applies for all substrates, including mortar, cement backerboard, or plywood.
Set the New Tile
• Comb a small amount of thinset mortar over the substrate in straight furrows using a 1/4-inch notched trowel.
• For best adhesion, also butter the back of the new tile with thinset.
• Set the tile in place and press down firmly to level it with the surrounding tile. Adjust it so the spacing is even on all sides.
Fill the Joint with Grout
• Wait at least two hours for the thinset to cure, then mix up a batch of grout.
• Swipe the grout into the joints with a rubber grout float held at a 45-degree angle, then wait 15 minutes for it to harden.
• When the grout no longer feels tacky to the touch, clean off the excess with a damp sponge.
Allow the Grout to Dry
• Don't walk on the tile for 24 hours.