Demoing Tile, Mortar, & Metal Mesh In The Bathroom Walls

When we say we’re “tackling a room” it’s usually a figure of speech, but in this case it’s pretty close to being a literal description of our big bathroom demolition weekend (check out this post for more info on why we’re doing it and this post for our plan for the space). The biggest surprise from our weekend of knocking stuff out and gutting the room? Well, the bathroom sorta tackled back.

Before we could be all “in with the new” we had to take care of that pesky “out with the old” part. Here’s what the bathroom looked like once we cleared all the simple stuff out (baskets, shower curtain, mirror, rug, etc). We told Burger to say goodbye and he wasted no time…

Then Sherry helped me remove all of the fixtures (toilet, vanity, faucets, shelves, shower curtain) and it was up to me to demo out the tiled portion of the walls and the entire floor (since Sherry’s busy doing other important things these days). And demolishing wall and floor tile was actually something I’d never done before (neither had Sherry, and boy was she sad to miss out on the fun). But how hard could smashing stuff up really be? Famous last words, right? After some online research and chatting with friends and family, we readied ourselves with the necessary demolition supplies. They fell into three categories:

  • Tools for dismantling and generally busting stuff up (hammer, sledgehammer, small crowbar, screwdrivers, wrenches, razor, drywall saw, etc)
  • Supplies for managing the mess (broom, dustpan, rags, buckets, trash cans, heavy duty contractor trash bags, painters tape to cover drains, a shop-vac, etc)
  • Items to protect me and/or the house (goggles, gloves, gas mask, old clothes, cardboard and a cloth tarp to lay over the tub, and a plastic drop cloth to seal off the room).

Who knew knocking down a bunch of tiles took so much prep? But in the end I was thankful for (and used) every last item. Here’s the three-day fully detailed rundown.


Day One: After shopping for all of this stuff last Friday evening, we returned home to do the basic – and cleanest – tasks first. We worked together to remove the old vanity by simply turning off the water, disconnecting the plumbing with a wrench and unscrewing the vanity and sink from where it was attached (both to each other and to the wall). After that it just took one strong tug to lift the sink off and carry it out of the room (quickly followed by the base of the vanity).

With that gone, we turned our attention to the toilet – which we actually plan to reinstall afterwards since we replaced it just a few years ago when we moved in. It was a similar process of turning off the water, then disconnecting the plumbing, the seat, the tank and the bowl one-by-one.

And of course we plugged up the sewage opening with an old rag to prevent any nasty fumes from escaping (and to keep debris from entering later).

With those big items gone- followed by simply unscrewing the shower fixtures- the room was entirely clear and it was time to get rested up for Saturday.


Day Two: We woke up bright and early thinking that Saturday would be the only demo day. I, the non-pregnant member of our household, was going to be a one-man wrecking ball while Sherry kept her distance from the mess and the dust (trust me, she wasn’t sitting around eating bon-bons she was hovering and wishing she was the one with the sledgehammer). But with our house being built during the era of lead paint, we were EXTREMELY careful about keeping Sherry away from the demo zone AND keeping the demo zone away from Sherry just in case there was any lead paint lurking behind the newer coats of latex (i.e. I didn’t wear my dirty clothes outside of the room, we sealed off the doorway with a thick plastic drop cloth, and any wayward dust or dirt was immediately cleaned up with a wet rag and TSP cleaning solution- which is recommended when dealing with potential lead-paint dust). And of course I was all decked out in my protective gear for added safety (goggles, gas mask, gloves, old clothes that we disposed of afterwards, etc).

Oh and here’s a tip whether you’re dealing with lead dust or just regular dust (which is also nasty and will permeate every cranny of your entire house if you let it). It helps to seal up heating vents, bathroom ceiling fan vents and even to cover your “toilet hole” (yes, that’s a technical term) to keep nasty debris from invading those alcoves (and potentially spewing all over the place once the heat/fan is turned on). Plus you don’t want to clog up your sewer with fallen chunks of wall tile.

Speaking of sealing things off, here’s a view of the heavy duty plastic tarp that Sherry stared at all day, constantly asking me what was going on because she just heard banging, crashing, and probably a fair amount of muttered profanity. It’s just a heavy duty plastic drop cloth, but when taped in place it’s really an amazing way to keep everything nasty in the room… and out of the rest of your home.

But back to the view behind the bubble. As mentioned, I entered looking like a confused comic book character (the googles paired with the gas mask created sort of a pathetic villain vibe) and thanks to all my prep work the night before, I quickly began knocking off those wall tiles. I was implementing a simple crowbar-laid-at-a-tile-edge technique, followed by a few strikes of a short handled sledgehammer. Let’s just say it was slow going. As in, it broke loose a tile or two for every four or five swings of the hammer. Very quickly, the sheer amount of work this would take me started to set in. Not to mention what I discovered behind the tile was NOT modern backerboard or drywall (which I was hoping to saw out) but rather two inch thick concrete mortar sandwiching a sheet of thick mesh-like metal. It was an older tiling technique that I had read about online but somehow never realized could be found in our older home. D’oh.

But having committed myself (by way of heavily sealing myself into the room and already being quite dusty) I decided to plug away. After all, the “hit it as hard as I can technique” was working – just ever so slooooowly.

Fast forward six sweaty hours later (not sexy-sweaty, gross exhausted-sweaty) and I’d finally managed to get all of the tile off the wall. Even with the floor tile left on my to-do list, at this point I would have thrown my arms up victoriously… but I barely had enough energy to move them. Plus, the amount of tile rubble surrounding me made any fast movements a risk to my balance. I never imagined how much trash our tiny bathroom would create (it could have something to do with the fact that someone decided to tile ALL THE WALLS) but I was very grateful that we invested in a large box of heavy duty contractor trash bags. Note: don’t fill the bags with more than you can lift because I don’t know anyone who can carry a trash bag full of rocks (even a weird gas-mask-and-goggle-wearing comic book character).

But before turning to clean-up, I decided to power through two more hours of work (basically as long as my bladder would last – oh the irony of spending the day in the bathroom but having nowhere to “go”). Sure all the wall tiles were down, but I now had to demo out the stuff behind them to get down to the studs (and cinder blocks, I soon discovered)- which mainly consisted of a few inches of serious mortar with that maniacal metal-mesh sheeting nailed to the studs behind it. With my supposed “one day” of demo quickly looking like two (or three?) I wanted to at least make a dent in all of the thick metal mesh and mortar that taunted me from every angle. This involved smacking it with a hammer to knock as much of the mortar off (and often using the back of the hammer to pry it). Then, once that nasty metal-mesh was mostly exposed, I used the back of the hammer to pry it off of the wall (it either pulled it off of the nails in the studs/furring strips or pulled the nails right out along with it when I used enough force). And that’s when I discovered the cinder blocks (!) behind the window wall…

I got two walls completely stripped down to the studs/furring strips before my arms (and bladder) nearly gave out and it was time to call it a night. And since the gym was closed (where I’ve been showering) and I was coated with debris, I had to rinse off all the dust I collected over my eight hour workday outside with the hose in 40 degree weather. Sherry did bring me some hot water with a washcloth and a bar of soap in the end, but I was still standing barefoot on the patio freezing my sore bum off. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it.


Day Three: Sunday kicked off early with sore muscles, cramped hands and the removal of all of Saturday’s trash by way of dozens of heavy-duty contractor’s trash bags (I left about ten inches of demo’d tile on the floor the night before, so getting it out to the garage was important since balance is key when holding sharp objects like a crowbar). Oh and we started a pile of trash in our garage that we’ll haul away once the project is 100% complete. We plan to rent a $19-an-hour pickup truck from Home Depot and pay about $8 to drop everything off at the local dump (which ends up being much cheaper than renting a dumpster although it’s a bit more labor intensive since we’ll be hauling stuff ourselves). Just carting out all that smashed up tile, mortar, and metal sheeting took about an hour or so, followed by another four hours of metal mesh removal and then another round of clean-up. Why clean up again? Because I had to clear the way for my next assignment: the floor (so first I had to find it again). Here’s that intense metal mesh I’m talking about that was behind all the tile and a few inches of heavy-duty mortar. Yeah, it’s not chicken wire:

Seriously, our bathroom could have doubled as a bomb shelter.

Anyway, after having gone through all of this on the walls (and it being about 4pm on the day before I had to go back to work), I knew I could/had to do the floors more efficiently. We had actually chipped away a section of flooring before starting demo work, so we were already aware that our worse-for-wear-basketweave tile was also set in mortar atop metal mesh which rested on diagonally placed subfloor beams (the fact that the mortar and metal sheeting was also in all the walls of the bathroom was the added surprise). So, thanks to some googling ahead of time, I already knew that a demolition hammer was my ticket to getting ‘er done. And thank goodness hardware stores like True Value rent those suckers for about $60/day. Remember they gave us a place on their DIY Blog Squad along with a generous gift card? It certainly came in handy, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you True Value, for saving me from what I can only guess would have been ten more hours of hard labor.

But back to my new favorite power tool. The demolition hammer is like a mini-jackhammer and is by far the biggest powertool I’d ever used (that’s not saying much for me, though). So I trepidatiously placed the chisel against a grout line on the floor and pulled the trigger. With a few sharp pounds of force, up came a section of tile (and the concrete beneath it). Victory! Now somewhat reinvigorated by my trusty destruction device (and feeling more like a cool superhero instead of a disheveled goggle-and-gas-mask-wearing weirdo) I was able to break up the entire floor in about 90 minutes. Kinda made me wish I had used it on the walls. Sigh.

Speaking of which, I have to admit that this whole demo adventure was a little bit of a roller-coaster ride for me. There were times when I felt like giving up because the task seemed insurmountable and there were times that my body just wasn’t up to the challenge (after a few of the more challenging hours). But then there were other times – like as I pried up the last of the metal mesh on the floor to expose the raw bones of our house – that I was excited by the amazing transformation I was bringing to our bathroom. I mean, it’s kinda awesome to stare at the basic structure of your house…

… even if it includes an area of rot next to the tub (more on how we remedied that in a later post).

And happily, my roller-coaster ride came to an end around 11pm on Sunday night. There’s nothing like eking things out when it’s down to the wire. I had finally removed all the last bits of trash and rubble, dusted and shop-vac’d as much of the remaining dust and dirt as I could and even wiped down most surfaces and tools with a rag moistened with TSP cleaning solution (again, trying to be sensitive to potential lead issues). Amazingly, the demo was complete – just in time for me to get about seven blissful hours of shut-eye before dragging my weary body off to work the next morning. And yes, there was another cold outdoor shower, but this one didn’t seem half as bad…

*Now for a little safety suggestion: wear proper closed toe shoes when taking on projects! We don’t know what we were thinking in those two barefoot photos but we definitely recommend keeping your feet protected, especially for those heavy duty tasks. Safety first!

Psst- Wanna check out Chapter One of the big bathroom redo? Click here for those deets.


  1. Amanda V says

    Wow John! It’s awesome you survived the crazy weekend! Can’t wai for the post about the rot spot. Sometimes crazy things like rot just appear and almost ruin your day.

    Can’t wait for the big reveal either!

    • says

      Isn’t my hubby the best?! So glad you guys are digging the latest chapter in our crazy bathroom reno. And here are some answers for ya:

      Julie- Supposedly you can use demolition hammers on floors and walls. But in such a small bathroom leverage would have been a real challenge (not to mention avoiding all of the many pipes and wires behind the walls) so although doing the walls by hand took forever it was probably the most fail-safe solution in our specific case.

      Janice- We came to discover there wasn’t! The funny thing is that our house acts like it’s extremely well insulated (we use less heat and air conditioning than everyone we know because our brick house is built like… well a brick house). Very sturdy and air-tight. So I guess since wind doesn’t whistle through it like it does on some wood or vinyl-sided homes, the cinder block over brick technique seems to work if it’s done well. And our attic is really well insulated to keep the heat/air conditioning in which probably also helps too.

      Abby- Very funny. Good thing we have a half bathroom that’s available. Whew.


  2. Julie says

    Wow!!! That was an incredible amount of work you did in just one weekend! Could you have use that tool on the walls?
    It looks great!!

  3. says

    Ugg. This is exactly what I am worried about when we decide to replace our tub- what’s underneath the 109 year-old house parts… I think that it may be a job for the summer seeing as we have but the one bathroom and cold hose showers are only for crazy comic book types.

  4. Erin says

    WOW! (That’s all I can say) Our basketweave floors and tile walls are definitely in for the long haul after this. (Especially since I know we have the mortar and wire mesh behind them after a window sill replacement) Thankfully, everyone remarks on how the tile is in “excellent shape”.

  5. says

    Wow, that is a ton of work, especially to tackle singlehandedly! We’ve been demo-ing our finished basement for the last several months, doing it in sections to manage the amount of garbage and to save our sanity. :-) Hopefully we’ll finish that up this weekend.

  6. Heather M says

    Way to go John! I’m pooped just looking at the pictures of all the hammering you had to do. And I’m sure Sherry was just going crazy wanting to dig in (literally). I’m so excited to see the next step. We’re going to be re-doing our half bath in about a month or so, but thankfully don’t have to remove any tile. But if I start complaining about the work, I’ll just think about how lucky I am to not have to deal with tile removal!

  7. Caroline says

    John you are amazing! Congrats on all the hard work, even if it did make me feel rather lazy. I guess painting the study over my xmas holiday from work is doable afterall…..

  8. says

    I recognize that tub. We had to move one just like it. Three strong men barely could… so I am glad it’s not on your list. It is amazing how well it’s built, though. The one we have is the exact same age as my dad.
    Looking good!

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