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Clay Tile Smashing

November 18, 2010
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Our plumber and our heating/cooling contractor both needed some holes in the existing walls. Plumber: the vent for the bathroom sink needed to be recessed into the wall; HVAC guys: the entire furnace, ducts, pipes, etc. are on the opposite side of the north wall (in the shop area) and they need holes for the supply air duct and the return air duct to get into the apartment.

Unfortunately, one of us wrote in the bidding documents that “Owner will be responsible for cutting all holes in existing clay tile walls.” (Okay, that was me, but Sue agreed to it too.) Well, we knew this would save us some money, but more importantly, we knew that this was an extremely messy job that could throw debris and dust in every direction, and since the contractors aren’t cleaning up, they wouldn’t care what mess they made.

Over the course of 5 or 6 days I cut three holes. The first technically isn’t a hole – it’s a vertical channel for the plumbing vent:

Channel for plumbing vent

As soon as the rough-in inspections are done, we’ll plaster over the channel. Hopefully it won’t be a big deal – a large mirror is going to go there anyway.

I didn’t document the process until the last hole – it’s surprising how much prep is needed to contain all the debris. With the first hole (channel) I used blue painters tape to stick the plastic tarp to the wall, and over the course of two hours working inside of it, it started peeling away and some of the schmutz got out.

So here’s a pic of the “tent” that I setup for the third hole:

Dust containment bubble

This was at the bedroom in the loft. The contractor said they needed a hole for a return air duct that was 8″x30″.  I asked what clearance they needed around the duct; they said about 1/2 around. And they said it can’t be a whole lot larger or it will be hard to anchor the duct in the hole. Accuracy was in order.

Locating the hole was a pain in the butt – the contractor had already located the duct at the floor on the other side – so I needed to transpose that location up about 14′ – so I first had to climb the ladder and drill some pilot holes from the shop side, then from the bedroom side I could lay out the 9″x31″ rectangle.

Franco dropped by (after HIS day job) to work on some things so I asked him to take a pic while I was in the tent working:

Bag full of debris - plus one human...

I used a diamond-edged blade on the angle grinder – makes quick work of the plaster and pretty easy to cut a line, BUT – it’s a horrible mess. I was wearing eye protection and a respirator, BUT, everything sprays in all directions so it feels like a sandblaster blowing in my face. Except instead of sand: small gravel.

After 20 seconds the air was so thick with crap that I couldn’t even see the line that I drew in red sharpie on the white wall. I’ll admit that sometimes I just kept going, hoping I was on track. So I had to stop many times and let the dust settle. Once I scored through the 1″ thick plaster, I could take a hammer and chisel (masonry chisel) and pop off the plaster in neat chunks. But then I had to cut another groove into the exposed clay tile. (My blade could only cut about an inch deep on the first pass, due to grinder head configuration.)

After I had a perimeter score line in the clay tile,  I could just smash the tile away. Sounds easier – the face of a clay tile wouldn’t give until the fourth whack with a small sledge hammer. They’re amazingly strong. And then they only break up where the hammer hit them directly. Therefore – lots and lots of whacking and smashing.

Once I had the “cores” out (there is an inner “web” that had to be taken out too), then I could see the face of the other side of the wall. But I couldn’t just smash it out, or the hole would be all ragged and it would make a bigger mess on the other side (I couldn’t “tent” or bag the other side – it’s 14′ off the ground.) Instead of smashing through I used the hammer drill and made a series of holes outlining the 9″x31″ opening:

View from inside the bag

Once the holes were all made, I could take a small little “rock hammer” (ala “Shawshank Redemption”) and carefully chip out the remaining webs between the holes. Starting from the bottom. I could take out chunks of tile with plaster from the opposite side in 3″ or 4″ pieces.

It took about 2 hours to rough out the hole. Plus another 30 minutes to smooth out the roughness. That doesn’t include a break every 30 minutes because A) it would get very hot in the “tent” (or was it lack of oxygen?) and B) I needed some fresh air. (Yeah, it was probably the lack of oxygen.)

Next is a pic of the finished hole, from the bedroom side.

A new 9"x31" hole in the wall.

I used some heavy duty duct tape to hold the plastic tarp to the wall – so it peeled off some of the paint. No big deal – we had another coat of paint to apply yet. But the debris was well contained in the bubble.

It was my idea to turn this hole vertically – the contractors said something along the line of “Well, that’s fine to make it vertical – but it won’t look like a return air grill though…” Ummm, my thought exactly.

And next is a photo from the shop side (opposite side of wall).

Our holy wall.

The newest hole is on the upper left. The ironic thing is that on the upper right, you can see where we filled in an old hole in the wall – and go figure – it was for an old duct that ran through the space. We’ve finished it off on the bedroom side. And at the bottom, see a smaller squarish hole; that’s hole #2 – for a supply air duct.  It was pretty easy because it didn’t need exact dimensions and I could stand at floor level to make it. And I did it with just the hammer drill – no super-dusty grinding blade.

Finally, a pic of me covered in clay tile dust during one of my “pop-outs” from the bubble; I had to take a triple-length shower that night:

Clay dust is the driest kind of dust.

I think if any more contractors need holes (or channels) cut into existing walls, I’ll ask them to do it themselves.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rick permalink
    November 27, 2010 8:55 am

    Tom, WOW messy job. Next time forget the shower and just use an electric pressure
    washer ( not as much force as gas one ).
    Why aren’t you using a full face shield ?

    • Tom permalink
      November 27, 2010 7:47 pm

      Full face shield? Mine doesn’t have a tight fit (for the grit cloud) and it doesn’t fit over my respirator. I used to have a firrefighters mask but a neighbor “borrowed” it about 12 years ago…

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