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I'm in the middle of remodeling my half bathroom and have run into a sticky situation with the existing flooring. My goal is to remove it and refinish the flooring beneath, much like has been done for the rest of the house.

The old flooring is made up of a few layers. From top to bottom:

  1. 9" x 9" vinyl tiles
  2. black mastic/glue
  3. 9" x 9" wood/mdf/plywood-like squares. These are about as thin as the vinyl tiles.
  4. Putty colored clay-like material. Seems like it may act as both an adhesive and a leveler.
  5. Fir flooring

I began removing layers 1-4 and found that they were particularly easy to pull up around the perimeter of the room. Using a heavy-duty angled paint stripper and a hammer, I was able to pull everything up within the span of a few minutes.

The middle section is another story however. It's hard to even get an edge under the wood squares. The construction and layering looks similar to that of the edges, though the edges may have had a different kind of adhesive for the 4th layer (it looks a little darker).

This 4th layer material may be somewhat water soluble (with hot water at least), but it's hard to get the water underneath the wood-like layer. I've tried flooding the wood layer with hot water but it isn't particular effective.

The flooring was installed in 1949, which is a little before asbestos was heavily used. There's still a reasonable chance of it existing in the vinyl tiles and the first layer of mastic (layer 2) so precautions are being taken (approved respirator, eye protection, disposable clothing, dampening of everything to keep the dust level down, proper disposal of materials, etc). That being said, I consider sanding to be out of the question at this point, though the top vinyl layer and mastic could be fairly easily removed first if need be.

How might I more effectively remove this flooring?

Update

I'm beginning to think that the 4th layer might actually be extremely old vinyl tiles, meaning that the mastic between them and the wood flooring is what's tripping me up.

A little slice of hell

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Have you tried using a heat gun? I would try that and a putty knife. One reason I would use the heat gun would be to avoid the glue pulling up pieces of the fir boards. Another technique I've used with slow success is to slide the putty knife up to the edge and tap it with a hammer. Then, if I don't get any movement there, try from a different angle. This does not look like it's going to be easy, so I'd resign myself to taking my time so I didn't mess up the fir flooring. –  getterdun Mar 1 at 3:12
    
If it's very old and is striking you as tile-like the lowest layer might be actual linoleum (as in made from linseed oil - possibly fabric and linseed oil) - in which case think paint remover (linseed oil is also what most oil-based paints are/were based on.) In a different situation I found a lot of use for a solid carbide paint scraper, but you have more material than that in most places - still might be handy once you get close. –  Ecnerwal Mar 1 at 16:12
    
If you have a local gas supplier that will sell you a quart, you might try liquid nitrogen (or dry ice, if it's easier to come by) to shatter the bottom layer. Only use with good ventilation, of course. –  Ecnerwal Mar 2 at 1:12
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2 Answers 2

I feel your pain, I have run into this many times. It may be necessary to use a Sonic/ vibrating tool like a Rockwell Sonic Crafter with a scraping blade. You may damage the wood a little, bit it will sand out. Don't use water, it can damage the underlaying wood and seep into the subfloor. The center of the floor is always the hardest to strip. Foot traffic has compressed the glues etc. Patience and power tools are needed now.

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I'm assuming a light spraying of water is OK to keep the dust levels (asbestos precautions, again) down, so long as it's wiped up fairly immediately? –  YWCA Hello Feb 28 at 23:31
    
You will want to keep the water to a minimum and do not let the wood get saturated. It will swell and worst case, let the joints open up. –  Jack Feb 28 at 23:38
    
If there is a possibility of asbestos in the tile, a misting of water to hold down dust is OK if you don't soak the wood. It is very unlikely that the adhesives contain asbestos, but wear your protective gear and try not to sand any tile fragments. You can also try using a heat gun to soften the tile/adhesive. Test a small area to see if that helps. –  shirlock homes Mar 1 at 11:49
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up vote 1 down vote accepted

Sometimes it takes a village. Here's a summary of what ended up working:

  1. The first layer of tiling came off without too much trouble by using a heavy duty paint scraper (with a slight bend to it) and a hammer. I was able to get through this in less than an hour.
  2. The second layer was much harder. I believe @Ecnerwal was right in that it was actually a layer of older vinyl or linoleum. This ended up coming up only with the use of a heat gun and the scraper. This took 3+ hours.
  3. The remaining glue (putty like material) responded well to hot water. I heated up a kettle and would put a small amount of hot water on the remaining material. I used the scraper and a piece of steel wool to remove the material, sometimes requiring two passes. I had a towel handing to wipe up the water and material.

I'm now looking at fir flooring in relatively good condition, minus a nasty gouge mark I made when first trying to remove the tiling by force.

Some other details for those reading:

  • Make sure to take precautions as there may be asbestos in your flooring. Do not assume any of my steps taken were safe.
  • Paint thinner, as recommended by @Ecnerwal did not have any effect
  • I tried using some orange-based product to remove the glue from the floor. It had a minimal effect, took longer, and was more expensive than hot water. I didn't let it sit longer than a few hours, which may have limited it effectiveness (label recommended 30 minutes to 24 hours).

This, in the end, was really backbreaking work. Whether it was worth it or not will be more obvious once I figure out how well I can repair the gouge I made.

Thanks everyone for your help with this!

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