Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.
Longtime reader, first-time writer! My wife and I recently renovated our home, and as part of the project, we removed old ceramic tile and replaced it with new, charcoal-gray ceramic tile. We chose a silver-gray (read: light) grout to really accentuate the grout lines, and the finished product looks BOSS.
However, the tile guys left in a hurry on a Friday afternoon with some rough instructions on how to finish removing the grout haze (they had performed some of the initial removal). Needless to say, I did not realize the gravity of the situation: You absolutely need to clean that stuff off while it is still wet/damp. We needed to work on a bunch of other things and did not prioritize cleaning the grout haze. I took an initial pass at it a couple days later and got most of the haze, but there are some spots where the grout settled into the texture of the tile. Scotch-Brite pad and grout-haze remover have done nothing to finish the job. Please help!
I've mentioned before in this space that from time to time, there's a Clean Person phenomenon in which, over the course of a week or two, my inbox will just be crushed with the same type of question being asked over and over again. It happened earlier this year with ring around the collar, and last year with gasoline on pants, but now there's some next-level stuff going on with thematically similar home-care woes.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my editor about the type of stuff writers and editors generally chat about: writing. Places we've written. How we foolishly decided to spruce up our rental apartments by raking the grout in between the teeny-tiny bathroom-floor tiles. You know, the usual.
"I should probably write a personal essay for you about how I foolishly decided to spruce up my rental apartment by raking the grout in between the teeny-tiny bathroom-floor tiles, shouldn't I?"
"You really should."
You can go ahead and blame my editor for the fact that today, you're going to be treated to a personal essay on grout-raking. But first, let's answer this guy's question, because answering your questions is my no. 1 priority in life, and that is sadly not hyperbole.
The crazy thing about this question is that it arrived in my inbox about an hour after that conversation. And I was like, "WHAT? I was just talking about grout removal, this is so weird and perfect and weird!"
As you may have guessed by now, the answer—or at least one of them—to the grout-haze problem is the use of a grout rake. Grout rakes are these things: They're about the size of an X-ACTO knife and come with a replaceable carbide blade. To use it, you simply put the blade in the middle of the grout line and scrape back and forth. It's kind of like brushing the tile's teeth! Which you'll understand more clearly later, because I took a video of this folly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In this case, because the grout is actually on the tiles, the grout rake would be used to sort of chip away that excess grout. It won't scratch the tile, so you needn't worry about that—but it will scratch any stonework you may have, so don't use a grout rake around marble, granite, slate, etc.
So that's one possible solution to the problem, but there are two others that I would suggest trying first, because they're less labor-intensive. The first is to hit that haze again with the remover, but swap that Scotch-Brite for a Dobie Pad. The Dobie Pad is an abrasive sponge that won't cause scratching, and it offers a bit more power than just the plain old Scotch-Brite. I don't think that a grout sponge will make a marked difference in this case, but maybe one of you knows differently and would like to chime in.
The other thing you can try (and I'll admit that even I, a known lover of the stuff, was skeptical about this one) is white vinegar. Now, I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking it, too: "There's no way in hell that white vinegar is going to succeed where actual literal grout-haze remover failed." Except I know something that you don't know: The letter-writer above tried the white vinegar all on his own in the time between emailing me his question and me getting back to him, AND IT WORKED.
Now, I don't really know why it's the case that the white vinegar worked where the grout-haze remover did not, except to suggest that it's possible the product our LW was using was grout remover and not grout-haze remover. I don't mention that to insult anyone's intelligence, but rather because the two are apparently confused often enough that it came up over and over and over again in my research.
The mention of that grout research brings us to the personal-essay portion of today's proceedings.
Before I get into telling you this story, I want to mention two things about me. The first is that one of my nits, other than people who don't frequently wash their dish towels, is advice columnists who use the space they're given to help others to, instead, talk about themselves.
The second is that when I sat down to write this, I was seized by an almost crippling fear of sharing this story with you.
I mention the first thing because if I didn't, and you were to march in here and be like, "WAY TO MAKE IT ALL ABOUT YOU, LADY," I might actually die from shame. And it would be terrible to die from shame at this stage in the game. "Here lies Jolie. She almost completed that grout-raking project. Didn't quite make it." So instead, I'm acknowledging the narcissism on display here, and we'll move right along.
The second part though… well, let's just get right to it: I'm scared to write this post because I'm afraid you're going to make fun of me for being a dumb girl.
Now then. You are not going to make fun of me for being a dumb girl. Of course you're not. It's absurd that I would even think that! But my emotional Achilles heel, or at least one of them, is a relative insecurity about my handy-manism, despite the fact that I actually am quite handy. Even though I grew up on a steady diet of This Old House and Car Talk, my problem mostly is that there are some major gaps in my handyman education, including and especially a confidence gap. But no one knows everything, and I'm more than capable of learning. And I love this shit, which I'll get to. So I need to cut it out with the "dumb girl" concerns.
Thank you for listening. Barfing that out at you was therapeutic for me.
I've lived in my apartment—a teeny-tiny tenement on the Lower East Side—since 2009. It was the perfect apartment for me, despite being a sixth-floor walk-up and having no laundry facilities and being a teeny-tiny tenement. But then I had to go and get married, and my husband moved in, and my home almost immediately went from being perfect to being not-at-all adequate. We make do, and we have our reasons for not moving at this stage in the game (rent stabilization, my wildly unpredictable income, the fact that I'm a financially conservative worrywart). It is what it is. Some people don't have homes, I'm not going to go in big on complaining about my apartment being too small for two people.
You might guess about me without having to be to told explicitly that I'm an action-oriented person. "If there was a problem, yo I'll solve it" is a personal mantra of sorts.
I'm also prone to wallowing, and one of the ways in which I manage that unfortunate trait is to get off my ass and do the proverbial Something About It. And so it came to pass that I've undertaken a sprucing-up of our bathroom. My rationale was this: If we were staying in the too-small apartment, we might as well invest time and a few pennies into improving it. The first order of business was to slap a fresh coat of paint on the walls and ceiling. That was mostly fine, if a bit of a challenge because I'm a Small. Then I decided to up my game and address The Grout Problem.
The Grout Problem was this: The last time the management company did work to the bathroom floor, they did three terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things: The first was that they patched the area by the door with similar, but not identical, tile using black grout. The second was that they used giant swaths of plaster to seal the seam between the floor and the wall. The third was that they used sand-colored grout that they never cleaned off the tiles, creating the appearance of plaque on the tiles. (Remember my earlier comparison to teeth? Right. You got it.)
Look, I'm not such a dumb girl (STOP THAT, JOLIE!) that I didn't know going into it that dealing with The Grout Problem was going to be a lot of work. But I like a project! And more importantly, I was a little intimidated by the notion of grout work, which meant this was an opportunity for me to challenge myself to learn something new. So I headed off to my local ACE Hardware—and here I should mention that I fucking LOVE a hardware store. Oh man, I could spend hours just checking out differently sized nails and handling assorted nuts and gazing longingly at all the glues, plus I also fucking LOVE glue, you guys, never met an epoxy I didn't love—to check out the grout-improvement options and ask for some help.
I explained the nature of The Grout Problem to the guy helping me out, and said that I wanted a relatively simple and inexpensive solution. Mostly I didn't really want to get involved with mixing buckets of grout. That seemed like way more than I was willing to take on, given that our apartment is a rental. I dunno. Maybe that was a weird line to draw?
I also knew that there were essentially two separate issues to address. The first was the mismatched grout (the mismatched tile was going to have to stand; we're talking about a rental, after all), and the second was the bad, plaque-y grout and plaster job. I was pretty sure that entirely re-grouting the tile wasn't necessary, and it turned out I was right about that. So I chose a tube of white grout that would make for easy application on the areas that had the darker grout to solve that first problem. It's worked great. Good choice. Way to go, Joles.
Things went sideways when it came time for me to make a choice vis-a-vis a grout-removal tool. My choices were, essentially, manual or power. And that's where my handyman insecurities kicked in, along with my interest in keeping the relative cost of this project to a minimum. I didn't really want to get involved with using power tools on tile, and I didn't want to lay out the cash for a rotary tool. I opted instead for the grout rake.
I knew it was a mistake the minute I plopped my tush down on that tile floor and started scraping. I even said to my husband, "This is a mistake. I should not do this." Which I immediately followed with, "Well, let me see how far I get in a half-hour, and then I'll make a command decision."
Big mistake number two.
I tend toward the obsessive, and once I start something, it's almost impossible for me to leave it unfinished. I know this about myself. And yet? I started a project that I knew in a matter of seconds was a folly and didn't immediately cut bait, which history tells me meant I was in for the long haul.
I made the best of it. I drank Diet Coke, which is a treat I almost never allow myself, and also a goodly amount of wine-with-ice on an empty stomach, which is one of my favorite highs. I put the '80s radio station on Spotify, and warbled along to the sounds of summers spent at camp and sleepover parties with my girlfriends. I reveled in the simple pleasure to be had in physical, home-improvement work.
And it's not like it was in vain! I mean, look at this!!!
To show you what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, the portion on the bottom has been scraped, top is the OG grout job pic.twitter.com/fb7xQ5Ed0F
— Jolie Kerr (@joliekerr) June 7, 2014
The thing is, though... that first day of grout-raking turned into a five-hour affair. The only reason I even stopped when I did was that a friend was in town, and I wanted to catch her while she was here.
The next day I logged about three hours of raking time; the following weekend, two hours was all I could manage. Ten hours in, I had made a lot of progress, but an estimated five hours of raking was still ahead of me. This is where things remain at the time of this writing.
By now you're probably wondering what, exactly, is taking so long. Well, here. This is grout-raking. [TRIGGER WARNING: Horrible scraping sounds and shaky camera work ahead]
I know. It's completely insane. But then again, I'm a person who truly delights in things like explaining how to clean a Fleshlight. And I'm pretty sure that, for the most part, you all appreciate that about me.
So now we come to the part of my personal essay on grout-raking where I turn to you, Dear Reader who has not called me a dumb girl, even though after reading this ridiculous story you'd be well within your rights to do so (don't, though), to ask what you think I should do. My options are to continue with the raking, or head back to the ACE and drop somewhere between $40 and $100 for a Dremel. Stopping now is not an option. But you already know that.
If it helps you to help me make this decision, I offer these two nuggets of information:
1. I have become so obsessed with this project, and with the notion of being the kind of woman who owns a Dremel, that the other night I dreamed that I was in conversation with a person of whom I asked, "Do you have the Dremel? How do you find it?" The dream was so vivid that midway through the next day when I recalled it, I truly could not determine if it was a dream, or if it had really happened. (On further deliberation, I realized it was a dream.)
2. I am pretty much terrified at the idea of using the Dremel. Which is, of course, exactly why I should go out and get one.
So I guess I've answered my own question! But still, I'd like your input, if you're willing to give it. Especially from those of you who own a rotary tool and can give thoughts on which model I should get, and which attachments are best for this job.
Also I know you know this, but maybe it will be nice for you to hear me say it explicitly, because it speaks entirely to the fact that, despite being seized by an almost crippling fear of sharing this story with you, I still did it: I fucking love you guys.*
*Almost as much as I love glue.
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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