How to Break up Concrete by Hand

Broken up concrete in a wheelbarrow
Michael Phillips/Getty Images
  • 01 of 07

    Break Concrete Without Special Tools

    Breaking concrete is never an easy project. While it is possible to rent a jackhammer from home improvement stores or rental yards, this can get expensive if the project drags on. Not only that, wielding the jackhammer can, itself, be a tough task. Instead, many homeowners choose to break their concrete in a more leisurely and less expensive fashion with a sledgehammer.

    Concrete, likely a walkway or patio, no more than four inches thick, is a perfect candidate for manual demolition. Beyond four inches, your work becomes exponentially more difficult.

    Asphalt cannot be broken up this way. It is softer than concrete and does not yield to the blunt blows of a sledgehammer.

    Codes and Regulations

    Check with your local permitting agency or your HOA, if you live in a condo or townhouse, for restrictions, permits, or codes associated with this project. Contact your local utilities marking agency and have them come out to mark the concrete. Gas lines, water lines, or electrical cables may be located below the concrete.

    When to Break Concrete

    Manually breaking up concrete is generally a four-seasons project, limited only by your own comfort level. Rainy conditions help to hold down the concrete dust. But periodically sprinkling concrete with water from a hose will provide the same benefit.

    Safety Considerations

    Sharp little bits of debris can shoot away at top speed, sometimes as far as 50 feet away and even more. It is recommended that you cover nearby windows or vehicles with canvas drop cloths (not plastic) or plywood to soften the impact from shards.

    Project Metrics

    • Working Time: 1 to 2 hours for 9 square feet
    • Total Time: 2 to 3 hours
    • Skill LevelBeginner
    • Material Cost: None

    What You'll Need

    Equipment/Tools

    • Sledgehammer (an eight-pound one should be sufficient)
    • Pry bar
    • Shovel
    • Hand truck
    • Garden hose and access to water
    • Eye protection
    • Hearing protection
    • Thick gloves

    Tips For Breaking Concrete by Hand

    • Breaking up concrete is highly strenuous work. Take frequent breaks and keep yourself well-hydrated.
    • To avoid scratches, wear a long-sleeved shirt and thick pants.
    • Never have soil or any other support under the spot on the concrete that you are hitting with the sledgehammer. This support will make it much harder for the concrete to break.
    • Let the weight of the sledgehammer do most of the work. Hoist the hammer, then let gravity take it down.

    When to Call a Professional

    Do not hesitate to call in a contractor for this project at any point. Breaking up and disposing of the concrete for an entire driveway, for example, can often the more than a person can manage alone.

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  • 02 of 07

    Dig a Hole Under the Concrete

     

    Creating a vacancy below the concrete is the one great secret to making this task easier. As long as there is supporting material under the concrete, it is difficult, if not impossible, to break up your concrete with a sledgehammer. Supporting material may be in the form of soil, tree roots, concrete rubble, stones, or foliage. But the moment you excavate some material from below the concrete, the job becomes so much easier.

    Begin by digging out the material from under the concrete. Dig about one foot inward. It does not need to be very deep. Just a few inches is fine.

    In a pinch, you can break up concrete resting on a supporting material but it will be much harder and you will end up with tiny pieces of rubble that are more difficult to manage. 

    In the case of a sidewalk or smaller sections of concrete, you can use a large pry bar and a fulcrum of 2x4 or chunk of concrete. Jam the pry bar underneath an edge of the concrete. Slide a fulcrum under the pry bar and lift the concrete slab. Once it is lifted slightly, you can place support pieces under the lifted edge. Grab the sledgehammer and hit the slab where you would like it to break. This will avoid a lot of digging.

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  • 03 of 07

    Swing the Sledgehammer by Letting It Fall

    Lightly sprinkle the concrete with water.

    With one hand, grasp the sledgehammer by the handle as close to the sledgehammer's head as possible. Keep your other hand toward the end of the handle.

    Lift the hammer as high as possible, but not directly over your head.

    Let the sledgehammer fall. Do not exert any force as the head is falling. Let the hammer do the work.

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  • 04 of 07

    How to Break Large Chunks of Concrete

    Chopping away large pieces of concrete
    Lee Wallender

    What size do you want your concrete chunks to be? By excavating under the concrete, you can surgically lop off the exact size you want.

    To make large pieces, a series of blows in a line will create a stress crack that you can subsequently use to break off a large chunk with one or two blows.

    Size is limited by your ability to lift and dispose of the concrete. If you cannot lift heavy loads, then break the concrete up into small pieces of rubble.

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  • 05 of 07

    Use a Pry Bar to Force Away Stubborn Concrete

    Pulling out concrete with a pry bar
    Lee Wallender

    Often, your best efforts at breaking away large, clean, definable chunks of concrete are not successful. This is especially true if you decide not to dig out under the concrete. Concrete with base support material underneath tends to develop hairline cracks but not chunk off completely.

    In this case, force the flat end of your pry bar into the crack. Wiggle it back and forth until it is at least 1/2-inch into the crack. Pry back until you can get your gloved fingers in.

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  • 06 of 07

    Move Concrete with a Hand Truck

    Loading concrete onto a handtruck
    Lee Wallender

    A hand truck, like the kind you use to move appliances, is an excellent way to move those large chunks of concrete. A hand truck is better than a wheelbarrow because you only have to lift the chunk of concrete an inch or two to get it onto the truck.

    If you're breaking up a big slab, it's important to assess how much these individual concrete slabs weigh. Try to carry these slabs the right way, too: close to your body.

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  • 07 of 07

    Dispose of Broken Concrete

    Never dispose of concrete in your regular garbage service. Not only will it take multiple trips, but most municipalities do not allow concrete in residential waste service.

    If you put it in a dumpster, typically the dumpster should be one that is devoted only to concrete or masonry-type debris, and the dumpster can only be filled about a quarter full.

    Suggestions For Disposing of Concrete

    Broken concrete does not have to be sent to the landfill. Broken concrete can be used around the yard in many ways:

    • Flip large pieces of concrete over, powerwash them, and turn them into a low-cost stone-look pathway.
    • Stack the concrete pieces up and create a short garden wall.
    • Make short retaining walls.
    • Stack the pieces in a circle to make a fire pit.
    • Use the pieces as edging for a pond to hold down the pond liner.
    • Use the small rubble as French drain material.
    • Use the concrete as fill material when you want to build up an area of your yard.