How to Break up Concrete by Hand

Broken up concrete in a wheelbarrow
Michael Phillips/Getty Images
  • 01 of 06

    Break Concrete Without Special Tools

    Let it be said that breaking concrete is never an easy project. While it is possible to rent a concrete breaker or hydraulic jackhammer from home improvement stores or rental yards, this can get expensive. And wielding the breaker can, itself, be a tough task. That is why many homeowners choose to break their concrete in a more leisurely fashion with a sledgehammer.

    What Can You Break by Hand?

    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.

    The Secret to Easing the Work

    Creating a vacancy below the concrete is the one great secret to making this task easier. As long as there is material under the concrete, it is difficult if not impossible to break up your concrete with a sledgehammer. 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. This material might be sand or just dirt, but most likely sand, as that is the proper bed for concrete.

    Dig about one foot inward. It does not need to be very deep; just a few inches is fine.

    While you can break up concrete resting on a base material, it's harder, and you end up with tiny pieces of rubble that are more difficult to manage.

    Your Tools

    • Sledgehammer (an eight-pound one should be sufficient)
    • Pry bar
    • Shovel
    • Hand truck

    Safety and Clothing

    Even if you're cavalier about wearing eye protection, this is one situation when you want to wear it.

    To avoid scratches, wear a long-sleeved shirt and thick pants.

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  • 02 of 06

    Swing Sledgehammer by Letting It Fall

    You can injure yourself by swinging a sledgehammer. If you have any rotator cuff problems, handling a sledgehammer will not help you.

    Fall, Not Swing

    What you do isn't so much swing the sledgehammer as lift it and let it fall.

    1. With one hand, grasp the sledgehammer by the handle as close to the sledgehammer's head as possible.
    2. Keep your other hand toward the end of the handle.
    3. Lift the hammer as high as possible, but not directly over your head.
    4. Let it fall. Do not exert any force as the head is falling. Let the hammer do the work.

    Careful of Flying Debris

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

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  • 03 of 06

    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.

    Choose the Size

    Concrete often does have a mind of its own, but you can control the sizing to some degree. If you want:

    • Large Pieces: Make the pieces as large as you can carry without hurting yourself. You'll find that they need to be smaller than you can think. A series of blows in a line will create a stress crack that you can subsequently break off with one blow.
    • Minimal Small Rubble: Anything smaller than softball-sized is frustrating, useless, and harder to carry out.
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  • 04 of 06

    Use Pry Bar to Force Away Stubborn Concrete

    Pulling out concrete with a pry bar
    Lee Wallender

    In a not-so-perfect world, your best efforts at breaking away large, clean, definable chunks of concrete don't work. This is especially true if you decide not to dig out under the concrete. Concrete with base 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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  • 05 of 06

    Move Large Chunks of 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.

    It's far better than a wheelbarrow because, with a hand truck, 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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  • 06 of 06

    Dispose of Broken Concrete

    Separate your concrete debris into two sections:

    1. Large: Pieces that, on the flat side, are about eight inches or more in diameter. These pieces are big enough that you can stack them neatly away.
    2. Small Rubble: This consists of everything smaller, of course.

    How Not to Dispose

    Don't put it out in your regular garbage service. Not only will it take hundreds of trips, but you risk provoking the ire of the sanitation workers because most municipalities do not allow concrete in residential waste service.

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

    How to Use It

    Broken concrete doesn't have to be thrown away. Suggestions include:

    • Flip it over, powerwash it, and turn it into a stone-look pathway.
    • Stack it up, and make short garden walls.
    • Make short retaining walls.
    • Stack it in a circle to make a fire pit.
    • Use it as edging for a pond to hold down the pond liner.
    • Use the small rubble as French drain material.
    • And, if nothing else, use it as fill material when you want to build up an area of your yard.