How to Break Up Concrete Steps

How to Break Up Concrete Steps

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If you just bought an old home that is in dire need of some renovations, or your own home could use some fixing up, one of the things that you might want to replace or get rid of altogether is old concrete steps.

Yes, concrete is of course a very hard and solid building material, so it can be quite the challenge to remove, especially if you have a good amount of steps. That said, it is more than possible to break up concrete steps yourself if you have the right tools and techniques for the job.

Should You Break Up Concrete Steps by Yourself?

Ok, so you might be thinking that smashing up some concrete is a straightforward and simple task that requires nothing more than blunt force and bicep power, which could very well be true. If you have very simple concrete steps that are relatively thin and are not reinforced, you may very well be able to just sledgehammer it apart.

However, with that being said, there are some issues that you might be faced with, issues that may result in you having to hire a professional. Here are some of the important factors to consider when deciding whether or not to DIY.

Thickness

One of the main considerations to keep in mind here is how thick the concrete is. Generally speaking, if the concrete is less than 4” inches thick (and does not include anything else like rebar), you should be able to simply smash it apart with a sledgehammer.

However, if the slab or the steps are thicker than 4 inches, you are likely to need power tools and some know-how, specifically something like a jackhammer and/or concrete saw. If the concrete is thicker than 4 inches, and you don’t want to buy or rent power tools, you may want to hire a professional.

Utilities

Something that you absolutely need to do before you start smashing apart concrete, especially if you plan on also taking out the main slab underneath, is to call your local authorities (8-1-1 if in the USA), to ask where the utilities are located. You don’t want to bust through a concrete slab, just to realize that you also busted through a gas or water main, and yes, this does happen, and yes, if you do this, you will be on the hook for it.

In some areas, if you make this kind of mistake, you may even be considered criminally responsible under the law. If you do find out that there are utilities under the concrete, then in no case do you want to remove it yourself. If this is the case, you must hire a professional.

Reinforcement

If you have just a couple of concrete steps, chances are that they are not reinforced. However, if you have more than a couple of steps, especially if there is a large slab underneath, you may be faced with reinforced concrete.

Now, if the concrete has been reinforced with a metal mesh, then bolt cutters will be enough to get through it. However, if you are faced with thick rebar, you will need to have a saw that is capable of cutting through it, which means having a concrete saw with a carbide blade that can cut through both concrete and metal.

If you don’t have a concrete saw, and you have heavily reinforced concrete, you will want to hire a professional. Yes, you can rent a concrete saw too, but these tools require a great deal of skill to use properly, so be careful if you choose to do this.

Rebar in Concrete Steps

How to Break Up Concrete Steps: Three Methods

What we want to do right now is to talk about the three best ways to break apart those concrete steps using a variety of tools and methods, and yes, which one you use will in part depend on what kind of concrete steps you have, mainly their thickness and whether or not they are reinforced.

Method #1: Using a Jackhammer (For Thick Concrete Without Rebar)

Ok, so the easiest way to break apart concrete steps is by simply using a jackhammer, a huge power tool that is specifically designed for this job. If you have a concrete slab that is thicker than 4 inches, and it is not reinforced with rebar, then using a jackhammer should work just fine. On the other hand, if the slab is thinner than 4 inches, use a sledgehammer (Method #2) , and if the slab is reinforced with rebar (whether over or under 4 inches), use a concrete saw (Method #3).

If you want to use a jackhammer, all you need to do is to place the striking end of the jackhammer on the concrete, starting a few inches from the edges, and then get to jackhammering. The good thing about a jackhammer is that these tools are so powerful that it really does not matter how thick the concrete is or if you first make a void underneath. Jackhammers should be able to smash through mostly anything.

With that being said, a jackhammer will not be able to smash through rebar, so if your concrete is heavily reinforced, this may not be the best method to choose. Yes, you can smash apart the concrete with the jackhammer, but you will still need to use a saw to deal with the rebar, so if this is the case, you may as well start with the saw in the first place.

Anyways, let’s take a closer look at the process.

Using a Jackhammer

Step 1: Dawn Your Safety Gear

Jackhammers are loud and dangerous, so put on your safety goggles, ear protection, gloves, steel toe boots, and long pants.

Step 2: Point and Shoot

The thing with jackhammers is that they are actually exceedingly simple to use. All you need to do is point and shoot. Hold the jackhammer firmly in both hands (you don’t need to press down much), and hold on for dear life as the striking end hammers into the concrete.

To break apart concrete, especially small steps, won’t take much. To break the concrete, a second or two in each spot will do. Just keep moving along until everything is broken into pieces.

Keep in mind that jackhammers are heavy and cumbersome, a problem when stairs are involved. How exactly you approach this (from which direction) is up to you. Depending on the location and size of the steps, it might be easier to attack them from the sides, from the bottom-up, or from the top-down. This is a common-sense judgment call that you have to make on based on your specific situation.

Step 3: Remove the Concrete

Once the jackhammer has smashed up the concrete steps sufficiently, you can then use pry bars to loosen them further, or just use those biceps to remove the chunks and then dispose of them.

Method 2: Using a Sledgehammer (For Thin Non-Reinforced Concrete)

If your steps are made of thin concrete slabs of less than 4 inches and are not reinforced, then using a sledgehammer and a few other tools should work just fine.

Proceed as follows.

Sledge Hammer

Step 1: Put on Your Safety Gear

Just like with any other work involving concrete break-up, you will want to wear at least safety goggles. A respirator, gloves, and steel-toe shoes are recommended as well.

Step 2: Make a Void

Ok, so when you go to sledgehammer concrete, the sand or dirt underneath will absorb a lot of the impact and make it very hard to break the concrete. Therefore, you need to dig out a bit of a void under the steps and the slab.

Use a shovel or any other such tool to dig out the underside of the steps and the slab. You may need to work in sections, as you won’t be able to dig a very long void from the front. You may need to dig, make a void, smash the concrete on top, and then repeat until you are done.

Step 3: Eat Some Protein and Swing That Hammer

There is no doubt that using a sledgehammer to smash concrete is hard work, so we recommend doing so on a decently cool day. Also, make sure to have a good breakfast. All you have to do is use those big biceps of yours to power the sledgehammer through the concrete. You may need to go back and forth between steps two and three, depending on the size of the steps.

Step 4: Remove the Concrete

If the concrete chunks are still very close together, use a pry bar to get them apart, and if the chunks are easy to grab with your fingers, then get to it.

Method 3: Using a Concrete Saw (For Reinforced Concrete)

Technically speaking, you can use this method no matter what type of concrete steps you are breaking apart. That said, it is especially ideal if you have a thick slab with big steps that are reinforced with rebar.

To get the job done you will need to do the below.

Breaking Up Steps with Concrete Saw

Step 1: Get the Right Blade

If you do not have a concrete saw, you will need to acquire one. When you do either rent or buy one, make sure it is equipped with the right blade. It needs to be a blade that can cut through masonry and metal. Yes, you may use a dry saw, although this may cause overheating. To avoid overheating, use a wet saw.

Step 2: Put on Your Gear

Concrete saws are dangerous, so you will want to wear steel-toe boots, long pants (preferably reinforced with fibers), safety goggles, hearing protection (and a respirator if you are doing the dry method). If you are using the wet saw method, now is the time to hook up the water hose to the saw.

Step 3: Mark the Area

It is a good idea to use some chalk or something similar to plan the cuts that you need to make. Be sure that you know the location of the rebar (you may need to use a rebar stud finder). For instance, if your steps are 5 feet wide, you may want to cut them into 1 foot sections (small enough to handle by hand).

Step 4: Make the Cuts

Now you need to turn the saw on and make the cuts on the lines you marked in the previous step, making sure that you cut through all rebar as necessary. If you have never used a concrete saw before, it might be wise to watch a quick tutorial on the matter.

Step 5: Break the Concrete Apart

A concrete saw can only make the vertical cuts, but will not be able to take care of the horizontal connection. For this, that good old sledgehammer and your biceps are needed. Smash through the concrete as needed. As you may have noticed, the saw is really more for the rebar than anything else.

Mistakes to Avoid, Tips & Tricks

Lastly, here are some additional things to keep in mind as you go about the task:

  • Always figure out whether or not there are utilities underneath.
  • If you do not know if there is rebar in the concrete, you must find out. You don’t want to get halfway through just to realize there is half-inch rebar in the middle of it all. Bust a chunk off the side and you will find out quick enough.
  • Quite honestly, if you have never used a concrete saw before, now may not be the time to start, especially when steps are involved.
  • Concrete dust is poisonous, very much so. Wear a face mask or respirator, especially when dry sawing.

Summary

There you have it, the three best ways to remove concrete steps based on how thick the steps are and whether or not they are reinforced.