How to Break Concrete With Hand Tools? (Solved)

Last Updated on May 2, 2023 by Barry Gray

While dealing with a finished project is satisfying, there’s also something quite cool about preparing the ground for a new project to begin. At times, it almost feels therapeutic, along with the knowledge you are starting something new, and that, in itself, is exciting.

But at this time, I’m going to focus only on one thing, and that’s breaking concrete. Also, I will focus on how to break concrete with hand tools. All you need is a sledgehammer, pry bar, mallet and a chisel. Oh, and some energy if dealing with a large piece of concrete.

Anyway, no matter the reason why you find yourself needing to smash up some concrete, chances are you will resort to hand tools. 

I say this because not everyone has access to a jackhammer or air hammer to then blast through the concrete and break it up in no time at all. So, there needs to be a more time-consuming approach that will eventually prove to be just as effective as the power tool version.

But I know this can be tough, and whenever something is challenging, it can lead to people, in a way, being put off from trying to do it. So, I don’t want you to feel as if you are going to fail before you have even had the chance to start. As a result, I have a few steps you may want to follow, along with a number of tips, that will make this job go off without a hitch.

Also, this applies no matter the size of space you need to clear. 

The Tools You Need

First, let me go through the tools you will need in order to do this, and there are only a few hand tools that will be suitable for the job. 

It would help if you had a heavy hammer, and I admit a sledgehammer is going to work along with a mash hammer. It needs to be heavy, and if the concrete is thick, then the sledgehammer will probably work best.

Also, it would be best if you had a pry bar. This will allow you to not only get started with the concrete, and I’ll explain how later, but it then makes it easier to pull apart the pieces of concrete that have been broken off.

Apart from those couple of tools, you only require a way to remove the concrete from the area. If indoors, then a shovel and a brush to clean up behind you are all that’s needed. Also, if you are outside, then the same tools will apply.

As you can see, you really do not require much to do this job, but it’s still important to know the correct way to break up concrete to prevent it from becoming too backbreaking.

Oh, and do wear safety glasses. Small pieces of concrete will likely fly off in all directions when you are smashing it to pieces, and that’s not something you want to go in your eye. Gloves will also be helpful because this is going to require you to put in some action and energy, and with the hand-sliding method for a sledgehammer, it’s possible you will generate some friction burns on your hand.

Also, the gloves will stop those chips of concrete from cutting your hands. They are very sharp, and again I don’t want you being hurt in any way when it’s so easy to stop that from happening.

Which Sledgehammer?

But just before I get into how to break up the concrete, let me address the question of which sledgehammer you should look at using.

Ideally, it should be one with a 16lb head. This sledgehammer is specifically designed for demolition work and is perfect for this particular task. The sheer weight, along with the energy you create by simply swinging the sledgehammer, will be enough to go ahead and smash through the concrete.

Now, I know a 16lb hammer may be too heavy for some, so don’t stress if you feel unable to use such a hefty sledgehammer. Even one at 12lb will be able to make a difference, but you may have to use a few more swings to get through the concrete.

I see this tool as being key to the entire project. A standard hammer just fails to have the same impact, and you would expend far too much energy and time trying to complete the task. 

Starting Off

concrete breaking with hand tools

So, to begin, you could simply go ahead and start smashing the concrete with that sledgehammer. However, just going ahead and doing things blindly is not the best approach. Instead, I have a couple of tips designed to make your life easier.

First, check the concrete to see if there is a crack or weak spot. If so, you need to exploit that weakness as it will clearly fracture quite easily, and you can start making real progress with the task.

However, if there are no weak points to discover, then don’t stress. You can still make the task a bit easier than it needs to be. So, here are a few tips designed to just make things run more smoothly. 

Going to the Edges

Aside from exploiting a weak spot, it would be best to look at the edges of the concrete. When you really think about it. A corner, or the edge of the concrete area, is a great place to begin. You only have concrete on some of the sides of the area you will be striking, so there will be less resistance as a result.

The corner or just an edge is weaker, so I would strike the concrete in those areas first. Also, it would help if you had a pry bar as well. Throughout this project, a pry bar will become your best friend. 

Here, you would use the pry bar to lift up the edge and, in effect, make the concrete less firm below. By doing this, what is happening is you will be removing a surface for the concrete to be sitting against, so when you strike it, then it’s more likely to break at the first time of asking.

Now, I know if you have a large piece of concrete, it won’t be possible to lift up the corner or edge. However, you can still try to get the pry bar under it just to move some of the soil. Even a slight change can make a huge difference and will then result in it being easier to smash up the concrete.

What you are seeking to do here is to really work at undermining the support the slab or piece of concrete has. It will make such a massive difference to what you can then achieve with even relatively minimal energy.

The Breaking Up Method

sledgehammer to break concrete

I’ve already mentioned how you should start with breaking up the concrete, and I do hope you find a weak spot in the middle of the concrete because of how much easier the entire job will become.

But I also need to discuss the striking aspect to allow you to complete the job as quickly as possible. You see, the incorrect method will cause problems and make the task harder than it needs to be. 

For me, the key is to avoid focusing on just one area until you feel it’s all broken up into small enough pieces for you to then remove the concrete. Instead, I tend to move around and work to break up the entire area into bits. In doing so, you are effectively reducing the strength of the whole piece of concrete rather than in just one corner or section.

That is why I strike the concrete until I see cracks appearing in an area, and then I move on and repeat the process elsewhere. In a short period of time, you will see how the concrete has been broken up into more manageable chunks. 

Yet, even though I’ve not stated how you should move over the area, there is a way to hold the sledgehammer that will then allow you to get the most out of the hammer and hopefully smash up that concrete in a shorter time.

So, to sum things up:

  • Move over a larger area as it works better
  • Focus on breaking up larger chunks before working down in size
  • Try to find a weak spot in the middle
  • If that fails, go to the edge and start there

The Best Way to Hold the Sledgehammer

A handle on a 16lb sledgehammer is usually quite lengthy compared to other hammers. That does mean you need to know how best to handle the sledgehammer to then get the correct results. 

The key here is to have your more dominant hand sitting closer to the head while the less dominant hand is more to the end of the handle. This gives you optimum control over the movement of the sledgehammer, and it should lead to a more controlled strike.

But that’s not all.

As you move the sledgehammer, you need to use more of an arching motion. Also, it would be best if you lifted the hammer as high as you possibly can to generate the maximum force. However, please don’t lift it straight up over your head; it’s not safe, and nor is it essential to then strike the concrete.

As the hammer falls down, just ensure your dominant hand slides along the handle away from the head and more to the rear of the handle. That movement will still offer you maximum control, but once that sledgehammer is moving down, there’s very little you can do to stop its momentum.

I do love that it doesn’t take much effort on your part, at least from the swinging part. I know it’s tough lifting up that 16lb head at first and also doing it repeatedly, but that’s why you need to let the sledgehammer do most of the work, with a helping hand from gravity.

I promise you will be surprised at how simply letting the sledgehammer fall in a controlled manner will generate results. 

How to Get the Maximum Impact

Using a sledgehammer for concrete

I know people only have a limited amount of energy to break up concrete, so here are a few tips that allow you to deal with this project without exhausting yourself. Also, do keep in mind the point above regarding how to use the sledgehammer correctly.

Use the Pry Bar and Sledgehammer Combo

The first tip is to use the pry bar and sledgehammer combination. After smashing up the concrete in an area, use the pry bar to lift up the larger pieces to then make it easier when hitting them again.

Also, use the pry bar to move the broken pieces away. It just lets you know the areas you really need to work on.

Also, the pry bar can be used in advance to loosen the soil below the concrete or to at least lift up a section of concrete. You don’t need much movement to then make a difference when it comes to smashing up the concrete. 

Wet the Concrete First

This is more of a safety issue rather than it making a difference when striking the concrete, but you should wet the surface with some water first.

The aim here is to limit the dust that can fly up, and some water will be enough to make a huge difference. It just reduces the number of small pieces of concrete that would otherwise fly through the air. 

This won’t help 100%, but it will certainly do a fantastic job of reducing the dust, making it significantly safer for you. 

Don’t Apply a Lot of Force

People fall into the trap of believing they need to swing the sledgehammer hard and use as much power as possible to get results. Well, that’s not true.

Actually, it’s better if you effectively allow the sledgehammer to do the work for you. Allow the weight of the head of the sledgehammer to come down at its own pace. All you need to do is to guide it to the part you wish to be struck.

If you try to use more of your own energy, you will not be getting the job done any quicker. Force is not the key, as the sledgehammer is designed to do this job with minimal fuss.

I know I mentioned this above, but it really does lie at the heart of being able to complete this task as quickly as possible. 

But overall, using a sledgehammer to break up large concrete sections is the best approach. However, it only works when you have no need to be refined and careful with what you are breaking up. At that point, you need to adopt a different approach to ensure you don’t go ahead and damage the wrong area. 

Using a Chisel for Smaller Sections

Using a chisel to break concrete

So far, I’ve been describing how to break up large areas of concrete using some powerful hand tools, but what about smaller sections or areas where you need to be a bit more delicate in your approach? Well, there is a good method for you to use, and it involves a chisel.

Now, I’m not just talking about any old chisel here, as chisels designed for woodworking simply won’t suffice. Instead, you need to go out and purchase a concrete chisel. Yes, this simple hand tool works better than a power tool.

The difference here is in the size of the chisel blade, as well as a large steep hoop at the end of the handle. If you look at a concrete chisel, you will see how the hoop actually flares out quite significantly, and that’s because of how you will be using it and also the hammer you will be striking it with.

Now, a concrete chisel does come in different sizes, just as you get with a standard wood chisel. So, it’s essential to understand what you will be trying to break up and to then know you have the best chisel size for that job.

The Best Chisel Method

One thing I love about the chisel method is the sense of control you have over the process. You feel you can be really precise with the striking and effectively chip away at concrete without causing too much damage elsewhere.

But even with this, you need to be aware of the best approach to then get the type of results you want.

The key here is to use a small hand-held sledgehammer. This hammer has the weight you are looking for to make a difference in smashing up the concrete, but it’s also not too big that it can then become rather cumbersome to control.

So, begin by lining up the chisel blade where you want to start splitting the concrete. Lean the chisel to ensure that only one part of the blade rests against the material. That does mean the chisel will not be sitting perpendicular to the concrete. You will notice the angle, but it’s important as it does then make it significantly easier to break through the concrete thanks to that angle.

But hitting a chisel to break concrete is not as straightforward as you think. Instead, you need to adopt a particular method to then get the result you were wanting. 

To recap:

  • Use a concrete chisel with a small mallet hammer
  • Use the point of the chisel in line with where you want to split the concrete
  • Ensure the chisel is not perpendicular to the concrete
  • You need to master the blade angle to get the best results

The Striking Method

When you have the chisel lined up at that all-important angle, you need to strike the end of the chisel with your hammer. But don’t just go ahead and hit the end of the chisel as hard as you can. 

Instead, you have to use a two-tap method to get the best results. The first strike is more of a half-hit where you are only using some of your power. 

This half-hit is crucial. In a sense, it’s enough power to score the concrete and to break the very top of the concrete. That creates a weakness in the structure of the concrete, and you then need to exploit that weakness with the second strike.

The second strike is a full-on hit, and you do it immediately after that half-hit. Basically, it’s a case of doing a tap strike, then repeating it over and over, covering the area of concrete you wish to break.

This two-tap method gives you absolute control over what’s going on, and it does give some sense of precision. This is crucial when you are trying to preserve some area and trying to avoid damaging it or breaking it up.

That is why you need to look at how you angle that chisel. You want the energy created by striking the chisel to travel in the direction you need to break up the concrete without damaging the rest. With practice, it’s amazing how precise you can be with this, but do expect some stray cracks to occur at first. 

So, to sum up the perfect striking method:

  • Use the two-tap method for superior control
  • Use the angle of the chisel blade to direct how the concrete will break
  • Avoid blasting away at the chisel with all your power, it won’t work

If Metal Bars are Included

breaking concrete with hand tools

The final part I want to discuss is if the concrete has been reinforced with metal bars. If that’s the case, you will not get through the concrete with the sledgehammer. Sure, it’s going to smash things up, but the metal bars will remain intact.

If that is the case, the best course of action is to use a reciprocating saw to cut through the bars as quickly as possible. This is the only point where you would need to use something other than hand tools.

But even with this, you still need to use a sledgehammer in order to effectively expose the metal reinforcements. Use the method I mentioned above to access them, and it’s then a quick task to cut through with that reciprocating saw. 

However, this metal reinforcement is not something you will come across on every single occasion. For most people, simply smashing up the concrete using the methods I’ve described above will be more than enough. 

Overall Conclusion

So that is how to break concrete with hand tools, and even though it can be a tough job, there’s something amazingly satisfying about it all. Let’s face it, having the ability to get your frustration out of your body by smashing something up is just cool.

But I’m not going to sugarcoat anything here. Breaking up concrete takes energy and some power from you, although the tools you use will help to negate some of that power requirement. Instead, I suggest you check out these articles that appear on the website to help you gain a better understanding of things.

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Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.

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