While I was joyfully tearing down drywall and furring strips in our kitchen, I thought back to all the rooms we’ve torn apart in this house. So far we have completed six spaces, and they all started the same way – with a whole LOT of demo. Everything in the house has to be taken down to the studs. The amount of junk I’ve pulled off these walls is MIND BOGGLING. I’ve removed as much as 2” of wallpaper, drywall, wall board, and wood strips from the walls and ceiling (which literally gains us ten square feet per room).
While our demo experiences have been far, far less than fun, after six rooms we have this process down PAT. We’re basically pros. So I want to share with you everything you need to know to do the job right. Here are the ten things I’ve learned about successful demolition.
Side note: Isn’t it amazing that the list is exactly ten things? Almost like I picked the number first and then came up with the list. Like I’m a blogger, or something. Weird.
1. Know What You’re Getting In To
Ok, I know you can’t know exactly what you’re going to find when you pull down the walls. But before you go tearing things apart, you really want to try to get some idea of what you’re going to find. Surprises are best kept to a minimum in demolition. You’re trying to answer questions like was this wall built out? Is there tongue and groove behind here? Is there a waste pipe behind there? Anything that can help you understand what you might be dealing with will better prepare you for the job. The key is to find some space or area that you can peer behind to see exactly what’s up. There are a few normal places you can look to get more information.
Around electrical boxes: Fortunately for us MOST circa 1980s renovations weren’t, ahem, the best. If you have horrible wall paneling, ka ching! You win! Most of the time this is very easily pulled back around electrical boxes, and you can get an idea of what the original wall is made of. First, turn off the power in the room you’re working on. Then unscrew the face plate around the electrical box. Use your flashlight to look sideways around the cut opening. Maybe you’ll see something? A cross section of tongue and groove? Plaster? Who knows!
Above ceilings: Do you have a drop ceiling? A ceiling with a hole in it? You’re in luck! Both of those circumstances can let you peek at what’s above them. Again, we’re looking for anything major. There will be some surprises. But mostly you want to have a general idea of what is behind the walls.
Behind non-original molding: With our house, most of the original molding was torn out and terrible, skimpy molding was put in place around the doors an windows. These are held in with basic finishing nails and can very easily be pried off. When you do that, you should gets a nice view of the drywall edge, plaster edge, or other wall coverings that you have.
2. Seal Off the Room
Who here likes living in a construction zone? Anyone? Show of hands? No one. No surprise there. Demo is MESSY. Whether you’re tearing apart a ten year old house or ripping out seventy year old carpet, the dust and debris gets absolutely everywhere. One of the first principles of home improvement is that you want to contain your mess. Having destruction in every room of your house will get old FAST. So we want to work one room at a time and quarantine off as much of the room as possible.
If you are fortunate enough to be working in a room with a door, close it before beginning. Use 2” painters tape to seal the cracks on the sides and top. Cut a thin strip of vapor barrier to seal the gap at the bottom or shove a rolled up towel in the gap.
If you have to seal across the middle of the room or seal a room without a door, use vapor barrier and staple it to the ceiling and walls or around the door jamb. Tape along the crease to the floor. You can even use a strip of wood nailed over the vapor barrier to improve the strength. Whatever the method, you want to do everything in your power to stop dust and dirt from escaping in to the rest of your house.
3. Use the Right Gear
Chances are if you are demoing, you’re going to encounter something you don’t like. Or more specifically, something you really don’t want interacting with your body. Additionally, the most likely time in a renovation for you to get hurt NOT by a power tool is during demo. Hammers are flying. Nails are poking. You don’t want to be caught in the middle. Your house needs you happy, healthy, and intact. So you definitely want to protect yourself.
Respirator: If you get nothing else for your renovation, you need to get a respirator. Respirators trap airborne particles and prevent them getting in your mouth and lungs. We use these particulate respirators by 3M. BE WARNED. The sizing is mostly based on the size of your head, not your weight. I (to my great dismay) have a larger than average head. In fact, it is almost the same size as my 6’ tall male husband’s head. So I more than likely need a medium or large respirator. You want the respirator to completely seal your nose and mouth but it should not be wildly uncomfortable or tight. While you’re at it, pick up some refill filters. They last a good long while, but you don’t want to run out.
Gloves: After respirators, you want good gloves. Your gloves should fit snug on your hands with little to no extra material beyond the fingertips. But you do not want them so small that the crevices between the fingers aren’t touching your actual hands. We’ve had great success with these. They’re light weight but grippy enough to handle the toughest job. They’re not technically puncture resistant, but they will let you grab a board full of nails without issue.
Glasses: The eyes are a very vulnerable part of the body, and they’re pretty helpful during a successful renovation. Protect them from dirt and flying debris with a basic pair of safety glasses. These glasses are great if you don’t already wear corrective lenses. If you do, these safety glasses should fit right over them no problem.
Earplugs: I’m not even going to elaborate on this. Demo is louder than you think. Once your hearing is gone, you can’t get it back. Just wear earplugs. Don’t argue with me.
Jumpsuits: Before we started renovating, we bought full body jumpsuits for both me and Brandon (and for two months after my Amazon suggestions were filled with hockey masks). These aren’t strictly necessary, but if you’re going to be crawling around in the dirt or working somewhere that you don’t want critters scuttling up your back, a jumpsuit really comes in handy. The other benefit is that you can wear additional clothes underneath. Then when you are done with demo, you can drop the jump suit and ball it up without tracking dirt all through the house. We’ve done this MANY times.
Shoes: I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people demoing in flip flops or socks, but PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF MEDICINE DON’T DO THAT. Demo usually involves pulling out nails and screws, and those nails and screws inevitably end up pointing straight up in the air. I saw ‘A Quiet Place’, have read about tetanus, and I can say for a verifiable fact NOBODY wants to step on a nail. Just don’t do it. At the bear minimum wear an old pair of gym shoes with a thick rubber sole. If you’re going to be doing serious demo in dangerous areas, look in to getting a pair of work boots like these (or the men’s version).
4. Use the Right Tools
If a task is going too slowly, you’re probably using the wrong tool. But that doesn’t mean grab a giant sledge hammer and go to town. Despite what renovation television would have us believe, most demo can be done with just a few simple hand tools.
Flat bar: A good old fashioned flat bar will work wonders for you. You can of course pry straight down as intended. But you can also pry sideways for even more leverage.
Hammer: A basic hammer can be used with the flat bar to begin prying out stubborn pieces of wood. It can also pull out some of the more stubborn nails.
6” Drywall Knife: This is primarily used to protect the surface you are prying against. When you haul on a flat bar to pry something loose, a lot of force is generated at that fulcrum. A metal drywall knife is thin but durable and will protect the delicate surface beneath. This is great for prying against drywall, plaster, tongue and groove, or anything else.
Mini Sledge Hammer: You CAN use a full size sledge if you really want to, but a lot of times a little planning and careful observation will rip things out just as effectively as swinging for the fences. A mini sledge is perfect for providing that extra oomf to knock apart stubborn boards that a normal hammer just won’t do.
Reciprocating Saw: A reciprocating saw is great to have on hand when you run in to an unexpected problem. Everything in your house was installed in a specific order, but it may not always come out nicely in that order. If you need to cut away something on the fly, these are great. I also highly recommend a battery powered one so you don’t have to worry about finding a plug mid-demo (see tip 5).
Pinchy Pliers: I don’t actually know what these are called because everywhere just calls them “nail pullers”, but they are THE BEST. You pinch a nail between the jaws, squeeze, and rock them sideways. They pull out virtually anything especially nails with the heads broken off. You will want to use your metal drywall knife here too to protect the surface you’re prying against.
Beastly Nail Puller: AGAIN. No idea what this thing is called. But it is the single greatest nail pulling tool we have. It has a racking handle that you can use to hammer the jaws down in to the surface where your nail is. Then you clamp the jaws around the nail head, pry in the direction of the jaw extension, and pull out literally anything. I used this to rip out 900,000 rusted ring shank nails holding in our sub-floor, and it works like a champ.
5. Kill the Power
Always be safe instead of sorry when you’re working around electricity. Make sure all the power to the room you’re demoing is turned off before you begin. To do this, go to your electrical panel and find the breaker for the room you’re working on. If the room is complex like a kitchen or laundry room, you might have to flip several breakers. Or if your house was wired by a lunatic like ours was, many of the wires share circuits in totally irrational ways.
Once you believe you have all the power turned off to the room, go back and test all the electrical outlets. You can simply plug a lamp in to each outlet and make sure it can’t turn on, or you can use one of these handy outlet testers. These are also great if you’re doing any electrical work and want to check the connections.
I would not recommend turning off power to the entire house before demo. Firstly, your refrigerator will not thank you for being off for ten hours while you gut a room. And secondly, when you turn the power back on, you have no guarantee that some wire didn’t come loose during demo and is now dangling live for you to run in to. By verifying that all the power to the room is turned off BEFORE demo, that won’t happen.
Safety Note: If you encounter a wire you didn’t expect during demo (maybe one that supplies another room), do your best to figure out where it leads and turn that breaker off too. Then verify those outlets are disconnected either with the lamp or an outlet tester.
6. Pick the Right Place to Start
Demo is hard work. But it actually pays to be a little lazy in your approach. Figure out where in the room you can make the most progress before having to do something else. For example, if your flooring runs under the cabinets, take the cabinets out first so you can remove the flooring in one go. Pull the trim off first before you take out the drywall. Take down the light fixtures before you gut the ceiling.
I usually like to remove things in this order:
Built ins and cabinets
Starting and stopping on different parts of the demo takes time. So do your best to work through one complete section first, starting with the outermost layers and working inward.
7. Change Up Your Movements
Remember we said demo is hard? It’s also exhausting. Every time we do a demo project I wake up the next day with soreness in muscles I haven’t used since the last time we demoed. Unfortunately, all the work has to be done. Every bit. But you do have a little bit of freedom in how you do it.
To help spread out the fatigue, don’t do the same motion for super extended periods of time. Maybe you start ripping up carpet with your right arm standing up. Then you switch to pulling up carpet staples with your left arm sitting down. Then go pull off baseboards on your hands and knees. Try to limit your movement chunks to 10-15 minutes, and then switch it up to something else. You’ll minimize your boredom and spread out the physical effort.
8. Watch Your Balance
Did you notice that most of the tools mentioned involved working with leverage of some kind? 90% of demo is exactly that – using leverage to separate things that were not previously separated. And a lot of times this takes a lot of force. When you get in the groove of demo and you’re pulling and prying and tearing it up, it’s easy to forget how what we’re doing could harm us. Nails flying in to your face. Pry bars falling off ladders and hitting your head. Pinching your finger in pliers. Losing your balance because you stretched too far. Getting your thumb whacked by a hammer. Trust me, I’ve done all of these things. It’s not fun.
The key to avoiding these injuries is to be hyper aware of your surroundings and always make sure you’re working safely. If you have to stand on a ladder or stool, make sure you have the ladder facing toward the wall and not parallel to it. This way as you pull away from the wall, you are pulling in the direction the ladder is stable (the ladder is not stable if you push on it from the side). If a nail or board is too far away to reach from your ladder, do not stretch for it. Get down, move your ladder, and climb back up.
Never EVER EVER stand on anything that isn’t stable. You’re demoing. The forces you’re exerting are likely going to throw you off balance. You’re creating a debris pile. You do NOT want to fall in to a debris pile. Make sure your ladder or stool has good stable footing. Make sure it is not rocking or unsteady. Make sure the floor underneath it is strong and supportive. As you get tired, hot, filthy, etc, the tendency to rush and go fast will try to overwhelm you. Do not listen to it. Your house, your family, and your life need you to be healthy and well. Slow down a little. Take your time. Safety first.
9. Eat and Drink
With the physicality and effort required of a room demolition, you need to refuel. Drink plenty of water (I aim for 8-16 oz of water per hour on demo days, more in the summer) and stop to eat every 2-3 hours. You will need to take breaks and replenish your energy supply more frequently than you normally would. And that’s ok! You have to make sure you have energy to continue.
When you do demo right, it may not feel like you’re using a lot of energy because you’re letting the tools work for you. But you ARE. You’re tearing apart a room! That takes a lot of effort. Even if you’re just picking up handfuls of trash and carrying them outside, that takes effort. In order to be safe and alert and energized, you must make sure your body is properly fueled.
10. Anticipate Clean Up
During a demo project, you will be chugging along happily having a grand old time. You’re flying through the room, your pile of junk is growing, you’re making headway, you feel great. About 75% of the way through the day, you will hit a point where you think “I feel a bit tired. But I can keep going for a while.”
STOP. FULL STOP. THIS IS THE SWEET SPOT.
Clean up always always ALWAYS takes longer than you think. And it’s absolutely no fun to do. So when you feel yourself starting to get tired, starting to think about stopping soon, end your demo day right there. Use your remaining energy to tidy up your space, haul out any garbage, find all the tools that will inevitably be strewn about and get them organized.
By stopping before you’re exhausted, you will have the energy left to clean up the room and survey your progress. Then by the time you are actually exhausted, you’ll have just coasted to the end of the day and won’t have the huge task of clean up ahead of you. There is nothing worse than cleaning up after you’ve hit your exhaustion limit. Be sure to quit while your ahead.
Demo is the best of times and the worst of times. Swinging a hammer and tearing out ugly cabinets is certainly fun for the first few hours. But after the 27,000th trip hauling garbage out of the room, the fun wears off. Even still, by following these steps, using the right tools, wearing the right gear, and protecting your body, you will set yourself up for a successful demolition and a successful kick off to your project.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? Let me know and happy hammer swinging!
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