How removing a chimney changed my life
About 4 months ago I decided to remove the chimney in my house. I wasn’t supposed to do this, after all, I’m a parent of 2 in his mid-40s earning a decent salary marketing technology, in the bay area of all places. I’m supposed to buy a chimney removal service from a Nextdoor recommendation or from the guy who knows a guy. I did it myself (well, mostly, more on that later) and this is my story about it.
Maybe 6 months after my wife and I bought our house she complained about the chimney. It was located in the corner of the family room, facing nothing, with very little chance of creating any ambience. It rattled in the wind and smoked the room when used. If it had a human personality trait, I’d say it was a dick. Rude, useless, obnoxious, and unavoidable.
Five years later I decided to remove it myself. My wife had several guys come in and put bids on the work, years between each proposal. They all differed in price and tactics, ranging from $5,000 to $600 with a few spook stories in between.
“You gotta be careful it doesn’t collapse the roof.”
“A lot of these have asbestos so, I’ll have to charge you double.”
“Patching the roof has to be done by a specialist, you don’t want a leaky roof.”
I was convinced they were all lying so I went to Youtube and a gave myself $500 tool budget. Lots of Youtube. Turns out a lot of people in the UK have chimney issues so I watched all sorts of guys fixing broken chimneys. After awhile, you see a trend, you notice the same general approach, you find a few horror stories and then a few that clearly know what they’re doing. Off to Home Depot I went.
I live in a 1960s era single story ranch style house. It was a corner fireplace with red brick covered in large 12x12 inch tile and stucco sitting on about 3 feet of concrete that went literally to the dirt under the house.
The brick structure was about 6 feet high by about 5 feet wide. On top of the brick was a metal tube that went all the way to the roof, ending with a metal cap at the top. There was a 4x4 wood box inside and on the roof to create a “decorative” touch around the metal tube and brick. I went up into the attic and saw that metal tube, that was the deal closer. “Ah, no brick! I got this.”
I bought a rotary hammer with a couple extra drill bits, some goggles, gloves, masks, and tarps to seal off the room. I already had a heavy sledge hammer, chisels, and crow bars that had been barely used so this was an exciting reason to give those some action.
The plan was to start at the bottom by removing the decorative tile on the outside and some of the base brick. From there, I’d remove the metal tube so I could remove the rest of the brick starting from the top down. All the fast motion youtube videos did it this way and seemed like there was logic to it.
Breaking the seal
That first tile I broke was symbolic. It was a no-turning back moment of sorts. I had all this crap on, masks, glasses, ear plugs, gloves, hammers, chisels, and here I am, breaking shit off my fireplace. This was big. The first 10 pieces of tile came off in an instant, no power tools required. I for sure got this.
Next up was the brick. I setup the new rotary hammer and began the process of breaking the brick. Within about 3 mins I knew I was fucked. The removal of brick is half effort and half art, you have to know where to put the chisel, when to press, what to release. I figured this out maybe on hour 4 or 5 using the tool. You find a rhythm, the tool tells you where the softer mortar is and then suddenly that 1 brick removed every 5 mins pace turns to 5 bricks every minute. Regardless, I was still fucked. I had literally hundreds of brick to go and I was exhausted.
With maybe 50 bricks removed, I went up to the roof to remove the metal cap so I could start the process of removing the tube. Thats when “I’m really fucked” came up. I lift the cap off and “wait a minute, whats that inside the tube, is it asbestos!?” There was a black orangish cylinder inside the metal tube. Unexpected. More youtube. I learned it was likely a terra-cotta pot liner but there were *just* enough asbestos articles to make me take a chip and go to the lab. $50 and 3 lost days later the results came back negative so the project pressed on. I had no strategy for removing the clay liner inside the tube. It was about an inch thick and maybe 24 inches round. More youtube. I learned there were 5 stacked clay cylinders roughly 3 ft long, each weighing about 100+ pounds. A mild yet silent panic set in.
I ended up calling a contractor I used for another job and asked his opinion on next steps.
Me: “Oscar, how would you remove those clay pots?”
Oscar: “I’d break them with a hammer.”
It was said so matter of fact, like, “wtf is wrong with you.” Our lives couldn’t have been more detached yet the result was no different than my high school baseball coach, “don’t be a pussy”. Emboldened, I did just that. I went on the roof, grabbed my sledge hammer and starting cracking the pots from the top. Pieces would crumble down inside the chimney, neighbors drove by slowly having no clue what I was doing with a hammer INSIDE my chimney! I was making progress again. I was back, I got this!
More Fucking Brick …
With the metal tube and clay pot liner removed, it was now time to face my maker, literally 5 feet by 5 feet of solid red brick. I would spend hours with that rotary hammer yelling into my ears, sweat pouring into my mouth with my dust mask on, constant thoughts of “what am I doing?” circling in my head. Then, a new sight, I see a yellow fluffy substance. ASBESTOS!! Are you kidding me, what is this? Right near the flue structure was this light fluffy yellow stuff that was simply insulation but to the untrained panicked idiot, looked like asbestos. Another $50 trip and 3 days of lost productivity only to be given the “all clear” to proceed.
While making my way down the brick removal process I noticed that the chimney held a post and the post went up to a beam in the ceiling. My engineer dna (not schooled but bred) told me that it might be important, so I called the contractor again.
“Yes, loading bearing, you must support with 2x8 here and here. Pretty easy, no problem.”
Then he left. More youtube. A 2 hour session later, “I got this”. I ended up installing two additional support beams to help offset the load and had my contractor give it an ok before I proceeded. I got the thumbs up and I’d argue an impressed smile. Pride, lots of it. But I was still knee deep in brick.
Even More fucking brick!
I was removing about 25 bricks every hour or so, the mortar was so strong and thick. I was losing steam, it had been about 2 months since the first tile was removed, mostly due to weekend only work, asbestos scares and family stuff. So I called my contractor guy again with a final plead for help. All that was left was about 4 feet of brick. It took his two guys about 3 hours to finish and another 4 hr to level the cement slab to match the hardwood floor height. Oh thank goodness, it was finally gone.
The final steps required chiseling out the cement slab to make enough room for hardwood floors. I had to seal and tarp the cement then screw in a piece of 3/4 inch plywood so it was level. Bought a 4 foot level, graduating from the 12 inch toy version my wife got me. With that in place, I then insulated the walls, hung some sheetrock, knocked it down with some mud, painted, and matched the molding. The final step was bringing in a hardwood floor guy to match the oak and make it look seamless. He did just that.
This project took me to mental places I didn’t expect. I ultimately felt a sense of pride completing this (almost) on my own. Sadly its a task, an initiative, a mindset that many of my peers simply don’t understand. The effort to cost savings ratio doesn’t add up for most people, which is where I feel things have gone astray for people my age. I grew up in an era where my dad changed his own oil, tires, painted his house, did his own yard work, etc.. He was a PhD Nobel Prize winning physicist. Of course he could pay people to do it, but he wanted to do it for some personal pride and a sense that, well, you just did your own work. He grew up on a farm, you used your own hands and frankly I like that outlook. Unfortunately that philosophy is nearly dead in my community and has been replaced with efficiency, technology, and low wage immigrants. Its a philosophy I want to re-invigorate in myself and will document to the best I can the ups and downs of this approach on this blog.