Chimney Demolition Part 2 - Plan B, or: Crying in the Face of Danger


            The end of last week’s column left me thirty feet in the air, having smashed my ladder with the very first thing I threw off the roof.

            Just another day in the Hunter household.

            Go back and review, so I don’t have to recap the plan to demolish my chimney with hand tools, because nobody lets me use power equipment anymore. Back? Good. No doubt some of you wonder why it took me so long to write about this summertime event.

Say, let's see how well the chimney held up over winter ... Eek!

Well, it took me this long to get over the trauma. Rarely do I write about home maintenance right after screwing it up; the hurt is too fresh, plus sometimes I still can’t use my fingers.

            Thanks to the impact from that first capstone, my ladder now stood tilted to the right. The neighbors, having gotten used to living next to me, didn’t even glance out their windows, so I quickly formulated a plan: I would climb down the ladder.

Maybe I should have turned it upside down ... but notice how I saved the day by putting a slab of debris under the bent rung to hold things up. There was lots of debris.

            It would either collapse or it wouldn’t, right? The way things go around here, I take just as many risks doing laundry. So I went down, the ladder didn’t, and that was it.

            My original plan, to use a chisel and knock out the mortar between the chimney bricks, proved a failure due to the discovery that the bricks were flaking away, but the mortar was as strong as ever. But that’s okay, because my original plans never work out. I often wonder why I don’t just start with Plan B.

            Plan B, in this case, involved a sledge hammer.

            My son-in-law had a sledgehammer with a short handle, which would make it easier to control while balanced so high up. He also didn’t know me well enough to realize he should never loan me tools. So I jammed my damaged ladder against the wall and headed back up.

            For the next few weeks a man who has no talent for controlled anything attempted to break down a chimney brick by brick. Finally, running out of time and getting frustrated, I began swinging the sledgehammer with more force, no longer caring if I could save the bricks for a fire pit, crowd control, or anything else.

            And that was when, during the back swing, my sledge hammer suddenly became much, much lighter.

            I turned in time to see the hammer head arc – rather gracefully, I must say – through the air. If it cleared the flat roof, it would fall harmlessly on the pad in front of my garage, assuming I hadn’t parked the car there, which I had.

            I’m fairly sure I now know what a heart attack feels like.

            Much to my surprise the hammer left nothing more than a dent in a roof that was leaking, anyway. It’s not that I mind explaining to my insurance agent; I just can’t take the snickering

A white t-shirt, an iPod blasting 70's rock, two halves of a sledge hammer ... what could possibly go wrong?

Undeterred – because I’m not that smart – I borrowed another, full sized sledgehammer, determined to finish the job. I figured it would go easier when I got below the level of the first peaked roof, and could stand on the flat roof to bring down the next section.

That put me only fifteen feet in the air, standing on the edge of the flat roof directly over the pile of bricks and brick chips that fell before I could grab hold of them, swinging the sledge hammer over my head and trying not to hit the side of the house while bricks rained down from above.

That’s when I went to the fire station and grabbed my helmet. It’s saved my life before; it did again.

I soon uncovered a charred area behind where the chimney met the flat roof. While I don’t know when the fire happened, I’m impressed that firefighters back then, without breathing apparatus or thermal imaging cameras, managed to save a house after the fire worked its way into concealed spaces.

Getting to that level meant I could now stand on a stepladder positioned on the ground, making it easier and safer to knock down the rest of the chimney. Right?

I stood there, a sledgehammer in my hand, looking at ground floor windows to both the left and right of my position and the natural gas regulator at its base.

Oh, dear.

The scene of the crime ... because putting a tool in my hand is a crime. At this point I'd taken off the nice solid stuff at the top, and thought the rest would be easy. It wasn't.

You’ll be surprised to learn that eventually I made it all the way to below ground level, digging with my hands to remove debris and keep the pipe cleared until we could re-vent the water heater. Only once was I attacked by a giant spider, during which I successfully used my shovel to slice open a cable TV wire. No glass was broken. No gas explosion resulted.

I managed to get two full sections of the ceramic chimney liner down the broken ladder intact, which was probably both the most dangerous and dumbest thing I did during the entire operation. After that they went down the easy way, with the rest of the bricks.

The final tally: One broken tool. Nine Band-Aides. Six 4X4 bandages. One roll of gauze. One tube of triple antibiotic ointment. Fifty-four ibuprofen tablets. A leaning ladder. One arm brace. Three shirts.

Ironically, the most serious injury came after the chimney was down, when I spent an hour throwing bricks laterally away from the house and ended up with tennis elbow. This is par for the course: The most dangerous stuff I do never gets me seriously hurt, and the mundane little things leave me in intensive care.

Thanks to my son-in-law the house is re-vented, and thanks to my brother’s siding expertise you can hardly tell the chimney existed, although the pile of bricks gives it away. It may seem like I have to lean on my relatives a lot to repair my home maintenance tasks:

            But they’re just happy they don’t have to visit me in the hospital.


  1. 54 ibupropen....HOLY SCHMOLY, mark! Is your liver still functioning.

    1. Well, I don't know. One more Indiana winter and I'll probably take up drinking, so I'll tell you then ...

  2. Tennis elbow? Mark Federer scores! LOL Hope you feel better soon. What a nightmare!

    1. There's a medical name for it -- but I can *spell* tennis!

  3. Mark,

    Glad you survived! Thanks for sharing these pics! Unbelievable! At least it is over! Really, be careful with that Ibuprofen. I try not to take any any more because I don't think my liver would be happy with me if I did. I took enough while I had tooth pain! And yes, life is full of irony: you don't get hurt from the major things as much as from the mundane things. Happened once to my son: we came home after a Tae Kwondo match and he was fine, but then he tripped on the steps outside and had to go to the hospital to get stitches in his chin! Be careful, Mark!

    1. I'm with you -- I've been a firefighter for 30 years, and never been badly injured there compared to the times I've fallen down in my own house. I'll be careful!

  4. Mark, at least this made for a good story, right? My husband hates having to go up on the roof. He doesn't like heights at all. I'm glad it all turned out okay for you in the end.

    1. Heights don't bother me that much, as long as I'm not near the edge or I have something to hold onto -- which wasn't always the case here.

      In any case, I'm always prepared to turn my life disasters into a good story!

  5. You sound like my husband's boss. Every home project he works on he gets himself hurt. He once put his reading glasses on his head (habit with guys and their sunglasses) while working on the roof of his house. He eventually discovered that the burning sensation from the sun reflecting through to the top of his head wasn't a mild irritant from bees buzzing about.

    Hahahah! And then once, he got a rather large (6 inch) splinter stuck in his hand. So far into his hand that he could make his finger move by pulling on the tip of the piece of splintered wood.

    Anyway, glad you didn't wind up in the hospital! :)

    1. I'm glad I didn't, too -- it sounds like they may have been busy with your husband's boss!

  6. I like the pictures which help illustrate what you're writing about. Wow that was a big job hopefully you don't have any more home improvement projects to tackle.

    1. There are always more home improvement projects -- but not all that many I'm capable of doing myself!

  7. Putting a tool in your hands is definitely a crime, Mark! Very funny!

    1. Yes, and a crime that could carry a death penalty -- for me!

  8. Ha ha ha! "I'm pretty sure I now know what a heart attack feels like."

  9. Woah, dealing with that chimney job is quite dangerous if you’re gonna do that alone. My friendly advice is that you look for the proper and safe procedures from reputable sites from the internet. Another is to ask for some tips from experienced individuals, especially the experts. You might get some helpful steps on how to do that without any professional help. In any case, I wish you luck on that chimney project. =)

  10. Oh! How does that feel now, Mark? That's a pretty serious injury that you got out there, if you ask me. But the good thing is, you’ve finally broken down and removed your old chimney. More importantly, it didn't cause any damage to your roof. Good job overall!

  11. I guess being injured while repairing your chimney is just a part of the effort that you exerted in the repairs. It happens a lot to people, especially to those who work alone like you. What’s nice here is the fact that you still finished the job and did it well. I hope you managed to repair the damaged roof also. :D Next time you repair something again, take a lot of precautions to prevent another injury. :)

    : Eugene Head