Tearing Out an Old Basement Best Practices

Tearing Out an Old Basement

If your basement is currently finished, then tearing out the old walls, floor coverings and ceiling back to bare surfaces is the first step in making things new. Gutting a basement is a big, heavy and potentially dangerous job. This danger is manageable, so don’t be frightened off.

When it comes to gutting a basement, there are four things to keep in mind as you work: stay healthy, work efficiently, observe diligently and figure out a way to get rid of the garbage with minimal effort.  Unlike starting with a bare basement, you need to invest some work into gutting before you can assess your basement fully for water leaks, mold and water vapour issues.

Stay Healthy

Besides the obvious need to work within your capacity of strength and endurance, you need to protect yourself from dust and mold. Seal the basement off from the rest of the house using zippered plastic curtains made for the job, and wear a HEPA-rated respirator for any task that involves smashing, bashing and the creation of dust. Dust is bad enough, but it can cause health problems if mold spores are involved. Buy and wear a decent pair of safety glasses, and wear hearing protection for job involving a power saw, rotary hammer, or even a sledge hammer.

Work Efficiently

Gutting a basement is pretty simple work, but it does involve breaking apart thousands of pounds of stuff and moving it outdoors. The main bottleneck in all this is the moving the trash outdoors part. You definitely don’t want to carry it up through your house. Passing it through a normal basement window is better, but still a pain because these windows are so small. All this is why creating an egress window or outside entrance to your basement can really speed things up, both during tear-down and when it comes time to build new.

TECH TIP: Cut Fasteners for Faster Demolition

Nails and screws are holding most parts of your old basement walls and such together, and demolition is a whole lot easier if you slice those fasteners before trying to take things apart. A reciprocating saw with a metal cutting blade makes it easy to sneak in between wooden parts, slice through the nails/screws at the joint line, then take pieces of wood apart without bashing and smashing. Today’s best recip saw blades have carbide teeth and last much longer than the older bi-metal blades.

Observe Diligently

As you remove old walls, floors and ceiling material, pay close attention for signs of mold, mildew or water leaks. Hidden surfaces will provide an excellent record of where you’ve had moisture issues in the past, and where you need to make things better now. Don’t just rely on your memory, either. Take photos and make notes so you can easily find the areas that need sprucing up.

Deal with Trash

Most basement gut jobs require at least one dumpster to hold the trash you tear out.  It can easily require more. Various companies also make large, strong, fabric bags to hold and move construction waste. Google “construction waste bags” and you’ll find lots of options, including some services that haul the bags away when they’re full.

Helpful Demolition Tools

Here are some tools and products that help make it easier to tear out old walls, floors and ceilings:

Several companies make zippered door hardware like this. Though simple, these are very effective in containing dust within basement rooms.

Peel-and-stick zipper: This lets you turn sheets of clear plastic into dust curtains for keeping the dirt of demolition from spreading to the rest of your house. The zipper let’s you enter and leave the work zone easily, while leaving the dust and dirt behind.

Safety glasses: I knew a carpenter who was pulling a 3 1/2” nail out of a board with a long crow bar. The nail came out of the wood, but flipped upwards under pressure and the sharp end went right into his bare eyeball. Safety glasses mean this doesn’t have to happen to you. If you want better comfort and optical clarity than standard, cheap-o safety glasses that come with power tools, the safety glasses at the link above will work well for you.

If your demolition work kicks up enough dust to bother your eyes, consider a pair of safety goggles (as opposed to glasses) that seal against your face.

Breathing protection: Even ordinary demolition of an old finished basement will kick up enough non-toxic dust that you should protect yourself against. These masks are economical and protect well against dust from wood and concrete.

If there’s mold present in your old finished basement (or the chance of mold), you’ll need more than a dust mask. The respirator here will protect you against mold and also against any solvent-based fumes you encounter. This respirator also comes with a decent set of safety glasses.

Shop vacuum: Although not absolutely essential, a good shop vac makes it much easier to clean your basement space before finishing and while work is going on. You’ll use it over and over. Just be sure to get a shop vac that comes with a HEPA-rated filter or can accept one. The letters HEPA stand for “high efficiency particulate air” and this means the filter can trap dangerous particles small enough to slip past ordinary vacuum filters. Don’t under-estimate the usefulness of a shop vac for your project. The one at the link here offers very good value for the money. It doesn’t come with a HEPA filter, but they are available to fit this machine.

Click here for HEPA filters made to fit the Vacmaster vacuum. 

This reciprocating saw blade has carbide teeth. These greatly extend the working life of the blade, even when cutting steel.

Carbide reciprocating saw blade: Several companies make carbide-tipped reciprocating saw blades, but I know from testing that Lenox brand works really well. I’ve cut through 1” steel pipes with blades like these and even multiple cuts doesn’t dull them at all. Bi-metal blades are okay for wood and wood-embedded nails, but carbide blades lasts much, much longer if you’re cutting through nails, screws and metal pipes. All recip saw blades are available in different lengths.

Pry bars: You’d be amazed at how much easier demolition is if you have the right kind of wrecking tools. Don’t settle for that old crowbar in the garage. It’s fine as far as it goes, but there are specialized pry bars and wrecking bars that can easily double or triple your productivity. Some of my favourites include:

The medium-size flat pry bar is a great tool for medium-size situations.

There’s no substitute for weight and length when you need a pry bar to do big work. The flat design of this bar works better than the hexagonal cross section of traditional crowbars.

This small tool is surprisingly useful because of its thin end and effective nail claw. Pound the claw into wood to grip and pull nails that sit below the surface.