Santa Stymied

Taking the chimney down wasn’t really on my Christmas to-do list. Patricia’s logic was unassailable, though. If the chimney were taken down on the first and second floors, what was left of it in the basement could save us money. Our construction guy said he could fill it with concrete and use it to support one side of a new beam on the ground floor, where I’m tearing out a load-bearing wall. The new beam will carry that old load.

The first step was to accept my fate. Then I bought a 2-lb. maul, leather work gloves, a cold chisel, rolls of Gorilla tape, a ZipWall adhesive zipper, and a roll of 6 mil poly. I sealed off the chimney from the rest of the floor with the poly and tape and installed the zipper so I could get into and out of the work space around the chimney. I knew that taking it down would produce not only tons of bricks, but an unpredictable quantity of (probably carcinogenic) soot, and plaster and mortar dust. Not to mention those fine carbon-black filaments of ancient dust that hang inside walls and ceilings like old spider webs.

The literal and figurative lifesaver in this setup was my big shop vacuum in combination with the indispensable Dust Deputy. These were in a porch outside the work area. The hose drawing air was inside the enclosed work area (with the entry zipper open at the top a few inches to allow for movement of air). Thanks to the negative pressure this created inside my little plastic room, most of the filth I was about to disturb would be picked up by the vacuum hose and settle into the Dust Deputy’s bin. It worked perfectly.

The plaster and lath ceiling presented our first problem. Part of it had to come down so I could squeeze up into the space between the ceiling and the roof. But if I had smashed it down, I might have weakened larger parts of the ceiling and brought hundreds of pounds of plaster down on the Christmas tree, television, and furniture. The solution created a storm of plaster dust but it was effective and simple. I put an old carbide-tipped framing blade into my circular saw and cut the plaster part-way through the lath. Then it could almost be pulled down by hand, without stress to other parts of the ceiling. Electricians had been pulling cables above the ceiling for the last hundred years or so, and I came within a centimetre or so of cutting into armoured cable, Lomex, and knob-and-tube. If you try this trick, make several shallow passes with the circular saw so you can see what you’re about to chew into.

After that, the cold chisel and maul were the only tools I needed. Brick by brick, the chimney came down. Patricia waited semi-patiently by the door of the clean-out at the base of the chimney. After sending half a dozen bricks down the old ceramic liner, I would holler “It’s yours!” Then Patricia would remove the bricks, dust, and debris and, in an increasingly strangled voice, holler “Finished!” This was a dangerous job. Miscommunication could easily have resulted in a crushed hand.

Yes, I did invest in a walkie-talkie before we began, but the batteries ran out after half an hour. The possibility of easily replacing them (it was Christmas day) was not high.

After an hour or so of the drop-and-collect routine, I heard curses from the basement. A brick had come down at an odd angle and blocked the flue. We pulled a few bricks from the outside of the chimney on the first floor to get a better look.  There was a jam. The chimney was very weak beside the jam, with long fault lines running through the crumbling mortar. With some trepidation (more than I revealed to Patricia), I pulled out a few bricks, stuck my hand into the small hole and took apart the jam.

The problem, as it turned out, was that whole bricks were too large to get all the way down the flue without catching at a point where it suddenly narrowed. From then on, I used the cold chisel to break each brick in two before dropping it. This was painful because the bricks were quite fine. They were fired using local clay probably about 1892. Their pinkish colour was distinct and their edges were sharp and clean.

At the end of three days, we had the entire second-floor chimney down. We also had weak voices and a lack of patience and good will toward the world. Oh, and there were 2-foot-square holes in the floor and ceiling. With the wind chill factored in, the temperature the day we finished was -22 C. I have cardboard tacked over the holes now, and 8 inches of Roxul insulation over the hole in the floor, but I’ll have to do some basic framing, flooring, and insulation soon. It’s damn cold in here.

About Terence Byrnes

Terence Byrnes is a writer and photographer who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. Visit to see his photography.
This entry was posted in Demolition, Design, Renovation, Tools and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Santa Stymied

  1. Hal Porter says:


    What an incredible job. Maul and cold chisel! Breaking the bricks in half! My joints could no longer have taken the stress/pounding, and yours are only a year younger than mine!

    The Dust Deputy is new to me. Sounds like a great option for homeowners with more run of the mill construction dust.. I’ve only seen negative pressure used in asbestos removal; now there’s an option in less extreme situations–like cutting across plaster on wood lath, for example.

    I hate to think what the electrical “system” may be like.

    Good luck as you progress forward!

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