How to Dig Out a Fence Post and Concrete Footing Using Hand Tools
Confirm Digging is the Only Option
To begin, evaluate the condition of the post and the concrete. Intact posts are a significant benefit and will make removal much easier. Posts in good condition that are still sound make their removal much easier. Also evaluate the concrete base (if present) – is it still solid or is it cracked/crumbling?
If the post is broken or the concrete is cracked there may be no other way than to dig out the post and concrete base, but before resorting to heavy manual labor try the Wood Post Puller method – its biggest strength is that is works in synergy with all of the lifting and digging methods to improve effectiveness and can easily remove posts and concrete bases that stymie other techniques.
After you determine there is no other way than to dig out the post, the following instructions will make this difficult task as easy as possible:
How Deep and How Much to Dig?
Dig a hole next to the existing post and concrete base approximately the same size as the post and base – don’t dig all the way around the post and don’t dig a hole that is larger than the post – it is just extra work digging and then re-filling the hole after you are done.
Do you know how deep the post is buried? The following are typical starting lengths before posts are set in the ground:
4×4 wood posts will typically be 8 feet long set 3 feet in the ground
Metal t-posts will typically be 7 feet long set 2 feet in the ground
Galvanized posts are typically 8 feet long set 3 feet in the ground
If you are not sure, you can also measure the height of the post that is above ground (or the length of the piece if it is broken off) and approximate the length that is buried. Dig your hole at least 75% as deep as the post that is buried – for example, a typical wood post will be buried in the ground 3 feet or 36 inches, so dig down to a depth of at least 27 inches (36 x 0.75 = 27).
Start the hole using a round point spade to get through any turf, roots, or other surface debris. As the hole gets deeper, a trench spade (also referred to as a ditch spade or trenching tool) will make the digging easier until you are down to about 16-24 inches. With shovels and spades you are using your legs and body weight to loosen the soil for removal – keep going until the hole becomes too tall and narrow to gain leverage at the bottom and then switch to the next stage.
This is where you transition to tools that are driven by arm power – the post hole digger and digging bar.
Tip – Choose a post hole digger that is smaller and lighter – unless you are a weightlifter type, the large heavy post hole diggers with the fiberglass handles will wear you out – the smaller, lighter post hole diggers are more maneuverable and will be more effective for most people, even if they sacrifice some reach.
Tip – Use a digging bar – a San Angelo bar is designed to make digging easier – it has a chisel head to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and to trim the sides of the hole, the other end of the bar is a point for breaking up difficult soil. Other types of digging bars will include a tamper head on one end for packing loose soil. Look for a bar that is high quality heat treated carbon steel – no need to pay extra for a brand name, digging bars are available at discount supply stores for approximately $25.
After you have reached the target depth, use the chisel head on the digging bar to clear out any soil remaining between the post and your hole. As you dig a round hole next to a round post foundation there will be a ridge that should be removed.
Removing the Post
Now you begin the removal process, the general concept is to tip the post into the hole you just dug. Start by simply pushing the top of the post towards the hole, it may break free from the soil and slide into the hole – then you can insert the pry bars underneath the post and concrete and lift it out. If the post doesn’t move, try jamming the pry bar into the ground next to the post or concrete footing on the side opposite the hole and pry it towards the hole. To increase the leverage from the pry bar, use a scrap piece of 2×4 or other wood on the ground to form a fulcrum and prevent the pry bar from sinking into the ground.
If the post still won’t move, use the digging bar to expand the hole around the circumference of the post footing by digging sideways. Continue prying the post out and enlarging the hole around the post until it breaks free and tips over into the hole. The critical part is to break the post loose – sometimes a few well-placed hits with a sledgehammer are needed for persuasion to get the post moving – after it moves even a fraction of an inch the war is won and the post will come out.