Concrete Floor Finishes

Concrete Floor Finishes

Make your concrete surfaces both decorative and functional

Concrete has a proven record for strength, durability, and cost effectiveness for a variety of applications including floors, walkways, patios and driveways. Concrete floors are found in a variety of residential settings, from high-rise condominiums, to basements remodeled for extra living space, and to slab-on-grade construction. Interior concrete is commonly covered with carpet, vinyl, or other flooring materials. For exterior surfaces, materials like slate, granite, or brick are preferred to standard concrete when budgets allow.

An increasingly popular alternative to covering concrete is to make the surface both decorative and functional. Concrete can be treated with stains or colorants to create a rich variety of hues and textures, or stamped with patterns to mimic natural surfaces from marble to wood planks. The resulting floor finishes combine beauty and creativity with the economy, durability, and practicality of concrete.

The life expectancy of concrete slabs far exceed that of flooring materials often used to cover them. Carpeting and vinyl are subject to tears, staining, damage from flooding, and general wear. Persons with allergies may also have concerns about dust or molds that may be harbored in carpet fibers. In addition, many floor coverings need to be replaced every few years.

Decorative finishes can be applied to existing or new slabs. The finish can last the lifetime of the concrete, and are durable, sanitary, and easy to maintain. A wide range of effects is possible. The treatment may be as simple as coloring walkways to match architectural features or blend into the landscape. If the look of natural materials is preferred, a slab might be stamped to create the appearance of slate or granite, complete with subtle color shifts, surface texture, and real grout placed in the formed joints between pavers. A stained and scored surface can imitate terra cotta tile, or present a colorful palette of abstract intersecting shapes .

Below are brief descriptions of several methods used for creating decorative concrete surfaces. None of the materials listed below are paints, which would have a much shorter expected lifespan. Except as noted, the treatments become permanent elements of the concrete slab:

Chemical Staining — Special stains are formulated to chemically react with the concrete’s lime content. They lightly etch and bond color into the concrete surface. This method can be used on new or old concrete slabs. However, the results are not always predictable due to lime leaching, weathering, surface texture, or exposure to other chemicals, and results may vary widely from project to project. Mottling that occurs in the stain process can create rich tones and complex, almost translucent textures to mimic granite, marble, or to highlight natural variegations in the concrete. Patches or cracks in existing slabs will not be concealed, but may add character and uniqueness. Skilled artisans can create a wide range of effects using, brushes, mops, sprayers, etc. or by creating patterns with leaves, sawdust, rags, or other inert materials. The full depth of color may not become apparent until waxes or sealers are applied to the surface. This is the most versatile and creative method of coloring concrete.

Scoring — Shallow-cuts can be made in existing concrete surfaces to suggest tile grout lines or simply create geometric designs and patterns to separate colors. Standard circular saws with abrasive masonry blades are used to make cuts no more than 1/8″ deep. With tile patterns, borders are incorporated into the design a few inches from walls or other vertical surfaces that would prevent the saw from scoring lines all the way to the edge.

Integrally Colored Concrete — Colorant added to concrete during the mixing process produces uniform tinting throughout the slab and consistent results from batch to batch. The colorant may be in liquid or powder form. For small projects, home centers or concrete-product retailers may carry bottles of liquid colorant which can be added to bags of ready-mix. For larger flatwork projects like foundation slabs, walkways, patios, or driveways, bags of powdered water-reducing color admixtures can be ordered at the mixing plant. Admixtures are used to improve plasticity, workability, and to control set time. When pattern stamps are used, a longer period of workability may be needed to complete the process in large areas. Some manufacturers offer their products in pre-measured disintegrating bags designed to treat particular amounts of concrete. The unopened bags are simply tossed into the mixer with water and aggregate prior to adding cement and sand. When pattern stamping is planned, integral colorants may serve as a base tone that can be modified by color hardeners and release agents to achieve a more mottled natural look.

Concrete Stamping — Rigid or flexible patterns are used to imprint the outline and textures of stone, brick, tile, wood planks, slate, or other natural paving materials into the freshly cast concrete surface. The imprinting tools range in size from single stones, to groupings of stones in areas of approximately 2 ft. x 4 ft. In some cases, grout may be applied to grooves for a more realistic finished appearance. Manufacturers often recommend using patterns in conjunction with color hardeners and releasers. Imprinting tools can be expensive, costing up to $300 each. Most manufacturers offer ten to twenty different patterns, but some sell only to contractors whom they have trained in specific application techniques.

Colored hardeners — Hardening agents in powder form consist of colored, finely-ground, cementitious aggregates that are sprinkled (or «broadcast») onto freshly placed concrete. Moisture seeps from concrete into the powder to activate and monolithically bond it, creating a denser, harder finished surface. Surface strength may be increased up to 7,500 PSI compared to 3,000 to 4,000 PSI for standard 4″ concrete. Because the colorant is concentrated into the top layer, hues can be more intense than integrally colored concrete. For improved surface durability, use of colored hardeners is recommended prior to pattern stamping, or in conjunction with chemical staining to produce brighter or deeper finished colors, but the results may vary slightly from batch to batch.

Colored release agents — Pigmented powder or liquid agents are used with pattern stamps to reduce friction and facilitate their removal from fresh concrete surfaces. Applicators may choose release agent colors that contrast or compliment hardener colors to produce a mottled patina or «antique» look on the patterned surface. Unlike the other methods described here, these pigments do not penetrate the concrete surface and must be protected by sealers or wax finishes.

Colored Surface Overlay Material — Thin layers of cementitious material can be applied to existing concrete floors, adding thicknesses from ¼» to 1″, with 3/8″ being typical. The material may be self-leveling, to flatten an irregular surface, or trowelable where pattern stamping is desired. A limited range of colors is available. Because hardening aggregates are already present in the material, use of color hardeners is not recommended, but color release agents or chemical staining can be incorporated into the process. Prior to applying overlay material, cracks or fissures in the base slab must be repaired to avoid telegraphing, and the location of existing expansion joints must be maintained. Stamping depth should not exceed 50% of the thickness of the new surfacing layer.

Sealers and Waxes — Colored materials are available to seal and waterproof concrete surfaces, the final step in any finishing process. Manufacturers offer a broad range of products for different applications, ranging from buffing waxes for interior floors to industrial sealers for high traffic exterior settings. Choosing a matching color wax or sealer for integrally-colored concrete can intensify the hue and add gloss. Clear coatings can bring out the depth and luster of antiquing patinas or variegations from chemical staining. Depending on the how heavily the floor is used, sealers or waxes may need to be periodically renewed or reapplied, but maintenance might be as simple as occasionally mopping with floor wax.

Limitations — Very hard floor surfaces like tile, granite, or decorative concrete may not appeal to consumers with a preference for softer coverings like carpet or resilient vinyl. Objections may involve warmth underfoot, sound deflection, the likelihood of dropped objects shattering, or the safety of very young children who may crawl or fall on the floor surface. Many people with hard surface floors use area-rugs or runners for walkways, play areas, or aesthetic enhancement, but the additional cost of these items should be added to budget calculations when comparing flooring options.

Representative samples may be difficult to produce in some circumstances, especially when staining an existing slab. Color uniformity often cannot be guaranteed and may vary according to the composition of the concrete. Glue residue from previous floor coverings may be difficult or impossible to remove and can involve additional expense.

Make your concrete surfaces both decorative and functional

Concrete has a proven record for strength, durability, and cost effectiveness for a variety of applications including floors, walkways, patios and driveways. Concrete floors are found in a variety of residential settings, from high-rise condominiums, to basements remodeled for extra living space, and to slab-on-grade construction. Interior concrete is commonly covered with carpet, vinyl, or other flooring materials. For exterior surfaces, materials like slate, granite, or brick are preferred to standard concrete when budgets allow.

An increasingly popular alternative to covering concrete is to make the surface both decorative and functional. Concrete can be treated with stains or colorants to create a rich variety of hues and textures, or stamped with patterns to mimic natural surfaces from marble to wood planks. The resulting floor finishes combine beauty and creativity with the economy, durability, and practicality of concrete.

The life expectancy of concrete slabs far exceed that of flooring materials often used to cover them. Carpeting and vinyl are subject to tears, staining, damage from flooding, and general wear. Persons with allergies may also have concerns about dust or molds that may be harbored in carpet fibers. In addition, many floor coverings need to be replaced every few years.

Decorative finishes can be applied to existing or new slabs. The finish can last the lifetime of the concrete, and are durable, sanitary, and easy to maintain. A wide range of effects is possible. The treatment may be as simple as coloring walkways to match architectural features or blend into the landscape. If the look of natural materials is preferred, a slab might be stamped to create the appearance of slate or granite, complete with subtle color shifts, surface texture, and real grout placed in the formed joints between pavers. A stained and scored surface can imitate terra cotta tile, or present a colorful palette of abstract intersecting shapes .

Concrete Floor Finishes

Below are brief descriptions of several methods used for creating decorative concrete surfaces. None of the materials listed below are paints, which would have a much shorter expected lifespan. Except as noted, the treatments become permanent elements of the concrete slab:

Chemical Staining — Special stains are formulated to chemically react with the concrete’s lime content. They lightly etch and bond color into the concrete surface. This method can be used on new or old concrete slabs. However, the results are not always predictable due to lime leaching, weathering, surface texture, or exposure to other chemicals, and results may vary widely from project to project. Mottling that occurs in the stain process can create rich tones and complex, almost translucent textures to mimic granite, marble, or to highlight natural variegations in the concrete. Patches or cracks in existing slabs will not be concealed, but may add character and uniqueness. Skilled artisans can create a wide range of effects using, brushes, mops, sprayers, etc. or by creating patterns with leaves, sawdust, rags, or other inert materials. The full depth of color may not become apparent until waxes or sealers are applied to the surface. This is the most versatile and creative method of coloring concrete.

Scoring — Shallow-cuts can be made in existing concrete surfaces to suggest tile grout lines or simply create geometric designs and patterns to separate colors. Standard circular saws with abrasive masonry blades are used to make cuts no more than 1/8″ deep. With tile patterns, borders are incorporated into the design a few inches from walls or other vertical surfaces that would prevent the saw from scoring lines all the way to the edge.

Integrally Colored Concrete — Colorant added to concrete during the mixing process produces uniform tinting throughout the slab and consistent results from batch to batch. The colorant may be in liquid or powder form. For small projects, home centers or concrete-product retailers may carry bottles of liquid colorant which can be added to bags of ready-mix. For larger flatwork projects like foundation slabs, walkways, patios, or driveways, bags of powdered water-reducing color admixtures can be ordered at the mixing plant. Admixtures are used to improve plasticity, workability, and to control set time. When pattern stamps are used, a longer period of workability may be needed to complete the process in large areas. Some manufacturers offer their products in pre-measured disintegrating bags designed to treat particular amounts of concrete. The unopened bags are simply tossed into the mixer with water and aggregate prior to adding cement and sand. When pattern stamping is planned, integral colorants may serve as a base tone that can be modified by color hardeners and release agents to achieve a more mottled natural look.

Concrete Stamping — Rigid or flexible patterns are used to imprint the outline and textures of stone, brick, tile, wood planks, slate, or other natural paving materials into the freshly cast concrete surface. The imprinting tools range in size from single stones, to groupings of stones in areas of approximately 2 ft. x 4 ft. In some cases, grout may be applied to grooves for a more realistic finished appearance. Manufacturers often recommend using patterns in conjunction with color hardeners and releasers. Imprinting tools can be expensive, costing up to $300 each. Most manufacturers offer ten to twenty different patterns, but some sell only to contractors whom they have trained in specific application techniques.

Colored hardeners — Hardening agents in powder form consist of colored, finely-ground, cementitious aggregates that are sprinkled (or «broadcast») onto freshly placed concrete. Moisture seeps from concrete into the powder to activate and monolithically bond it, creating a denser, harder finished surface. Surface strength may be increased up to 7,500 PSI compared to 3,000 to 4,000 PSI for standard 4″ concrete. Because the colorant is concentrated into the top layer, hues can be more intense than integrally colored concrete. For improved surface durability, use of colored hardeners is recommended prior to pattern stamping, or in conjunction with chemical staining to produce brighter or deeper finished colors, but the results may vary slightly from batch to batch.

Colored release agents — Pigmented powder or liquid agents are used with pattern stamps to reduce friction and facilitate their removal from fresh concrete surfaces. Applicators may choose release agent colors that contrast or compliment hardener colors to produce a mottled patina or «antique» look on the patterned surface. Unlike the other methods described here, these pigments do not penetrate the concrete surface and must be protected by sealers or wax finishes.

Colored Surface Overlay Material — Thin layers of cementitious material can be applied to existing concrete floors, adding thicknesses from ¼» to 1″, with 3/8″ being typical. The material may be self-leveling, to flatten an irregular surface, or trowelable where pattern stamping is desired. A limited range of colors is available. Because hardening aggregates are already present in the material, use of color hardeners is not recommended, but color release agents or chemical staining can be incorporated into the process. Prior to applying overlay material, cracks or fissures in the base slab must be repaired to avoid telegraphing, and the location of existing expansion joints must be maintained. Stamping depth should not exceed 50% of the thickness of the new surfacing layer.

Sealers and Waxes — Colored materials are available to seal and waterproof concrete surfaces, the final step in any finishing process. Manufacturers offer a broad range of products for different applications, ranging from buffing waxes for interior floors to industrial sealers for high traffic exterior settings. Choosing a matching color wax or sealer for integrally-colored concrete can intensify the hue and add gloss. Clear coatings can bring out the depth and luster of antiquing patinas or variegations from chemical staining. Depending on the how heavily the floor is used, sealers or waxes may need to be periodically renewed or reapplied, but maintenance might be as simple as occasionally mopping with floor wax.

Limitations — Very hard floor surfaces like tile, granite, or decorative concrete may not appeal to consumers with a preference for softer coverings like carpet or resilient vinyl. Objections may involve warmth underfoot, sound deflection, the likelihood of dropped objects shattering, or the safety of very young children who may crawl or fall on the floor surface. Many people with hard surface floors use area-rugs or runners for walkways, play areas, or aesthetic enhancement, but the additional cost of these items should be added to budget calculations when comparing flooring options.

Representative samples may be difficult to produce in some circumstances, especially when staining an existing slab. Color uniformity often cannot be guaranteed and may vary according to the composition of the concrete. Glue residue from previous floor coverings may be difficult or impossible to remove and can involve additional expense.


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