By: Taylor Bowles
In the concrete stamping industry, seamless texturing is a given. No matter what pattern is being stamped into freshly poured concrete, the edges must blend perfectly, making each stamp indistinguishable from the next.
But this wasn't always the case. Paul Sowa, co-owner of Proline Concrete Tools, remembers when no one in the industry was familiar with what is now an industry standard. "We were one of the first to commercially sell the seamless texturing," explains Sowa. "We had them at the concrete show in 1991, and nobody knew what they were."
Sowa and his business partner, Jeff Irwin, founded Proline Concrete Tools in 1989. Friends since childhood, Irwin and Sowa were each working in different aspects of the building industry. "Jeff worked for a company that did urethane molding; I went to work in construction and much later became a form-setter for a concrete company," says Sowa. When he asked Irwin why his company didn't make stamps for concrete, Irwin replied that he didn't know what they were. A couple of years later, the two were a team, and Proline Concrete Tools was soon producing top-of-the-line concrete stamping tools.
"When we first started out, we'd heard stories about other manufacturers' tools not fitting together," continues Sowa. Having heard from stampers that the ill-fitting tools would literally bounce apart during use, Sowa and Irwin sought to create a tool that would stay together. "Our tools all fit together really, really well. Designing tools that fit is something we put a lot of care into," Sowa says.
Because the stamping tools available then were very thick and heavy, they were jarring to the stamper and would frequently fall apart. To address that problem, Proline incorporated a light but very durable and hard rubber into their pounders, or tampers. "We use a denser durometer," says Irwin. "It's basically different, harder rubber than our competitors use."
The stiffer rubber means that the product will not bounce as much, decreasing the impact on both the tool and the worker. Rafael Cabrera, vice president of marketing at Proline, explains the benefits of the lighter tools: "They're harder, therefore they're more durable. And they're lighter, so people are more productive in using them." Proline backs up the durability of their pounders with a lifetime warranty.
Like the tampers, Proline's seamless skin textures come with benefits as well. Cabrera notes that "the thing about the Proline seamless skins that's really loved by the contractors is that they have handles." Because handles on other similar products are often made with a weaker rubber, they tend to rip off the seamless skins, prompting the manufacturer to simply stop providing a handle altogether. "The Proline seamless skin is thin, but also has a high-quality bonding system," says Cabrera. Not only does the skin come equipped with a handle, he says, but "those handles don't rip out."
Though Proline's tools are appreciated by contractors and concrete stampers, it is ultimately the homebuyer who reaps the greatest reward. The decorative concrete stamps can create patterns ranging from brick to Saltillo tile to even wood-grain. Though concrete stamping is most frequently used in outdoor applications such as poolsides and patios, Irwin and Sowa have noticed an increase in decorative concrete use in interiors as well. "We're seeing more stampings of foundations while they are being poured, rather than going back and doing a tile," says Sowa, noting that the stamps have been used in kitchens, bathrooms, foyers and even living rooms.
Though the popularity of patterns tends to shift from region to region, Sowa and Irwin notice that Ashlar Slate and Random Stone are their two biggest sellers. Proline was also the creator of a pattern that has become an industry standard: Roman Slate.
In 1995, Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas was renovating their pool area. "Arcon, the contractor who was doing the work, wanted to do it in a seamless texture, and we provided this texture to them," says Sowa. Because the texture was brand-new, it didn't yet have a name. "I asked them what they wanted to call it, and they came up with the idea of Roman Slate. So that where that came from: the Roman theme, from Caesar's Palace."
Though Proline has found much success in the decorative stamping market, the company feels no pressure to expand into other arenas - a decision which Cabrera considers a major strength. "By having Proline focused on manufacturing very high-quality stamping tools, it's allowing it to go work in different regions for different manufacturers and different distributors," he says. For example, a distributor can pick up the Proline product without having to sever a relationship with a concrete stain manufacturer.
Proline has carved out a niche in the concrete marketplace, and strives to excel in that niche. "We're always improving," says Irwin. And while he and Sowa watch other types of decorative concrete - stained and sandblasted, for example - move in and out of popularity, they know there will always be demand for their product. "It's a trend thing," says Irwin, "But there will always be a place for the stamps."