Tools of the Trade
By: Debra Williams
It's the first rule of quality workmanship: to do a good job, you have to have the right tools.
That holds true for all stages and varieties of decorative concrete. While you may find a few useful items in your current toolbox, chances are a decorative concrete project will mean a trip down to your local hardware store or giant home repair warehouse or a call to your manufacturer.
Before using a decorative concrete project as an excuse to invest a few extra thousand dollars in your tool collection, know specifically what you're going to be doing.
"The tools you need depends on the decorative concrete that you're doing," explains Marshall Hoskins, sales technical representative for Specialty Concrete Products (SCPUSA), a Columbia, S.C.-based manufacturer. "Some guys might just do stain. Others will do overlays. A lot of contractors do everything."
Hoskins said that each decorative concrete system requires some of the same tools and, at the least, several unique tools. The tools required will also be influenced by the amount of preparation needed. For example, contractors who do resurfacing jobs may require surface removal machines and crack repair tools.
Choosing tools according to the project will save the do-it-yourselfer from wasting money needlessly on tools that may have little other application. For the contractor, most find their tool collection grows as their business does. One might start out in stenciling with just the basics. As his or her customer base grows, they expand into stamping and then expand their tools.
More distributors are also choosing to rent the tools needed for decorative concrete. The homeowner or the contractor whose customer has a unique customer request can save plenty going this route. This can easily expand the number of patterns a contractor can offer with very little expense. Contractors expanding their decorative concrete business often choose to buy.
Hoskins says that tools do not vary much in design by manufacturer but do in quality. Many have tool lists available to guide contractors and those are useful. However, switching from one line of products to another within the same type of work will not necessitate new tools.
A good pressure washer is vital in decorative concrete work, both in preparation and in finishing. Hoskins recommends 3500 PSI units or stronger.
Trowels are a common need for most decorative concrete work. "Depending on the work you're doing, you can use everything from a hand-held magnesium float to a bull float," Hoskins said.
He adds that floats are perhaps one of the most important tools because they smooth out the concrete without completely closing the surface, and they also help in bringing cream to the surface and pushing aggregate down. "The result is a nice smooth surface, but one that's open in order to allow water to bleed out and evaporate from the surface."
Most floats that are used in decorative concrete are made of wood or magnesium. "Either one works great," Hoskins says. He adds, though, that he usually uses magnesium. Wood can dent and chip easier. "As you smooth out the concrete, wherever that chip is, it will leave a mark."
Steel trowels (from handheld to Fresno's) are also used for finishing work; following behind the floating process. Hoskins says at this stage, steel trowels will close the surface off, and work color into the surface leaving a tight slick finish. Most contractors prefer oversized trowels for this process. Hoskins uses a 26" or larger handheld and an oversized Fresno.
"You can cover more ground and work more color into the concrete with a larger one," he explains. Smaller ones, though, will be needed for tight areas. "You'll need some small trowels for close work, particularly corners," Hoskins advises. He recommends that contractors working in decorative contract have both small round and square end trowels for hard-to-reach areas.
A staining project will need a sprayer or sponge brushes (acid resistant models are available for re-use). The desired effect will determine which one you choose. Brushes leave color variations that are often desirable but you must be careful not to leave brush marks. Acid stains will automatically give a mottled, marbleized coloration if sprayed down. If you're working regularly in decorative overlayments, you'll want to invest in a compressor and hopper gun (designed for spraying cementations materials). These are used in spray textured overlayments with or without a stencil pattern.
"To get a large pattern, you'll only be using 10-15 PSI and a larger aperture on the gun," Hoskins said. "To get a tighter pattern, like replicating open-face brick, at the most you need 25 PSI and use a small aperture."
Stamping also has its own tool needs. This process involves making an impression directly into the concrete. Most contractors are already established in the decorative concrete business before taking on these jobs, Hoskins said, limiting the need for new tools. Stamp mats and a tamper are two requirements.
Decorative concrete tools require the same care extended as any tools. "Keep them clean while you are working," Hoskins says, adding that rust on tools can damage a job. To prevent rust, some contractors spray metal floats and other tools with non-stick cooking spray. Rust, though, doesn't mean the end of a tool.
"If they rust, just clean them with steel wool," Hoskins says. "Make sure they remain flat and smooth."