Concrete stains give homes path away from gray
Oakland Tribune, Oct 7, 2006 by Candace Murphy, STAFF WRITER

TO HEAR Todd Girish go on about concrete must be a little like how Leonardo da Vinci might have gone on about blank canvases.

"It's somewhat like alchemy," says Girish, a decorative concrete contractor and owner of The Concrete Kid, based in San Francisco. "There are overlays, patterns, textures, colors, the sky's the limit now. People don't know the options they have when it comes to concrete. They think it's like an ordinary sidewalk. But concrete is very, very much overlooked. With concrete, I can do anything from high-end slate to castle rock.

"And that's just scratching the surface," says Girish. "Just in the last three years, they've been coming up with so many different products, it's actually hard to keep up. The decorative concrete world is constantly changing and if you don't keep up, you're going to be left behind. It's somewhat similar to the computer world."

By far the most popular products for home concrete are stains, probably used often for their relatively cheap price of $3.50 to $4 a square foot when done by a contractor, and which work on concrete for the very reason that paints do not. Paint peels and flakes on concrete because water vapor passes through porous concrete slabs and pushes the solid film of paint from the surface.

But that same porousness is what helps stains work. Stain products work pretty much like wood stains, and pigment travels with the help of solvents or water into the top fraction of an inch of the concrete. The colored pigments then attach themselves to the concrete particles, and presto! The gray is gone.

To be fair, the stain concept isn't exactly new -- Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have used the technique more than 60 years ago -- but its availability to the common homeowner is.

Still, Girish cautions that concrete staining should often be left to the experts. Though water-based stains are more straightforward -- put it on clean concrete and watch the color seep in -- blending and sponging techniques for a less blocky color effect can be difficult to do. Even more difficult are tricky acid- based stains that work by having a chemical reaction with the concrete and crate a more marbled, faux finish.

"You're always learning with acid-based," says Girish. "You can manipulate it, but you can't fully control it. So you're constantly getting different results. Usually what happens, happens."

Fans of concrete stains also like the relative low-maintenance of the base material. Terra cotta tiles are popular for both outdoor and indoor spaces, but maintaining tiles in earthquake country can be a challenge. Girish also prefers it to pavers, the interlocking stones that home owners often want installed on pathways.

"Pavers are nice and in certain homes, it complements the home better than a decorative concrete would, but it depends on the consumer and what the consumer likes," says Girish. "Some people like pavers. But they're not cemented in. There can be problems with them, too."

Beyond staining is the more intricate work of overlaying and stamping, with overlays (about $6.50 to $9 per square foot) being one step up in cost from staining, and stamping being the most expensive option with prices depending on color of concrete ordered (a range of $140 to $600 per cubic yard), design, and other vagaries.

Polymer cement overlays go over an existing slab of concrete and are good on surfaces with imperfections, but they're also popular for their combination of decorative possibilities as well as their resistance to damage.

Stamped concrete, on the other hand, often called patterned concrete, is concrete made to look like something it's not, like flagstone, brick, or even wood. A concrete worker pours out concrete, which most of the time comes already colored from the concrete plant, smooths it out and stamps it with a rubber mat that has a texture on it.

"I'm in the process of stamping a whole entryway and I did a whole patio for these people before this," says Girish. "It's great - - instead of a concrete slab patio, you can have any texture you want -- a river rock look if you want."

Or maybe even a little something something inspired by Signor Leonardo.

"It can be the perfect canvas," says Girish. "I've done a master bedroom where I cut a design in the floor with a saw. I mean, the sky's the limit. You could put a Mona Lisa on the floor if you want."

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