ToolBase.org logo
The Home Building Industry's Technical Information Resource

Back to Standard View
Search TechnologiesAbout Technology Inventory
 
Browse by Building System


Symbol Legend
Adobe Acrobat Reader required for PDF documents

PDF documents require the free Adobe Reader.


All PDF documents open in a new browser window. Close the browser window to return to the site.

Concrete Floor Finishes

Make your concrete surfaces both decorative and functional

Stained concrete patio.

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.


Affordability

Concrete is relatively inexpensive and the costs for decorative concrete may still be less costly than installing a floor of different material.

Quality and Durability

Concrete flooring lasts longer than most other floors and can withstand much abuse without damaging its look.


Easy

Most areas have contractors who are trained and outfitted for pattern stamping and tinting exterior concrete surfaces. Some may advertise their specialties in local phone directories or the home improvement sections of newspapers or magazines. Staining specialists can be more difficult to locate. Some work through urban design centers or commercial referrals. The internet can be a valuable search tool in locating skilled local craftspeople.

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.


Costs vary according to the materials and contractors selected. Do-it-yourselfers can purchase stain and wax for as little as $0.25 per square foot. Special stain colors and/or commercial grade sealers may increase the cost to $1.00 per square foot, or more. Skilled artisans who specialize in custom stain effects may charge hourly or per job, some have minimum charges of $800 or upwards. Pattern stamping costs also vary according to the complexity of the pattern and finishes specified. Stamping a simple pattern onto colored concrete may add a little as $2 per square foot to the cost of a patio or driveway. A project involving specialized admixtures, complex patterns, color hardeners, release agents, and grout joints might increase the cost of a slab by $15 per square foot. As general average, stamping and finishing increases job costs $6 to $8 per square foot. Another average sited by manufacturers states that the cost of decorative concrete surfaces is usually one third to one half the cost of using natural paving materials like slate or granite.


Not Applicable


All concrete flatwork must comply with applicable building code requirements for thickness, composition, and strength. There may be requirements for slip resistance on exterior walkways that preclude very smooth or glossy finishes.


Carl Franklin Homes: The Vista at Kensington Park, Dallas, Texas

Hopke Buildings & Grounds: MADE to Last Home, Sturgeon, Missouri

K. Hovnanian Inc: College Park Estates. Freehold Township, New Jersey

MADE Project: Bowie, Maryland


Surfaces are usually installed by skilled applicators or artisans. Most will offer samples, or the opportunity to view previous jobs. Certain contractors may specialize in a particular process like exterior pattern stamping, while others might do only interior staining. Methods and procedures vary greatly with different products, for instance some chemical stains may only be applied to slabs that have been fully cured for sixty days, while others work best if applied within a few days of casting. If staining is planned for a floor slab during new construction, all the following trades should be notified that the concrete surface will be the finished floor so that extra care is taken to avoid damage during the building process. Steel trowel finishing may darken or burnish the concrete surface, affecting the final appearance of stain.

Some manufacturers only allow their stamping patterns and color hardeners to be used by trained and certified technicians since all phases of the process need to be properly coordinated. A good contractor may need to consult the colorant manufacturer about the best admixtures, make sure the ready-mix plant blends the batch for expected jobsite and weather conditions, lay out the stamp pattern with expansion joints planned to correspond with pattern edges, and utilize curing methods that do not affect the coloration.

Chemical stains and liquid colorants are more generally available, with some manufacturers or distributors selling products directly by telephone or the internet. Sometimes they can also recommend local applicators, or provide detailed instructions and how-to videos for do-it-yourselfers. Safety precautions for working with concrete and silica dust should always be observed. Chemical stains are usually water soluble, but may contain acids that can cause irritation or injuries if handled improperly. Also remember that results can vary widely on different slabs and usually cannot be guaranteed. If possible, a test treatment should be made in an area of the slab that will not be visible.


Some contractors will warrant their work against cracking in certain ways, etc., for a period of several years, generally about 5 to 10.


Concrete is one of the most durable and versatile floor surfaces available. Newer technologies like frost-protected shallow foundations allow use of economical slab floor construction in a wider variety of climates. Stained concrete surfaces are a hot design trend in restaurants, stores, and are seen increasingly in residential settings. Treatments can impart the look and luster of granite, marble, or other scarce natural materials at a fraction of the cost. Unlike carpet or vinyl, concrete is not subject to damage from tears, stains, wear, or flooding. There are no fibers or crevices that can trap dirt or allergens. Concrete can easily be swept or washed and requires little other maintenance.

Radiant floor heating is another energy-efficient technology that can easily be incorporated into slab floors. A decorative finish on the concrete will allow the system to provide maximum heat transfer with no thermal barriers from added floor coverings. Besides conditioning the space, the floor will also feel comfortably warm underfoot.

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.

Disclaimer: The information on the system, product or material presented herein is provided for informational purposes only. The technical descriptions, details, requirements, and limitations expressed do not constitute an endorsement, approval, or acceptance of the subject matter by the NAHB Research Center. There are no warranties, either expressed or implied, regarding the accuracy or completeness of this information. Full reproduction, without modification, is permissible.