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The Lost Art of Concrete Floor Finishing

From a technical perspective, finishing a concrete floor is defined by the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) as “the operation of creating a concrete surface of a desired texture, smoothness, and durability.” This rather basic definition is helpful if you’re trying to explain what finishing is but there’s much more skill and artistry involved in concrete floor finishing than you might think.

There are a variety of style options for industrial floors, and a number of different ways a crew might work on a floor, but the one thing that remains constant is the fact that quality and craftsmanship are critical. In fact, a recent post noted that real estate values for warehouses can often hinge on the quality of the site’s floor, so it’s important to understand the degree of skill that’s required in floor finishing, and the attention to detail the crew needs to maintain.

Types of floor finishes

Floor contractors can polish concrete to a high sheen, or transition your warehouse concrete from a smooth surface indoors that meets exacting flatness standards, to a pebbled outdoor surface that is ideal for safety on your cold outdoor loading dock. Concrete Construction offers a nice roundup of the various types of finishing options available for commercial floors.

Eye-catching concrete surfaces require almost as much art as science. In the NRMCA’s article, Concrete in Practice, you’ll find a long list of do’s, don’ts, “waits”, and “nevers” that will give you an idea of how much is involved in finishing. That’s why it takes a great team to deliver just the right surface.

The right stuff for the job at hand

In short, the expertise the floor contractor’s team brings to your site begins back at theirs. Owning and maintaining the proper equipment for different sized jobs with various requirements is a contractor’s first key to success. From mixing and transporting concrete to taking the final measurements on the job, the crew needs to have the right tools.

For example, some of the most important aspects of the job is placing, compacting, and finishing. When your floor is ready to be poured, the contractor needs to come in with the right mix and place the equipment as near as possible to the workspace to work with the concrete quickly and efficiently from start to finish. For industrial jobs, the contractor may use one of a few types of trucks – a truck agitator that brings quality concrete from a central mixing point to your facility, or a truck mixer, which mixes the concrete onsite. For smaller jobs or shorter hauls, a non-agitating truck is more appropriate. There are a number of different types of trucks that are right for your job.

The concrete must now travel from the truck to your floor – and for that, there are a number of options including chutes, belt conveyors, pneumatic guns, and concrete pumps or drop chutes – or a combination of those tools.

The key here is that concrete needs to keep moving until it gets to the spot where it should set, and if a crew doesn’t have the right equipment, or lacks experience in using it, they could make serious errors on your job.

Pouring concrete

Once the crew has set up the equipment, the next job is pouring the concrete. This aspect of the job is critical and requires a professional eye that can judge timing and thickness as the concrete is poured in layers onto the floor area. Professional finishers know how to pour each layer, stamp it quickly to prevent any drying, and then add the next layer. When done correctly, this method delivers a secure floor without air pockets or other weaknesses. When done improperly, you may wind up with flow lines, or planes of weakness that give way over time and lead to unnecessary repairs.

The process is similar to baking a cake. You have to use the correct ingredients in the batter, mix it just enough, and pour it out smoothly, then bake it for the right amount of time. Sure, your kid can make a cake that tastes fine, and you won’t mind the lumps, but a professional baker can deliver just the right texture and consistency every time.

The final product

In the article, A Review of Finishing Techniques, the Aberdeen Group provides a thorough guide to major finishing styles including stamped, scored, and rendered finishes, formwork, and exposed aggregate finishes. It explains the eye for detail, timing, and skill that’s needed to achieve each style.

Each of these techniques requires keen attention to detail. The Portland Cement Association explains the techniques contractors like FRICKSCO use every day to achieve just the right surface. Screeding and bullfloating are two finishing techniques that bring a higher degree of perfection to the surface.

Hiring the right crew

Floor finishing techniques require a lot of practice in order to achieve a high level of competency. Trained masons understand these techniques, and they work hard – for years – to master their craft and take time to learn and perfect new techniques as they come along.

There are some companies out there that think a floor is a floor, so they hire workers instead of skilled labor. When they’ve completed a job, it may look as good as a professional floor, but the test of time can often very quickly tell you if you hired the right floor contractor or the wrong one. You don’t want to find out the hard way that you’ve hired the wrong crew.

This article by Floor Finishing is worth a read by anyone who is looking to hire a floor contractor because it explains in easy-to-follow language how much training, education, and attention to detail is required in order to deliver a reliable end product. Read the article as a primer and use it to develop questions for your contractor as you receive bids.

It’s not enough to review a company’s website and look at pictures of finished products. By asking specific questions about mixing and testing, the training the crew has received, the tools that the crew will use, and demonstrating that you have an understanding of such things as F-numbers, will help you determine which contractors just aren’t up to the job. You’ll also scare off contractors who are blowing smoke about their capabilities. The team that answers your questions with ease and provides you with detailed responses on paper – that’s the company you want to work with.

Take time to look at all of the options that are available to you and ask a lot of questions about how the team will work in your particular job. Check references and make sure you’re going to get the best contractor – and finishers – to do your job right the first time.