The world of decorative concrete keeps expanding, even into the realm of furniture. On first blush it doesn't seem that using concrete to make furniture is a good thing to do. It's brittle, it cracks, it has little tensile strength, and it's much heavier than wood. Even so, all around the country artists and decorative contractors produce exciting pieces of furniture. Precast concrete naturally lends itself to this kind of work but there are contractors casting furniture in place as well.
NOT FOR BEGINNERS
Some forms of decorative concrete work are installed by contractors with little knowledge about concrete. For example, doing stencil pattern work or applying water-based stains doesn't require knowledge of placing and finishing concrete in order to do good work. But this definitely isn't the case for those who construct concrete furniture. They must have good forming skills; an understanding of reinforcement and where it should be placed; knowledge of concrete mix designs and water-cement (w/c) ratios; and the use of admixtures, placing, and finishing skills. They must know how to minimize bug holes, understand curing issues, and be knowledgeable about sealers. Sometimes other decorative techniques, such as diamond polishing and staining, become part of the finished work and they must know how to do that too. The ability to turn out quality, durable work depends on the contractor's knowledge of concrete. But what interests customers most is creative abilities and design skills.
Concrete furniture is often one of the products that full-service decorative concrete contractors offer to their customers as one of their decorative products.
Kimberly Montgomery, co-owner of Stone River Handcrafted Concrete, Granite Bay, Calif., says that she and her partner owned a high-end swimming pool business and occasionally built outdoor kitchens and countertops when they became part of a pool contract. Montgomery noticed that granite and quarry tile countertops didn't perform well outside over time and decided to take a class on concrete countertop construction to learn more about concrete as a counter-top material. This led to the formation of Stone River Handcrafted Concrete two years ago and the closing of their pool company. Most of the work they do now includes countertops, tables, and fireplace surrounds. The transition has been good and she appreciates the opportunity to be more involved with creative design.
Ryan Brayak started his company, Rock Elements, in Escanaba, Mich., four years ago, after working as an architect before deciding to start his own business. His father owns a pre-cast business and is a ready-mix producer. Brayak likes the combination of designing and hands-on work with concrete. He makes dining room tables, coffee tables, benches, bars, ¾-inch-thick concrete wall panels, concrete bowls, and grandfather clocks. Brayak says he works alone as a company of one.
Constructing forms is one of the critical steps for furniture construction, because they require a much higher degree of precision than the usual formwork for concrete. Brayak says he uses steel, fabric, wood, and plastic to build the forms for his pieces. Dave Pettigrew, owner of Diamond D Concrete, Capitola, Calif., often casts concrete benches and seats in-place as part of a retaining wall construction. He uses more traditional form lumber for these forming tasks but must be very detail oriented to provide the smooth lines required. For precast, free-standing work, he has developed molds for benches and plastic forms to produce very detailed bowls for planters.
Mike Eastergard, owner of PreiTech, Evans, Ga., says he produces standard and custom molds to serve the concrete furniture industry. His molds are made from expanded polystyrene foam with coatings to supply smooth surfaces and vacuumed formed plastic, and will soon offer molds made using the injection molding process. His molds can either be purchased or rented. He says that sink molds are his most popular product but he also is becoming more involved with molds to produce desks, retail counters, and bedroom furniture.
CONCRETE FOR FURNITURE MAKING
For cast-in-place furniture construction, standard mixes used on a jobsite usually are adequate. However, controlling water content to increase strength and durability and minimize shrinkage is very important. Pettigrew urges the use of water-reducing admixtures to keep w/c ratios between 0.40 and 0.45. When molds are used to precast benches, sinks, and more delicate furniture pieces, the use of self-consolidating concrete mixes that incorporate polycarboxylate super-plasticizers and viscosity modifying admixtures (VMA) is helpful to minimize bug holes, consolidate concrete, and produce high-strength, low-w/c concrete. Some contractors use prepackaged countertop mixes, adding plasticizers and VMAs to achieve the desired flowability. Integral color often is added to mixes as well.
In order to cast his ¾-inch-thick wall panels, Brayak says that he developed a proprietary mix design to provide the needed tensile and flexural strength.
Other decorative products can be added to concrete to further enhance the appearance of furniture. Pettigrew says he broadcast yellow glass aggregate and inserted brass strips for one tabletop that he produced. Montgomery recently embedded a steel plate in a tabletop for a client with the engraving, “If there is a will there is a way.”
MARKETING CONCRETE FURNITURE
Brayak believes that people want nice design and unique furnishings in their homes; that's the allure that creates the demand for concrete furniture. He looks for clients who are willing to commission him, granting him free range in the design process. For him, this is the best of all worlds. But he also exhibits his work in his gallery in Chicago where customers can buy furniture directly.
Montgomery says that concrete furniture tends to be a local phenomenon because of the weight and the cost of transportation. In her company's service area, there is a vibrant art community and where she markets her work as art. She also opened a gallery in the art district to stir interest. Their market focus is commercial and retail clients.
Pettigrew is a full-service decorative concrete contractor, selling his precast benches through a local landscape supply house. He markets the uniqueness of concrete and the fact that you can do things with it that aren't possible with any other material. When he talks to customers about concrete furniture, he stresses the longevity of concrete. “It's not like redwood,” he says. “With some care concrete furniture will stay beautiful for a very long time.”