Just a decade ago, stamped concrete was relatively unknown in many parts of the country, and stamping contractors were considered “specialized.” In recent years, though, stamped concrete has become fairly common. The Internet played a huge part in the industry’s growth by offering easy access to inexpensive stamping tools and online how-to information.

There are now thousands of contractors who can produce nearly identical results. Unfortunately, fierce competition has lowered the prices that you can realistically charge for quality work. The mass-produced nature of normal stamped concrete has rendered it more of a commodity than a specialty surface treatment.

Nevertheless, there are still contractors out there who can charge top dollar for their services by producing something extraordinary. These innovative craftsmen see concrete as a blank canvas, and devise ways of transforming an otherwise boring slab into a work of art. They push the limits by inventing their own tools and processes, or simply by using unusual materials as concrete stamps. Discriminating customers are willing to pay a premium for their custom work.

Think outside the stamp

In 2011, after moving from central Illinois to Indianapolis, Ron Ummel soon realized that he was entering an extremely competitive market. He had to somehow distinguish himself from the competition.

Ummel decided to buck the system by not offering traditional pattern stamping. Instead, he concentrated on creating one-of-a-kind slabs. His processes for imitating expensive travertine tile and hand-carved large flagstones have become so popular with customers that his company, Concrete Evolutions, is booked months in advance. Homeowners are willing to wait for him—and to pay his higher asking price.

Another Indiana contractor who thinks outside the box is Mike Lindsey of Bloomington. Besides using standard industry tools, he has occasionally created his own stamp mats and border tools, and has even invented a unique step-forming system for his crew’s personal use. He also built a specialized hand tool that allows his employees to finish perfect, identical stair treads every time.

Lindsey’s unorthodox but impressive methods have landed him a clientele more than happy to spend a little extra for his work.

Phil Grant of C&R Concrete, Indianapolis, uses decorative rubber welcome mats to stamp elaborate geometric patterns into fresh concrete. The ornate designs are easy to stamp, whereas they would be a nightmare to grind in or stain later. Still other contractors I know have used wood-grained plastic lattice, plywood, diamond plate-textured safety treads, and even coarse burlap to achieve unique patterns and textures.

Create your own textures

There are an infinite number of textures in the world, but only a few have been made into commercial stamp tools. Contractors who can create new textures will produce work that stands out.

While working as a stamping contractor myself, I created several of my own texture tools, and demonstrated one of them at World of Concrete 2012 in Las Vegas. My demo consisted of using a textured roller and matching embossing skins that gave the slab the appearance of broken mosaic tiles. My idea was that after the tile pattern was in place, virtually any picture or geometric design could then be stained onto the texture, mimicking the look of an inlaid mosaic. I fell short of my goal of creating a realistic-looking ancient Greek mosaic, but in more capable and artistic hands striking results can be achieved.

If you want to produce something unique, don’t wait for someone else to invent a tool or procedure. If you see a need, then fill it! If Jon Nasvik had not designed flexible textured stamp mats for decorative concrete systems provider Bomanite, we would probably still be using metal cookie-cutter stamps and poly sheeting today. His creation revolutionized the entire industry.

Will you be the next big innovator? I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.

Steve VandeWater manages The Concrete Store in Fishers, Ind. He is a former Indianapolis area contractor and is the creator of the Indiana Decorative Concrete Network website. E-mail svandewater@sagamorereadymix.com; visit www.indecorativeconcrete.com.