In the past, decorative concrete was typically thought of as stamped concrete on a horizontal surface. In recent years, though, all that has changed dramatically.
The advent of pre-packaged, lightweight wall mixes has created new worlds of opportunity for using concrete in lieu of other, more expensive building materials. After a bit of prep work, these bagged mixes can be trowelled onto existing walls, even those made of plywood or drywall, and placed up to 6 inches thick without slumping or sagging. The soft material can then either be stamped or hand-carved for something extraordinarily unique.
Some contractors report that stamping a wall is often easier than stamping horizontal concrete because the wall mix usually sets up much more slowly. The prolonged set time allows a worker to labor at a more leisurely pace, and gives him the opportunity to pay more attention to detailing his work. Some mixes even stay soft enough to be detailed on the day following placement.
The creamy, fluffy consistency of the wall material also yields extremely crisp impressions when stamping, so the finished surface shows every nuance of the detail in the stamping tool. The joints in stone-patterned wall stamps are typically much deeper than in horizontal stamps, so the profile of the finished wall is more realistic and reminiscent of a natural stone wall. Wall stamps come in a variety of patterns and textures, from smoothly rounded field stones to rougher, dry-stacked stone, brick, tile, and wood.
As in horizontal stamping, using mass-produced wall stamps makes it possible for different workers to produce nearly identical results. There are some discriminating customers, however, who want truly customized work. For these clients, vertical carving is just the ticket.
Carved vertical wall mixes allow for unlimited customization. Instead of using stamps that produce stones of a certain size, and seeing the same stone repeat throughout the pattern, each carved stone is unique. Carvers use a variety of tools such as margin trowels, wire loops like those used to model clay, stiff brushes, spoons, and even flat screwdrivers. There is no right or wrong tool for carving. To complete a vertical installation, water-based stains are applied to the cured concrete for extremely realistic results.
Carved stones can be any shape or texture and, more importantly, they can be any size. This allows for the illusion of building with huge, monolithic stones. If one were to build a hardscape with actual massive stones, he would face the challenge and expense of locating them, having them shipped in, and then somehow placing them in their final location. This would be a monumental task requiring very heavy equipment. However, it is a relatively simple operation to build a large structure in place, and then simply cover it with a few inches of wall mix. In the hands of an experienced concrete artisan, carved stone is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
Bringing it indoors
Hardscapes of gigantic proportion are not the only applications for carving. Interior applications can create fantastic spaces with incredibly interesting visual elements. A skilled craftsman can replicate ancient vines, hewn wooden beams, animals, mechanical hardware, machinery, logos, and virtually anything else one can imagine.
One successful carving contractor is Troy Lemon, who operates Cornerstone Decorative Concrete in Holland, Mich. Clients across the nation hire him to transform their spaces into something spectacular. Lemon strives for realism in his installations, so wherever he goes, he observes and photographs the native stone formations for duplication later in concrete. His creations can be seen in high-end commercial settings and designer homes alike. His “man caves” and wine cellars add amazing ambience to what would otherwise have been normal residential basements.
More contractors should consider learning to install vertical concrete. In areas with harsh winters, especially, indoor projects can provide the opportunity for year-round work. As Lemon says, “I did some indoor work before (overlays, staining, countertops), but learning to carve added a whole other element to what I can offer my customers.”
Steve VandeWater is the manager of 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 firstname.lastname@example.org; also visit www.indecorativeconcrete.com.