Traditionally thought of as cold and impersonal – not to mention ugly – concrete floors become a thing of beauty with the aid of a little concrete stain. Able to mimic a variety of appearances at a fraction of the cost, stained concrete is moving from exterior patios and garages or basements into the living area of the home, elevated from floors alone to countertops as well. With some knowledge and preparation, you can have your own stained floor to admire and cherish. Here’s the essential information to know before you begin.
About Concrete Stains
Water-Based Concrete Stain
Generally a mixture of acrylic polymers and pigments, water-based concrete stains actually fill the concrete’s pores and coat the surface to produce the stained effect. Called “non-reactive” because the stain doesn’t interact with the concrete, the color produced is more consistent. Once dried, the film or coating left on the concrete may range from translucent to opaque according to the particular water-based stain you select. Somewhat easier to apply than your other concrete stain choice – and definitely safer, as water-based formulas are free of solvents and acids – these stains also come in a larger selection of colors as well. Most water-based concrete stains are low in volatile organic compounds and some claim to be environmentally friendly in other ways.
The biggest drawback to water-based concrete stains is that eventually it will fade and wear away. Keep this in mind if you are staining a high-traffic area. No matter which concrete stain you choose, check the manufacturer’s recommended coverage rate to ensure you purchase the right amount. Apply according to the manufacturer’s instructions after first testing the stain to make sure you are satisfied with the color and results.
Acid-Based Concrete Stains
Unlike water-based concrete stains, acid-based stains don’t coat the surface at all. The stain penetrates the porous concrete and reacts chemically with the lime and other minerals contained in the concrete. This chemical reaction fuels the staining process, resulting in colored oxides.
An acid-based concrete stain delivers translucent color rather than the opaque appearance achievable with water-based formulas. However, the colors available are rather limited: earthy tones or a vivid blue color. Still, artfully applied, even a simple application yields a deep, rich tone with delightful marbling effects.
An acid-stained concrete floor will wear better than one stained with a water-based stain. Even when used outside, it fades only slightly over many years. Always apply according to the manufacturer’s instructions and take the appropriate safety precautions listed in the directions. Acid-based stains contain hazardous substances. Before selecting either a water- or acid-based concrete stain, also consider your DIY experience and how comfortable you feel with the stain involved as well as the floor location and the condition of the surface.
Is Your Concrete Floor a Good Candidate for Staining?
If your concrete is bare and you’ve never had another type of flooring covering it, your job is much easier. Otherwise, you have to rip up the existing flooring to get down to bare concrete before you can begin. Once you have bare concrete (and paint counts as a covering that must be removed) inspect the floor carefully. The floor’s condition influences whether you can select acid-based or if you must use water-based concrete stain instead.
- Has the concrete been previously cleaned with an acid such as muratic acid? If it has, you can’t use an acid stain. If your floor was previously covered, the chances that it was acid-washed are slim.
- Was the concrete sealed during installation? Some substances, such as Cure-N-Seal, inhibit the chemical reaction needed for an acid stain. Select a water-based stain instead. Alternatively, either abrade or chemically remove a topcoat sealer. Test for sealers by pouring a small amount of water on the surface and watching to see if it beads up (sealer) or absorbs (no sealer).
- Did you have glued-down carpet, tile, or another floor covering that left behind stains and shadows in the concrete? An opaque water-based stain may cover the evidence better. Any stain in the concrete itself will affect an acid-based concrete stain, creating a color variation.
Some professionals will install a thin layer of new concrete over surfaces that are poor candidates for acid staining. Called a “microfinish overlay,” this provides a fresh new surface to create a perfect look. If you are set on an acid-stained floor and encounter stains or other problems, consider asking a professional about installing a new layer of concrete for you.
DIY Concrete Stain Application Precautions
Before applying any concrete stain, always read the directions fully and note any safety precautions. You can usually find these repeated on the manufacturer’s website in addition to in the product literature. Acid-based stains in particular contain corrosive ingredients that may produce strong fumes and can cause eye and skin damage. Only apply acid-based stains under conditions where you meet all of these and any other noted safety requirements:
- Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes during stain application.
- Use rubber gloves to keep the concrete stain from getting on your hands. Even water-based concrete stain will make a mess on your skin, and acid-based may burn you.
- Wear long protective clothing. When applying acid-based stain, OSHA approved corrosive-resistant clothing will protect you best.
- When applying acid-based concrete stain, wear a respirator to prevent inhaling any airborne mist. The respirator should have air-purifying filters rated for use with corrosive gases.
- Wear rubber boots to protect your feet from spray, spills and splatters.
- Ensure the work area is well-ventilated. Open windows and turn on fans, pointed at the ceiling and turned low to circulate air, to combat powerful fumes. If you can’t get enough ventilation, choose a water-based concrete stain instead.
Concrete Stain Application Tools
Whether water-based or acid, the same application tools are used for both stains. When using acid-based stains, never use tools or containers that contain metal. Gather the following items before beginning your concrete staining adventure.
- Sprayer – The best way to apply your concrete stain is with a pressurized garden pump sprayer. Using it, you can apply a more even coverage without brush strokes and other marks marring the appearance. A small spray bottle can be useful for small areas or detail work. Choose acid-resistant plastic sprayers and spray bottles when working with acid-based stains.
- Brushes – Keep a variety of brushes in differing sizes available. While you can apply stain with a brush, it will typically leave brush marks behind. Still, you may find a brush handy for a piece of detail work or an accident. For water-based stains, use either foam or bristles, but with acid stains, choose uncolored nylon bristled brushes instead.
- Sponges – Good for small areas and detail work along with other uses.
- Scrub Brushes – You may want to scrub the stain into the concrete.
- Buckets or Pails – Work from the bucket, but keep in mind that drips running down the side could mar the floor by leaving a permanent ring. Choose plastic buckets (and mixing tools) when applying acid-based concrete stain, Always keep the stain-filled bucket on a piece of cardboard or even inside a larger bucket to prevent drips.
- Cleaning Supplies and Other Items – Don’t forget the little items like rags, tape for masking off areas, and cleaning supplies. Before you begin applying your chosen concrete stain, you will need to make sure your concrete floor is completely clean and ready to receive the stain. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for any special requirements.
Armed with the knowledge of what concrete stain formula you need, and having gathered all your supplies, there’s little else to do but to begin prepping the floor and then, at last, staining it. The actual concrete staining process isn’t difficult, but it does take a talent to learn to spray evenly. If possible, experiment in a hidden area or on a scrap piece of concrete. Once you feel confident, it’s time to begin spraying your floor. Soon, you’ll have a floor that’s the envy of everyone who sees it!
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