Staining Concrete Floors Part 2: Applying the Stain

Once you’ve selected your concrete stain and learned what you need to know about the process, it’s time to get down to business. Roll up your sleeves and create a floor that you will love to look at for years to come.

Starting With a “Naked” Floor

For your stained concrete floor to look as good as possible, you need to start with a “naked” floor and then apply the stain properly. A naked floor is free of paint, adhesive, putty, sealer or any other permanent adhesion or contaminants such as oil, dirt and food. It’s completely ready to take your new concrete stain.

If you’re starting with newly poured concrete, your job’s much easier. Simply allow the concrete to cure at least four to six weeks, then wash as outlined and proceed to staining.

Preexisting interior concrete floors generally need a little more work. If your floor is painted or was previously sealed, you may need to use a solvent to get down to bare concrete. Read your concrete stain’s product information to see what, if any, products are suggested in these circumstances.

Avoid using bleach, any acid-containing products, or alkali cleaners. Bleach mixed with acid produces toxic gas. Acid washes (such as muriatic acid) and alkali cleaning products reduce the concrete stain’s effectiveness and can even prevent the concrete from taking stain.

Experienced concrete stainers use tried-and-true methods for prepping the floor:

  • Remove any existing floor coverings. Strip away remaining adhesives. Use putty knives and solvents as necessary to obtain the best surface possible.
  • Attack stubborn markings, stains and contaminants with a floor sander, grinder or sand blaster. This equipment is generally available at an equipment rental provider. Alternatively, hire a professional to perform this part of the labor. Be aware that the more you abrade the concrete surface, the more marks or patterns you’re likely to notice after staining.
  • Test for concrete sealer if you’re not sure whether it was previously sealed. Spill a little bit of water in a few separate areas and see if it absorbs. If it does, the floor is not sealed. If the water stands on the surface after a minute or two, it is sealed. Use a chemical stripper to remove the sealant. Consult the stain instructions to see what is suggested.
  • Fill depressions and cracks with a concrete patching formula. Large cracks benefit from a bit of liquid bonding agent first before filling with the replacement concrete. Level and smooth the patch, then sand once cured. If the crack is small, it may be better to leave it alone as a character mark. While patching holes and cracks is similar to creating a thin new layer of concrete, and creates a strong patch when performed properly, it’s likely to show up as a variation in the stained floor. This is particularly true with acid-based concrete stains, which react to the ingredients in the concrete to produce color. Since the patch is a different “recipe” than the original concrete, the color is bound to vary. Still, some of the beauty of concrete floors is the variation.
  • Sweep or vacuum up loose dirt and debris. Get the worst of the dirt – the deep cleaning comes next.
  • Mix a bucket full of hot water and a pH-neutral cleanser. Alternatively, use trisodium phosphate at the rate suggested in the product directions. TSP draws dirt out of the concrete and leaves the concrete neutral and ready for stain. Scrub the floor with a mop, broom or by hand. On large floors, a buffing machine with a black scrubbing pad makes the job much easier. Rinse the concrete well after washing to remove all residue.

Preparing the Room for Concrete Floor Staining

You’ll want to wear gloves and protective wear while you apply the stain, especially if you’re working with an acid-based concrete stain. Just as important is protecting the walls, floors, and other items near your work area. It really doesn’t matter how beautiful your floor is if you ruin another part of your home in the process!

  • Tape off woodwork and trim in the room where you are staining the floor. Remember to cover door frames as well.
  • Use plastic sheeting to cover the lower portions of walls, windows, doors, as well as electrical outlets.
  • Spread additional plastic across the floor outside of the room to provide a walkway and space to remove your work boots to prevent stain from spreading onto nearby floors. Also, tape off and cover with plastic any floor that connects with the floor to be stained.
  • Open windows and provide ventilation for the staining process. This is particularly important during acid staining.
  • Gather all materials needed and place on a length of plastic. Plastic will prevent drips and spills from falling on the floor. Getting everything together beforehand eliminates needless tracking in and out of the room, not to mention wasting time.

Staining Your Concrete Floor

Once you apply the stain, there’s little going back. What you see is what you have. Follow the stain manufacturer’s instructions precisely. General application tips, whether you’re applying an acid-based concrete stain or not, include:

  • Stain your concrete floor when the temperatures are between roughly 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Use a garden-style pump sprayer for best results. Some DIYers will use spray bottles or even paint brushes or rollers to apply the stain. Avoid any applicators with metal parts if you are using an acid-based stain. Acid will react with the metal parts, creating heat and smoke.
  • Dilute the stain for best results. Professionals will mix it at a ratio of one part water to one part stain and spray more coats if they want it darker. Caution: Never pour water into acid! Pour the acid into the water instead.
  • Apply the stain as evenly as possible. Work from a far corner backward to avoid walking on a stained area. If you step on fresh stain, it will leave a footprint in the final appearance.
  • Be consistent. Anything you do to one area of the floor, do to the rest. This is critical. Any variation whatsoever will show up in the final result.
  • Make large circular motions, avoiding large overlaps, when spraying stain. Professionals use a “figure-eight” pattern. Aim for a random yet consistent and even coverage so that no stain pools and no obvious pattern emerges when dry.
  • Wait, as directed by the manufacturer, to allow the first coat to dry before proceeding. Typically, the stain takes three or four hours to dry and achieve the color required. This will not be the final color, so don’t be disappointed.
  • Apply another coat, just like the first, once the first layer is completely dry. Wait, again, to allow the stain color to deepen and intensify.
  • If you’re using an acid-based stain, neutralize the stain as soon as the desired color is reached. Otherwise, rinse the floor as directed in the next tip. To neutralize, mix one part ammonia with one part water. You can substitute baking soda, at a rate of one cup per gallon of water, or as the stain manufacturer suggests. Ammonia and baking soda are bases and therefore neutralize the acid in the stain. Vacuum up the resulting sludge with a Shop-Vac.
  • Spray the floor with fresh water and sweep with a broom to remove any sticky residue. Work softly – avoid vigorous scrubbing. Warm water will help. Use a Shop-Vac to remove the water.
  • Wait until the floor is completely dry before proceeding. Applying a sealer before the concrete is thoroughly dry will create a “blush” – a milky look – that can only be remedied by stripping the sealer.
  • Spray or roll on the sealer. Choose between either water- or solvent-based sealers. A water-based sealer generally costs more. It won’t affect the stain color, but it takes much longer to dry. Solvent-base sealers, on the other hand, dry quickly (a few hours versus about 48 hours). They deepen the stain color significantly, however.
  • Apply two thin, even coats, following the manufacturer’s instructions regarding application, wait time between layers, and safety requirements. Solvent-based sealers in particular require good ventilation and the use of a respirator due to strong fumes.
  • Cure the sealer three or four days, or as instructed, before walking on the floor surface. Soft, uncured sealer can easily get scratched or damaged.
  • Spread wax over the stained and sealed concrete if desired. This creates a high shine as well as a protective barrier against wear and tear. Apply two thin coats as directed by the product manufacturer. Buff to a high gloss with a machine floor buffer.
  • Remove all tape and plastic only when the floor wax is completely dry.

To care for your new concrete floor, simply sweep and mop it as required. Avoid abrasive or harsh cleansers.

Over time wear and tear will abrade and degrade the surface. When you notice an uneven sheen, simply reapply the finish. First wash the floor with a mild detergent, allow it to dry, then apply one coat of wax. Buff, as desired, to a high gloss. In the average home this may be required once or twice a year.

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