Hot Topics & Concrete Facts

A long time ago when I was but a boy of eighteen, I set out to conquer the world and learn about life.  “Join the Navy” they said “…it’ll be an adventure!”  So I did just that, and an adventure it was.  I adventured to Mississippi, Okinawa, Guam, Panama, Colombia, Puerto Rice, the Bahamas, Cuba, Texas, New Mexico, California, and finally Iraq.  Where I was concerned, every one of those places had something in common.  Sure, they all have nice weather, beaches, beautiful sunsets, but that’s not the commonality I experienced… nope, my adventure took me straight to the jobsite where I got to pour concrete.

In all those years, you think I would have a wealth of knowledge about concrete.  I stopped counting in the high hundreds of cubic yards of concrete placed, but that was early on.  Sure I can run a bull float, I can mag and edge, brooming is not a problem.  The most proficient skills I have are with the shovel and rake, and my back can tell you a story or two.  For all those adventures, I learned the two most valuable facts about concrete:  It gets hard, and it cracks.  That’s pretty much it folks… that’s all the glory right there.

Even though the less glamorous of construction materials is just that, less than glamourous, we wouldn’t have the world we live in without it.  Our wonderful, manufactured stone is literally the foundation of almost every building we walk into.  Cracks and all, it’s a magnificent substance that really does make our life better, and this week, it made my life better once more.

Like many rural homes, ours is partially heated by a wood fired boiler.  Mine happens to be contained within a poll shed.  The woodshed as we refer to it, had a nice concrete walk from the shop to the door of the boiler, but the rest of it, was a plain ol’ dirt floor.  I stacked wood in the shed the first winter we lived here, but the reality was, I couldn’t keep it stocked.  I would cut wood, load it into the trailer, unload the trailer into the woodshed, and then load the boiler each morning and evening.  At some point, I just decided to skip the middleman and load the boiler straight from a parked trailer.  The woodshed then became a machine shed, a tool shed, a material shed, and a shed where I stuck stuff when I couldn’t figure out where to put it.

Another use for the woodshed, or rather the concrete walk that led up to the boiler, was my makeshift blacksmith shop.  Carrying wood to the boiler became like a game of “what can I crash into in the dark?”  An anvil here, a post vice there, scrap metal scattered on the ground… it made me think Iraq was quite pleasantly kept.  Now that we’re holding classes, this had to change, so I cleared out the woodshed, determined to put it to good use.  Concrete to the rescue! I would repurpose part of the woodshed as my new blacksmith shop.

The area that would become the blacksmith shop is roughly 14 foot by 16 foot.  Not the biggest by far, but it will do nicely.  With the help of my friend Kevin, we quickly excavated the dirt and formed up for the concrete.  On the day of the pour, my brother and my nephew arrived to assist in the work.  Minnesota is cooling down, fall is nearly over, and winter is coming.  We were reminded of those facts by the weather person when they predicted a high of forty-six degrees for the day of the pour.  Another concrete fact:  Concrete sets up in cool weather too.  I don’t think any of us minded one bit. 

The truck driver arrived right on time – about a half an hour late.  We directed him to back up to the woodshed and deploy his chute.  Our excavation measured out at 13 foot, 6 inches, by 16 feet, by 9 inches deep.  A whopping six cubic yards.  A small pour by any measure, I knew it wouldn’t be difficult, perfect for my nephew Ben’s first pour.  I motioned to the driver to “let ‘er rip!”, and just like that, in under three minutes, we had six cubic yards of mucky wet concrete filling the hole.  I think that was the fastest pour I’d ever been on.  I instructed Ben to grab one end of the screed board and start leveling off the concrete with a side to side sawing motion while we pulled the board along.  Ten minutes and two passes, we were pretty level.  I picked up the bull float (a large magnesium plank about 10 inches by 40 inches, with a long handle attached to the center) and glided it over the concrete, employing it to push the little rocks down into the mix.

With the concrete roughly smoothed, it was time for a break.  Brats on the grill, some chips, and a beverage for lunch.  After we ate, with the concrete still very wet and loose, I took a trowel and waded into the mix, smoothing the edges along the perimeter.  A quick pass with the bull float to cover my tracks, and it became a waiting game.

The trick to finishing concrete is to be patient.  Finish too early, and you can ruin the surface of the slab, wait to long, and it’ll look like hell.  I’m an inpatient person.  I have many slabs in my history that look like hell… That’s why I’m not a professional concrete finisher.  The cool weather tested my patience.  I think it was around 4:30 PM when I climbed out on the knee boards (big squares of plywood that help distribute your weight so you “float” on the slab without damaging it).  I chose to use 2 inch thick polystyrene insulation panels over plywood because my knees have learned the hard way over the years.  With a mag float (trowel), I smoothed the entire surface, hop-scotching the knee boards to go from one side to the other.

More waiting.

At 5:45 PM the sun was setting, and it was getting dark.  It was still too early to broom the pad, but not by much.  I rationalized, that this was going to be a workshop, and I didn’t want anyone slipping on the smooth concrete.  I dragged the broom across the surface slowly, taking care to keep my lines straight.  When finished, I hosed the wet concrete off the bristles of the broom and went inside… it was going to be what it was going to be.

The next morning, I headed out to see the pad in daylight, choosing to forgo the required cup of coffee to start my day.  I had worried that I had ruined the finish by brooming too early.  To my delight, it didn’t look too bad!  Yes, the lines were a little deeper than a normal broom finish, but I could live with that.  All in all, I’m happy with it. 

Now my fun starts… well in 28 days when the concrete is fully cured.  I can’t wait to start bringing equipment out to the blacksmith shop.  I’ll be able to anchor everything in place, securing it to the thick slab.  It will be a great place to create and teach! 

Stay tuned for future classes offered in the blacksmith shop!

Until then, clean off your tools, be patient, and remember… Concrete gets hard and it cracks.