Have you ever tried to select the right masonry products for your project? It’s terrible! It’s like choosing a cold medicine: with a million options there must be something different about them. Unfortunately, there are numerous types of masonry and each one has a specific use. Most homeowners come into the hardware store and ask for cement.
If you plan on going to the hardware store, you need to be prepared by knowing what your goal is for your project. You need to know if you want a smooth finish or if you want something that will give you some traction on a sidewalk for example. It’s also necessary to know how much you need. Great news! Concrete calculators exist and they are incredibly helpful to figuring out how much product you need for your next job. Keep reading to get information to help you choose your next masonry product.s
Cement is the glue of masonry products. It is a smooth mix of lime and clay that sticks to other masonry products. For projects like skim coated concrete counters, were you put a thin coat of masonry on top of your old laminate counter tops, you should use cement is smoother than concrete. Cement can also be used to repair existing concrete slabs when they develop cracks, chips or holes. Does your foundation wall have an ugly crack? You can repair it temporarily with cement to make it look better.
Cement is more expensive than other masonry products and it is not going to be as strong on its own as the other types of products that you can buy. It is also hard on the environment. Cement products emits more carbon dioxide than most industries and the mining on its raw materials is the last thing from earth friendly. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a great replacement that matches its properties at a similar price.
Due to its versatility, basic cement can be purchased in many forms. You can buy it in bags as large as 80 pounds if you are doing an extensive repair of something like a foundation or a concrete slab. For those doing a single crack or skim coating over other masonry products, there are small boxes of cement available. Something to keep in mind is that cement comes in quick setting formulas. Don’t be afraid to use a set control in order to keep it from setting too quickly. Especially if it’s your first project, I would highly recommend it.
Types of Sand
Just like other masonry products, sand comes in many forms so that you can get the perfect one for your project. If you need a cheap sand just to mix into your concrete or mortar, there is unwashed tube sand. You may wonder, why is it called tube sand? It’s the same sand that filled sandbags and those tubes that are holding down the tents at every outdoor event. Sand can come in a washed form which is just what it sounds like: washed. This is perfect for building a sandbox for your kids or for potting plants.
Sand can also be identified by its size, or mesh. There is the course sand that we are typically familiar with when we think of sand but there is also super fine sand. Fine sand is used for craft projects or for adding texture to paint in order to give walls a unique look. Super fine sand is actually a great filter and it is used for that all the time. If you need a particular size of sand grain, make sure to specify that when buying sand.
There is a specific type of sand that you should be familiar with, since it’s different than others and that is polymeric sand or jointing sand. This is a sand that is usually sold in smaller quantities, 30-50 pound bags rather than 90 pounds, since it is a more specialty product. If you are building a patio, this sand is put between your paving stones as a finishing touch in order to make it look nice but also to keep the paving stones from shifting as the ground moves. To apply jointing sand, you pour it on the patio, spread it out with a broom, and get it damp. It sets up like concrete to hold your pavers in place and is required for any patio to last over a long time.
Ah gravel, the stuff of church parking lots in the entire midwest region. While gravel makes a great parking lot, there is more to it than that. Gravel is the inexpensive filler of masonry products. When mixed with concrete it helps to bulk out the concrete though it can also be used to add texture to the top of concrete as well if you are concerned with traction. Gravel is separated into sizes as well.
Pea gravel is a gravel that has smaller, round pieces of rock in it. Pea gravel is good for use in planting pots to help with drainage or mixed into garden beds for the same reason. When I moved into my current house, the garden beds had pea gravel as mulch. I don’t recommend this, because it does nothing to enhance the soil, but I can say that it did make pulling weeds easier.
There is one specific type of gravel that is vital to understand for construction projects. The 3/4 minus gravel has sharper pieces of rock that are all 3/4″ or smaller. This means that the gravel compacts well when pressure is applied and it can make an incredibly solid surface on which to rest a patio and to provide a footing for a fountain. To give you an idea of the power of this, I drove by a construction site the other day and they were putting down the foundation by compacting 3/4 minus to make a pad.
Mortar combines sand, lime, and cement which makes a porous, inexpensive paste to hold blocks together. Since there is no gravel to provide extra substrate, mortar tends to be crumblier than concrete. There are different types of mortar available depending on the ratios of each ingredient in the mixture. Not only is mortar used between blocks in a wall but also underneath fiberglass tubs and to repair cracks in other masonry products. The wrong type of mortar could not hold up or it could be too stiff for your project.
Types of Mortar
Concrete: The King of Masonry Products
Concrete, which mixes cement, sand, and gravel is the grand-daddy of all building materials. This mixture gives an excellent combination of smoothness and strength that lends itself perfectly as the foundation to rest a building on. While most buildings are set on poured, permanent foundations, some are placed on pre-cast pier blocks or cinder blocks. Concrete is stable, doesn’t rot, and doesn’t move. Now, we just need to figure out the flexibility of it.
Adding Rebar for Flexibility
Concrete alone is not very flexible. If you are pouring it more than a couple inches thick, you will need to help it remain flexible by adding metal mesh. For concrete poured only a few inches, I have had people put hardware cloth (it’s a thick galvanized metal mesh) rather than a rebar. I am not sure if this works well but people have not told me otherwise and the theory behind it is sound.
For concrete that is thicker, you can add flexibility to it by adding rebar. For most projects, you will need a 1/2″ rebar for the right flexibility. Rebar needs to be tied together in a grid pattern to help with flexibility in both directions.
To help the rebar sit in the middle of the concrete, and provide the most flexibility, you will need to use rebar chairs or pieces of set concrete as a spacer. If you don’t include these, your rebar will sink to the bottom of the concrete and it is more likely to crack.
Working With Old Concrete
When you work with old concrete, you need to remember one important thing: concrete and cement are different. You will not get new concrete to bind well to old concrete! It won’t work; the new concrete will just flake off. If you need a concrete-like look and you need it to stick to old concrete, use cement at least. It is a lot stickier and will stick okay to old concrete. If you do need to use concrete, there are some products that can help.
Concrete bonding adhesive will help new concrete stick better to old. It is also known as moose milk if you’re an old school contractor. There’s a million different ways to apply it and I like to hedge my bets by combining them all. I won’t lie, a contractor taught me this.
Mix the bonding adhesive in with the new concrete as well as rolling it onto the old concrete before pouring the new stuff. The bottle will tell you to use one or the other but it doesn’t hurt to do both in this case to get an even better bond between the two of them.
There are hundreds of different bagged masonry goods and each product has its own purpose. It’s important to know what your goal is and what you want the final product to function and look like. Do you need structure, adhesion, or a smooth finish? What about flexibility and texture? When you decide on a masonry product, make sure to get one that will do what you want and that it’s designed to do. Don’t be afraid to ask a contractor or your local home improvement store for their advice as well.