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Homework: How to work with concrete

Construction worker spreading wet concrete.

Construction worker spreading wet concrete. Credit: iStockphoto.com

Even if you've never worked with wet cement, it could be in your future. Many a comedy scene in a TV show or movie has involved the soupy compound that magically hardens in no time.

Concrete is a unique material and is used for countless building projects. While it's very basic material, typically having only four ingredients -- stone, sand, water and Portland cement -- it takes some know-how to get good results. Watch this video, where I mix and start to place concrete: nwsdy.li/conc

STEP 1

Gather a wheelbarrow, a plastic bucket, a few shovels (one with round point), a pair of work gloves and safety glasses.

STEP 2

Buy a couple of bags of concrete mix from a hardware store. It may come in different strengths. Use the higher-strength to withstand Long Island's winter temperatures.

STEP 3

Don't mix more than one bag of premixed concrete at a time. It's very hard to move the concrete around in the wheelbarrow, and the deeper it gets in the tub of the barrow, the less likely it is that you'll be able to mix it well.

STEP 4

Add only as much water as the label suggests. You don't want the mixed concrete so wet that it pours out of the wheelbarrow like a thin vegetable soup. The cement should be the consistency of thick chili.

STEP 5

If pouring concrete on the ground, tamp and compact the ground first. Also, spray the ground with a garden hose. This will help keep water in the concrete mix.

STEP 6

If pouring a concrete pad, sidewalk, patio or structural column, it's a good idea to incorporate some reinforcing steel such as steel rods or wire mesh to help make concrete strong. Be sure you get at least 2 inches of concrete around the steel.

STEP 7

Tap the wood forms you use to help settle the concrete and avoid pockets in the concrete. Slide a board across the top of the concrete and jiggle it to drive the stones below the surface. You want to have the top one-eighth inch of the concrete be just the sandy mix element of the concrete.

STEP 8

The temperature will help determine how quickly the cement harden (it hardens faster in heat). Once the surface depresses about a quarter-inch with normal thumb pressure, it's time to start to put a finish on the concrete with a magnesium or wood float. Rub the concrete lightly in circles with one of these tools to a desired finish or drag a broom across it for a different look. Cover the finished concrete with heavy plastic for four days to allow it to cure properly.

SUMMARY: Practice once or twice before doing the real project. Set up temporary forms on your garage floor over a piece of heavy plastic. Mix some cement, place and finish it. Note how it changes over several hours from a gloppy slurry to wet rock.

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