Pretty Mud: Things You Need To Know About Decorative Concrete

It’s possible that I almost had a minor breakdown when we had to choose the colors and patterns for the concrete that surrounds almost half of our house. Because the truth is, with decorative concrete these days, the patterns and color combinations are infinite. Which is exactly how I almost ended up with a very large very purple porch surrounding my house.


Oh wait, I’m sorry, plum.

A plum porch surrounding my house. Which is, you know, just that much more awesome.

It’s actually taken me so long to get over the trauma of that experience that I’m only writing about concrete now, even though our porches have been in since October. But here we are, fully recovered–with some quite beautiful porch caps, I might add– and it’s time to share some things everyone considering this decorative conglomerate should know before strapping on those concrete shoes and diving in.

Concrete: The Overview

First thing you should know, it’s called concrete. Not cement. From someone who spend 5 years of her life running a concrete block plant, let me tell you that if you call it cement, someone somewhere is laughing at you behind you back. (Cement is one of the things that goes in concrete. Calling concrete cement is like calling cake “flour”.)


Other things you should know:

  • Concrete is made of cement, sand, aggregate (stone), water, and additives in varying amounts– the size and type of aggregate as well as the type of sand can affect color and finish. Light colors may also require white cement which is ridiculously expensive.
  • How well concrete cures will affect the final product, things that can affect curing are: humidity, wind, temperature, moisture in the ground or area you’re pouring. (Even I had a minute of impatience where I was like, “Seriously?! It’s too windy to pour concrete? Is this a joke?” But it was not a joke. If the top of the concrete dries out faster than the rest of it, you’ll get all kinds of cracks on top. Trust me.)
  • Concrete is fairly permanent, therefore you should not pick purple your colors on a whim.

Colors: This Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Concrete

The joke in that title is that my grandfather started the concrete company my family owned and operated for twenty years so technically for me it is my grandpa’s concrete, however let’s not start getting literal now.

The fact is, concrete technology as far as colors and stamping has exploded in the last couple of decades.

So you can have a plain gray concrete pad if that’s what you want, and frankly, that would make the decision process easier, but for the rest of us, here are some of the basics about concrete color:

  • Concrete can be poured gray and then stained with a topical concrete stain
  • Concrete can be painted or covered with an epoxy.
  • Concrete can be colored with an “integral” color. This is a powder or liquid that is mixed into the concrete in the truck or mixer, before it is poured.
  • Concrete can be colored with a “release”. Releases are used when stamping concrete to keep the stamp or form from sticking to the mud. Releases do not need to have a color.
  • Concrete can (and should) be sealed with a top coat. There are varying finishes of top coat and it may or may not contain additives like an anti-slip sand.

You can use any combination of these techniques to achieve a custom look. (That’s what they say in the brochures, but I like to phrase it as “Getting the exact shit I want.”)

For our porches  and garage floor we used an integral color with a colored release.



Stamping: Like Scrapbooking, But Bigger

So there are two ways to make concrete look like something other than a big square:

  • Forms: These are the “walls” or the form that the concrete is poured into. For your standard square pad or porch they are made with 2x lumber (width depending on how thick your slab will be.) For a curved feature they make bendable concrete forms that can be staked with a radius– Something I plan to attempt in the next summer or two.
  • Stamps: These are just what they sound like-large rubber stamps that are used to press a shape into the top of the concrete.

Some kind of release must be used with a form or stamp. A clear release, such as a form-oil, or a colored release that can come in powered or liquid form.

Tips For Picking Color

People, I almost had 500 square feet of purple porches surrounding my house so maybe you should take my advice with a grain of salt (or as my friend E says, a “grand assault”). Or just call this learning from my almost-mistakes.

There’s really just one tip here:

Don’t rush. See a sample of the exact combo you’re going to use before you decide on it.

Our problem was that nothing was just what we were looking for, so we tried a little last minute mix and match. The company we bought our color from did have actual concrete samples (you can’t pick this from a color brochure) and we spent many, many consecutive minutes staring at them. Over several days. Or weeks.

It’s all a little fuzzy now.

You can also ask companies if they have examples of jobs that have been installed in colors you like to drive by (easier if it’s a driveway, more likely to result in an arrest if you’re snooping around on someone’s back patio though).

And the other thing to keep in mind is that a sealer will change the color of the concrete drastically. That, my friends, was the magic solution in turning our purple concrete from this:


Into this:


But it may not change the color for the better, so make sure you’re aware of what kind of sealer is used on the samples you’re choosing from.

Also speaking from experience: Neutral is better.

The Steps

Here’s a quick look at the process in photograph form.

Forms with colored powder release:


Concrete with integral color:



Typical concrete finishing techniques were used to get it to a smooth finish:




The concrete was allowed to set up until the top was firm with just the slightest jiggle to it (probably 45 minutes to an hour in cool breezy conditions, and this completely depends on what your weather is).

Then the colored release was thrown across the top:


Which was a dirty, dirty job. Dust masks definitely required.

Then the stamps were used in alternating patterns while two guys did the “stamp dance” on them… it’s kind of like a shuffling square dance.


Then the sides of the forms were removed and stamped with a roller:


We were properly horrified at our very purple concrete at this point. And we stayed that way over night while the concrete set.

The next day, the release was artistically washed off with a power washer:


This is what gives it the variegated look. The less power washing, the more of the release color you see. The more power washing, the more base color you see.

Once the water has evaporated, the sealer can go on. For some colors this will just give you the darker “wet” look. For our plum release, it changed the color entirely… bringing us to a nice neutral grayish brown.




That could have been a disaster.

The concrete got two coats of sealer, and can be resealed as necessary when it starts to wear out. We put an anti-slip additive into the sealer, and word of caution, make sure you mix it well for the second coat because all the sand will have sunk to the bottom of the pail.

And those, folks, are the finer points of pretty mud.

24 Responses

  1. I’m a concrete inspector and tested a large portion of your familys concrete and can tell you that it angers me to no end when someone calls it cement, and I use the cake flour line too.

      1. Ha. Good to know! I don’t have expensive, custom draperies, but still, I like knowing the proper term.

  2. So which of these ways of coloring concrete is affected by salt? A friend of mine had a nice new stamped and colored patio poured only to find out that when she put salt on it in the winter the colors bled.

    Someday we’d like to replace our cement stairs and walkway with something like this.

  3. I am a contractor also. And it never bothered me when someone referred to concrete as cement. I do not expect potential clients to know as much about the whats and hows of concrete and its make up as I do. For most people it’s a once in a very long while type of contact.

  4. I had stamped concrete done in my back yard. There were serious suction marks (and i mean serious) and areas that looked like someone dropped tissue paper on it, and some areas had large ugly Spaulding. It appears after the concrete was colored and sealed the guy came back and sanded everything. The hideous lift marks were no longer visible, then the next day he put the second coat of sealer down.
    Will the Spaulding start peeling after it freezes this winter? And can you sand concrete? I also have 3/4″ holes that I am worried about.


  5. I’m hoping you can help us. Since having our stamped concrete patio put in almost 3 years ago, we have hated the color. I really wanted to love my new patio but the color turned out very dark brown, much darker than the sample we looked at. It does not have a very natural look at all. After reading the process here on your site, I now believe the concrete guy did not wash off enough of the release before sealing. He only used my garden hose without any kind of power attachment. Last summer we purchased more release so we could touch up/cover up some spots where the concrete had chipped (thus no color). We ended up having to do the whole patio because the “touch up spots” then made it look spotty. We would like to lighten the color of our patio. Can we purchase a lighter color of release and apply it over the existing color & sealer? I’m just afraid of making it worse. What suggestions can you offer us. I really want to enjoy our patio. Also, I find our patio extremely slippery, especially in winter’ we can barely walk on it. Thank you.

  6. I love your color! I have been searching for weeks for the perfect color combination and yours is exactly what I was looking for. Your base color is plum, but what color is your release? Did you use a roman slate stamp? Thank you for your time in advance.

  7. That is a pretty big concrete patio, yet I can’t see any expansion joints.
    Are they just not visible in the pics or did you not bother with them?

    1. They might not have cut the joints yet, but they did eventually. You can’t skip that shit, it will still crack.

  8. I want to create my own pink or purple polished concrete breakfast bar with curvy edge. Does anybody have any suggestions on what to use. I would like a fushia pink or vibrant shiny purple.

  9. Thanks for sharing. I just had a stamped concrete walkway put in and I’m freaking out because it looks purple. The contractor said once they come and seal it then it will look like the brown natural stone look we wanted. I’m pretty skeptical but after seeing your before and after shots I might actually make it until Tuesday when they come to seal it.

    If there is such a huge difference they really should wan their customers that so we don’t experience such anxiety.

  10. Our sidewalk was stained and looks very nice but
    our 3 dogs walk in mud then walk on the sidewalk
    and their paw prints won’t come off with water
    or scrubbing. Any ideas?

  11. Hi. We currently have the same purple concrete issue. Can you tell me the brand and name of release you used?

    1. I’m so sorry, this was 5 years ago now and I don’t have that information any more. Good luck with your concrete!

  12. I love your posts and your energy for huge projects. I’m a bit more conservative and hire people to do the big stuff but I am a tile junkie! Thanks for the great post on concrete. I’ve been deciding on a finish and although I prefer gray, I really like the surface finish of yours.

  13. Hi there – do you happen to know the integral concrete color? I think I want to go with the plum release for my new patio and really love the way yours turned out! Thanks!

  14. Extraordinary things you’ve generally imparted to us. Simply continue written work this sort of posts.The time which was squandered in going for educational cost now it can be utilized for studies.Thanks! I also like stamped concrete.

  15. Thank you so much for the very informative post. I’m in the process now of losing sleep over hiring a concrete contractor and choosing a color and pattern for my patio project. You have really helped to make the process so much easier to understand.

  16. What is your concrete business name? trying to look up your concrete color options. Please and thank you.

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