Concrete steps are a common feature of both older and modern construction. Concrete has proven itself to be one of the most usable and durable building materials ever invented.
However, over time even concrete will begin to show age and wear. In modern construction, we now have several tools and processes at our disposal to give concrete steps (and landings) a fresh look.
Today we will discuss the most common methods for improving the look and performance of concrete steps.
What Are My Options to Make Concrete Steps Look Better?
In today’s modern world of construction, there are several ways to change the look of concrete steps. The techniques used by the pros will usually be selected to either solve a performance issue, improve the look, or both.
These techniques can include changing the color, adding texture, and combining other materials. Here we will discuss a few methods commonly used by the pros to refresh the surface:
The simplest and least expensive option to improve the look of concrete steps is to simply clean them. Concrete steps tend to be outdoors, so they not only get pounded with dirt and grime, but also wear from foot traffic.
The good news is that concrete accepts cleaning very well, and usually, the results are dramatic. Professionals hired to clean concrete steps (and other concrete) will normally use a gas-powered pressure washer. A pressure washer is essentially an air compressor connected to a water supply. The compressor builds up pressure and uses it to force the water through a special spray tip. The pressure is also adjustable, so the pros will assess how much pressure is required to remove the dirt and adjust the pressure accordingly. This often eliminates the need for harsh chemicals and manual scrubbing.
Pressure washing is usually the first step in other concrete improvement projects as well, such as refinishing, resurfacing, and staining. However, pressure washers can generate dangerous water pressures, so great care must be taken to avoid personal injury.
Staining can have a considerable visual effect on concrete steps. Concrete stains are available in a wide variety of shades to complement the surrounding masonry. Stains generally penetrate the top layer of concrete, so the professionals will often apply the stain in a test area to determine the desired effect.
These products often stain the concrete permanently, so when in doubt, a lighter shade is recommended. This way the color can be more closely controlled because additional applications tend to deepen the shade. As such, it is usually safest to start out with a thin coat, especially if the stain contains a darker pigment.
Stains are usually applied in multiple coats, which will often deepen the color, so the pros recommend testing the mixture before applying it to a conspicuous area. Generally speaking, darker shades are extremely difficult to lighten after they have been applied, so applying multiple coats of a slighter lighter shade will usually produce the best results.
Choosing the correct finish can also affect the color. Some concrete stains are opaque, while others are more translucent, so care should be taken to select the correct one for the desired shade.
Painting concrete steps has been the go-to solution for ages, especially on older concrete. It may seem odd, but concrete can actually take decades to completely cure.
Concrete steps that are decades old tend to become very dense and actually become harder with age as they cure. This effect can cause stains to sit on top of the surface instead of soaking into the concrete. In these situations, often the solution is concrete paint.
Concrete paint is designed to bond to the surface and often contains polymers and other chemicals to improve its adherence.
Painting concrete steps also tends to smooth out and cover small blemishes. Small chips and scratches can often be disguised by paint because the paint is thicker than stain and can be built up to form a thicker protective coating.
Concrete paint is very durable and is often based on petroleum products, as opposed to regular house paint that is usually water-based.
These concrete paints do a great job, but often require much more drying time and ventilation than water-based products. Other materials are also available to augment this process, such as adding texture.
Adding texture to concrete paint is quite common. When a concrete pad is poured, it is often finished to a very smooth surface. This can be problematic, however when the concrete is wet, making the surface very slippery.
Depending on the application, many installers will “broom” the surface to roughen very smooth surfaces. As the surface begins to harden, a broom is pulled across the moist surface creating small scratches. This roughens the surface, making it less slippery even in icy conditions.
Another common option to increase friction is adding coarse sand to the paint. As the paint hardens, it encapsulates the sand and forms a rougher surface, similar to brooming.
Resurfacing concrete steps is the process of replacing the original surface with a new material. This can be done by do-it-yourselfers using a variety of kits available, or a professional can be hired. The process is generally the same either way.
Resurfacing concrete steps often involves pressure washing, then applying a bonding agent to the old surface. These bonding agents essentially create a “hot bond” between the old concrete and the new material. This is necessary because as concrete cures over time, it tends to become less receptive to chemical reactions. If new concrete is poured directly onto old concrete, the chemical bond between the two is usually weak and will often result in cracking and flaking as the new concrete hardens.
The bonding agent essentially improves the ability of the old concrete to adhere to a new layer, preventing problems later. Once the old concrete has been prepared for a new surface, the pros will often apply a new thin layer of cement to fill cracks and gaps, and give the old steps a new look.
In addition to creating a new surface, colors can be added to the resurfacing material to augment the new look. These colorants are usually in the form of a powder, which is added to the dry resurfacing material. This allows the color to actually become part of the material, as opposed to lying on top of it. This also tends to extend the life of the steps, because small blemishes such as chips and cracks are less noticeable.
Add Additional Materials
If you really want to completely change the appearance of concrete steps, often adding additional materials is the best method. In this method, the concrete steps essentially become the base for tiles, brick, or other material. This solution is popular because it exploits the ability of concrete to bond to other masonry.
Concrete steps are typically poured using forms, which gives the steps their shape. This flat surface is ideal for adding slate, tiles, bricks, or other masonry materials. Even stones and pea gravel are often applied to existing concrete to give the surface new life and restore the integrity of the surface.
In some situations, non-masonry products can be added to concrete steps. Newer construction tends to use synthetic, renewable materials to improve the look of older concrete. For example, synthetic decking boards can be installed onto existing steps, which often provides a more coarse surface, making old steps much less slippery.
Some creative builders have used these renewable materials to solve this problem, as well as add color and uniqueness to the project. Professionals will often stain or paint the steps a solid color and then add a complimentary colored decking board to the tread for contrast. This method often results in not only repairing issues with the original steps, but also adds visual interest to an otherwise simple design.