14 Tips and Tricks for Working With Concrete

Updated: Mar. 21, 2024

Did you know all of these things about working with concrete?

mixing concrete on a piece of plywood
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Plywood Concrete Mixer

If you have a batch of concrete to mix but nothing to mix it in, try a 4- x 8-ft. sheet of 1/4- or 3/8-in. plywood. Place a few bricks or scraps of 2×4 under all four of the plywood corners to form a shallow, concave mixing tub. Clean the concrete off thoroughly, and when you’re finished, you can still use the plywood with the other side up. — John Gandolfo.

using a shop vac to prevent dust when making concrete
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Prevent Dusty Conditions

Making concrete from mix can be a messy process that leaves everyone involved covered in dust. Here’s a tip: When pouring concrete mix into a bucket, hold an active vacuum hose close to the top of the bucket. The vacuum will catch a lot of the dust before it can escape into the air and potentially get in your lungs.

This “preventative vacuuming” will save you time on cleanup and might also save your lungs from any nasty, unwanted substances. — Ricky Jerrett.

seeing if there is a moisture problem with a piece of plastic taped to the concrete floor
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Painting Tip

Water can seep into concrete, but it also can migrate up from below. Poor perimeter drainage, climate conditions, leaky pipes and high water tables can cause this, which is problematic because damp concrete and paint mix about as well as oil and water. The bottom line: Paint doesn’t adhere well to moist concrete.

So how do you know if you have a moisture problem? Aside from obvious visual evidence, you can perform a fast and inexpensive test. Just cut a 16-in. x 16-in. piece of plastic sheeting and affix it to the floor with duct tape on all four sides.

After 24 hours, peel off the plastic sheet and see if there’s condensation on the underside or a damp, dark area on the concrete floor. No condensation or darker area? It’s all good — get ready to etch. If not, it’s time to call in a professional.

putting a fence stake into the ground with concrete around the base
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Fence Post Holder

As a novice sinker of fence posts, I was having a heck of a time keeping the post plumb while pouring concrete into the hole. My Workmate workbench saved the day.

Here’s the system: Position the workbench over the hole, clamp the post in place in the workbench, plumb it, then pour the concrete. By the time you have the next hole dug, the concrete will be firm enough to gently lift the workbench off the post. — Peter Gallagher.

Kitchen at home with white modern interior
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Consider Concrete Countertops

If you don’t think concrete has any business as a countertop material, check out this gorgeous concrete table top, which just may change your mind. While concrete does require some sealing and maintenance, a little attention will go a long way to ensuring this countertop choice stands the test of time.

holding wrapping paper in a recycled concrete tube
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Concrete Form Wrapping Paper Storage

Using a six-foot cardboard cement form cut in half, I created two wrapping paper storage containers. I cut the cylinder in half and cut pieces of heavy cardboard for the base of each, attaching them with duct tape. Then I spray-painted them to look presentable. — Peter Turner.

Concrete Mummies Halloween
via instructables.com

Concrete Mummy Halloween Creations

These Halloween creations take a detour from the usual fare and make the project fun. Get your hands dirty by mixing up some concrete to create mummies. Grab a balloon, some ping pong balls and plastic wrap to bring your DIY concrete mummies to life.

mixing concrete with a tarp
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Tarp Cement Mixer

Just pour the concrete mix onto the center of the tarp, make a well and add the recommended amount of water. Then you and a friend each lift two corners of the tarp, churning the ingredients until the concrete reaches the perfect consistency. Pour it directly from the tarp into the form.

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Don’t Drill Too Close to Edges

Two mistakes you really want to avoid are busting off a chunk of a concrete stair step and cracking the corner of a patio slab. To avoid these disasters, don’t drill any closer than four inches from the edge.

If there’s no other option, turn off the hammering action on the drill. Also, avoid wedge-type anchors. They exert a ton of outward pressure, which could literally “wedge” the concrete apart.

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Blow Out the Dust

If drilling dust remains in the hole, it can prevent the fasteners from going in all the way. So remove it with a vacuum or blower. A baby’s ear syringe works great for this and doesn’t take up much room in a toolbox. Just shove it into the hole and puff out the dust.

Working with cement with bare hands
Kryssia Campos/Getty Images

Concrete-to-Skin Contact

The cement in concrete is highly alkaline, and that means it can injure your skin. The tricky thing is, you can get wet concrete on your hands all day long and notice nothing until the end of the day. That’s when red, painful areas of thin, dissolved or cracked skin show up.

Fhm Ecomm Concrete Fiber Via Amazon.com
via merchant

Failure To Use Fibers

Too few DIYers know about concrete reinforcing fibers. These thin, short strands of plastic add a lot of strength and crack resistance to any kind of concrete project.

Add a pint of fibers to each mixing drum load of concrete and mix as usual. The fibers spread out within the mix and help bind the hardened concrete together. They make a big difference.

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Hydraulic Cement Prevents Cracking

When you’re fastening posts, poles, large bolts or rebar to concrete, drill an oversize hole and fill it with hydraulic cement. Hydraulic cement creates an extremely strong and weatherproof bond. It also holds up to repeated movement, which is why professional metal railing installers use it to anchor posts.

Hydraulic cement comes in a powder and needs to be mixed with water. Soak (but don’t fill) the hole with water from a spray bottle; otherwise, the surrounding concrete will suck moisture out of the mix. And be sure you’re ready to go before you mix the cement — it dries in three to five minutes.

Cement Pouring from a Mixer Truck Chute
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Pour at the Right Temperature

Pouring concrete when it’s hotter than 80 F is risky because it can begin hardening sooner than you can get it poured and troweled. Pouring concrete when there’s danger of frost is also a problem; concrete loses a tremendous amount of strength if it freezes before curing. Moderate temperatures are always the best for pouring concrete.