Feature Article: Color Hardeners and Release Agents



Color Hardeners and Release Agents
Jeff Patterson recalls a time when Muller Construction Supply's San Jose, Calif., showroom consisted of nothing more than a few trowels hung on the wall and a small office. Fast forward 25 years, and things look a lot different, says the company's vice president for business development. "A typical (concrete supply) store is not going to be as sophisticated as The Home Depot," he says, "but we've come a long way, and one of the reasons is decorative concrete." With four locations in the San Francisco Bay area, the worker-owned supply store has become more retail-oriented in recent years, thanks to the decorative concrete boom in the mid-2000s.

The popularity of decorative concrete is in part because of products such as color release agents (cast-on powder and spray-on liquid), integral color, and dry-shake hardener. Color releases serve two purposes: They create an accent color and they provide a nonsticking surface for stamps. Contractors can apply color release agents as cast-on materials, spreading them onto the concrete's surface, or by spraying a liquid release product to the bottom of a concrete stamp prior to its application. Some even mix the powder into the liquid. (See "MIxing Powder and Liquid Release" sidebar.)

Integral color is liquid or powder that is mixed into a batch of concrete at a ready-mix plant or job site, enabling even dispersal of the hue. Dry-shake hardeners are hand-broadcast and troweled onto the concrete surface, offering a shade that is more intense than integral color. Most concrete experts suggest there isn't a price difference between integral and dry-shake coloring, making the choice more interesting.

However, not all suppliers offer both. Such is the case at Muller Construction Supply, which primarily carries dry-shake products, both because the company is not in a position to compete with ready-mix suppliers and because of the color consistency that color hardener provides.

So, contractors stocking up on supplies at Muller's 2,000–square-foot showroom won't find much integral color on-site. What they will see on display are additional tools such as stamps and rollers, pictures of completed jobs, color charts, and smaller items such as 1-gallon sealer containers. The 25,000-square-foot warehouse in San Jose houses bulkier, hard-to-display items such as 60-pound pails of color hardener or 5-gallon buckets of release agent. "These just aren't practical to keep in a showroom," Patterson explains.

Muller keeps its warehouse full of coloring products from Brickform, a division of Solomon Colors Inc., the only brand the company carries. The decision to only stock Brickform is based on several factors, one being customer preference. Another is money. It costs money to maintain inventory, and because any product line is inventory-intensive, maintaining more than one brand would be too expensive.

Carrying only one manufacturer lowers out-of-pocket costs, Patterson says, but that's not all. In today's economic climate, there's a chance a manufacturer will go out of business. If that happens, suppliers can't just return the inventory and get a refund. More often a supplier will mark down a product's price or throw out the old inventory to make room for a new brand. Even if a manufacturer doesn't go under, the brand might not sell, collecting dust in the warehouse instead.

What's more, Steve Jarred from family-owned Mason Supply Co. says a fear of excess, unpopular inventory is one reason he doesn't like the number of color options available on the market. "My preference is to not have a lot of colors on a color chart. It was really simple for us to carry only so many colors. Now everyone wants to come out with 90 colors. Most of them will sit there all year, and it starts to become very spooky when a guy comes in and says, ‘I've never stamped with that color before.'"







Samples, not stuffed shelves
The most effective showrooms display samples of the finished product instead of simply stocking shelves with buckets. "A bucket's not going to tell you much," points out Butterfield Color Inc. sales manager Keith Boudart, who equates the logic behind displaying buckets of hardeners and releases with going into a store and selecting a paint based on its container.

However, there are still some limitations to displaying colored concrete samples. "One of the main issues is how grainy the hardener is," says Surecrete Design Product's Tony Leff. "There are some crappy color hardeners out there. The smoother it is, the less failure you have. It's really just one of those products you have to try and see if you like it."

In addition to stamped slabs, most suppliers opt to display pictures of projects featuring colored concrete, but even this can cause complications. Jarred says the brochures and pictures they display only help so much because often, no one - not even the manufacturer - knows what color is featured in the picture.

To help with some of these uncertainties, some suppliers offer in-house demos, while others go to a job site with contractors to help demonstrate a product. "We will show them how to use the products and keep them updated," Jarred says. Mason Supply frequently provides in-store classes and performs demos on mud pouring, stamping, powder releases and stamp patterns, all with the intention of keeping its clientele happy.

Boudart echoes the importance of getting contractors and suppliers trained, noting that Butterfield offers hands-on training for distributors and contractors. This kind of information can also be spread via brochures, magazine articles and manuals, but working with concrete products directly is the best way to truly understand how they work, he says. A brochure isn't going to really illustrate how to avoid underapplication or overapplication, for example. A concrete contractor will learn the best application practices through trial and error.

More than anything else, an ample, reliable supply of color hardener and color release products is what promotes repeat business, says Jarred. Currently, Mason Supply carries Proline products, and if the store were to switch manufacturers, he knows the headaches it would cause. "We can't get them all hooked on a brand and then switch," he explains. If Mason Supply were to do that, the supplier would have to retrain its crew and ultimately its customers. "The reason we're with Proline is people truly think they are a great stamp. Their hardeners and releases are not sticky."

Leff agrees with Jarred about consistency. Carrying a consistent product, especially when it comes to hardeners, is the "biggest gem" a supply store can offer. "If a contractor gets burned, there's a good chance the supplier will get burned, which eventually trickles down to the manufacturers."

Another surefire way to maintain or even increase sales of color hardeners and release products is to maintain an honest approach to selling. For example, if a contractor is covering 800 square feet, he will need eight pails of color hardener, explains Jarred. If the contractor is only purchasing eight pails, Jarred or another crew member would recommend a ninth, in the event of a spill or a slight miscalculation. "If you run out in middle of a job, it's disastrous," he warns. If the contractor avoids an accident and the bucket remains unopened, he or she can return it. Offering its customers good advice and a flexible return policy has helped Mason Supply stay in business for 85 years and operate 14 Oregon and Washington locations.

When it comes to stamps and sealers, contractors should always have the proper amount of materials at a job site to ensure a job free of stress and error. After all, concrete is not forgiving, notes Patterson. But because these are expensive materials, he understands why the Muller staff doesn't always suggest them - even when they should. "If you come in to purchase color hardener, we should be trying to sell you sealer, too. It's a big-ticket item and a typical job could take a few pails. We should be. Do we always? Probably not. But we should be."