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Heavy Lifting - August 2009 Newsletter

It all started with a phone call from a contractor we had done business with in the past. "Got a project for you just across the state line in Durant, Oklahoma . They want concrete countertops for a sports bar they're building up there." Because they had a very specific look in mind, we started with some samples of polished concrete with multicolored glass embedded into it. Four samples and almost six weeks later we finally hit the right combination of glass color, size and amount, color of the concrete and the final polished appearance. Whew!

Next came the mold build.

The project was big, so big that it wouldn't all fit in our regular shop in Denton, so we had to find other digs to build it. We set up a temporary work area at my Fort Worth location and got down to business. With precast countertops, measurements must be precise or nothing fits together, so we went to Oklahoma to inspect the area where they were to be installed. Once we finalized the numbers, we built twelve separate molds - the smallest being three feet long and the longest almost seven so you can imagine just how much the larger sections weighed. It took a full week to build everything we needed for the pour.

As it was a very large project we decided to book a concrete truck to pour the countertops. We got everyone on the same page as to what they would do, scheduled the truck, got a good night's sleep and were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when the truck arrived the next morning for the pour using a special 4,000 psi mix, which is stronger than normal but very good for countertops. There are pluses in using high strength mixes, but there are some caveats, too. Everything went smoothly, for about the first 20 minutes, then disaster!

The danger with high strength mixes is that they tend to "get away" from you if you're not careful; that is, they harden very quickly, especially if it's hot. The higher strength the mix, the harder it is to work with. For these countertops, we had to pour the molds, level them out, vibrate to remove any air bubbles, float them out to smooth the surface, add the glass in the right amount so that it will be exposed when we grind them, and then trowel it into the surface of each of the countertops. Yep, lots of steps, and all have to be done correctly and the same way or all the countertop sections will look different.

Well, it was a hot, hot day; and even though we started early in the morning, and were in the shade, things got away from us. We hadn't finished pouring the last sections when the first ones started to harden up on us. I watched all the hours of preparation, all the money spent on materials and even more money on labor going down the drain, and all in less than 25 minutes!

After 45 minutes we had to pull the plug and walk away from it. I was feeling particularly sick to the stomach; we had a deadline for this project and it had taken us a week just to build the molds so we were toast. My guys weren't too happy either. It had been a lot of work to get to this point and you just hate to see your work go to waste. We took a lunch break and regrouped bouncing ideas around as we snacked on pizza and realized that yeah, the pour was a wash, and that yeah, the molds would have to be rebuilt; but that most of the molds could be reused if we were careful removing the hardening concrete in them. My guys were awesome! They broke out the chisel hammers and got to work busting up the concrete. We removed almost 4,000 lb. of quickly hardening concrete out of the molds in three hours with minimal damage to the molds and then followed it up with two solid days of rebuilding and getting ready for a repour.

This time we switched tactics, it wasn't getting any cooler outside so we decided that instead of doing a quick pour, we would slow things down. We got our small mixer and made 500 lb. batches instead of one large mix. The plan was to fill up one mold completely, level, vibrate, float, add glass, and start to trowel before moving on to the next one. Sure, it took longer - almost three hours from the start to filling the final mold vs. 25 minutes with the concrete truck - but it went as smooth as butter!

We didn't even look at the molds for two weeks to let them properly cure for polishing. We did an initial polish in Fort Worth with the final polishes done in Durant. After spending an entire day building a fixture to safely transport the huge pieces to Oklahoma , we loaded the truck using a special hydraulic lift cart which performed flawlessly. I can't imagine how we would have done this installation without it. These pieces are large, some weighing in at over 450 lb.

After a nerve-racking trip to Oklahoma (Texas drivers can be very aggressive towards slow-moving trucks) everything arrived safe and sound. We spent the next four days installing the countertops one section at a time, followed by the final polishing and sealing. It was a memorable project but I think you would agree that the final result was well worth it.