Concepts on Mix Designs vs Bag Mixes and Add Pac’s

by Nathan Giffin of Vertical Artisans

Tru Pac x vertical concrete mix“What do you use?” is the most frequent question I have been asked over the years. It has been a journey, I must say, but I feel after twenty years of sculpting concrete, I should be able to weigh in on some of these issues that frequently pop up in various circles.

I would like to take some time to identify a seeming blind spot to most newcomers in this unique market we call artificial rock, stone facing, vertical decorative concrete, and various systems. There are a few myths in the industry. Some don’t need to be promoted because they are ingrained in the mind already and others are promoted out of personal gain.

Let’s look at some interesting statements and questions:

If I make my own mix will I save money?
This is probably the biggest question in people’s minds. The reason this statement is often believed is because there is a certain level of truth to the concept of saving money by making something on your own. An analogy I sometimes use is don’t buy a car filled with gas just to get the gas from the gas tank. There are several factors that must be put into place to properly access the truth of this statement. What seems to be the overwhelming direction to go, more often than not, turns out to be a crucible most are unwilling to finish. Why?

First let’s look at the obvious – Materials
There are many factors when talking about materials. You have the sand itself and there are many sands to choose from. This is a science in and of itself. Then there is portland cements, plastic cements, lime, various clays, polymers, fillers, sand replacements, lightweight aggregates, water reducers, retarders, plasticizers, various fibers and potentially many other elements depending on how sophisticated you want to get.

Who is the chemist on the job site?
All of these elements require a good understanding of how they work together and what is the best or least expensive way to get the objective completed. They also need to be organized and orderly to ensure an element doesn’t forget to find its way into the mix. Even if you have a good formulation that you feel works good for you, there is still the guy who is mixing the ingredients and must get it right each and every time. I speak from experience when I say that anything and everything can take place or go awry when mixing the raw materials together. Consistency is paramount. Everything effects the mix. The sand effects the mix whether it is dry, damp or wet. If you are loose or have too much water in the mix, throwing more wet sand in the mixer is not a quick fix. I mean, it’s already damp so you are not really improving the consistency of the mix, you’re changing it to solve a problem. So, you must add more dry cement or portland to make up the difference. If you run out of an ingredient you are also dealing with more in the field changes and alterations. This is a hassle for even the most experienced artists and companies out there. I recall once on a project the “mixing guy” decided he didn’t like the mix design I had, and he changed it. Well, during the project I could tell where the design changed. There were noticeable problems with the mix. Another time we ran out of a crucial ingredient and nobody told me until we broke for lunch. This is not good. These changes could include more surface cracking, a change of color, and even a weaker mix in those areas. There are so many variables that can cause problems and create a loss of time when you do not have the time to spare.

Is your time worth zero dollars?
Speaking of time, most contractors who are weighing the pros and cons of a mix design vs ad pac’s or bag mixes do not factor in the most important facet. Their time! If I were to ask you how much you are worth, meaning, I want you to leave your crew and do something for me, most of you would say ok my hourly is X. That could be $150 – $300 an hour or more. Simply put, your time is valuable and it really does matter where you put your time in the day. However, most people completely forget to add the time (money) they spend in research, trial and error, running around picking up raw materials, looking for a comparable element or chemical because what was suggested is not readily available and a host of similar scenarios. All of these things add up and should be included when making the decision on the right solution for the project.

I’m taking full responsibility for the mix
Yes, that is ultimately what you are doing amidst the above challenges. There is a place for homegrown mix designs on a job. Namely when you have a very large project the economics may lean in that favor. When you are well organized and working with a lot of material over time the custom mix design works out better. But most projects are not the “zoo project” or the 100K dollar or higher project. Most projects are a skid or less of material. Why go through all the hassles for a skid of material? And are you really saving any money at all?

“Sign up for my course and I will teach you how to make your own mix”
If I had a dollar every time I saw that in an ad I would be buying bag mixes LOL. Seriously, wake up guys, there are hundreds of variations to a mix design and not every mix design works out well for the situation. I recall a “practice” mix design I posted almost 10 years ago on my site Vertical Artisans. It’s the mix design I first started out with. I posted it for free. I really wanted guys to really appreciate what goes into making a really good product. But I started out with a basic sand / Portland and a few other things. The mix was by no means as effective as today’s products or even fun to play with. Within a few years there was a guy who came out with a course who was giving away a “Free Mix Design” with the purchase of his $100 dollar course. It was complete crap. And the mix design was, you guessed it, what I had posted in an earlier blog. This guy was just trying to milk the industry. And trust me when I tell you there are many who try to make a living spinning the craft of other’s as their own.
I could write a whole post on this topic alone but my advice to you is to ask the “instructor” to show you the last 5 to 10 years of their work. Look at his or her entire body of work. Ask them where they learned the craft and who their influences where. Look at the pictures and ask yourself if you want to aspire to look like this. There are opportunistic charlatans out there.

“If I just knew the magic ingredient of that mix I could make a lot of money”
Well, I’m here to tell you there is no magic ingredient. However, there are quality ingredients and precise measurements and ratios that must be followed to make a good mix.

“These guys are making a large profit on me selling mixes”
I know for a fact, that some of the largest manufactures of vertical decorative concrete batch their mixes maybe 3 or 4 times a year. Folks, there is not a lot of money in selling vertical concrete mixes. For starters, there is a lot of competition. There may be twelve to fifteen bag products out there all fighting for a piece of the pie that they absolutely know is not as large as you think it is. You may want to read that again. What I’m saying is, despite the cool factor, vertical decorative concrete sales make up, perhaps, the smallest percentages in the industry. So small that our media giants don’t even cover our craft in the annuals of their magazines and web sites. And if they do cover our craft, it is because they need eye candy to dress up the cover of their magazine or splash page. Until we as artists really make an impact in the country with billions in sales we will always be the forgotten market. And what’s crazy is our stuff looks awesome. When people see it they marvel. We need exposure!

“Shipping costs too much”
No, it doesn’t. You didn’t factor in your time. Everyone pays for shipping for whatever they purchase. If you buy it direct, in a store or from a distributor, believe me you are paying for the shipping. There are ways to improve and reduce the shipping costs. It’s called planning ahead. Purchase in bulk and wait. If you are living job to job, paycheck to paycheck, I understand. I’ve been there myself. Improve your business practices. Do a better job selling at the kitchen table. Manage your money wisely. You can get great prices by simply planning and get the best rates on shipping. You are either going to pay for it directly or at the distribution house. If you can’t change yourself for the better you probably will not last very long. I learned a long time ago. Never complain about what you permit.

“This is the best mix in the industry
Ok, competition is great, but to say this is the “best mix in the industry” is a relative statement that requires a great deal of considerations. Time working with the material, working with other people’s material, variety in projects, volume of projects over time, failure rates, adverse conditions, and many other factors must be considered for anyone to make an unbiased claim like that. Statements like that are sales tactics for the weak minded who do not want to do the due diligence for themselves. What is the best for you may be utter garbage for the guy one city over. I always laugh at stories I hear guys telling when talking about the mixes they have used. One guy might say, I use this all the time and it’s great, and another guy will say the last time I used that mix it cracked up worse than a Arizona mud creek. I say a person with an experience never loses to a person with an argument.

What is the price per square foot of carving mix?
It really boils down to this. When you look at the price per square foot, you are honest with that figure taking into account the materials, your time, and overall efficiency, then you can make a good judgment on what you want to buy. I prefer to be able to get in and get out of a project quickly and efficiently. I don’t want a big mixing station with many components and raw materials laying around. I want easy clean-up and less mess in the client environment. I want to provide simple “just add water” instructions to my guys and timely mixes that are consistent and without surprise for efficient placement. Add the water, empty the bags into the mixer, mix for the appropriate time and don’t stop until we are done. These are the qualities that produce profits and make this work so fun.

Add Packs and Bag Mixes
Add Packs are bag mixes without the sand and cement. If you are going to save shipping cost anywhere, save on those componants. It has always made more sense to me to not have to pay for sand and cement to be shipped. With add packs you get the advantage of proven results of the components and consistent results of a sophisticated bag mix. Now, the purveyors of bag mixes don’t like it when I say these things, but they all know it is a more efficient way to get products to contractors. I have even heard the rumors of large bagged mix companies considering converting or offering add packs as a replacement to their expensive bag products. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against bag mixes. I think there great, and they’re simple. I’ve used them many, many times. Sometimes they can become too sophisticated, a little too much voodoo and foo foo. I think this is also reflected in their higher price tags. I just prefer add packs for quality, consistency, and less shipping cost.

There is no thought to it, just work.
Simple, Cost Effective, Consistent, Efficient, with Results.
That’s why I like Tru-Pac.

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