Incorporating natural stone into projects enhances the look of concrete.
Concrete block overlaid with textured concrete house the refrigerator and barbeque and support the countertop.

Second kitchens are not new. Before the days of air conditioning, homes with basements sometimes had kitchens downstairs to use during hot weather. If there was no basement, you could find a cook stove off the back porch.

Fast-forward to today and you discover fashionable outdoor kitchens. This trend provides masonry product producers a new market, as contractors still use cast-in-place concrete but want to expand textures and move away from imitation.

Tom Ralston, of Tom Ralston Concrete in Santa Cruz, Calif., recently became a licensed masonry contractor with the goal of incorporating rock and maximizing the natural look of concrete. When homeowner John Hogan asked for a unique backyard design for a kitchen barbeque, Ralston created a curvilinear installation that included a concrete countertop for the kitchen, a textured concrete pool deck with a spray of flagstone running through it, and pool and spa copings with a sand finish.

“The problem with stamping concrete patterns is that it can become a poor imitation of what it is trying to look like,” says Ralston. When building a countertop, the question is how to make it artistic, not merely a stone imitation. Ralston created a 2-inch-thick engineered countertop using his own mix design.

Cast upside down, the countertop has integral black concrete against each end and leaves an open center. He then placed polyethylene sheeting to form an irregular border for the black concrete before placing a mix of white portland cement.

Ralston's coloring techniques include using eyedroppers and straws to precisely place liquid color for a truly random pattern. In larger areas, he loads brushes with stain and “trapezes” color through the concrete, melding it with additional color to avoid a contrived look.

Concrete masonry block forms the walls that support the barbeque and enclose the refrigerator. A concrete overlay with a scratch coat beneath provides the vertical surface color and texture. He finished the surface using sandstone color hardener with a weathered sage release agent that was textured with a slate skin.

He faced the spa walls with vertical flagstone resting on a concrete footing. The pool coping, the spa cap, and the wall cap surface had a wash of muriatic acid to reveal the color hardener's fines, creating a little sparkle and grit.

Ralston jointed the main 4-inch-thick concrete patio deck slab for crack control except under the flagstone, where the reinforcement prevents cracks from reflecting through.

A 5x5-foot slate grid pattern imprinted into the concrete ties all the elements together with sandstone and weathered sage colors. He sealed the concrete work but left the flagstone in its natural weathered state.

— By Jeanne Fields, a freelance writer and owner of Fields Marketing, Douglas City, Calif., providing services to the decorative concrete industry.