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As the appetite for decorative stamped concrete continues to grow, stamp suppliers are serving up an ever-expanding smorgasbord of stamping tools and patterns to choose from. Some companies carry hundreds of standard and custom patterns, ranging from slate, to brick, to cobblestone, to botanical and wildlife themes.

Buying a stamp involves much more than just picking out an appealing pattern. You also need to choose the right type of stamp for the job and know what characteristics distinguish a high-quality stamp from a substandard version.

To help you with making a smart choice, here's a list of shopping tips compiled with the assistance of three decorative concrete pros: Bob Harris, president of the Decorative Concrete Institute and author of Bob Harris' Guide to Stamped Concrete, Chris Sullivan, national technical director and regional sales manager for QC Construction Products, and Clark Branum with L.M. Scofield.

Know How Many Mats You'll Need for the JobYour window of opportunity for stamping is limited, especially in warmer weather when the concrete sets more quickly or when you're stamping a thin overlay. That makes it essential to have enough stamps (and workers) to complete the job without interruption.

Concrete Stamp Buying Tips
Time: 03:20
It's important to buy the proper amount of stamps before doing a stamped concrete job. Get tips on how many stamps to purchase and see how you can practice using the stamps before using them on a project.

The general rule is to have enough mats on hand to extend across the full width of the area to be stamped plus a couple of additional mats to start the next row. You will also need at least one floppy or texture skin and a tamper to impress the mats into the fresh concrete. Some small jobs, such as a walkway or patio, may only require a few stamps. Commercial projects may require 20 or more stamps so crews can work on several rows at a time.

To accurately figure out how many stamps to purchase, you need to know the dimensions of the tool of choice, says Harris. For example, if you plan to purchase 24x24-inch stamping mats for a residential driveway 20 feet wide, you would need 10 mats to span the 20-foot width, plus two additional tools.

Measure Profile Depth Before Stamping an OverlayMost of the same stamps and skins used for freshly placed concrete can also be used to add pattern and texture to cement-based overlays. However, be careful not to purchase stamping mats with deep profiles that will exceed the overlay thickness.

Stamped overlays are typically applied at a thickness of 1/4 to 3/4 inch. As a general rule, the topping should be twice the thickness of the deepest pattern indent on the stamping mat. For example, if you plan to apply the overlay at a 1/2-inch thickness, don't buy a tool with an indent deeper than 1/4 inch. Generally, pattern depth won't be a problem with the thinner texturing skins.

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Go for Color CodingUsually stamps are sold in sets consisting of several mats that give slightly different impressions of the same pattern. The reason is to avoid pattern repetition and produce a random look that's more realistic. To help you differentiate the pattern variations when using the stamps, manufacturers will code their tools by using letters (such as A, B, C), numbers, or different colors. Harris prefers color coding because the system makes it as mistake-proof as possible to differentiate the patterns in the set. "The goal is not to repeat the pattern. With color coding, it's easy. Just don't place tools of the same color next to each other," he says.

Inspect Tool QualityYou normally wouldn't buy an indispensable concrete finishing tool, such as a bull float or trowel, without scrutinizing its quality and testing out the grip for comfort. The same holds true for stamping tools. Following are some important characteristics to look for to distinguish a high-quality stamp from an inferior product:

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  • Do the tools fit together tightly, with no perceptible gaps?

  • Is the stamp thickness consistent? You don't want to purchase a stamp that's 1/2 inch thick on one side and 1 inch thick on the other.

  • Is the weight of the tool manageable for one man, yet strong enough to support the weight of multiple men during installation?

  • With rectangular stamps, are edges and corners straight and do the stamps align properly?

  • Is any excess plastic hanging from the edges of the stamp?

  • Are the handles on the stamp firmly affixed, without protruding through to the bottom of the tool? Tom Ralston recommends looking for tools with thick handles made from sturdy nylon.

  • Is the texture crisp and sharp? Does it look realistic? Is the face of the tool free of bubbles and blemishes?

  • Is there enough variation in pattern and texture from tool to tool to ensure a random look?

  • Is the price in line with similar products? You get what you pay for, so avoid bargain-basement deals.

  • Check out the latest trends in concrete stamping tools for more tips

According to Sullivan, the No. 1 sign of poor quality is "out of true" tools. When stamps are made, the polyurethane needs to cure in the master mold to hold its shape. If removed too early or poured too fast, uneven thickness and shrinkage can occur.

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What about buying tools online? Be wary, say our experts. Unless you're familiar with the product or know another contractor who swears by the same brand, you're better off buying from a local distributor who will give you a chance to inspect the tools closely and ask any questions you may have about product quality.

"My preference is to buy through a distributor, which gives you a chance to ask someone about how the tools have been selling and what the feedback is on the product," says Sullivan. "Most distributors also provide samples so you can feel the material and see the texture before buying."

Warranty and Reputation CountIn addition to inspecting for quality, check the stamp supplier's tool warranties, replacement policies, and reputation before you give them your business. When cared for properly, a top-quality stamping tool should provide many reuses and years of performance in the field. Some companies stand behind the durability of their products by offering lifetime warranties. Others will replace at no cost tools that tear or have obvious defects.

"Most companies offer a limited warranty, but a good company will replace a defective tool at any time, no questions asked. To me, that makes all the difference," says Branum.

Consult an ExpertIf you're still daunted by the multitude of stamping tools on the market, then get some expert advice. Call several stamp manufacturers and ask them to explain what makes their tools superior to others. Also ask experienced stampers about the tools they prefer to use and why. Doing a bit of homework will ensure that your money is well spent on long-lasting tools that give your stamped concrete convincing detail and texture.

A final word of advice: Once you take your pristine new stamping tools out of the box, avoid the temptation to use them right away on an important project. Harris recommends experimenting with them first in wet, compacted sand so you can see how the pattern lines up and how much pressure is needed to achieve the desired level of detail. Once you perfect your technique, you'll be ready to use your new tools to transform concrete.

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