Getting Started with Concrete Projects: Our Door Step Slab

As you’ll learn in our about us section, our first huge project on our property will be to build a timber frame barn with an apartment as the loft. This is no small feat for first time homesteaders. Even the first task of the barn, pouring the footings and foundation, is a huge undertaking so it’s really in our best interest to get started with smaller concrete projects first.

A Short Video of Our Project!

Below if a short music video we put together of this project. If you enjoy it, we would appreciate if you would share this page on social media! It’s a small way of showing support for our blog!

 

Concrete Project Details: The Full Scoop!

We’ve been wanting to take on a concrete project for quite some time now. In fact, we bought our first few bags of Sakrete a few months ago! We also already had a cement mixer that we found from a man in a local yard sale Facebook group (learn all the ways we find tools for our homestead for great prices here).

This man had built his entire property from scratch as well with his wife and since his wife recently passed, he was selling all of his tools and home and is going to hit the road for Alaska where his children live. It was so touching to visit with him and get to see his property, and give the cement mixer a new home where it will be put to work!

sakrete concrete mix

First Concrete Project: A Door Step Slab

While we entertained building a root cellar or building steps to our new cedar hot tub , both of those projects seemed to be a bit involved. We weren’t yet ready to rent an excavator ($500+ for a weekend) so we decided to start with something more practical – a door step slab.

first cement project - concrete slab

Since there is an extremely slim chance we will have the barn constructed and dried in by this winter, we assume we’ll be spending another winter in our travel trailer / cabin shelter. This is okay with us, but we do think we can make some small improvements to it to make it a little more comfortable. Also, there is no guarantee the barn will be dried in by next winter either – sometimes life happens, so it’s just safe not to make assumptions!

We thought that having a cement pad at the entrance of our cabin would be a great place to knock dirt off our boots and maybe even have a door mat. This should help keep the dirt level to a minimum inside the cabin.

Project Basics: It was pretty easy!

We have a lot to learn about concrete work, but this project was pretty easy.

First, we made some forms out of lumber we salvaged from a demolition last fall. Once again, we’re finding great ways to put scrap wood on the property to good use! We dug down a couple of inches, placed the form, leveled the form, and made it slightly higher towards the step so that when it rains, the water will run off away from the cabin.

concrete forms

We then filled up our concrete mixer with three bags of Sakrete. This was about the maximum amount of concrete we could mix at one time.

filling the cement mixer with sakrete

We added a bit of water (not sure if we added enough), plugged the machine into our generator, and let it go! I wanted to film this exciting moment and unfortunately, I learned the lesson of NOT standing close to the cement mixer when it turns on – especially with a camera! Somehow, Jesse was the one doing the yard work yet I was the one covered in concrete!

cement-mess

Once it was good and mixed we poured in the concrete. Then we leveled out the concrete. We then used a trowel to bring the fines to the top and push the aggregate down. We were able to accomplish this, but it seemed that there was a lot of aggregate in the Sakrete mix so our fines didn’t look so fine.

smoothing the concrete slab

Once it set, we placed our hands in the mix for fun and memory’s sake. There was too much aggregate to attempt writing the year so we passed on that part, but on of our Instagram followers suggested that next time we put a penny with the current year in the concrete! What a great idea!

Today, the concrete has set quite nicely. I do think we need to keep it wet for a while so we have it covered with a piece of plywood and we also may wet it down with a hose a few times throughout the day.

Wrapping it Up: The Value in Small Projects

We again want to stress the importance of small projects (like this and even our saw horses)! On a daily basis we have folks on YouTube suggesting that we are wasting our time by not starting construction of our barn, but the truth that nobody wants to hear is that we flat out aren’t ready to build such a large structure quite yet.

People may think that you can quit life in the city and life in the cubicle and get started building a house but the truth is, doing so may be suicide. Jesse has construction experience but it’s minimal, and i have none, so every project that we do teaches us new things, builds our confidence, and slowly (or quickly?) gives us the skills we need to start construction of our home.

Get involved!

We are such concrete newbs… we’d love to hear your experience with concrete whether big or small projects! What are some things you’ve learned that you wouldn’t have otherwise known if you hadn’t had the chance to play with the stuff? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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I am an aspiring homesteader on a journey to become self-sustainable and free. In my past, I've worked corporate jobs to make ends meet and get ahead a little; it didn't make me happy or confident in my future. Since taking the leap to self-employment and living a more simple life, my happiness levels have increased greatly and I've never felt more alive. I finally understand what I want in life and how to get there, and that is what this blog is all about.

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Comments

  1. vicky says

    I have a question: for a landing slab, you didn’t have to consider the frost depth? or because it’s so small that won’t be an issue? Not sure myself how that works but when my back porch was built (by a contractor) he had to go down below the frost line for the pilings. Just wondering if you can give me some insight into that. thanks! Everything’s looking great on the homestead.

    • jon hedman says

      footings are for structures that can not move. They must be foundated below the frost line. If you put in a slab such as in this article or even blocks for a small shed. they should be one foot or less in the ground and they will “float” with the ground. I have had several sheds up for over thirty years with these shallow piers without any problems.

      • Long Haired Hippy says

        Exactly, Jon.

        I’m way, way north of most of the people reading this blog and ‘slab on grade’ is perfectly feasibly even for large slabs up here, depending on building type, footing design, slab thickness, grade prep and re-enforcement. We helped a neighbour build a 20′ x 30′ detached garage, with a 6″ slab on 18″ wide x 12″ deep footing 4 years ago and there has not been one bit of shift or cracking on the interior drywall. And while we don’t have permafrost where we live, getting below the frostline isn’t really feasible for most construction.

        Shout out to Alyssa and Jesse, found your site after reading an article on MEN, and is now bookmarked. It’s good to see other people getting back to basics and doing stuff themselves, I’m rooting for you and your site is bookmarked. Here hoping the weather is helping you along.

  2. Andrew Krause says

    I’m going to say something that goes against everything I believe in as a DIYer and homsteading enthusiast, but when it comes to large continuous pours of concrete… don’t do it. Call the pros for anything bigger than 1m^2. It will be cheaper, the finished product will be better, it will get done faster, and usually it will be warranted.

    However, for your smaller projects or for large pours done in small sections, here’s my advice:

    1. Keep your concrete wet. Concrete cures in a chemical reaction that needs water. If you lose water to evaporation too quickly, the chemical change will not complete and the end product will not be strong. Once your concrete starts to set up (you will see light grey patches), spray it down generously then cover it with a tarp. Check it every 12 hours until it’s done curing – 36 hours in cool weather, 72 hours in hot weather (typically).

    2. Follow the mixing instructions on the bag. Different concrete compositions need different amounts. Try to be precise, and mix thoroughly. Use clean water. If you live in an area with exceptionally hard water, then buy distilled water from the store. Concrete curing is a chemical reaction (exothermic hdyration reaction, to be specific), and even small amounts of contaminants can corrupt that reaction.

    3. Concrete is porous, and must be sealed if it will be exposed to the environment. Use a penetrating sealer; avoid sealers based on waxes or oils. Any area exposed to direct sunlight will need to be resealed every 3-5 years. Any slabs poured for living spaces should have a 10-15 mil polyethylene liner beneath them as a barrier to moisture or gasses like radon or methane. Seal interior concrete floors with epoxy for protection, to keep dust down and frankly because it’s prettier. Seal food preparation surfaces with beeswax (after using a non-toxic water based paint).

    4. Concrete will form air and water pockets after mixing. (You’ll also drive some air into the concrete during mixing). Use a concrete vibrator (why are you laughing) to drive the air out and bring the excess water to the surface.

    My strongest advice: avoiding using concrete where possible. It has a high embodied energy, and is simply overkill for residential use. Alternatives to concrete are more environmentally friendly, more DIY friendly and more attractive. Use brick pavers and flagstone for sidewalks. Use wood floors for interior spaces (except bathrooms). Where concrete makes the most sense – footers, post anchors, vehicle driveways and garages, bathrooms and showers, entryways (like you did here) or even countertops* – use aggregate as much as appropriate to offset the use of portland cement.

    *I say countertops because concrete is not half as bad as stone/granite/marble choices in terms of environmental safety, but deliver the strength, beauty and durability of these products when done properly. I’m not a fan of wood countertops because they are high maintenance and create opportunities for foodborne illnesses to thrive.

    Sorry for writing a book as a comment.

    • says

      Thanks for taking the time to share these tips Andrew – good stuff! We do plan to hire someone for our large pours but still want to have a basic understanding of concrete so we know what we’re dealing with.

      • Andrew Krause says

        It’s a good plan – and the result looks quite professional. I read elsewhere that you used much more water than the directions called for on your second attempt, and that got a smoother finish. The problem with using excess water is that the finished concrete is not as strong. That being said – “not as strong” might mean a compressive strength of only 1,200 PSI instead of 2,500 psi. Frankly, not a big deal. Like I said, concrete is overkill for most residential building applications. What using the extra water did accomplish is lowering the viscosity of your cement slurry, which allowed the aggregate to sink more readily. The afore-mentioned concrete vibrator will also allow your aggregate to settle so that your top layer of cement can be smooth. For these smaller projects, you can actually just go around the concrete form with a deadblow hammer and give a bunch of firm taps until the bubbles stop.

        You guys are doing a great job, by the way. I look forward to seeing things play out…

  3. Von Walter says

    You small porch slab looks fairly good. However, it looks like you maybe should have added a little more water to your mix. When I have poured slabs, I usually like to pour the concrete fairly wet. This is good for multiple reasons, 1) it gives you more time to work with the concrete before it sets up, 2) it makes the concrete easier to work with, 3) it allows more cream to float to the top which aids in giving you a smooth surface if you want one. If you are going to be laying a large slab for your barn or house, you will want to rent / purchase a bull float which aids in smoothing out large slabs.

    • says

      Thanks for the tip! This was our very first concrete work ever and we came to the same conclusion that we needed to add more water. We added exactly what the bag said to add but hey it wasn’t enough, so I guess in the end we need to make our own judgments! We poured a second slab already with much more water and it looks much more beautiful :-)

  4. says

    With minimum experience, investing in a few ‘do it yourself’ books/mags, on specific projects would be worth while and a minor monetary outlay. They are full of useful info on how to do’s, well worth the small investment of both time and money… I have a book shelf full, they’re also handy references. Just a thought, as you haven’t mentioned using any in your posts. Mike

    • says

      Yes, we love these books as well! I mean, at some point you need to just roll up your sleeves and get to work, but we are accumulating quite the library. We just ordered nine books on timber framing and stone work… eek! Lots of reading, but they do help to give some great tips and insight!!

  5. says

    Nice to see young folks going back to the land! I grew up on a homestead that my parents carved out of a raw 1/4 section in Dawson Creek BC. It was off grid as well, the first cabin had just candles and kerosene lamps for lighting, the new log home had propane lanterns, and finally solar!

    One trick I found with the cement mixer (I have the same one) is to add most of the water first, then add the cement/aggregate as it spins, then more water if needed. I found this wets the dry product more readily, reduces “balling” of the product, and culminates in a more thoroughly mixed concrete, also works well when doing multiple batches to keep the concrete from building up in the bottom of the drum. Also I found tipping the drum down, a bit more than the factory stops, gets a faster/more thorough mix with less seperating of the fines and aggregates.

    Nice work you two! You’ve sure got lots of projects on the go and I think it’s a great idea to experiment/learn on these smaller projects.

    Thanks for all the videos/posts!

    Max

    • says

      Sounds like a fun childhood for you! That’s not an experience most folks grow up having. Yes, we found the same trick quickly for the cement mixer as far as adding the water first – much less clumping! We haven’t tried tipping the drum down lower but that’s because we fill ‘er up to the brim! Will keep this tip in mind. Glad you enjoy the posts, and thanks for sharing your ideas!

  6. Elizabeth Fuerst says

    Hello Alyssa and Jesse,

    A very nice demo on how to make a concrete slab. Question: Instead of using concrete, which adds carbon to the atmosphere, why not use limecrete or hempcrete, which was used many generations ago in the U.S,. and is still used in Europe today, to make homes and bridges? Hempcrete takes carbon out of the atmosphere instead of adding to it. Hempcrete and limecrete are just as durable, if not more so, than concrete. It’s worth looking into, especially if you are planning more construction projects.

    Kind regards,
    E

    • says

      I haven’t heard of limecrete or hempcrete or the amount of work or cost that’s available in making such materials, but in the end we’re trying to build a house and sometimes it’s best to work and plan around known substances that are readily available I suppose, among numerous other things to consider. Have you build a foundation and footings of a home with such materials? If so, what did it entail and how did it work out?

      • Gareth Bath says

        Dear Jesse and Alyssa,

        Limecrete and Hempcrete use quicklime rather than cement as a binder, and Hempcrete includes hemp fibre as a component of the aggregate which improves its thermal insulating properties.

        To understand the differences between cement and quicklime and their impact upon the environment requires a basic understanding of chemistry. The lime cycle is relevant to the manufacture of both. When Calcium Carbonate, CaCO3, of which limestone and chalk are two examples, is heated in a kiln Carbon Dioxide, CO2, is driven off leaving Quicklime or Calcium Oxide, CaO. In the case of cement, clay is added to the kiln and higher temperatures are required in order to create cement ‘clinker’; the ‘clinker’ is then ground to a fine powder. Both quicklime and cement give off Carbon Dioxide as a result of the chemical reaction during manufacture but of much greater concern is the Carbon Dioxide generated in heating the kiln. The higher kiln temperatures of 1,450 Deg C for cement vs 825 Deg C for quicklime means that greater quantities of Carbon Dioxide are generated in the manufacture of cement.

        CaCO3 + HEAT -> CaO + CO2

        When water is added to quicklime a highly exothermic, giving off heat, reaction occurs. ‘Slaking’ quicklime by the addition of water, H2O, turns it into Calcium Hydroxide, Ca(OH)2. Over time, the Calcium Hydroxide ‘carbonates’ recombining with atmospheric Carbon Dioxide to return to Calcium Carbonate; if sufficiently permeable to air, lime thus re-absorbs nearly all the Carbon Dioxide driven off in its manufacture. Lime based mortar, Limecrete and Hempcrete need to remain moist in order for carbonation to take place. If saturated with water then no Carbon Dioxide will reach the Calcium Hydroxide preventing carbonation.

        CaO + H20 -> Ca(OH)2

        Ca(OH)2 + CO2 -> CaCO3 + H2O

        Cement also undergoes a lesser exothermic reaction but does not rely upon carbonation to ‘set’, relying instead upon the reaction between water and the Calcium Silicates, ‘hydraulic’ components, from reactions between the Calcium Oxide and Clays in the kiln. This means that cement can harden in the absence of air, under water. Natural Hydraulic Limes (NHL) contain a quantity of naturally occurring clays and therefore also demonstrate a degree of ‘hydraulic set’.

        If a suitable source of limestone can be located, quicklime can be made quite easily in a home built kiln.

        Yours Aye

        GB

  7. Barbara Kegebein says

    Years ago I wanted to homestead with my ex-husband and purchased a “build your own home” book. Later, my brother decided to build his house (while working a full time job) and I “loaned” him my book. He and another brother cleaned up after a bad windstorm in the town and he got enough trees to get milled into his lumber. He hired the concrete foundation poured and eventually the drywall as it was cheaper and faster. Everything else he did with a bit of help from family and friends, even his beautiful cabinets. When he finished, he tried to return the book, which was a broken down, well used mess. I, of course, told him he had to keep it with his house!

    So nice to see others who are still willing to try, learn and do their own building. The hot tub success shows that you two WILL be successful.

    • says

      What an awesome story! Sounds like that book was a great investment and was put to good use. We hope to be able to share a similar success story!

  8. says

    I see you put some rocks in the form before pouring the slab. Not only does that save on concrete but at some future date when that slab is not serving its function and you pry it up surprise! the underside is an attractive rock wall to quickly hold a bank. At least that is what happened to the back porch slab after the old farm house here burned down. Maby I can post a picture of it on your facebook page tomorrow.

  9. says

    The concrete will eat your skin! That’s one of the first lessons I learned about the stuff! My hands were so raw and sore, especially on the fingertips, that I couldn’t do hardly anything for a few days after my first experience with concrete! If you are wearing gloves and your hands get wet through the gloves from the concrete – that’s almost as bad as not wearing gloves at all! What I found out is that the concrete is alkaline (think lye), and you need an acid to counteract it, so when working with concrete I now keep a cut lemon in a gallon of water nearby. Periodically wash off your hands with the lemon water and this will help balance the alkalinity of the concrete! When you are all finished, make sure you wash well with pure clean water, then moisturize with a good healing lotion like Cetaphil. It works for me!

    • says

      Thanks for the tip Vickie! We’ll be sure to use adequate protection when working on our big projects. I can’t imagine having a body (or body part) smothered in concrete would feel very good. Interesting about the lemon, will have to keep that in mind!

  10. Mike Nichols says

    Hello Alyssa and Jesse,
    I’ve been following your blog/YouTube videos for about a year now. Makes me wish I were 25 again. On the other hand, I’ve learned a few things. My comment is that I hope you have advisors to whom you can turn for advice. I know that you get a fair number of comments, but that is not always timely advice. Timely advice will reduce the risk and uncertainty that plagues new adventures. You seem to be a wise and competent couple, so perhaps you already have close advisors. On other thing, if you have designed your barn already, you should dig and pour your footings now. It will give you a sense of progress, there is little that you could mess up and it will allow you to use Jesse’s expertise (framing) more productively, IMHO.
    Good luck and keep your spirits up,
    Mike

    • says

      Hey Mike! Wow, have we been blogging that long? It seems we have… almost! Time flies! We do have trusted advisors we can look to which we try to utilize when we have the chance. We hope to pour our footings soon, but that will need to be balanced with other projects we’re working (mostly personal) and our next priority on the land is to install our cistern… hopefully when we have the excavator for that we can also get the barn MORE ready for concrete as well 😉 Getting concrete done would be a nice sense of progress though. Thanks for the kind wishes!

  11. Ty Tower says

    More water weakens the final concrete product so keep it as dry as you can as long as it is finishable . You can add a thin layer of 2 to 1 sand cement mix over the top as long as the slab has not dried out.

    The plastic below is to hold the water in the mix as long as possible when it goes down not prevent anything coming up.. Concrete continues to cure while ever it stays wet. Its a crystal growth process and lasts for at least 28 days if kept wet or steam cured and gets progressively stronger each day but at a slower rate each day. Once it dries it stops the crystal growth .

    I’ve built a couple of concrete boats .

  12. Ty Tower says

    Oh and if you want it waterproof you must add something finer than the smallest grains of sand .
    The great wall of china has its bricks eroding faster than the cement between them because they used the water from boiled rice in the mix . So something like rice flour will work or fly ash ,pozzylan etc . Not much needed only 3 % of the mix or so will do the trick. Even ashes from a wood fire help.

  13. Ty Tower says

    Didn’t see the video until now . That looked pretty good and use a wood float first to bash down the aggregate highs and then a steel float to lift up a bit of moisture to the surface to finish but don’t over-float or you will find it gets very wet on top and the cement separates . Sprinkle a handful or two of cement dust over the surface to give a stronger surface. Sweep with a stiff broom once or twice to leave ridges in the surface for non slip traction on steps . Then smooth the edges with a rounder hand piece or bit of shaped timber and it looks pretty sexy.

  14. Kelli says

    Habitat for Humanity has stores in most state’s. They sell items donated to them that they don’t need to help pay for their projects.

    They have so much! Including lumber, light fixtures, cabinets, interior and exterior doors, plumbing supplies, faucets, paint and supplies, tools, nail and etc. They charge pennies on the dollar.

    I’ve saved $12k on my home remodel and my brother saved over $25I remodeling his mother in laws home.

    Hope this helps!

    • says

      We popped into Habitat for Humanity when in Oregon and they do have a lot! In our experience, it was pretty hit or miss with what they had, an it was hard to find things that were uniform, but that said, I think it’s a great place to look for home and building supplies if you’re in the position to be open minded about what you buy. Thanks for sharing the tip!

  15. Wynne says

    If you’re still mulling over types of foundations you’ll use for barn/home/other structures you plan to build, consider googling details for “rubble trench” foundations. Much less cement needed, can even avoid it entirely if you put a stone stemwall on top of a rubble trench. Sigi Koko is a good source for this, and there are numerous videos, descriptions and step-by-step slideshows for the method. We’re experimenting with it currently with our own smaller project: a 200sf greenhouse. So far it’s been fun–we’ve got the trench finished and will be starting a stone masonry stemwall in a couple months after the monsoon rains in our region have passed. Just a thought 😉

  16. says

    Here’s some inspiration before you start on your big house project, a carpenter who builds a timber (timber frame) house from scratch, mostly with hand tools.

    On top of it, the video is incredibly poetic and beautiful.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErGQ0rXkn74

    I agree that it is a good idea to start with small projects. After a number of interior improvements, a storage on the attic of the stable and a shed for the fire wood, I think I would pull off a small guest house, but not a proper big house.

    Keep up your enthusiasm and the fantastic work you are doing

    Best wishes from Jens in Sweden

  17. TheOldWizard says

    Don’t pay extra for “high strength” concrete where you don’t need it. Proper amount of water will make your mix look like crunchy peanut butter. Always add the water last and in small amounts.

    For very small projects (fence post) you can use a 5 gallon bucket. Only fill the bucket about 1/4 with the dry and slowly add water. Mix well making sure you are scraping the corners of the bottom. It took me about 2 buckets per post.

    A little too much water is not a tragedy. In some cases you want it loose as the ground will suck the moisture out of the mix, or wet the ground before you pour. For “real” concrete work (foundations, drive way), remember it takes 28 days for a full cure.

    There are some places for a “dry/stiff” mix. You can hand form curbs. Use latex gloves when handling concrete directly.

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