In its simplest form, concrete is a mixture of paste and aggregates (sand & rock). The paste, composed of cement and water, coats the surface of the fine (sand) and coarse aggregates (rocks) and binds them together into a rock-like mass known as concrete.
Within this process lies the key to a remarkable trait of concrete: it’s plastic and can be molded or formed into any shape when newly mixed, strong and durable when hardened. These qualities explain why one material, concrete, can build skyscrapers, bridges, sidewalks, and superhighways, houses and dams.
The key to achieving a strong, durable concrete rests on the careful proportioning and mixing of the ingredients. A concrete mixture that does not have enough paste to fill all the voids between the aggregates will be difficult to place and will produce rough, honeycombed surfaces and porous concrete. A mixture with an excess of cement paste will be easy to place and will produce a smooth surface; however, the resulting concrete will be more likely to crack and be uneconomical.
A properly proportioned concrete mixture will possess the desired workability for the fresh concrete and the required durability and strength for the hardened concrete.
The character of concrete is determined by the quality of the paste. The strength of the paste, in turn, depends on the ratio of water to cement. The water-cement ratio is the weight of the mixing water divided by the weight of the cement. High-quality concrete is produced by lowering the water-cement ratio as much as possible without sacrificing the workability of fresh concrete. Generally, using less water produces a higher quality concrete provided the concrete is properly placed, consolidated and cured.
Soon after the aggregates, water, and the cement are combined, the mixture starts to harden. All Portland cements are hydraulic cements that set and harden through a chemical reaction with water. During this reaction, called hydration, a node forms on the surface of each cement particle. The node grows and expands until it links up with nodes from other cement particles or adheres to adjacent aggregates.
The building up process results in progressive stiffening, hardening, and strength development. Once the concrete is thoroughly mixed and workable it should be placed in forms before the mixture becomes too stiff.
During placement, the concrete is consolidated to compact it within the forms and to eliminate potential flaws, such as honeycombs and air pockets. For slabs, concrete is left to stand until the surface moisture film disappears. After the film disappears from the surface, a wood or metal hand float is used to smooth off the concrete. Floating produces a relatively even, but slightly rough, texture that has good slip resistance and is frequently used as a final finish for exterior slabs. If a smooth, hard, dense surface is required, floating is followed by steel toweling.
Curing begins after the exposed surfaces of the concrete have hardened sufficiently to resist marring. Curing ensures the continued hydration of the cement and the strength gain of the concrete. Concrete surfaces are cured by sprinkling with water fog, or by using moisture-retaining fabrics such as burlap or cotton mats. Other curing methods prevent evaporation of the water by sealing the surface with plastic or special sprays (curing compounds).
Special techniques are used for curing concrete during extremely cold or hot weather to protect the concrete. The longer the concrete is kept moist, the stronger and more durable it will become. The rate of hardening depends upon the composition and fineness of the cement, the mix proportions, and the moisture and temperature conditions. Most of the hydration and strength gain take place within the first month of concrete’s life cycle, but hydration continues at a slower rate for many years. Concrete continues to get stronger as it gets older.