We’re launching a new series we’re calling “Meet the Maker” where we’ll be profiling some of our favorite makers and artisans. First up: James Clark, the founder and artisan behind Mod Concrete.
You’ve probably heard me gush about how much I love his work. It’s fresh and modern, and the clean lines gives his pieces a timeless quality where a concrete chair fits in effortlessly with many design styles. We caught up with James and talked about how he first fell in love with working with concrete and what goes on behind the scenes to craft each piece.
How were you inspired to use concrete?
I grew up using my hands to create and I honed my own personal style of traditional woodworking over the years. I started out with home framing, but I was inspired to think outside the box.
I went to the Windsor Institute, where I trained in the art of handmade Windsor chairs. I also trained alongside Donald Dunlap, a sixth generation cabinet maker from Antrim New Hampshire, who helped shaped my style. Although I love traditional woodworking, I also grew to love the simplicity of modern design pieces and the minimalist style. There are infinite possibilities when creating for your personal taste. In 2012, I was working on a custom deck for a high-end landscape contractor in Newton, Massachusetts, when the concept of a concrete countertop grill station arose. That’s when I discovered the incredible beauty, function and endless possibilities that concrete allows.
I was hooked.
The very first piece I created was a coffee table top using wet cast January 2013. I had a lean-to on the side of our cabin with no heat and a dirt floor. I mixed the concrete in a wheel barrow and used rubber mallets to bang the form to get the air bubbles out , my arms were killing me and it’s a far cry from the process we use now. Since then, I’ve learned everything I could about finished architectural concrete. I read Concrete Countertops by Fu-Tung Chen and Making Concrete Countertops by Buddy Rhodes. I trained at the at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School with “wet cast”, and Concrete Design School where I learned about fabric forming.
Since then, I’ve worked with several other well-known concrete artisans and attended several specialty training courses. In 2017, I decided to follow my dreams of working with concrete full-time, so my family and I made the leap and relocated to the sunny southeast coast of Florida. Now I have a 4000 sf studio and shop in West Palm Beach. We produce everything from 3D wall tiling, concrete couches and furniture, sinks, vanities, countertops, lighting, tables and chairs! Oh, and small succulent pots, too. I’m happy to tackle anything.
Would you walk us through the process of creating one of Modern Concrete’s signature pieces?
One of the key components of our process is actually in the materials we use. We create our countertops and other pieces using the highest quality GFRC (glass fiber-reinforced concrete), instead of traditional concrete. GFRC differs from traditional concrete due to its replacement of large aggregate and steel with a network of glass fibers in a mix of Portland cement, sand and a polymer.
The combination of cement, sand and glass fibers form a matrix which gives the concrete great flexural, compressive and tensile strengths. This allows the overall product to be much thinner and lighter than traditional concrete. Traditional concrete, or wet cast, as it’s commonly referred to, requires the use of Portland cement, sand, large & small aggregates (typically stone) and steel (wire mesh & rebar) reinforcement as a means for added strength. It also needs to be thicker and therefore much heavier. GFRC is typically around 8 lb./ft² as opposed to 18 lb./ft² for wet cast.
The Set Up
In the process of GFRC, we begin with spraying a thin layer of concrete, known as a face coat. The face coat is sprayed on the entire inside covering of the concrete countertop mold (forms). The face coat is what you will see as the outside of the finished product once it’s de-molded, meaning this is the layer that becomes the top of the countertop or sink.
A stiffer mix or backer coat, containing a large amount of AR fibers (alkaline-resistant glass fibers) is then hand placed (aka hand-packing) into the form. This mix is used to create sinks or build up vertical edges. Backer coats are then layered and applied in several coats. The final mix, if needed for flat horizontal areas, is a very liquid concrete mix called SCC.
Self Consolidation Concrete mix contains a large amount of glass fibers along with a super plasticizer. The plasticizer helps make the mix flow very easily and allows it to self-level filling the horizontal sections of the mold. The concrete is allowed to harden and cure for a period of 12-24 hours typically. It is then removed from the forms where the finishing process begins.
Finishing begins with either wet or dry sanding. Wet sanding (aka wet polishing) uses diamond pads and water to expose sand and aggregate if that’s the desired look. If no aggregate exposure is desired the concrete may simply be dry sanded and etched so that the cream coat remains. This also provides a tooth for the sealer. Slurry coats of cement with and/or without sand fines are applied next. These fill in voids and pinholes in the surface. It is once again sanded and cleaned after each slurry application until ready for sealer. Sealer is applied in several steps over several days. Once the sealer is applied, there is a curing time of several days before the concrete sink or counter can be installed and ready for use due to the cross linking of the sealer with the concrete.
How long does it take start to finish to make a typical piece?
A typical handcrafted piece takes about 2-3 weeks from start to finish, with some projects taking twice that depending on size and complexity of the form.
Would you talk more about how concrete evolves over time?
Each piece is unique. It is perfect, yet at the same time imperfect. It has flaws, voids, color and texture variations–all within the same piece. These textures and perfect imperfections are what make concrete so aesthetically pleasing and authentic.
Our hand-crafted concrete designs can also be combined with a variety of materials such as wood, metal, stone, glass and more to suit our clients personalized needs and taste. Each material adds a dimension that is keenly exclusive. Color, texture and patina varies and changes with age adding to each materials versatility and beauty.
Simply put, as each handcrafted piece is used, loved and cared for, it will take on the characteristics of the world around it. Imagine the weathered cedar shingles on a Nantucket beach home, a favorite leather jacket, or the worn paint on an antique chair that has enjoyed generations of family dinners. They all evoke a feeling and a history to be remembered.
What are some unexpected ways that people can use concrete in their home ?
Wall art. Concrete is an amazing material that can be colored, shaped, textured and embedded with objects to create unique conversation pieces.
Anything else you’d like our audience to know ?
That we are a God-fearing family business dedicated to creating beautiful handcrafted pieces that will become heirloom pieces for generations to come. And while we are a business, we are also artisans with a passion. Like our concrete, we are perfectly imperfect – putting our hearts, soul, blood, sweat and tears into each in every piece all while giving God the Glory.