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Understanding Concrete and Masonry Hand Trowels

Understanding Concrete and Masonry Hand Trowels

Even if you’re not in a concrete-related trade, you’ve probably used a hand trowel at some point. They are an essential masonry and concrete finishing tool that you should keep handy for a multitude of projects.

At first glance they seem like fairly simple tools, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of options from the trowel’s length, width and handle type, to the blade’s style and material – and each one has a specific use.

Let’s take a closer look at the various hand trowel designs and their suggested uses.


Concrete and Masonry Hand Trowels at a Glance

In a nutshell, concrete and masonry hand trowels are used to smooth out freshly placed concrete, as well as bring water to the surface of concrete. Also used in brickwork or stonework, hand trowels have specific blade shapes that allow for very precise control of concrete placement. For example, a point-nosed trowel has a pointed blade that allows for precise control of mortar placement on bricks or concrete blocks.

Different types of trowels are used for specific concrete projects. Troweling on concrete slabs hardens it and increases its smoothness and density. This is usually done after floating the concrete. Troweling big areas of concrete call for fresno trowels, which are trowels attached to bull float handles. Fresno trowels make it possible to smooth out the concrete without having to walk on it.     

While trowels look very similar to hand floats, there are many differences between them. A hand float is used to smooth or texture the top layer of hardening concrete or plaster. Floats are usually made from rubber, wood, plastic, sponge, or magnesium, and they have a thicker base than a trowel. A trowel’s handles are open rather than closed like a hand float’s handles.

Using a trowel leaves a smooth, very dense surface, and its blades are thinner than hand float blades. A trowel’s blades are made from different types of steel, including blue steel, stainless steel, and high-carbon steel. Stainless steel is generally best, as it won’t rust or create any stains on the concrete’s surfaces.


Common Types of Hand Trowel Blades

  • Stainless Steel Trowels – These don’t rust and are very long-lasting. A high-quality steel trowel gives commercial buildings a smooth finish without discoloration. They take the grout and sand brought up by the floating process and push the coarser sand and grout down. This leaves a high-quality smooth finish after a twice-over troweling process.
a.   Golden Stainless Steel - Similar to stainless, but thinner blades for fine edges. Used mainly for plaster work, and concrete. Highly rust resistant.
b.      Swedish Stainless Steel - Similar to golden stainless. Used for concrete and plaster work. Highly rust resistant.

  • Blue Steel Trowels – Thinner and more lightweight than carbon steel blades, blue steel trowels are ideal for smoother finishes or any type of application that will require a bit of feathering into an existing material. Blue steel allows for flexibility under hand pressure.
  • Standard High Carbon Steel Trowels – The most common type of trowel, standard high carbon steel trowels are strong and durable. However, they will develop rust after a few months. They have little to no flex to them.


How to Choose the Right Concrete and Masonry Hand Trowel

There are different types of trowels for various jobs, and they come in various widths, usually about 10″, but you can find them as wide as 50″. If you need to finish exterior concrete, a magnesium bull float works best because it won't stick to the concrete.

Conversely, if you’re finishing non-air-entrained concrete, a laminated wood bull float is recommended because it cuts high spots effectively and consolidates the aggregates to bring more paste to the surface. A wood bull float also does the best job of smoothing and leveling the surface.

If you’re finishing exterior concrete flatwork and getting it ready for stamping, steel trowels work best because they produce a smoother, flatter surface.

It’s important to know which finishing tools work best under certain conditions. This way, you can match the tool to the job for the best results. For example, a steel trowel is not ideal for smoothing exterior concrete slabs that are exposed to harsh winter conditions and deicing materials. In fact, there are higher scaling risks associated with the use of steel trowels on slabs exposed to winter conditions.
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