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Concrete is an age-old pillar of civilization, on a par with beer, steel and the plow. Master concrete (we're talking about simple backyard cement and water here, not engineer-grade flexible concrete.) and you can build a backyard empire--starting with a place to fire up your grill.
For small jobs, you can buy bags of cement that already contain sand and gravel--you just add water. On larger jobs, it's more economical to buy cement and aggregate, and combine the ingredients in a motorized mixer. These rent for about $50 a day and can be towed home. Cement comes in 94-pound bags; about six will make a cubic yard. The sand-and-gravel aggregate should include a range of sizes, from grains to 3/4-in. stones. If the aggregate in your area is too fine, add 3/8- to 3/4-in. gravel.
As for time commitment, you can easily pour a small slab in an afternoon. Here are the steps to get the job done.
Step 1: Tools of The Trade
Edger: To round the corners of a pad, run the edger back and forth while pressing down.
Trowel: A steel surfacing tool for an extra-fine finish. It's optional for outdoor work.
Groover: To make contraction and expansion joints, which help control cracking, use the groover to section off the concrete.
Step 2: Create Form
Step 3: Excavate Soil
Set the form in place and shave away soil from high spots and check with a level. A slight slope of about 1/8 in. per foot helps shed water.