Q&A / 

Failed Cement Stucco

Sacred Heart Church, Laconia NH

Repair Stucco Wall - This thin coating of cement stucco on a poured concrete wall has fallen off. Two simple things would have prevented it from happening. Copyright 2021 Tim Carter

Repair Stucco Wall - Why It Failed

My wife and I are the head ushers at our church. Each Sunday when we arrive early, we walk up a ramp that allows those attending mass in a wheelchair an easy way into Sacred Heart Church in Laconia, NH.

Sacred Heart Church, Laconia NH

This is the inside of Sacred Heart Church in Laconia, NH. You can see why it would have been smart to go the extra mile outside with any new work added to the church.

The ramp was built with two poured concrete walls with the ramp in between them. The church is a stunning red-brick edifice built by French Catholics in the late 1800s. At that time, there were competing factions of Catholics in Laconia. It must have been like sports rivalries of today. Catholics from each country built their own church. Based on the churches that are still standing in Laconia, it’s obvious to me the French had more money and poured lots of it into this magnificent building I worship in each Sunday.

Can You Add Color to Concrete?

The contractor who built the ramp in 1981 tried to make it match the original red brick. Rather than pigment the actual poured concrete, yes, you can add dry-color pigments to concrete, he decided to hide the harsh gray cast concrete walls by applying a thin cement stucco to any exposed concrete.

Is Stucco a Good Material?

Using the stucco was not a bad idea and my guess is it might have been a budget issue. The project architect or builder could have installed a matching brick veneer to the poured concrete for an even better look. They could have done exactly what the architect and builder did who created the stunning addition on the Bristol, NH public library. They matched the red brick of the original library building perfectly. Only a trained eye can detect that part of the library building is an addition.

Is Portland Cement a Good Adhesive?

Here’s why the thin stucco coating has peeled off the poured concrete. Realize that Portland cement is an amazing adhesive. When you mix Portland cement with water, you begin a chemical reaction where countless microscopic crystals start to grow. Try to imagine those sticky burs you might have gotten on your pants in a walk through the woods years ago. The cement crystals are that tenacious.

Can Stucco Stick to Glass and Metal?

These crystals are so plentiful and strong they can even penetrate the microscopic pores of glass and metal. I have my original magnesium float from 45 years ago when I first started building. There are concrete deposits on it that can only be removed with a chisel!

Why Did the Stucco Fall Off?

The red stucco failed to bond to the poured concrete on the ramp for several possible reasons. It could be one or all of the following:

  • the poured concrete walls could have been dusty
  • the stucco batch might not have had enough Portland cement in it. 
  • the stucco might not have been thoroughly mixed in with the sand before the water was added
  • the stucco material could have started to set up and some of the crystals had already grown and were not able to grab well onto the concrete
  • the stucco may not have been properly cured so the crystals could continue to grow for days and weeks after the stucco was applied

There are other possible reasons, but the above are the most common reasons stucco falls off surfaces

Let’s imagine you want to apply cement stucco to poured concrete, concrete block, perhaps a stone wall, or even brick. You want it to last for hundreds of years. Guess what? It’s possible to get it to last that long.

How Can You Make Stucco Stick?

The first thing to do is clean with water and a scrub brush the surface to which you’re applying the cement stucco. You wouldn’t get dressed up in a wonderful summer dress or pants and blazer if you were sweaty and filthy from working all day without taking a shower, right?

It’s then important to make the stucco mix very strong. I was trained how to do this by a master mason when I first got into the construction business. Stucco I’ve mixed using the following formula has never failed.

  • 3 parts medium sand
  • 1 part Portland cement
  • 1/2 part hydrated lime

You blend these together well in the dry state. Make sure the mix is uniform in both color and texture. You then add clean water and mix until the stucco is about the consistency of applesauce. Keep in mind you can boost the formula to 3/4 part hydrated lime if you want. Lime once it hardens, is actually a thin coat of limestone. You know how durable limestone is.

What is the Magic Cement Paint and Method?

The secret tip is to then slightly dampen the surface that will accept the stucco. Immediately after spritzing it, you paint on a layer of cement paint. In the case at my church, the cement paint should have had some of the red dry pigment added to it. Cement paint is just a mixture of Portland cement and water mixed to the consistency of regular latex paint.

Brush on this cement paint to the surface and only apply as much surface area as you can cover with the stucco within a minute or two. Never let the cement paint dry on the wall. Do all these things and you’ll have stucco that might make it for two hundred years, maybe more!

Should I Cure the Stucco?

Oh yes, don’t forget to cure it! Keep the stucco damp for three days after it hardens. It’s that simple.

Sacred Heart Church, Laconia NH

The Last Supper. I don't think this is a fresco, but I could be wrong. It's carved plaster and it's got paint on it. The question is when it was painted.

Sacred Heart Church, Laconia NH

Sacred Heart Church Laconia NH steeple. Think about getting the red brick and mortar up this high on the scaffolding. What do you think they used to power the pulley?

Sacred Heart Church, Laconia NH

Sacred Heart Church Laconia NH - This is the main stained glass window over the front door. All of the stained glass in the church is magnificent.


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Stucco Repair / Patching

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