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Acid Stained Concrete Proves Fruitful for Concrete Artisan

Grapes painted on concrete

Over her 22-year career, Victoria Simpson Collins’ talent for acid staining has created a niche she hopes to occupy for a long time to come.

“It’s hard for people to understand why a ‘girl’ would be interested in concrete work,” she says. “But once they see how the floors turn out, they see that concrete is an ‘open palette.’ You can create a floor that is only yours, since no two floors are ever the same.”

Simpson — known to some customers as Simpson and others as Collins — took a roundabout route to her career.

This residential pool patio won Victoria Simpson Collins a grand prize in L. M. Scofield Co.’s 2013 Decorative Concrete Awards. Photos courtesy of Capitol Decorative Concrete
This residential pool patio won Victoria Simpson Collins a grand prize in L. M. Scofield Co.’s 2013 Decorative Concrete Awards. Photos courtesy of Capitol Decorative Concrete

“I have a paralegal degree and a music performance degree. Then I was a corporate investment planner for Michelin Tire Corp. for about 12 years,” she says.

Next, Simpson decided to run a bookkeeping business from her home. One of her customers was a distributor for decorative concrete products. “I started keeping the books and learning the products from the bookkeeping standpoint.”

When the distributor decided to get into the installation business, it hired employees. But it had a hard time keeping them. “Over about six years, every time someone would quit, I would take on a little bit more of the business,” Simpson explains. “The salesperson quit, and I became the salesperson. If somebody wouldn’t come in, I would fill in on the crew spot. Then the head of the crew quit, and that meant I was meeting the concrete trucks in the morning and doing a lot of stamped concrete work. Then it was my own pair of yellow boots, and I was pouring concrete every day.

Map made of concrete
On the floor of the Marina Store, located next to the Charleston Harbor Fish House at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, in Charleston, S.C., Simpson executed an elaborate map of Charleston Harbor that shows channels, marshes and shipwreck sites.

“I did that for about six years, and I was doing all the work and they were making all the money. So I approached them about profit sharing or some way to make it worth my time.”

The company rebuffed her, and she decided to go back to bookkeeping. “But I couldn’t get away from the fact that I just loved this work,” Simpson says. “So after about six months of that, I decided to open my own company.”

Colored concrete patio

Acid stain mastery
When Simpson founded South Carolina-based Capitol Decorative Concrete in the early 1990s, she stamped concrete. “Back then, nobody knew what decorative concrete was,” she says. “You’d go to a home show, and somebody would think it was landscape tile that you laid in the bark mulch. They didn’t understand it.”

But in the past seven or eight years, her focus has shifted to acid-staining existing concrete. “I love that market,” she says.

Concrete patio

One of Simpson’s signature techniques involves using acrylic paint to increase the palette of colors available with acid stains. “You can’t get the primary colors in acid stain,” she explains. “I do a logo for the Copper River Grill chain in all their lobbies, and it has colors you can’t get with acid stain. I came up with a technique using an acrylic paint, like Apple Barrel craft paints. I thin it with an acid-water mix. I don’t get as deep of a burn as I get with acid stain, but I get enough of a grip from that little bit of extra burn. Then it’s sealed in under a 30-percent-solids solvent-based sealer. These Copper River Grills, there’s thousands of people a year that go through the lobbies, and I only reseal them every two or three years. So they’re hanging in there.”

She also likes to heavily spray multiple colors of acid stain and let them run together, producing what she calls the “cosmos effect,” like an image of a multicolored galaxy. The characteristics of the floor — a low spot here, a crack there — create a one-of-a-kind appearance for each job.

Stained concrete floor

In her acid staining work, Simpson draws on some informal art training she had when she was young, and she even credits her music background for inspiration. She’s painted a big bunch of grapes in the lobby of His Vineyard, a church in Greer, S.C., and a 33-foot-diameter compass rose in the courtyard of The Children’s Museum, in Greenville, S.C. One challenging project was a map of Charleston Harbor that she created on the 3,300-square-foot floor of the Marina Store at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina. Store staff created a handout that keeps children busy finding all the shipwrecks marked on the map while their parents shop.

Her expertise is recognized. Earlier this year, manufacturer L. M. Scofield Co. gave one of her residential patio designs a grand prize in the Artistic Concrete category at the company’s Decorative Concrete Awards.

Football team logo in concrete

Getting the job done
Simpson often works alone. “I’m doing so much artistic work, and you can’t pass that off to someone else, give them that responsibility,” she says. “In the acid staining market, there are a lot of residential or small commercial projects that are 5,000 square feet or less, and I can almost do those on my own.

“Usually I have one full-time person who’s with me all the time, and I can call in three to five more people. I have two or three professional people who I’ve trained — people I’ve known over the years who have gone with me on jobs and have learned the skill.

Concrete patio with stencil design

“Plus, my oldest son is an architect, and my younger son is a builder, and they have been raised in this for 22 years. They’ve been trained their whole life. So if I have a large project on the weekend, I’ll pull in my kids and say, ‘Come on, we have something to do.’”

Although Simpson attributes most of her business to referrals from existing customers, she mails out a postcard once or twice a year to home-builders association members, architects and interior decorators. “I’m trying to do more lunch-and-learn type things for architects and decorators, because a lot of people out there don’t have a clue what acid stain is. There have been so many concrete paints over the years that don’t hold up that clients are a little bit worried about taking their existing concrete and making it into something like this.”

Concrete basketball court

Though she’s been in business 22 years, the 57-year-old Simpson is only now in the process of applying for Women’s Business Enterprise certification. “I’ve never wanted anyone to hire me because I was a girl,” Simpson says. “I wanted them to hire me because I was good at what I did.”

Simpson currently has a steady pipeline of work that takes her from Kentucky to Florida. Retirement isn’t part of her plans. “I would love to have commissioned work in artistic concrete that would allow me to travel, even internationally,” she says.

Stamped and colored concrete patio

“I feel like I’m making little marks in the world that will be here long after I’m gone. To be able to build a reputation for something good is worth so much more than just getting a paycheck at the end of it. I never hate to go to work, even though it’s a 10-hour day.

“When I worked at Michelin Tire, at the end of the day, my inbox looked just like it did (when I started work that day). I could work all day long, do my job the very best I could, and come back the next morning — and nobody would know I’d been there.”

Decorative concrete offers more satisfaction. “At the end of my day, when I look across what I did, it’s like, ‘I did that, that’s something I can be really proud of,’ and that speaks to what I love. That’s why I’ve stayed with it this long, and why I intend to stay with it until I die.”

www.flickr.com/photos/capitoldec

Decorative concrete patio

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