If you aren’t yet familiar with glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) you should be. GFRC is a specialized form of concrete with many applications. It can be effectively used to create façade wall panels, fireplace surrounds, vanity tops and concrete countertops due to its unique properties and tensile strength. One of the best ways to truly understand the benefits of GFRC is to take a deeper look into this unique compound.
What is GFRC?
GFRC is similar to chopped fiberglass (the kind used to form boat hulls and other complex three-dimensional shapes), although much weaker. It’s made by combining a mixture of fine sand, cement, polymer (usually an acrylic polymer), water, other admixtures and alkali-resistant (AR) glass fibers. Many mix designs are available online, but you’ll find that all share similarities in the ingredients and proportions used.
Some of the many benefits of GFRC include:
- Ability to Construct Lightweight Panels– Although the relative density is similar to concrete, GFRC panels can be much thinner than traditional concrete panels, making them lighter.
- High Compressive, Flexural and Tensile Strength– The high dose of glass fibers leads to high tensile strength while the high polymer content makes the concrete flexible and resistant to cracking. Proper reinforcing using scrim will further increase the strength of objects and is critical in projects where visible cracks are not tolerable.
GFRC is strong. Check out this video to see just how strong it can be:
The Fibers in GFRC- How They Work
The glass fibers used in GFRC help give this unique compound its strength. Alkali resistant fibers act as the principle tensile load carrying member while the polymer and concrete matrix binds the fibers together and helps transfer loads from one fiber to another. Without fibers GFRC would not possess its strength and would be more prone to breakage and cracking.
Understanding the complex fiber network in GFRC is a topic in and of itself. See this article for more in depth technical information about GFRC fibers.
GFRC Mix Designs
If you’ve worked much with concrete you know that finding the right mix can be difficult and often requires years of experience. Many different factors impact the ideal composition for concrete, and GFRC is no different. Mix design isn’t a concept that can be tackled in one blog post, but here are some of the basic components in a good GFRC mix:
- Fine Sand– Sand used in GFRC should have an average size passing a #50 sieve to #30 sieve (0.3 mm to 0.6mm). Finer sand tends to inhibit flowability while coarser material tends to run off of vertical sections and bounce back when being sprayed.
- Cement– Typical proportions use equal parts by weight of sand and cement.
- Polymer– Acrylic polymer is typically preferred over EVA or SBR polymers for GFRC. Acrylic is non-rewettable, so once it dries out it won’t soften or dissolve, nor will it yellow from exposure to sunlight. Most acrylic polymers used in GFRC have solids content ranging from 46% to over 50%. Consider trying Smooth-On’s duoMatrix-C and Forton’s VF-774, two reliable acrylic polymer choices.
- Water– Common water to cement ratios range from .3 to .35. When determining how much water to use make sure to take the water content from your acrylic polymer into account. This can make calculating water to cement ratios difficult unless the solids content of the polymer is known. With a polymer solids content of 46%, 15 lbs of polymer plus 23 lbs of water are added for every 100 lbs of cement.
- Alkali Resistant Glass Fibers– Fibers are an essential component of GFRC. If you’re using the spray-up method for casting the fibers will be cut and added to the mix automatically by your sprayer at the time of application. If you’re using premix or the hybrid method for casting you’ll mix the fibers in yourself. Fiber content varies but is typically between 5% to 7% of the overall cementitious weight. Higher fiber content increases strength but decreases workability.
- Other Admixtures– Some other elements you may choose to include in your GFRC mix include pozzolans (such as silica fume, metakaolin or VCAS) and superplasticizers.
Commercial GFRC commonly uses two different methods for casting GFRC: spray up and premix. Let’s take a quick look at both as well as a more cost effective hybrid method.
The application process for Spray-up GFRC is very similar to shotcrete in that the fluid concrete mixture is sprayed into the forms. The process uses a specialized spray gun to apply the fluid concrete mixture and to cut and spray long glass fibers from a continuous spool at the same time. Spray-up creates very strong GFRC due to the high fiber load and long fiber length, but purchasing the equipment can be very expensive ($20,000 or more).
- Pros: Allows for very high fiber loads using long fibers resulting in greatest possible strength.
- Cons: Requires expensive, specialized equipment (generally $20,000 or more).
Premix mixes shorter fibers into the fluid concrete mixture which is then poured into molds or sprayed. Spray guns for premix don’t need a fiber chopper, but they can still be very costly. Premix also tends to possess less strength than spray-up since the fibers and shorter and placed more randomly throughout the mix.
- Pros: Less expensive than spray-up, although a special spray gun and pump is required.
- Cons: Fiber orientation is more random than when using spray-up and fibers are shorter resulting in less strength.
One final option for creating GFRC is using a hybrid method that uses an inexpensive hopper gun to apply the face coat and a handpacked or poured backer mix. A thin face without fibers (called a mist coat or face coat) is sprayed into the molds and the backer mix is then packed in by hand or poured in much like ordinary concrete.
This is the method that most concrete countertop makers use.
This is an affordable way to get started, but it is critical to carefully create both the face mix and backer mix to ensure similar consistency and makeup, and to know when to apply the backer coat so that it adheres properly to the thin mist coat but doesn’t tear it.
- Pros: Affordable way to get started with GFRC. A hopper and air compressor run about $400-$500, much less than the spray guns used for spray-up or premix.
- Cons: Since the face coat and backer mix are applied at different times careful attention is needed to ensure the mixes have a similar makeup to prevent curling.
The high polymer content of GFRC means that long term moist curing is unnecessary. Cover a freshly cast piece with plastic overnight, but as soon as it has gained enough strength it can be uncovered and processed. Many GFRC pieces are stripped 16 to 24 hours after casting.
Your skill level, the composition of your mix and the method used will determine how much processing is needed once your GFRC countertop is removed from its molds. Grouting may be needed to fill in bug holes or surface imperfections. Any blowback (sand and concrete that doesn’t stick to the forms) needs to be cleaned or the concrete’s surface will be open and granular. Achieving a perfect piece right out of the mold is very difficult and requires great skill.
Common Questions About GFRC
- How thick is a typical GFRC concrete countertop?– Typical concrete countertops made with GFRC range from ¾” to 1” in thickness. This is the minimum thickness that a long, flat countertop can be made so it doesn’t break when handled or transported. Smaller wall tiles can be much thinner.
- How does GFRC compare to traditional precast concrete countertops?– See this article for details.
- Is GFRC Green?– GFRC is roughly on par with other forms of concrete countertops in terms of the “green-ness”. In comparing 1.5” thick concrete countertops to ¾” GFRC countertops, the same amount of cement is used, since GFRC tends to use about twice as much cement as ordinary concrete. This sets them equal to each other. The use of polymers and the need to truck them does make GFRC less green than using ordinary water, which could be recycled from shop use. Both traditional cast and GFRC can use recycled aggregates, and steel reinforcing is more green than AR glass fibers, since steel is the most recycled material, so its use in concrete of all forms boosts the concrete’s green-ness.
Interesting Facts About GFRC
- GFRC was first created in the 1940s in Russia, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the current form came into widespread use for building façades.
- GFRC tends to run about $2.50-$3.00 per square foot for ¾” thick material. The cost increases to about $3.50-$3.75 per square foot for 1” thick material when accounting for the prices of sand, cement, admixtures, fibers and polymer.
More Technical Training on GFRC
View our FREE, 2.5 hour seminar “Step by Step GFRC with Mix Design” by requesting access here.
Check out this short 7-minute video featuring excerpts from our 2-hour online video training Professional GFRC for Concrete Countertops and More. Watching an actual GFRC countertop being constructed will help you better understand many of the topics covered in this article. And, seeing what you can learn from Jeff in only 7 minutes – imagine what you can learn in 2 hours!
Learn A LOT more in Professional GFRC for Concrete Countertops and More.
Photos of GFRC Concrete Countertops, Furniture, Sinks and More
Just like regular concrete, GFRC can accommodate a variety of artistic embellishments including acid staining, dying, integral pigmentation, decorative aggregates, veining and more. It can also be etched, polished, sandblasted and stenciled.
If you can imagine it, you can do it, making GFRC a great option for creating concrete countertops and especially three-dimensional concrete elements such as furniture, sinks, fire pits and more.
This video shows a few examples of GFRC creations by CCI Alumni. You can also view photos of creative concrete, most of it made using GFRC, here.