Before you begin this project, read through all of these steps first (you won't have time to read once the work begins). Plus, you will likely need to pay extra if the driver of the concrete truck has to wait more than an hour.
Excavate and build the form.
Lay out the site, remove sod, and measure for correct depth. Build the form out of 2 by 4s as you would construct lumber edging. If the form will be permanent, use pressure-treated or other rot-resistant lumber.
Anchor the form boards with some stakes every few feet. Drive the stakes slightly below the top of the form boards. The boards should feel solid when you kick them outward.
Frame a curve.
If the form will be permanent, install bender boards where you want a curve.
If the form will be temporary, two thicknesses of fibrous isolation make for an easier installation. (You can easily smooth the edges later.)
Add a middle screed guide.
If the form is wider than 8 feet, it will be difficult to screed across its entire width. Install a temporary screed guide in the middle.
Anchor the guide with a stake near the house and drive a screw through the form at the other end. This will allow you to remove the guide later on.
Spread and tamp gravel.
Use a garden rake or a gravel spreader (as shown) to spread gravel at a consistent depth below the top of the form.
Tamp the gravel firm using a vibrating plate compactor, hand tamper, or length of 4 by 4.
Build wheelbarrow paths.
Decide where the concrete truck will park and plan how the concrete will get poured in the formed area. If you're lucky, a chute extension can be added to the truck to pour the concrete directly into the formed area.
In most cases, however, you will need to deliver it with wheelbarrows. To keep from damaging your lawn and to provide a smooth running surface for the wheelbarrows, construct paths made of 2 by 10s or 2 by 12s.
Use scrap pieces to make a stable bridge wherever the wheelbarrow will go over a form board. Make sure the form will not get bumped as you wheel over the bridge.
Pour into wheelbarrows.
It usually works best to have two wheelbarrow operators and one shoveler, who wears heavy boots and remains in the formed area.
Set the wheelbarrows on a stable surface under the truck's chute and place a foot on the wheelbarrow's rear frame to keep it from tipping.
Tell the driver to pour the first wheelbarrow half full; you may want heavier loads later. Use a scrap of lumber to scrape the chute after it stops pouring so no concrete spills.
Wheel and pour into the forms.
Wheel a load of concrete carefully; it's easy to tip it over if you have not practiced.
If you start to lose control of the wheelbarrow, don't try to right it. Instead, push down on the handles with both hands. Then pick up the handles and try again. If you continue to have trouble, ask the driver for smaller loads.
Wheel the concrete into the far corner of the formed area and pour it out. Have the shoveler scrape the wheelbarrow, and then go back for more.
Move the concrete screed.
Have the shoveler spread the concrete until it is even with, or slightly above, the top of the form boards.
Set a straight 2 by 4 on the form board and on the temporary screed guide and work with a helper to screed the concrete by dragging the 2 by 4 across the surface. It may help to move the board in a sawing motion as you pull it.
Where the concrete is low, sprinkle on small amounts of concrete with a shovel, and then screed again.
Remove the temporary screed guide.
If you installed a temporary screed guide, fill and screed one section, and then use a shovel to pry out the temporary guide.
Screed the other side.
Working with a helper, screed the other side of the slab. You can let one end of the 2 by 4 rest on the screeded concrete while the other rests on a form board. Fill in any low spots and screed again.
Be sure the form is completely full before saying good-bye to the driver. (He may help you spray-clean your wheelbarrow if you’ve gotten friendly.)
It's a good idea to pour some leftover concrete into a 5-gallon bucket; you may find that you need a little more when you finish the surface.
Level with a bull float.
Leveling a large area is difficult without a bull float; it's a tool well worth renting. Gently set the bull float in the concrete near you and push it forward with the front edge slightly raised. Pull it back over the same area with a series of tugs that produce slight ripples in concrete -- this motion will push stones down and fill in small holes.
After each back-and-forth stroke, pick the float up and level the adjacent section with the same motions. Overlap the strokes slightly to make sure you float the entire surface.
Smooth with a magnesium float.
Bull floating will cause "bleed water" (sometimes called "cream") to rise to the surface. Avoid working the surface with any type of float or trowel when there are standing pools of water.
Some finishers use a wood float at this point, but most do-it-yourselfers find a magnesium float easier to use. As soon as the surface is free of puddles, use a magnesium float to further smooth the surface.
Start floating at the far corner and work back so that you do not kneel on newly floated concrete. Hold the tool so that the leading edge is slightly raised, and press down gently as you work.
Where you cannot reach across the slab, place two pieces of plywood, each about 2 feet square and screwed into 1-by-2 handles (to make the plywood easy to pick up), on the concrete. One piece is for your knees and one is for your feet.
When you need to move, pick up the foot piece and kneel on it, and put the piece that was under your knees under your feet.
Step 13 (shown here)
Cut the edges.
Slip a mason’s trowel between the inside of the form boards and the concrete and slide all along the perimeter of the slab. This will eliminate the pockets of air that can weaken the concrete.
Tap the form boards.
To further eliminate air pockets and to help separate the form boards from the concrete, tap the form boards with a hammer all along their length.
Round the edges.
Run an edging tool along the outside edges and both sides of any permanent wood dividers. Use back-and-forth sawing motions at first, and then long, sweeping motions to achieve a neatly rounded edge at all points. If air pockets appear, it may help to fill them in with small amounts of leftover wet concrete.
Cut a control joint.
To prevent unsightly cracking, make a control joint in the middle of any section of patio wider than 10 feet. Set a straight 2 by 4 on top of the concrete as a guide. Run the jointer back and forth several times until the concrete is smooth on either side of the joint.
If you have opted for a broom finish (next step), use a magnesium float again to gently smooth the lines produced when you used the jointer and the edger. If you want a smoother finish, have an experienced finisher use a trowel to produce a "hard finish."
The professional will run the trowel across the surface in wide, sweeping arcs with a moderate amount of pressure, barely bringing moisture to the surface.
Broom finish and cure.
Using a soft-bristled push broom, pull the broom toward you -- never push it -- to produce a lightly textured surface. If the bristles don't dig in and produce the surface you like, try wetting the broom. Work carefully and aim to produce a consistent texture with straight lines. Avoid overlapping the strokes; make them right next to each other.
The more slowly concrete cures, the stronger it will be. Keep the finished concrete moist for at least a week. Cover the slab with plastic or spray it with a fine mist twice a week (or more often if the air is dry). After a day, carefully pry away temporary forms.