Prepare yourself — you are about to enter the ultimate decorative concrete showroom zone.
Mike Branch, owner of The Rental Branch in St. Joseph, Mich., had a vision to create the most concentrated display of decorative concrete anywhere. Mission accomplished. Mostly finished as of late 2010, it’s been nearly a year in the making, though it felt more like 10 years, according to Mike, considering the business remained open during the extensive reconstruction. The end result was worth it all.
When Branch opened his business in 1996, decorative concrete was virtually nonexistent in his southwest Michigan waterfront community. Exclusively an equipment rental business at first, The Rental Branch started small in decorative concrete supply, selling only finishing tools and equipment. It evolved in 2004 when it began selling color and renting stamps. With the new additions, decorative concrete started catching on, as the stamp rentals provided contractors with the opportunity to offer a variety of stamped patterns without making a large investment. It wasn’t long before contractors were even sending their clients to The Rental Branch to look at samples and get ideas.
As demand continued to grow, it made sense for The Rental Branch to become a full-service DC facility. “It’s been a nice way to combine our core business, renting stamps, shotblasters, grinders, polishers and so on, with the actual materials,” says Branch. “People used to come in and ask if we sold decorative concrete products. Now they look around and ask if we still rent equipment.”
Before you even enter the store there is so much to see, as nearly every surface is covered with decorative concrete, including the building itself. Dan Foytick, area sales manager for Brickform at the time, hand-delivered the Paladiano texture mats that helped create a walkway of exterior decorative concrete samples, an almost quilt-like pattern of colors and textures that lead you to the building’s entrance. But don’t go inside just yet — to the left of the store is a massive outdoor kitchen with state-of-the-art appliances, ample counter space and a Chicago Brick Oven. The Rental Branch is a distributor for the Brick Oven, a specially designed wood-burner. They have embedded one in a DC chimney facade, and they actually use it to bake pizza for their customers. “If you see smoke coming from the chimney, stop by and get a slice of pizza,” Branch says.
Branch doesn’t like to do anything small. In order to achieve the vision he had for his showroom, there were some alterations to the building that were necessary first. With Branch acting as the general contractor, a local contractor was hired to tear off part of the old building and frame the addition. His own crew and contractor customers did the bulk of the ensuing work. “Troy Lemon of Cornerstone Decorative Concrete (of Fennville, Mich.) helped with countertops, floors, vertical, stamping, advice and design,” Branch explains. “We traded work for product, which worked out well for both of us.”
Where the old building and the addition met, there were several support posts that Branch wanted to incorporate into his overall decorative concrete showroom plan, so he hired Nathan Giffin of Vertical Artisans, a creator and teacher of vertical decorative concrete techniques, to help them achieve a stone-arch wall. “The design was meant to push the limits to show the versatility of vertical concrete,” Branch explains. “The only place you will find columns and arches of this girth is in ancient Rome or Greece, but you can duplicate them with cultured stone.” After framing, meshing and applying a scratch coat, it was on-the-job training for Branch and his staff with Giffin teaching them how to use Vertifaux to design the stones, adding and removing product to create depth, adding texture with skins, rollers and trowels, and finally coloring it all with water-based stains.
As of late 2010, the 3,162-square-foot showroom is mostly complete. As you enter, a winding blue river greets you, leading you to a clear pond complete with colorful rocks, fishing lures, and pieces of driftwood. This is decorative concrete, of course: As Branch likes to say, “At The Rental Branch, our customers walk on water.”
To create this colorful, powerfully detailed effect, shapes were cut into the existing concrete and filled with Buddy Rhodes Concrete Countertop Mix tinted light blue to depict a submerged island. Surrounding that is the river, which was developed with a layer of Cohills Building Specialties’ metallic epoxy in Caribbean Blue and interspersed secondary colors of Cohills metallic epoxy in Teal and Galaxy Blue. Within the river are the ponds, which were textured and colored with Smith Paints water-based stain and given metallic highlights. Actual fishing lures, river rock and driftwood pieces were embedded using a clear casting epoxy. Much of the work was very labor-intensive, as many of the products had to be added in several layers or “lifts,” but it was worth the realistic effect.
The Rental Branch showroom is filled with every opportunity to learn, visualize and be inspired by a plethora of microtoppings, stamped overlays, stenciling, acid stains, dyes and epoxies. Showpieces throughout the vast space convey a multitude of available decorative concrete finishes geared toward both the contractor/customer and potential end users. Branch believes his customers will want to learn more about decorative finishes, and on top of that, contractors already practicing the craft now have a place to send their clients for more definitive design ideas.
Tucked into its own little alcove is “the workshop,” where the walls were stamped to match vintage wood planking from a neighbor’s barn that was used for beams in the store. The workshop is located in a “dream garage” and includes a workbench where texture rollers, skins, texture trowels and other tools are displayed. The dream garage itself has an 8-foot glass garage door and a chip floor that was created by Steve Grimm, sales rep for Citadel Floor Finishing Systems, during a demonstration of the RockSolid Floors Polyurea Floor Coating System.
The sample area provides an even greater sampling of products and techniques. Jim Mullins, area sales rep for Butterfield Color, helped install the red-brick stencil wall and the stampable overlay that became the brick facade, part of a nice little urban oasis for exploring sealers and sundries. This area also features 18-inch samples of vertical carved stone, stenciled brick, plaster over brick, BOLDgranite and stampable overlays.
The showroom boasts an elaborate fireplace, a media room, a bar/sales counter, and a multitude of decorative floor sections, pathways and verticals, all illustrating decorative finishes ranging from the basic to the elaborate.
Branch and his team of five employees do not do installations themselves, but they feel their hands-on experience gives them credibility when it comes to teaching others the craft. They offer workshops on all their products, believing that training is the key to sales. They are working with the local community college to teach a countertop training class, and they plan to offer job-site training during which students walk through every step of a project.
In-house, Branch foresees another type of workshop in the near future, using products such as Buddy Rhodes furniture molds. “These craft-type workshops would be geared toward anyone, not just contractors, and everyone would create a concrete piece to take home with them.”
For more information on some of the products used in the showroom of The Rental Branch:
For more about two of the decorative concrete artisans who worked on the showroom of The Rental Branch: