Most people use the word ‘cement’ to describe all kinds of gray mixes used in masonry and home improvement. Some would even use ‘cement’ interchangeably with ‘concrete’ or ‘mortar’.
After all, they all come in brown sacs, solidify when mixed with water, and are used in home improvement, right? Any professional builder would scream at this point; NO, absolutely wrong!
That’s because there are some serious differences between concrete, mortar, and cement. Each one has a composition that allows it to perform a specific job. The following 5 points illustrate that fully.
After reading this article, you’d be able to pick the right cement mix for any given application. More importantly, you’d be confident enough to embark on a wide variety of amazing home improvement projects!
Understanding the Differences Between Concrete, Mortar, and Cement
All these substances are used in masonry and building-related projects. That’s why outsiders think of them as being one and the same product.
To tell them apart, let’s see what’s the composition of each product? What are the best uses? What are the general limitations? And how much does each one cost? This should provide the necessary information to work well with each one of these materials.
Cement is the main ingredient that goes into the concrete and mortar mixes. It’s made primarily from limestone,plus, a fine cocktail of clay, silica sand, calcium, aluminum, iron ore, and shells. All of these ingredients are heated at around 2700 °F, then, crushed and ground to a fine powder.
Cement, much like concrete and mortar, solidifies as soon as it gets hydrated, and it does look sufficiently strong. However, it’s rarely used in that pure form, and that’s because its properties are deficient in many ways.
For starters, it lacks the binding power of a mortar mix. Additionally, it doesn’t have half the structural flexibility, versatility, and strength of concrete.
The concrete mix is made from cement, sand, and aggregate. That last ingredient; aggregate, is simply gravel of varying sizes. This gives concrete form, strength, and an exceptional capability of being molded into all sorts of shapes.
There are several kinds of concrete mixes, and most of them use Portland cement as their main ingredient, even though it only takes up 10-15% of the final mix. The gravel/aggregate often constitutes 65-75%, and the rest is water.
Cutting grooves in concrete can be quite challenging.
Mortar looks a lot like concrete, but there is one main ingredient that doesn’t go into the mix, which is aggregate. So mortar is made from cement, sand, and water. Occasionally, people add lime to increase the binding properties of mortar, as well as its durability.
There are several types of mortar from the fine paste we know as thinset, to the list of mortar types; K, N, M, O, and S. There are two more close relatives to mortar, which are stucco and grout.
The ingredients of each type of paste give it different sets of properties. The main features people look for are ease of application, binding force, strength, load-bearing, and insulation, in addition to other decorative features.
Cement, concrete, and mortar, share the same general appearance of being powdery and gray. They’re all hydraulic types of cement that solidify and cure as soon as they come in contact with water.
A cement and water mixture hardens into a grout, which can be used in underwater repairs of submerged structures. That’s because once this pure mixture takes up the water it needs, it doesn’t soak up any more water.
Mortar is a step up from the pure cement and water mix. The addition of sand and lime make it perfect for binding, filling, forming neat finishes, and forming insulation layers.
Concrete is a versatile mix that can be formed into almost any shape. It has very high strength, and due to the aggregate component, doesn’t crack up easily. There’s some room for internal expansion and contraction, which makes it a reliable structural element.
In its finished form, concrete isn’t sensitive to humidity, fire, or seismic activity. It’s also resistant to insects and rodent infestations. In fact, this barely scratches the surface of how wonderful this material is.
Cement is mainly used as the active ingredient in concrete and different types of mortar. On a few occasions, a cement/water mix comes in handy, such as when working on submerged structures. Some people would also use it in making artwork, molds, and various decorative items.
With concrete, the list would run much longer! It’s an integral part of any building, and in addition to that, here are some common uses:
- Building houses
- Lining storage spaces
- Foundation walls
- It’s heavily used in patios
- Concrete slabs
- Foundation for roads
- Building concrete megastructures like dams
As for mortar mixes, this is where they’re mostly used:
- Binding soft stone masonry
- Glues bricks together
- Used in retaining walls
- Finishing exteriors and above-grade walls
- Lining sewers and manholes
- High PSI mortar is used in below grade structures
- The tiling of patios and walkways
- Restoring historic buildings
A cement and water mix generally cracks if spread over a wide area. Unlike concrete, it could be quite brittle.
Concrete is the most versatile of all mixes, but it doesn’t have the fluidity and binding power of mortar. Thus, it can’t be used in binding bricks, filling the spaces between stones, or as a finishing layer.
It’s much heavier than wood, and often more difficult to work with. That’s why so many people opt for the latter. Concrete has far superior properties though.
Mortar is an extremely soft substance. The best it can do is bind structures together or act as a nice filler in masonry works. Even when it’s used as an exterior finish, like in stucco work, it’s still quite fragile. It can easily get scratched by a tree branch or chipped if a lawnmower bumps into it.
Portland cement currently sells for around $20 for the general purpose typeI or type II bags. This is often the price of a 10 lb bag, and understandably, larger amounts would come at better prices.
The ready-made concrete mix is a popular product that sells for slightly less than $20. The 10 lb container is by far the most convenient choice for home improvement projects. Bigger works usually demand a premixed order.
Mortar mixes start from $20 too. But depending on what goes into the mix and what type of mortar this is, the prices could get much higher.
Cement is one of the greatest inventions of our times. Thanks to this magic powder we became able to build extremely high-strength structures, affordable living spaces, and impressive commercial buildings.
This was only possible by mixing cement with other materials like sand, aggregate, and lime. The new mixes are known to us as concrete and mortar. At this point you can cleverly tell which is which, and what are the best ways to use each.
We hope that this inspires your next DIY home improvement project!