Using cement as a patio material can save money over expensive natural stone and paving bricks. Patios are rarely ever made from cement alone because, although cement hardens naturally, it is not strong enough to support the weight of regular patio activities. Most patios are actually made of concrete, which is a mixture of cement that binds an aggregate, such as gravel, to provide support. A few frugal tricks can make a low-cost patio look expensive.
Concrete can be easily manipulated to get a high-end patio look at a frugal cost. The concrete can be stamped while it's still wet. These stamps leave an impression in the concrete, a process that can give the look of expensive tile, pebbles, brick and even wood. A few sections of the tile pattern can be stained to achieve the color variation of natural stone tiles. Similarly, concrete can be engraved with diamond blades after the material has dried, which gives the look of grouted natural stone or tile without the expense. A major advantage is that the patio looks like grouted tile, but the continuous slab of concrete eliminates the problem with cracking and separation that commonly occurs with tile and stone.
An exposed aggregate patio is ideal for those who want a nonskid surface. The finished product looks like a natural bed of pebbles. The effect is achieved by spreading smooth pebbles over wet concrete; always use smooth, rounded pebbles because you don't want sharp points on a walking surface. In this case, the pebbles can be used in place of the aggregate normally added to cement to form concrete. The pebbles must be tamped slightly so that they are set into the patio. The surface is easily cleaned with a deck brush or pressure washer.
Instead of pouring a slab of concrete for the patio surface, concrete pavers can be used to create a level patio area. Concrete pavers are commonly formed to look like bricks and are a frugal alternative to real brick pavers. A level surface is cleared in the patio area and then several inches of crushed rock is added to provide a firm foundation. The concrete pavers are laid side by side over the crushed rock and cut with a circular saw fitted with a masonry blade as needed to fit in tight spaces. Once all the pavers are set, regular sand or polymeric sand is pushed between the cracks to bind them together. Polymeric sand is sand mixed with a binding powder, sometimes cement, that hardens after it gets wet.
The smooth surface of a concrete patio is ideal for painting. The concrete surface can be painted a solid color or an intricate design can be painted. Homeowners who aren't skilled painters can use stencils to apply designs to the patio. Exterior latex acrylic paints, polyurethane paints or epoxy paints can be used on concrete, although they each have drawbacks. Polyurethane and epoxy paints are long lasting and weather resistant, but they can be slippery when wet. Latex paints are easier to clean up and are best for creating intricate designs, but they may need to be repainted every couple years. Sealing with polyurethane can extend the life of latex painted surfaces.