One of the major drawbacks of living in a mass-produced tract home is they usually supply you with a super-small slab of concrete for your patio.
That was the case in my home, so I decided to install something that had more room to roam and was more pleasing to the eye.
I weighed the pros and cons of several options, including concrete, wood, gravel, masonry, and pavers. Ultimately, I settled on pavers because it was a project I could do myself, and I really liked the look.
The original concrete slab was approximately 8 feet wide by 12 feet long. That was barely wide enough to fit a small table and grill, and guests would frequently trip off the edges of the concrete as they were trying to navigate around the table.
Something had to be done…
To install a paver patio, I had the option of demolishing the concrete or leaving it in place and putting the pavers over the top.
I decided to leave the original slab because of the difficulty involved with demolishing it myself. The additional organic material required raising the pavers over the level of the patio was less expensive than hiring someone to get rid of the old slab.
The next decision was shape. My options were: to make it rectangular, circular, or kidney-bean shaped. Rectangular was certainly the easiest of the three options, but esthetically, I thought a rounded patio would be a nice contrast to a rectangular house.
A circle or semi-circle was a consideration because circular paver kits are available to make lining up the stones a snap. I almost went ahead with the circular plan until I drew a scale diagram. When I added scale drawings of the grill and patio furniture, I wasn’t comfortable with the use of space on the semi-circular patio.
I then started playing around with different kidney bean shapes. I liked the elegance as well as the efficient use of space. I could put the grill in the smaller area of the shape and the patio furniture in the larger area.
The downside of a kidney bean shape is difficulty increases. Since I couldn’t find any kits, I would have to make the shape work on my own.
Before I broke ground, I drafted a drawing of my plans to scale in Adobe Illustrator. (You could use photoshop, or even a piece of paper if you wanted.)
I turned on the grid and pretended that every inch in the grid was equivalent to a foot in real life. I measured the back of my house, back door, windows, grill, patio furniture, and distance between everything before putting the elements in my drawing.
The scale model allowed me to calculate how much building material I would need. By calculating the area of the patio, I could determine the amount of paver stones, leveling sand, and base material I needed.
I entered all of this information into a spreadsheet with local price information to determine the estimated budget.
The goal was to create a patio big enough for guests to enjoy, but within a reasonable budget.
(TIP, before starting any DIY project to your home, call your city and local HOA to see if you need permits or applications.)
At the hardware store, the first thing I bought was some masonry string, some regular string, some orange spray paint, some wooden stakes, and some in-line levels.
The first task was to create an outline with spray paint of the new kidney bean shaped patio with a 2 foot buffer on the outside. Since the kidney bean shape was comprised of two circles, I measured out the center of each circle and painted an orange X to mark each spot.
I then measured out some regular string (not masonry string because it flexes) and put a mark at the radius of each circle plus two feet. I had someone hold the end of the string at the center of the circle, and I held the spray can at the mark and sprayed the outline of the circles. I connected the two circles by hand using a sweeping motion with my arms to keep the curve as natural as possible.
Now that the excavation area was marked, the next goal was to create a plane with strings at the level of the new paver patio. This plane would give me a visual reference for how deep to dig and how to level each base layer.
The pavers were about 1 1/2 inches thick, and they were to sit on 3/4 inches of leveling sand. That meant the surface of the paver patio would sit about two and 1/4 inches above the existing concrete patio. I made a mark on the house and using a level, extended the line to the width of the proposed patio.
Two wooden stakes were placed next to the house on the outside of the painted kidney bean shape. It’s important to keep these stakes out of the way of the excavation, because they will be of use for the duration of the project.
Once the stakes were secure, I made a pencil mark at the paver surface level. I used a circular saw to make a small, 1/4 inch notch at the mark and a deeper, 3/4 diagonal notch about three inches above the 1st notch.
I wrapped one end of the masonry string around the diagonal notch a few times and then once around the marker notch.
The next step was to put two more stakes away from the house, parallel to the original stakes, and outside the spray painted outline. Once those stakes were in place, I attached the other ends of the masonry string using in-line levels to adjust the sting until it was level.
Masonry string has some nylon in it, so it stretches a bit. It’s important to make sure to stretch the string so that there is very little sag between the two points. I marked the level point on the stakes and then calculated my slope.
It’s important to have a slight grade away from the house when constructing a patio to disperse water and avoid pooling at or under the foundation. The grade I used was 1/4 inch of slope per foot.
Now that I had two level masonry strings, I calculated the proper slope for each by multiplying the number of feet by 1/4”. For example, 12 feet would mean a 3” drop. 15 feet would mean a 4” drop, and so on.
I made a new mark below level on each of the stakes away from the house and re-tied the masonry strings to the new marks. Now, I had a visual marker to see where the top of my patio was going to be.
I added two more sets of masonry strings on the inside of the proposed patio and found the desired slope. I then connected the marks between the stakes to form a web that represented my the top of my new patio.
I made sure to make the strings easy to remove and replace.
The next step before excavation was to determine how deep I was going to dig. Working backward from the top, I needed to allow for 1 1/2” of pavers, 3/4” of leveling sand, and at least 9” of 3/4 to dust base material. That meant I had to go down at least 11 1/4” from the string plane. Since my patio was on a grade, that meant I would have to dig down more in some spots than in others.
Another consideration was how wide to dig the base. Since the finished paver patio would rise above the existing soil grade, I wanted to dig the base about 3 feet wider than the patio. Having a wide base would reduce the chance for erosion that could affect the integrity of the paver patio.
To assist in this goal, I planned for two flower gardens on each side of the patio, but at the same height.
After researching and becoming aware of paver patio DIY disasters, I began to realize that my number one concern would be to make sure that the base was going to be solid. A common mistake is to take the base lightly, and end up with crooked or falling off paver stones within in a few years.
I began to dig, making sure to clear out all of the old organic material including grass and roots that might weaken the base.
Choosing the right base material is critical to the success of a paver patio project. In my research online, I found that many people were using pea gravel or other types of loose gravel as a base. When I talked to local experts, I realized that this would have been a disaster.
The base material I chose to use was called “3/4 to dust, ” which is crushed rock consisting in a range of sizes from 3/4” all the way down to dust. It’s similar to the material they use to create dirt roads, also known as “road base.”
It gave me some comfort using material that was good enough to support heavy cars and trucks when my patio would only have to support the weight of as many people as I decided to invite over.
Using my spreadsheet to calculate how much material I thought I would need, I was able to order a truckload from a local supplier.
Learning experience note: I massively underestimated how much 3/4 to dust I would need. Maybe I wasn’t accounting for compaction, but I ended up having to bring in more material twice more before I got it right.
Another learning experience note: In an attempt to make it easier on my back, I had the supplier dump the material in my back yard near the project. While it was more convenient that running wheelbarrows from the driveway, the delivery was made after it had rained and the heavy truck tore up my lawn. I’m still trying to cover up the damage 6 months later.
Making sure the base is as compact as possible is extremely important. I chose to rent a gas-powered compactor or “whacker-packer” in lieu of using a hand tamper, and I would not do it any other way.
Shoveling the heavy base material into a wheelbarrow and rolling it up to the patio site was one of the more grueling aspects of this project. I had a good friend helping, and we took turns with the heavy lifting, but it took just about all the energy we had.
I used the compactor after every 1/4” to 1/2” layer of the base material was added. I spent a lot of time on each pass and made sure that it was as compact as I could get it.
In addition, I found it to be very helpful to add just the right amount of water to assist compaction, but not so much that it created too much mud. A friend of mine in construction later told me that moisture is critical to getting it to compact.
Spending so much time on compaction drew out the project, but I’m glad I did it.
As the level of the base grew nearer to the strings; I paid more and more attention, making sure it was extremely level. Leveling is very tricky and is more art than science.
Each pass, I detached and re-attached the web of masonry strings so that I could see which areas needed material to level it out. I found that a long (straight) 2×4 was useful to lay down and see where the high and low points were.
I was encouraged to feel how hard the base was. All of the compacting had paid off, and I now had what felt like a solid rock that would soon support my paver patio.
At this point in the process, I was very tired, but I motivated myself by envisioning the patio as level as possible for years to come. Once I got it to the desired state; I took a well-deserved break.
Re-drawing The Outline
By this time, the spray-painted outline of the patio was long gone, so I decided to spray another outline. This time, I sprayed it 1 foot outside the desired outline of the patio, which was the cushion I wanted for the leveling sand.
Seeing the outline on the leveled base was exciting! It gave me a sense for how the patio was going to look.
I bought two 3/4” metal pipes at 10’ long each. I made sure to get the straightest pipes I could find. To level the sand, I laid them down about 4 feet apart from each other running away from the house and shoveled sand in between them.
I used a 2×4 to screed the sand and get it as flat as possible. Since the patio was more than 10’ wide, I had to pull the pipes away from the house to reach the end.
Once I finished a section, I would remove one of the pipes and leapfrog the other to start a new 4’ section. I carefully filled in the gap where the pipe was and used a putty knife to level the area.
Once the leveling sand was down, it was time to lay the stones. Since I was eventually going to add a stone border of a different color, I started with the inner bricks. I gave myself about a 6” cushion to be eventually sawed off with a diamond blade concrete saw.
As I laid each section of stones, I created an island where I could stand to lay more stone. I tried to get the stones as close to each other as possible.
Somewhere online I read that laying the stones goes quickly, but in reality, that was far from the truth. It must have taken us 6 or 8 hours to lay all the stones. The weight of the bricks started to test my endurance.
There was some discussion as whether I should cut the stones on the border of the kidney bean shape individually or if I should leave them in place and cut the stones at the same time. I chose the later, and I’m glad I did.
I rented a diamond blade concrete saw from my local hardware store and suited up with the proper eye and ear protection.
Using the diamond saw was one of the scariest parts of the project, with the blade very near to my shoes. I cut the outline of the kidney shape with a slight angle in to allow for a tight seal between the inner and outer stones.
The result was a nice, curved line around the outside.
The next step was to lay the border stones around the edge and cut the first and last pieces to fit.
Once I laid all the stones, I installed a retaining border around the edge and nailed long spikes into the base material to keep it together.
The finishing touch for a paver patio is to bind the stones together using sand and the compactor. This process interlocks the stones and essentially creates a solid unit for your patio.
I struggled with the decision whether to use sand with a binding agent (polymetric) or just to use plain old sand. After exhaustive research online and talking to locals, I chose to go with plain old sand.
One reason was that if I ever had to re-adjust some pavers for settling, it would be much easier to do with sand than with polymetric. Also, I read many negative reviews online about how hard it was to get rid of all the polymetric dust on top of the pavers that, if wet, will bind to the stones and leave marks.
Using a broom, I swept sand into all the gaps between the stones and then used the compactor to go over the stones several times until I was sure that they were all locked in place.
After I had finished, my first impression was of how solid the pavers felt underneath my feet. The extra time spent compacting the base and interlocking the pavers made a difference. Also, people who visit are always impressed by the kidney bean shape and how clean the curves came out. Using a diamond blade saw on the stones in place instead of cutting them one at a time made quite a difference.
All in all, we are very happy with our new paver patio. Most people remark that it looks like we paid a lot for a professional to install it.
Even though it wasn’t cheap, (around $4,500) by the time we finished; we probably paid half of what we would have paid someone else.
(DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL< THIS IS JUST WHAT I DID)