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Building a Paver Patio

A winning game plan so you'll look like a champ

By Kurt Anderson
Published: May 1, 2009
patio paver
Photo by Kay Cone, dreamstime.com

Building a patio with pre-cast pavers requires the same basic skills found in successful NFL quarterbacks; the ability to formulate a solid game plan and take a lot of physical punishment. If you possess these two qualities (along with a bubble level and a calculator), building a paver patio will be one of the simplest projects you’ll ever tackle.

There are some wildcards, of course: Cold weather, water and poorly drained soil can combine to make your carefully placed pavers look like a linebacker’s crooked smile after just a couple seasons. But don’t worry – preparing the base correctly solves all these problems, preserving this elegant addition to your cabin yard for decades to come.

Getting Started

Ask carpenters or masons to name the two most important words in the construction business, and the words “level” and “square” will likely top the list. They’re almost right.

The two most important words for the DIY patio builder are actually “home” and “delivery.” All of this stuff is heavy, and most utility trailers just can’t handle the loads required – even for a small patio.

Tools are simple: a shovel, level, string line and a rubber mallet. If your design has non-90-degree angles or curves you’ll need a wet saw, which uses water and a diamond blade to cut through masonry and stone. These are simple to use and relatively cheap to buy or rent.

Laying Out a Design

The only limit here is your imagination. Feel free to mix sizes and colors in your pavers, especially along the edges. This adds a lot of character, especially for rectangular patios without greenery or other garnish.

Don’t be afraid to add a rock garden or a slightly elevated section; these simple additions make you look like you really know what you’re doing.

Laying out a rectangular patio is easy enough; simply stake the four corners, giving yourself at least 4 inches of extra space all the way around the perimeter, then measure the diagonals until they’re the same length. String the stakes to form the border, then double check for squareness.

Base Preparation

You’ve done the planning – now comes the grunt work. Poorly drained clay soil requires 2 to 3 inches of aggregate rock, followed by a couple inches of sand, followed by your pavers (which should be 1 inch above grade to aid drainage and sweeping). Since most pavers are 2 to 3 inches thick, this means you might have to dig down 6 to 8 inches in poorly drained soils. But here’s a dirty little secret: Natural sand or gravel bases mean you can often reduce or eliminate the amount of aggregate fill needed. If in doubt, simply spray the ground with water and see how quickly it drains. If aggregate is needed, level it and compact with a mechanical vibrating plate. (You can also use a hand tamper, if you’re willing to endure some wear and tear on your muscles.)

Laying a heavy-duty (3 oz/ yd3) layer of landscape fabric over your aggregate will suppress weeds and help prevent washouts for years to come. Add your 2-inch layer of washed sand over the fabric, then use a long 2x4 to screed the sand level across the patio.

Compact the leveled sand as you did the aggregate, filling in low spots with additional sand. Use a 4- or 6-foot bubble level on the screed to make sure the base is level; big projects might require a laser level.

Laying the Pavers

This is the easy part – at least from a mental standpoint.

Start at your most critical corner, usually against the base of the cabin or the entrance point to your patio. Then work outward, tapping each paver into place with a rubber mallet. Keep the pavers as tight as possible to one another; using interlocking pavers will make this part extremely easy and prevent heaving.

Rectangular pavers can be installed in the same direction throughout, with a basket weave (two pavers in one direction, the next two at right angles, etc.) or any other combination that works visually.

Work in small square sections, 4 or 6 inches square, checking for squareness after each section is laid. If you’re off square, try tapping the pavers square with the rubber mallet. If that fails, just reset the pavers. Running a level string line an inch above each row of pavers is an easy way to confirm you’re maintaining level across the entire patio. For curved patios, add the edge pieces first and then cut the other pavers to length with a wet saw.

Once all the pavers are set, spread sand over the top of the pavers and sweep it into the cracks. Water with a garden hose and repeat until sand completely fills all the cracks. I’ve used black blasting sand for this, which can add interesting contrast and also seems to reduce plant growth.

That’s all there is to it. Your family might not hoist you up on their shoulders when you lay that last paver in place, but you’ll still feel like a champ – and you’ll have a brand new patio on which to celebrate.

Kurt Anderson is a freelance writer and accomplished patio celebrator.  

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