Building Patios

Patios are additional living spaces that offer comfortable areas to relax with family and friends or to spend a quiet moment of reflection. A patio that is properly sited, well-constructed, and easily accessible is a pleasure to use and will provide your family years of enjoyment. Although most patios are situated adjacent to the home, a gathering space located in a secluded area somewhere else on the property and connected with a compatible pathway is a pleasing alternative.

Three basic patio options are available: soft-set, hard-bed, and wooden structures similar to decks but detached from the house. Your choice of materials will depend on the landscape, climate conditions, terrain, and the style you seek to achieve.

As you design your patio, think about how the space will be used. If you entertain frequently, your patio should be large enough to accommodate a crowd and have plenty of comfortable seating and space for tables. Also consider making a place for a grill or outdoor kitchen. The patio should be easily accessible from the house, especially the kitchen.

In this chapter, you’ll find information about some basic skills applicable to all patios, as well as more specific sections about constructing soft-set and hard-bed patios, brick, concrete, and other materials.

Working smart is easier than not

Building a patio, even a small one, is a large project. Once the design is in place, the materials need to be chosen, purchased, and transported to the site.

Here are some tips to help you get through the construction phase:

$1·         The project will probably take longer than you think, even if everything goes smoothly. It's outdoor work, and you're at the mercy of the weather. Working in the rain is no fun, and concrete needs to be poured within a prescribed temperature range to cure properly.

$1·         Allot yourself reasonably long work periods. A full day's work on Saturday and Sunday will get you a lot further than an hour here and there.

$1·         Don't push yourself. These projects involve heavy lifting. Work slowly and take breaks as you need them. Consider wearing a back brace to support your back.

$1·         Wear the proper clothing and protective gear while you're working. Long-sleeved shirts and gloves are essential when handling concrete or cutting pressure-treated lumber. Also recommended for these tasks are a respirator, safety goggles, and a hat.

$1·         If you're using power tools with which you're unfamiliar, such as a masonry saw or a power auger, get instructions on safe use, and practice with the tool until you're comfortable.

$1·         Recruit a friend or hire some labor to help with the heaviest lifting.

$1·         Work methodically and review the overall project as you go to eliminate surprises and mistakes.

Pavers - Building Patios

Pavers are different from bricks, though the two often look alike. Bricks are made of clay that has been baked in a kiln until it’s hard. Pavers are made of concrete that has been molded into shape. They come in countless shapes and are dyed several different earth tones.

Pavers are the perfect do-it-yourself product. No mortar is needed between the joints, and pavers are laid over a sand-and-gravel bed rather than the concrete pad that mortar requires. In place of mortar, sand is swept into the joints. Most pavers have small tabs on their sides so that the space between them is uniform. Many patterns are available in both full and half pavers, minimizing (but not eliminating) the need to cut them to fit.

A paver patio is really a four-part system: The pavers sit on a 1/2- to 2-inch layer of sand, which sits on a 4-inch layer of gravel for drainage. The whole formation is held in place by edging, which prevents the pavers from shifting away from each other.

Sand and gravel - Building Patios

You’ll want two kinds of sand for a paver patio. Most of the sand you’ll need is bedding sand. The pavers sit on a layer of bedding sand, which has sharp edges that won’t compact once you bed and compact the pavers into it. The sand that usually goes between individual pavers is mason’s sand. It’s finer and easier to sweep into the spaces between pavers.

The gravel that goes under the sand should be a gravel approved for use as a bed under asphalt paving. It’s a mixture of different sizes of stones that compact and stay compacted so that once in place, the pavers don’t settle.

Most projects require a large number of pavers, and large numbers of pavers are heavy. You’ll also be working with large quantities of sand and gravel. Plan to have the pavers, sand, and gravel delivered. The beauty of pavers is their uniformity of size and consistency of shape, which make installing patios quicker and easier than when using bricks or natural stone.

If the job is big, consider hiring someone to excavate and perhaps to put in the sand-and-gravel bed.

Several types of gravel are available: 3/4 inch gravel is stones that fit through a 3/4 inch grid; 3/4 inch with fines (top left) is the same gravel with finer stones mixed in. In between the two gravels is a bagged all-purpose gravel. Underneath patios, use whichever gravel the local road department approves for an asphalt bed. Bedding sand (lower left) compacts nicely underneath bricks and pavers. Mason's sand (lower right) is finer and is used to fill the spaces between bricks and pavers.

Stone - Building Patios

Stone comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. Those used in outdoor construction include limestone, sandstone, slate, fieldstone, and granite. Any stone will work, and no one stone is better than another, though some are more expensive. In addition to types, stone is sold with different surfaces: Flagstone has been split into sheets or tiles from thicker slabs; ashlar has been milled into faceted or roughly rectangular blocks; rubble is stone as it’s found in the field or as it’s blasted out of the quarry.

Limestone is a soft stone that is usually gray or reddish brown. Soft is a relative term in reference to stone. Limestone is plenty hard: The homes that German farmers in Pennsylvania made from limestone in the 1700s are strong and sturdy to this day. Limestone is a sedimentary stone, made of countless shells that formed in huge layers on the sea bottom. You’ll often find a small fossil embedded in the surface.

Sandstone is formed by a combination of fine quartz particles (sand) bound together by a cement like calcium carbonate. It is softer than limestone but strong enough to be used in walls and walkways. Colors range from beige to brown and even bluish gray or greenish. Generally speaking, the darker the color, the more durable the stone.

Slate is clay or shale that has been compressed by the earth above it to form a smooth, abrasion-resistant rock that was once used for blackboards and shingles. Slate splits easily into sheets, making it perfect for patios. You can buy it in sheets up to 2 inches thick for use as a flagstone walk or in thinner, smaller tiles for use on patios.

Granite is a volcanic rock packed with particles of quartz. It’s the hardest and heaviest of the stones listed here. When milled and highly polished, it is extremely shiny, and it is used for countertops and monuments. In outdoor construction it’s seldom given such a shiny finish. It’s often milled into semi-rectangular blocks, however, and used in walls. In areas where granite is common, it is also used in curbs and sidewalks.

Fieldstone characteristics derive from the field in which it was found. Its chief quality is not its geologic content but its shape. In areas that were washed by rivers or glaciers, it may be smooth; in other areas, the surface and edges may be more angular. It’s well suited to making walls but is seldom flat enough for patios.

Gravel. Anything between a 1/4-inch and a 3 inch stone can be included in a gravel mix. (1/4-inch stone will pass through a sieve with 1/4 inch squares; a 3-inch stone will pass through a sieve with 3-inch squares.) What you want depends on what you’re doing with the gravel, and you need plans to be well thought out.

Stone is used either as it's found or after it has been milled. Ashlar is a rectangular stone milled for use in walls. Stone tiles (top left), are best used indoors. For a gravel walk, get between 3/4- and 1 1/2-inch stones.

Larger stones can be difficult to walk on; smaller stones can mush around underfoot like dry sand on the beach and make walking uncomfortable. The grains of gravel are usually jagged, making it easy to compact but uncomfortable to walk on barefoot. River gravel has been washed smooth over time and is more comfortable to walk on barefoot. It does not settle into a smooth surface the way other gravel does, however, and it also may tend to compact underfoot.

If you need gravel for a drainage bed under brick, pavers, or concrete, ask for a gravel mix that’s approved for use under asphalt pavement. The mix varies from area to area and sometimes from town to town. In simplest terms, the specifications will be something like this: 70 percent of the stones must pass through a 3/4 inch grid, 50 percent must pass through a 3/8-inch grid, 35 percent must pass through a No. 4 (12 mm) grid, and so on. Don’t worry about the specifics. Just ask for the gravel that the local road department uses.

Gravel is available in a range of sizes to accommodate a variety of needs. Gravel walkways are usually composed of stones between 3/4 and 1 1/2 inches.

Brick - Building Patios

To the eye, one brick looks much like the next. Sizes vary, some have holes in them, and some are yellow instead of red. If the differences stopped there, you could be sure that whatever you bought would work wherever you put it. There are, however, two broad categories of bricks-those used as pavers and those used in walls. In addition, each type comes in three categories (SX, MX, and NX), each designed for a different degree of exposure to the weather. All of these bricks look similar, so make sure you tell your retailer what you need.

Paver bricks. You don’t want to use a wall brick as a paver: Paver bricks are tougher and designed to resist abrasion. Type III pavers are for home and patio use; Type II is for high-traffic areas, such as stores; Type I is for driveways.

Wall bricks. If only a wall brick were just a wall brick, life would be good. But once again you have choices. A face brick has a uniform surface; a hollow brick is a face brick that has large holes running from top to bottom, making it lighter to work with and easier to manufacture. Either is fine for walls. (The exposed top row of a wall will require a face brick.) A building brick has a less than perfect surface and is designed for uses where it won’t be seen or in designs featuring rustic accents.

Weather ratings. Pavers, face bricks, and building bricks all come in three grades based on what their exposure to the weather extremes will be.

SX bricks are for exterior use where the brick is in contact with the ground and may freeze during the winter. MX bricks are for exterior use where freezing does not occur during the winter. NX bricks are for interior use, where the structure itself shelters the brick from freezing.

What to get. What you need depends on where you are and what you’re doing. If you’re building a patio in Maine, you’ll want an SX Type III paver. In Arizona you’ll want MX Type III pavers. Wall builders in the North will want SX face or hollow bricks; in the South, look for MX face or hollow bricks.

Bricks come in several sizes, shapes, and colors. Bricks with holes in them are meant for wall construction and are unsuitable for patios. Not all solid bricks, however, are meant for patios. Get a brick called a paver brick, which stands up to wear. Ask for an SX paver brick if you live in an area with severe winters. MX pavers are fine for use in areas with milder winters.

Edging - Building Patios

Edging is an important part of any paver installation, or any patio material set on a sand-and-gravel bed. The paving, sand, and gravel combine to give you a firm, well-drained surface, but without edging, the surface wouldn't stay put. Use, abuse, and weather slowly would push the surface apart. Eventually the pavers would have enough room to tip and tilt, and in a few years the surface would resemble rubble more than a patio. Edging locks patio paving in place, and the sand between the joints combines with the pavers to make a rigid, durable surface.

Edgers fall into two groups: those that are self-anchoring and those that need extra anchoring. Avoid garden edging designed to keep grass away from flower beds; it is not strong enough to contain the materials used in a patio.

To stay put, precast concrete edging needs to be as tall as the combined thickness of the sand, gravel, and paver. Use shorter edging like that shown here to dress up the edges of your patio, but anchor it firmly with another edging. Polyethylene is a good choice. Scalloped edging is designed primarily for use around gardens but can also be used along sidewalks. Curved edging can be used along the edge of a curved patio if the radius is right. Edger blocks can be laid in a straight line or curve. Contrasting pavers, or pavers put at a right angle to those in the pattern, look like edging but are really a pattern variation that needs to be anchored by some other type of edging material.

Some types of edging work well in the lawn but aren't strong enough to hold pavers in place. Among the edgings that won't work with pavers are edgings like black polyethylene which is designed to be an edging between the lawn and garden.

Some types of edging are strong enough that all you need to do is anchor them into the ground. Landscape ties, for example, need only be held in place with landscape spikes. Use ties that are a minimum of 6x6; smaller lumber is likely to warp. Bricks can be put on end in a trench alongside the patio to hold the pavers in place. Commercially-made polyethylene is one of the most popular edgings. Use rigid polyethylene for straight runs and flexible polyethylene for curves. (Flexible polyethylene is not available in all regions. Consult with your local home improvement center for a suitable alternative.)

Both are designed so that when installed, they come only partway up the side of the paver. When you finish the patio and fill in around it, the edging is hidden underground, held in place by metal stakes.

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