If you're reading this, it's either because you're a landscape contractor wanting to add brick paver patios to your hardscaping repertoire, or you're a homeowner looking for some DIY advice on building a brick paver patio. This article is geared toward the contractor and uses terminology from our industry, and assumes a basic knowledge of the tools and concepts that go into installing a brick paver project. In this article we'll walk through the steps used to build the brick paver patio pictured at the top right of this page.
Designing a Brick Paver Patio
Before you can ever break ground on a paver patio, you must first have a design. You'll want to create a paver patio design that reflects and compliments the rest of the house - not one that stands against it. When meeting with the client for the first time, take notes and photographs both the outside of the house and the inside of the house (when relevant). It will give you a sense of the client's style and the materials used inside and outside the home, so you can select a paver that will compliment the existing colors and textures of the home. Well-worn cedar shake siding looks great with a sand-molded brick paver designed to have an aged dignity, while a more modern home exterior might look better paired with a tumbled concrete paver or even non-tumbled concrete brick.
Also consider the intended purpose for the brick paver patio; frequent large gatherings of people means there's a need for a larger patio; be sure to accommodate that need. Or you may be working for a quiet retired couple who only need enough space for a bistro table and chairs on their brick patio. Some other paver patio design considerations:
- Do they need room for a grill (or possibly a built-in grill)?
- Will there be a hammock on the patio?
- Is there a potting table in their backyard now?
Ask questions but also be observant of what's in the yard and garage now.
With the brick patio style and use considerations taken care of, it's time to take some measurements. Measure and note all features of the house, including doors, windows, spigots, utility boxes and anything else that might have an impact on your design. Make note of the NSEW orientation of the patio area; you don't want to build a paver patio that is fully exposed to the sun at the hottest time of the day.
With measurements, photos and notes in hand, it's time to get to the drawing board. To create the patio design you can use graph paper, drafting vellum, or some other paper that will be easy to draw on and copy. I like using ¼" scale for smaller projects and 1/8" scale for larger ones, but use the scale you are most comfortable with when you create your brick paver patio design. Be sure to clearly note the scale being used in the design! Designing in 3/32" scale but building the patio in 1/8" scale (it happened to us once) can be an expensive lesson.
Some general rules about brick patio design dimensions:
- The typical patio set, including a round table and four chairs, needs a minimum area of 12' (diameter) for people to be able to sit comfortably around it. Larger is better, but 12' is the minimum.
- For the typical grill cart, you'll want to have 20 square feet of patio space (it sounds like a lot, but a kitchen table is usually 15 square feet, and it can't burn you if you touch it!). This area should be several feet away from the home and out from under any roof overhangs.
- Use the client's 'typical' entertaining as your guide. The average patio user needs 20 square feet of space to feel comfortable. Multiply that by the number of people the client typically has over for a party to get a sense for the 'people space' you'll need to provide.
- Home entry/exit. Plan to allow at least 30 square feet of space around your patio doors. Without this room the patio will feel like it's right on top of the you as soon as you step outside, forcing people navigate around obstacles, making the brick patio an uncomfortable exercise, not a welcome destination.
This article is not intended to teach you to sell your brick patio designs and installations, so we'll assume that you created a brilliant design that the client loved, and quickly signed your proposal. With the signed contract, it's time to schedule the installation of the brick patio and break ground. Back to Top ^
Building the Brick Paver Patio
Before you begin to dig, you're going to need to know how deep excavate to provide for a proper base for your brick pavers. According to AASHTO, if you live most anywhere there are freeze-thaw cycles (in the Midwest or Northeast US), you'll need 4-6" of well-compacted crushed stone beneath your pavers. We recommend the thicker end of the specification, and prefer to go even thicker, to 7" for pedestrian pavements like brick paver patios. Add to that the thickness of the pavers themselves (which tend to be 2 ¼" - 2 5/8") and you'll need to dig to a depth of 9-10" for your patio.
But before you ever put shovel into dirt, be sure you have the utilities marked for your excavation. Knowing where underground utilities are can save your life and the lives of your clients and their neighbors. Ordering a utility locate is easy, no matter if you're a Do-It-Yourselfer or contractor - beginning in May 2007, from anywhere in the United States, just dial 811 to order a locate. Read here from more information about the national "Call Before You Dig" number.
Sometimes the existing grade where the new brick patio is going to be installed is a bit undulating or has an otherwise uneven grade. This unevenness will vary the depth you should excavate (while the grade may be inconsistent, the patio you'll be installing will be perfectly consistent in pitch).
To plot out how deep to dig, first mark where the new brick paver patio will be installed, making an outline of the patio on the existing grade. We recommend marking/excavating 6-8" wider than the outermost dimensions of the patio to provide a firm base for the entire area of pavers, and to allow for minor adjustments in layout during the laying and cutting in of the pavers.
With the outline marked, place stakes at the edges of your markings in locations that will provide you with a makeshift grid when you attach a string line to them. In attaching the string line to the stakes, set it at what will be the final elevation of the brick paver patio. In general, you want to pitch or slope the pavers away from any structures like the home's foundation. We like the pitch for our brick paver installations to be between 1/8" and ¼" per foot; enough to shed water, but not so much that a pencil would roll off a patio table. So place the string on the stakes at elevations that provide for that slope. You can also use a laser to set the slope of the patio.
With the string guide in place you can dig in! To avoid tripping on the string we will sometimes note the location of the string on stakes using tape, then take the string down, allowing for unfettered digging. We'll replace the string when we need to check the depth. Back to Top ^
Now that the paver patio area is excavated, it's time to compact the subsoils. In a perfect world the soils beneath the area you just excavated would be virgin soils already well compacted - but often they aren't. Add to that the typical new home construction with 8' of uncompacted fill near the foundation, and compaction of the subsoils is a necessity.
For the majority of the paver patio area, using a vibratory plate compactor like a Wacker is sufficient. Be sure you're using a compactor with a minimum compressive force of 3,200 pounds. Most 5hp, single-direction compactors provide this amount of force.
Along the foundation, especially if you work in clay soils, you'll want to use a rammer/jumping jack to compact the subsoil. A rammer or jumping jack will do a far better job compacting thick layers of clay than any vibrating plate can. Because brick paver patios often require steps leading up to a patio door, poor compaction here is likely to lead to dramatic settling of the subsoils and cause the project to fail. Back to Top ^
Paver Patio Base Preparation - Stone Lifts
You'll be adding 6-7 inches of crushed stone (if you're installing a brick paver driveway, it'll be more} to the excavated area as a base for your pavers. However, proper compaction can't be achieved by putting all 6-7" of stone in at once and compacting it. It has to be spread and compacted in 'lifts' or layers of 2-3". Each layer should be raked until it is uniformly flat (I often say 'level' instead of 'flat', but since there's a pitch to the patio, I worry this would confuse people), lightly sprayed with water, then compacted as with the subsoil compaction. Spraying water helps to reduce friction between stones during compaction, resulting in a tighter, firmer crushed stone base. The use of an angular gravel or crushed stone is imperative - angular stone by it's nature locks together better than stone with rounded edges, making it more resistant to the forces of nature during freeze/thaw, or if there should be any settling.
Most pavers are 2-2 ½" thick, so for the moment you'll want to stop bringing in stone when the level of the stone is within 3" of your string. Back to Top ^
Paver Patio Base Preparation - Setting Screed Guides
Final preparation of a brick paver patio base is a lot like striking off poured concrete. But instead of forms, we're going to use 1" EMT conduit pipe for screed rails. When you purchase EMT conduit you should inspected them to be sure they're straight. The use of this conduit is easy to understand, but sometimes difficult to execute. A mistake here will ultimately lead to future problems with the patio, so you should take extra care during these next few steps. I often tell clients that a monkey can lay pavers; base preparation is where we earn our money.
The concept is this - you want to lay out parallel lines of pipe to serve as guides for your screeding . Screeding is the process of dragging a board along screed rails (also called screed guides), knocking down high spots in the base and filling in low spots. These pipe should be no more than 7' 6" apart, and your screed board (if made of wood), should be no longer than 8'. Magnesium or aluminum screed boards can be longer, as they won't flex when being pulled. Wood boards longer than 8' will flex when you pull them, causing the board to skim over some base areas and dig into others, resulting in an uneven paver base preparation.
The pipe should be laid out in a way that every square inch of the area to be prepped will be touched by a board that is resting on 2 pipe. A board resting on a single pipe gives no screeding guidance. One of these lines of parallel pipe should run directly underneath the string line you set up before you began excavating. This will be the first run of pipe you set, and will serve as the guide for setting the rest of the pipe. At this point it would be helpful to have one of the pavers you plan to use for the patio. You'll use this to help in setting the proper elevation for the first run of pipe. If you've taken down your string to excavate and compact the lifts of stone, put it back up to set your screed guides.
With pipe laid out where they will be set. take a claw or stone hammer and scratch out a shallow trench for the pipe to sit in. This does not need to be perfect or exact - you just want a trench that's roughly an inch deep, the length of the pipe. Bring a wheelbarrow of stone to the immediate area and shovel some along the length of the first pipe. You'll use this to set the pipe.
With the pipe sitting in the shallow trench you just dug, place your paver on top of the pipe, at the end of the pipe closest to the house, directly beneath the string. The distance between the string and the top of the paver is approximately how much the pipe needs to be raised. Take the paver away, and with your hands, push some crushed stone around and over the top of the pipe where the paver was. Lift the pipe, allowing crushed stone to settle beneath it. Replace the pipe, and with your hand in a "U" shape, pack freshly settled stone with your hand. The motion you use should not be a "pinch" - you'll know if it is, as the pipe will move upward as you squeeze your hand. Instead, you should think of this motion like a short, swift, finger punch into the stone to compact it. You'll make this motion 10-15 times in this immediate work area. Now replace the paver atop the pipe. If the paver is sitting higher than the string by more than ¼", lightly tap on the pipe with a hammer until it is 1/8" - ¼" above the string (toward the end of the project, when you compact your completed brick patio, the pavers will be seated in the base, settling approximately 1/8" - ¼"). If it's below the string, repeat the process of adding stone and hand-packing the pipe until it sits 1/8"-1/4" above the string.
When the top end of the pipe/screed guide has been set, move to the bottom of the pipe (the "bottom" of the pipe is the end of the pipe furthest away from the house) and follow the exact same procedure, using the patio paver and string as a guide. Re-check the top end of the screed rail to ensure it hasn't moved while working on the bottom end. When both ends are set, carefully place stone along the rest of the screed rail and hand pack it as you did the ends. You may need to add stone and hand-pack several times before it's sitting firm enough that it doesn't move after you place a screed board on it and apply some light pressure to the board. If this first row of pipe is longer than a single piece of pipe, continue down the row until you've completed all the pipe in this row. Start by matching one end of the new pipe to the height of the end of the pipe you just set, then follow the process for setting pipe described above.
With the first row of pipe set, it's time to set the next. At this point you can take the string down. For simplicity's sake, we'll assume that this patio does not require a complex, multi-sloped pitch. Dig a shallow trench for this second row of screed rails as you did for the first. Place the pipe/rail in the trench and place crushed stone around it, as you did for the first. To set this screed guide, place your screed board, narrow edge up/down, so that it is resting on the first row of pipe nearest the house, and the second row of pipe, at a point closest to the house. Placing a 2' or 4' level on top of the screed board, make adjustments ONLY on the second pipe, using the method used for setting the first pipe, until the level reads level. Move to the bottom of this pipe and do the same. Once this pipe is set at both ends, place crushed stone along the length of the rest of this pipe and hand-pack it as you did the first row of pipe. Continue with the next pipe in this row and the remaining rows of pipe in this fashion, until all pipe are set. Back to Top ^
Paver Patio Base Preparation - Screeding and Compacting
Now that your screed guides are set, other than the contact they receive from the screed board, they should not ever be touched, except to possibly reset a guide that's moved, or to remove the guides when you've completed the screeding/compacting process. They should not be rolled over with a wheelbarrow, compacted with a vibratory plate or hand tamper…nothing.
To begin the screeding process, place several shovels full of stone between two rows of pipe, at the top of the patio. Place your screed board atop that stone, apply a little of your weight (but not much) and shimmy it back and forth until it has settled down to the guides. With more force being applied horizontally than vertically, pull the board toward you, making sure the board stays in contact with the pipe the entire time. The idea here is to knock down high spots and fill in low spots between these first two rows of pipe. If after making your first pulling motion there are still lumps, then rescreed that small section. If there are still low spots, throw some stone above the area and rescreed. I like pulling the screed board from a kneeling position as it seems to give me the most leverage. So I'll kneel and pull a small section, then shuffle down a few feet and pull again, shuffle and pull, shuffle and pull until the section is done.
Once a section has been screeded, you should not walk on it until that area has been compacted, as this can cause uneven compaction, creating a weak point in your patio base.
Screed each section of your patio the same as this first section. When done, lay tummy-down at the bottom of the patio and look over the freshly screeded area. It should look as flat as a floor. If there are pitch changes that look out of place, check and reset your guides as needed to mitigate this pitch change. Then lightly wet and compact each section. Use only a vibratory plate compactor from this point forward. Do not use a jumping jack/rammer on the crushed stone, as you may easily move the guides you so carefully set in the previous step.
You may find it difficult to maneuver the compactor into tight corners. However, the more you are able to compact with this piece of equipment (instead of a hand tamper), the stronger your base will be. As a reminder, DO NOT steer the compactor over the guides. Once the areas have been compacted by machine, use the hand tamper to pack down any areas you were unable to compact with the plate compactor. Use as much force as you can while being accurate when using the hand tamper. Remember that the compactor applies a force equivalent to approximately 3,200 pounds. You should try to come as close to that as you can! Once hand-tamped, you have completed one iteration of screeding/compacting. Go through at least two more iterations of this, but after the last screed, you'll check the base before you compact, using the "handprint" test.
With palm down fingers spread wide, without 'shoving', apply all your weight to any location in the prepped patio area. If prepared properly, a handprint should barely be visible. If it's clearly visible, making a depression in the crushed stone, compact the entire patio area, then screed again and apply this handprint test. Continue this process until a handprint is barely visible. Back to Top ^
Preparing your Brick Patio Base - Removing the Screed Guides
Now that your area is prepped, the next step is pulling the guides. The guides should not be left in - they can serve no drainage purpose, and can move during freeze-thaw cycles, causing unevenness in your brick patio. Pulling the pipe guides is relatively easy - just lift them out of the ground. The hard part is doing so without stepping on your freshly prepped base. Pull each guide doing all you can to minimize the damage to your base as the guide leaves it's trench. If there are guides you simply cannot reach without walking on the base, walk on the base by straddling a guide trench you just pulled. Do this for all guides you could not reach from outside the patio area.
Once the guides are pulled, fill the voids/trenches they left behind. Using a flat shovel, lay a bead of crushed stone into the trenches that mounds up approximately 1"over the existing base elevation. Once you've filled all the voids, compact this newly shoveled stone, either with the compactor or hand tamper. I prefer the compactor whenever possible because it can do a far superior job to any hand tamping.
Once compacted the areas where the guides sat may still have little humps - take a 2' level laid flat, and brush across this area in a wide swooshing motion (think Karate Kid "Wax the car") collecting any extra stone as you go. Only do this directly over the areas you just compacted, not the entire patio. When performing this task, you should not be trying to make major changes in the stone base preparation. Rather, you are just sweeping up any little bits that need cleaning up. When done, you are ready to lay brick. Back to Top ^
Laying Brick Pavers - Center Points and Chalk Lines
Depending on the style of brick paver, you're either going to need to locate a center point for your paver circles, or you're going to have to snap a chalk line or two to help with bond lines.
For circle center points, use your design to map out a horizontal and vertical distance from a fixed point on your house, and use marking paint to locate the center point. Use the manufacturers recommended pattern for building your circle; if you don't you may come up short with a particular paver size or shape.
For straight bond lines, having a line perpendicular to the house is usually the most helpful. To do this, follow the "3-4-5" geometry rule for right angles. If you recall from your geometry classes, a right triangle with sides that measure 3 feet and 4 feet has a hypotenuse of 5 feet. I like using nails for these measurements, placing a nail in the prepped base for each corner of the triangle. To the nail that marks the one perpendicular corner, attach the end of a chalk line. Extend that string to the furthest point from the house and align the string with the two nails that mark the perpendicular line extending from the house. Snap the chalk line. This will give you a guide for most patterns you might use. Back to Top ^
Laying Brick Pavers - Manual Labor
Because there are myriad choices in paver sizes and styles, it isn't practical to discuss the laying of specific patterns here. However, I can tell you of a common technique used by hardscapers to lay brick pavers called the "click-click-drop" method. Quite simply what this means is, as you are laying a paver into your pattern, holding the paver an inch or so above the base, you bring the paver so that one side contacts the side of a paver you've already laid. "Click." Then you slide the paver along until a second side makes contact with another paver adjacent to the first. "Click." With these two pavers now serving as a guide, you lower the paver onto the base. "Drop." If you were to watch a hardscaper at full speed you may not even notice this is what's happening because the motion is so fast and fluid. The reason to use this method is if you were to place the paver on the base first, then slide it snug against the other pavers, that paver will dig into the base and pinch some crushed stone between it and another paver, resulting in unattractive joints and poor interlock. Using this method, lay your entire paver patio, right up to the edges of your prepared base. Back to Top ^
Finishing Your Brick Patio - Marking Brick Pavers for Cutting
With brick pavers laid to the outermost edges of the patio base prep, you're almost ready to cut in. First, the pavers to be cut need to be marked. This can be done by snapping a chalk line for straight cuts, or by using a string and piece of chalk (I prefer welder's chalk) for circles. Either have an employee hold one end of the string at the center point of the circle while you mark the perimeter, or pull a paver where the center of your circle is and drive a spike to serve as the center point.
For non-circular curves I like to use pieces of ½" PVC pipe. At your local hardware store, this will be the smallest PVC pipe you can buy, and is very flexible. It's use for this application is simple: mark a few points along a curve you want to cut, then connect the dots by laying PVC along that curve, held in place by small stacks of pavers. "C" or "S" curves can be made from a single piece of PVC, and we've connected as many as five 10' pieces together to mark long, flowing curves in a paver walkway. For all cut lines you mark remember you need to leave room for your soldier course plus an additional 6" to ensure a firm base well beyond the pavers themselves. Not to mention, you want something firm to spike your edge restraint into. Back to Top ^
Finishing Your Brick Patio - Cutting In
Cutting in can be done a number of ways, either using a guillotine style splitter, a tub saw or a handheld cutoff saw. Each has it's benefits and uses, but most often a cutoff saw is the most versatile, portable and fastest tool to use.
Our primary cutting tool for pavers, retaining walls and virtually anything else that needs high-speed cutting is our cutoff saws. These are highly portable, powerful saws equipped with diamond blades and can make quick work of an entire brick patio. They're a bit larger than a chain saw, and with that portability comes the ability to cut in the majority of a patio without ever lifting a paver off the base prep. However, these saws have a large amount of torque and can get a little unwieldy in some cutting situations, making them a potentially dangerous tool.
With the cutoff saw, score the chalk lines you just made in the brick patio - this will make seeing where to cut easier as the dust starts to fly. If you're running short of pavers or for some other reason want to minimize waste, score and cut half of your patio in, then use the scrap pieces for the second half. Back to Top ^
Finishing Your Brick Patio - Soldier Course and Paver Edge Restraint
With the brick patio cut in, lay a soldier course around the perimeter of the patio. A soldier course serves two different purposes; it adds stability to the edge of the patio by providing a full paver of support to people stepping on and off the patio, and also adds an aesthetic quality, giving the project a finished look. A soldier course is installed by placing pavers with their shortest side touching the perimeter of the patio. You could also install a sailor course, which is pavers with their longest side touching the perimeter of the patio. Either way you're adding stability to the edge of the patio.
After the soldier course is installed you'll need to install a paver edge restraint to hold everything together. Paver restraints have come a long way since I started laying brick pavers. Back when I started there were no steel, aluminum, or plastic edgings a person could quickly install to hold a paver project together. It had to be done the old fashioned way, using concrete. We'd dig a small trench just outside the soldier course, mix up a few wheelbarrows of concrete and pour them into the trench, smoothing the concrete with a trowel. If the project needed extra stability we'd drive some rebar through the concrete into the stone and subsoil below.
But in the last decade or so edge restraints have become increasingly strong, quick and easy to install. Most are made from a polymer and look like long strips of "L" shaped black plastic. Other are made from aluminum. To install the edge restraint of your choice, firmly snug the paver restraint against the soldier course of brick, and drive spikes into the provided holes every 16" or so. The type spike you use should be at least 10" long, and preferably have a spiral shaft, making them hold to the material their pounded through that much better. Driving the spikes in at different angles will improve the holding power of the restraint to the earth, especially during freeze-thaw cycles. Back to Top ^
Finishing Your Brick Patio - Sweeping In Polymeric Sand and Compacting
You have two basic choices when choosing a joint sand for your paver project: an ordinary coarse sand or a coarse sand with a chemical binder. Ordinary coarse sand has been used for many years and will perform well. It's also less expensive than the alternatives. However, there can be washout with rains, weed seeds can land between pavers and germinate, and ants can carry joint sand away.
It was a few years ago when I was first introduced to a different sand alternative, called "polymeric sand" in the industry. Polymeric sand is just like any other sand, except that it's been impregnated with a chemical binder that hardens the sand. That binder will either be organic or man-made.
Whatever your sand choice, simply sweep the sand into the joints between the pavers, being careful to completely fill all joints to the top of the paver surface. Once swept, the entire paver area needs to be compacted to both settle the sand and to seat the pavers into the crushed stone base you prepared earlier. Be sure to protect your pavers during compaction by using a pad of some sort to cushion the compactor's plate against the brick. Otherwise you'll likely have significant scuffing and possibly some cracking (this tends to happen more often with clay pavers). We use a urethane pad for our compactors, and you may be able to rent one from your local rental yard.
If a urethane pad isn't available, I've heard contractors using carpet scraps or even plywood. Others have left additional sand on the pavers prior to compaction for cushioning. Once compacted, repeat the process of sweeping and compacting one more time. If you chose to use polymeric sand, re-sweep your brick pavers one more time to make sure you got every grain of sand off the face of the brick. With cleanly swept brick pavers, lightly spray the area with water to activate the hardening polymer. The area may require several applications of water to properly activate and set the sand (refer to the instructions on the bag). And when that's done….you're done! Back to Top ^
Congratulations on constructing a professional brick paver patio!
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