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How to Build Pathways: Brick and Stone Pathways

Create an heirloom garden pathway or sidewalk by combining bricks or pavers with natural stone accent pieces. Learn the simple, time-tested techniques used to build a winding, free-form walk.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Step 1: Overview

Do you want to spruce up an ordinary, all-purpose sidewalk? If so, this project is a great eye-catching solution. It’s basically a brick paver walkway set on a solid bed of gravel and sand. It’ll stay flat and smooth even under heavy use, and unlike concrete, it won’t crack. The brick meanders through a blend of natural stone, also solidly bedded, which adds a unique decorative dimension. You can work in just about any type of stone that complements your home and yard.

Our project dresses up a space along the side of the house from the driveway to a service door. It also provides a firm, smooth surface for rolling a garden cart or wheelbarrow and keeps your feet out of the mud on a rainy day. Its width, a full 7 ft., allows enough room for a bench to kick off your boots, with plenty of space left over for potted plants.

Path building is a great project for homeowners of all skill levels. However, it involves moving tons of material. You should be in good physical shape to tackle this job or enlist a few helpers with strong backs. Once you have all the materials on hand, plan a three-day weekend to finish the whole enchilada.

You need a few special tools for this project: a plate compactor and hand tamper (Photo 4). Rent them both from a local rental yard. Besides a sturdy wheelbarrow and shovels, you’ll need a dolly for moving heavy stones, a brick hammer and chisel, a 4-1/2 in. angle grinder equipped with a diamond blade, and a steel trowel. All these tools are available at home centers and masonry supply stores. Order the brick, stone, gravel and sand from a landscape and/or a brick supplier.

Step 2: Design and materials

Although you could build this project on a gentle slope, it’s far easier to set the grade on a relatively flat site. However, one corner of our path site dropped off about 8 in. To make the walk flat, we built it up with soil excavated from the walk and blended it into the lawn. If you have to build the walk up higher than that, you’ll probably have to do more extensive regrading or even build a retaining wall.

You don’t have to build your walk 7 ft. wide like we did, but keep it at least 4 ft. wide to maintain an attractive balance between the stone and the brick. We used a clay paving brick with a soft texture and irregular edges that make it look aged, as if it’s been there forever.  When selecting a brick, make sure it’s a paver that’s made to be set in the ground and that has a “severe weather” rating if you have freezing weather.

Big, flat stones are called flagstone, in this case a Wisconsin limestone called Chilton. Stone type and availability vary considerably by region. Choose one that complements your house color and the brick you select. Be sure it’s 1-1/2 to 3 in. thick to avoid cracking over time.

The rounded stone is called fieldstone. We found some rock in our local landscape yard that fit well in the niches of the flagstone. We handpicked 45 of them for our project but they were expensive. If you don’t want to pay the premium price or if this type isn’t available in your area, any fieldstone with at least one reasonably flat face will work. Collect them from your yard or pick through a boulder pile at a landscape yard. Get a variety of sizes from 6 to 18 in. in diameter and 2 to 4 in. thick. Thicker ones will work, but they’re more difficult to set.

Figure A: Cross-section of garden path

Figure A: Cross-section of garden path

Figure A: Path Details

This illustration gives you and inside view of the walkway.

Step 3: Path layout

Lay out and dig the walk 6 to 8 in. wider than the actual size (Photo 1). The extra width supports the paver edging that you'll install later to keep the brick on the edge from tipping. Locating the walk against the house makes setting the grade easy. Snap a tightly pulled chalk line below the door to the drive to represent the top of the sidewalk and work from this reference (Photo 2). It's best to set the walk height slightly higher than the surrounding lawn area, 1 in. or so, but no more than 8 in. below a door or the step down will be too high. And plan a slight slope across the width to help drainage, about 1 in. in 6 ft. If you build your walk away from the house, stretch tight string lines to represent the finished height of the walk.

Step 4: Excavate this job with a buddy who owes you a favor

Digging’s a lot of work, but this is a small enough area that you can dig it out in a few hours with a helper. If you have a low-lying area nearby, dump the extra soil there. Otherwise you might have to rent a 10-cu.-yd. trash bin. Photo 2 shows you how to check the depth of your excavation against your reference line. Since the lawn will probably dip and rise along the outside edge, you may have to add soil to the lawn or cut some away to meet the walk edge evenly. Do this after you set the brick. Dig as accurately as possible. If you dig too deep, fill the area back in with soil and compact with the compactor before adding the gravel.

We had every utility line in the book coming underground into this side of the house (Photo 1), which really slowed down the digging. Carefully dig parallel to these lines, then pull the wires or cable aside to avoid cutting them. After digging, lay them back down and bury them under the gravel.

Move any sprinkler lines that run under the walk or the plate compactor might crush them. You can generally move a sprinkler head yourself if you’re familiar with installation techniques (Photo 3). Otherwise, call in a pro.

Step 5: Build a firm base

Lay your walk on top of a 6-in. bed of compacted gravel. Skimp on this step and your brick path will settle and heave within a few seasons. Order gravel that ranges in size from 3/4 in. down to a powder (called 3/4 in. -minus or Class II). Figure the volume in cubic feet by multiplying the length (ft.) x width (ft.) x depth (1/2 ft.) of your walk. Add 6 in. to each side that’s not bound by the house and round up the volume to allow for compaction of the gravel.  Have it delivered and dumped on the driveway. (Move your car out of the garage first!) Shoveling gravel off pavement is easier than shoveling it off the lawn. At the same time, order about one-fourth as much coarse, washed sand to set the brick on.

Before you spread the gravel, line the excavation with a heavy woven material called stabilization fabric (Photo 4), available from a landscape supplier. It’ll prevent the gravel from mixing with the softer soil underneath, so you’ll have a stable, flat walk for years to come. If it’s not available in your area, substitute a heavy woven landscape fabric.

Fill and compact only a 2- to 3-in. layer of gravel at a time. Rake it out at a consistent depth, using the chalk line on the house as a guide. Run over each layer with the plate compactor at least four times, until the tone of the tamper changes from a dull thud to a hopping rap (Photo 4). Compact corners with a hand tamper.

Use two 1-in. (outside diameter) steel pipes (available from a home center) as a guide to smooth out the last gravel layer (Photos 5 – 7). Take your time when setting this layer. It determines the final grade for the stone and brick. Use a 2x4 marked at 2-3/4 in. to level the pipe closest to the house (Photo 5). Add or remove gravel to support the pipe. To set the walk slope (for draining water away from the house), position the second pipe about an inch lower than the first (Photo 6). Figure 1/8 to 1/4 in. slope per foot, depending on your need for drainage. Screed the last layer of gravel flat and compact it (Photo 7).

Step 6: Setting the stone

Flagstone has dips, waves and irregular edges that’ll test your patience when you’re setting it. The trick is to focus on making the overall surface a flat plane. Don’t obsess over a low corner or an edge that doesn’t match up perfectly. They won’t. Set three or four stones in an inch or two of sand, then check them in a few places with your 2x4 screed or a level (Photos 8 and 9). Raise or lower any stones that don’t line up. Use your chalk line as a height guideline and maintain your slope for drainage.

When fitting the flagstones, select pieces that naturally fit together. If you have to tweak a piece, chip away edges slowly with a glancing blow of a brick hammer. (Be sure to wear safety glasses when cutting or chipping brick and stone.) Take off too much and you’ll break the stone—usually in the wrong spot! Try to keep the joints no wider than 1-1/2 in.

When placing the fieldstone, set a grouping in place before setting the height (Photo 10). Stand back and scan them, then adjust the shapes, sizes and colors of the arrangement until you like it. Then set them. Make the tops flush with the flagstone or a hair high. Don’t fuss too much; you can always change out a stone later.

How to Move Heavy Flagstones

Flagstones ranging in size from 18 to 42 in. weigh 100 to 300 lbs. plus. These tips will help you get them into place:

  • Tip and gently flip large pieces. Don’t try to lift them.
  • Tip the pieces onto a dolly with a helper and roll them close to their position. With help, lower them into place.
  • Pry the pieces up with a 3-ft. bar to add or remove sand.
  • If a piece is just too big to move, break it in half with a sledge. Then match the broken edges, spacing them about 1/2 in. apart so the break looks intentional.

Step 7: Screed a sand bed

Here’s where the careful setting of the last gravel layer pays off. Again use the pipes to lay an even 1-in. thick bed of sand. You’ll need a shorter pipe to screed sections between the stones (Photo 11). Clear away enough sand left from setting the stone so the pipes rest completely on the compacted gravel layer. Then dump a wheelbarrow of sand between the pipes, spread it out and screed it. Use your trowel to screed in areas you can’t reach with the 2x4.

Don’t compact or walk on the sand layer. You want it smooth for setting the brick. However, you can step on the stone and brick after they’re in place. Next establish lines to guide the brick layout (Photos 13 and 14). In general, set your layout to minimize brick cutting and to avoid small pieces along the edges (Photo 16).

Tip: Lay bricks end to end in the driveway and take measurements to get dimensions for positioning layout lines to your best advantage (Photo 13). It’s also a good way to establish the exact path width.

Step 8: Laying brick is quick work

Have the brick delivered as close to the walk as possible. Although not necessary, a brick tong (Photo 16) will cut your carrying time by more than half. With it you can easily carry nine or 10 bricks at once. Consider borrowing or buying one from your brick supplier.

As you lay the brick, leave open every space that won’t accept a full brick. It’s faster to cut them all at once later. Every 8 ft. or so, check that your rows are straight with the 2x4 screed. Gap the next row slightly to straighten it. Gaps up to 1/8 in. won’t be noticeable after the joints are filled with sand.

Step 9: Cutting brick

The best way to cut brick is with a wet saw with a diamond blade, but the clean cut it leaves would be out of character for this rustic walk. So we decided to score the cuts on the underside with an angle grinder (Photo 18) equipped with a diamond blade, then break them with a sharp blow from a brick chisel. The ragged edge looks better with the stone. Scoring the pieces generates a lot of dust and is noisy, so wear a dust mask, earplugs and safety glasses. Cut large pieces first, then fill in the smaller ones. If a piece is too big after you cut it, chip the edge off with a brick hammer to fit. Not every cut has to be exact. Sand will fill in the joints.

Step 10: Paver edging holds the brick and sand in place

Install special paver edging around the perimeter of the brick and stone (Photo 19), available from a brick or landscape supplier. Each piece locks to the next. When you install it, remember where your sprinkler, phone and cable lines run to avoid piercing them with a spike.

Step 11: Tamping the brick is a two-step process

First tamp the brick without sand. It’ll smooth out the surface and bring sand up from underneath into the joints. Tie a scrap piece of carpet on the bottom of the tamper to avoid chipping the brick. Next spread dry sand over the surface. Or use leftover sand from the setting bed, if it’s dry. Another option is to buy bags of all-purpose sand. Tamp again. This will lock all the bricks together.

A tight, solid brick and stone walk doesn’t require any maintenance except a simple cleaning with a garden hose once or twice a season. And you can blend your garden right into the walk by planting a ground cover in the joints between the stone, or introduce moss for an aged look.

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How to Build Pathways: Brick and Stone Pathways

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