Q&A / 

Patio Pavers

DEAR TIM: I have decided to use patio pavers to build a nice outdoor space. Installing patio pavers seems easy enough. I don't want to make a mistake, so can you tell me how to install patio pavers? What method would you use? What should I be concerned about if I want a patio that looks good and is as maintenance free as possible? Kay H., Rochester, NY

DEAR KAY: Just before I was married, I got my first taste of patios made with paver brick. My future mother-in-law wanted a red-brick patio and discovered some used paving brick for the job. I installed them using some common sense and lots of luck and sweat. The full-sized brick were set on a compacted base of dry sand mixed with cement. Believe it or not, that patio looks like the day I finished it, and that was 35 years ago!

Since then, the concrete industry got involved in the patio business. I distinctly remember when colored concrete interlocking paving brick became the belle of the ball. They were the rage, and are still quite popular. But I feel the mortarless concrete products do not have the character of a real paving brick made from clay. When you go the next step and add mortar in between red-clay paving brick, you really have a classic look.

This patio was built with pavers. They could have been set in sand, but laying them in mortar creates a traditional look and feel.  PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

This patio was built with pavers. They could have been set in sand, but laying them in mortar creates a traditional look and feel. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

But constructing a brick patio in such a way as to create a traditional look takes skill and lots of time. I know, as my wife had me do this on our two patios as well as our front sidewalk at two different homes!

The first time I did a paving-brick job at my own home, I tried a new method of setting the brick in sand. It was a dismal failure. Weeds grew in between the brick and each time it rained, the water would bring sand up to the surface from between the small cracks. This sand got tracked inside our home making a mess of things. Then when the moles showed up and pushed up the brick, that was the final straw.

I tore up that sidewalk and taught myself how to install patio pavers over concrete. The sidewalk and patio I did at my second home are still in fantastic shape today, and get all sorts of compliments from the present owners as well as the neighbors.

My suggestion to you is to talk with friends and go see if you can visit different patios that have been down for 20 or more years. See what they look like after Mother Nature has had her way. One of the things I do not like about the colored concrete paver patios is the color-fade issue. The pigmented cement paste does wear off the sand and gravel in the concrete, and when this happens the color appears to fade. This color change is actually caused by you seeing the true color of the aggregate in the concrete.

This is but one reason why I prefer traditional clay-brick pavers. The color never fades, as the clay is the same color through the entire brick. When you purchase paver brick that have been fired to resist weather, the color is locked in and does not change. The clay in the brick actually becomes like rock, and weather and oxidation seem to have no effect on the appearance of the brick.

To achieve a traditional look for your patio that will not produce loose sand and is mole-proof, you mortar the brick to a concrete slab. This process is time consuming and expensive, but it produces a stunning look that can last decades with no maintenance other than an annual cleaning to remove dirt and any algae.

The key thing to remember is that all new patios look really good once they are complete. But I feel you should think about what will it look like in 10, 15 and even 25 years. Why not invest in a patio surface that will have a rich and traditional appeal and be one that requires virtually no work once it is installed? That is what I have at my home and you could never convince me to install anything other than traditional clay paving brick.

Installing any hard patio surface will be lots of hard work. There are new tiny excavating machines that allow you to dig with ease. Be sure to visit a tool rental store to see what kind of machinery will allow you to do the work with a minimum of effort.

If you decide to pour a concrete slab that will serve as the foundation for your patio, be sure the concrete is at least 4-inches thick and has steel rods in it. The steel minimizes cracks and holds the concrete together in one giant piece. The rods need to be in the center of the concrete and spaced at 2-foot on center both directions. The steel mat should resemble an empty crossword puzzle.

Be sure to slope the patio away from your house. The slope should be about one-eighth inch per foot. This slight slope will give the appearance that the patio is level, but is enough that water readily will flow out into the yard.

Before you pour the concrete, think about installing any underground utilities. Now is the time to run conduit or new downspout drain lines.

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2 Responses to Patio Pavers

  1. Dear Tim:

    I'm very interested in re-doing my patio exactly like the way you explain it in your article. I too have a brick patio, but the moles have been so busy tunneling underneath that bricks are no longer even, some have sunk noticeably or even been pushed up by moles trying to reach the surface. Not only is it aesthetically uninviting, but also becoming a safety issue. I especially like the idea of pouring a 4 inch concrete as your foundation, then laying the clay brick on top. I can't imagine anything would be able to tunnel through that. Can you provide more detail on how to go about doing this: i.e., like laying the steel re-bar for the concrete foundation, what you used on top of the concrete to level the clay brick (i.e., leveling sand, gravel, etc); whether to compact, and if so, would pounding leveling sand on top of the foundation cause the concrete to crack; and how you went about mortaring the spaces between each of the bricks. One contractor I spoke with told me he wouldn't recommend placing bricks on top of a concrete foundation because of drainage issues. I tend to believe in your article over the contractor, since you have proven that it can be done. I'm confident that I can do this myself with a little guidance. Thank you.

    • Steve, your question requires lots of typing, plus I have some questions for you so I can give you the correct answer(s). I only do pithy answers here in the comment section. If you want to protect the investment you have in your house and not waste time or money *hoping* you make the right decision, you should talk to me on the phone for just 15 minutes. It'll be the best investment you've ever made in your home!

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