Build a Beautiful Paver Patio

One couple collaborates to build a patio...and a foundation for the future.

Whether you’re an independent spirit who hates to ask for help or a team player who enjoys camaraderie, a joint DIY project can be trying. When the labor is hard, the weather is hot and the job is overwhelming, even a rock-solid partnership is put to the test. So when Club member Billy Lapka and his girlfriend, Carrie Unze, paired to construct this paver paradise (and survived) they figured their relationship was pretty solid.

Lapka’s professional experience as a landscape contractor was a major advantage, contributing knowledge, skill and access to equipment. To help other Club members tackle a paver patio or pathway of their own, the couple has shared these instructions and photos. They also built stairs, light posts, retaining walls and a planter, accomplishing a threefold mission that many homeowners share:

  • Create an outdoor living space for entertaining and relaxing.
  • Adjust the grade of the yard to redirect water runoff away from the house.
  • Construct a safe and clean walkway and entry.

Every large-scale project needs a strategy. Lapka says to start by researching paving-material options (concrete, clay, stone) to learn what colors, sizes and shapes are available in your area (see “Solid Choices,” below). Find a style that is compatible with your house’s architecture and other landscaping elements. Consider present structures as well as future additions (such as lighting, a fire ring, planters, etc.) in your design. Lapka designed around an existing retaining wall, a large maple tree, a privacy fence and gate and the house’s rain gutters.

Brainstorm all of the possibilities, and sketch your ideas. Then calculate costs and see which additional elements you can work into your budget. If needed, divide the project into short-term and long-term phases. Now is the time to plan for and install conduit for future wiring needs such as light fixtures, electrical outlets, sound systems or a hot tub.

Use a garden hose to outline the space so you can visualize and play with shapes and sizes. TIP: To minimize lawn-trimming chores, shape the edges without tight curves to make them lawnmower-friendly. Test-fit your lawn furniture and grill within the spaces they will occupy. View the arrangement from several angles and adjust as needed. Once you like what you see, trace the outline on the grass with inverted marking paint. Measure and draw the area to scale on graph paper so you can calculate square footage to determine material quantities (see “Estimating Materials,” below). This project covered about 1,300 sq. ft., and materials cost about $6 a square foot.)

Pavers: Patio length (in feet) x patio width (in feet) = Square feet
Compactable gravel and sand: A cubic yard (about 1.4 tons) covers 27 cu. ft. To calculate cubic feet, multiply the surface area (in square feet) by the depth (in decimals; for example 6 in. = 5 ft. and 1 in. = .083 ft.)

Remember to call 811, the national “Call Before You Dig” number, to identify locations of underground utilities. Depending on the scale of your project, use a flat-blade shovel, a sod kicker or a skid-steer loader to remove the top layer of lawn. Also remove sidewalks and stairs that are within the project site.

Remove grass and plantings to prevent eventual settling of the ground due to decomposition. Because the existing soil was sandy (which means it compacts well), we were able to use it. (High-quality black dirt does not make a good base.)

Find accurate elevations (best done with a transit level) and mark a reference point in several areas (photo 2). The finished surface should slope away from the house and other structures, having a grade drop of 1/4 in. for every 1 ft. You’ll be adding 10 to 12 in. of height (6 to 8 in. of Class V gravel, 1 in. of sand and about 3 in. for the pavers), so you may need to remove more soil. To ensure a solid base, do not disturb the underlying soil.

A surveyor’s level (or transit) is essential for finding and marking elevations.

Build up
For abrupt changes in elevation such as entry stairs, you’ll need to construct low retaining walls (each with a rise of 8 in. or less), add compacted gravel within the area and top with pavers. Like the paver surface, the walls need a solid base. Follow these basic steps for building stairs:

  • Dig a trench for the perimeter that is wider than the retaining wall block, and tamp the base soil.
  • Add gravel to the trench in 2-in. layers, tamping after each addition, building up a 4- to 6-in. depth.
  • Lay a base course of block. (It will be buried but is necessary for strength.) For this layer only, remove the lip edge on the block (using a chisel and hammer) so it lies flat; then pound the blocks in place with a rubber mallet, checking that they are level.
  • To make the first tread, lay a second course of block. Backfill and front-fill the trench with gravel.
  • If needed, lay a third (stepped-back) course to create a second tread; backfill with gravel and tamp again.
  • Cut, place and glue capstone on all of the stairs.
  • Fill the tread of the top step with gravel, sand and pavers.

Start by building structures such as steps and retaining walls. Dig a trench and pack the soil. This power tamper has a smaller shoe than the plate compactor used for the field gravel.

Backfill and front-fill the trench with gravel, tamping as you add. This helps to hold the foundation row in place while you continue to add materials to it.

Use exterior-rated construction adhesive to secure the top (cap) layer on steps, pillars or retaining walls. To ensure symmetry, these cap pieces were fitted in place from the center, working outward.

The surface of the top step is filled in with pavers to match the patio area, which is installed after the steps are completed.

Build out
Depending on the existing ground level, you’ll need to excavate (or possibly fill) to a level that is 10 to 12 in. lower than the desired finished surface. If you plan to add electrical runs or drain lines through the area to be paved, dig trenches for them now, allowing them to lie below the gravel. For wiring, be sure to install outdoor-rated conduit and GFCI-protected outlets (see illustration, below). You can feed the cable or wire through the conduit later if desired. In addition to conduit, Lapka installed drainage pipes to allow the rain to pass under the paver sidewalk and out to a pop-up drain in the yard (see “Drainage Design,” below).

Next, lay the stabilization blanket (also called geotextile) over the entire area (photo 7). Its main purpose is to prevent the soil from filtering into the gravel base material, which would cause the base to eventually weaken. Backfill with compactable gravel (also called Class V, road base or minus), spreading in 2-in. layers and compacting each until you achieve the proper height and grade (photo 8). IMPORTANT: This is the layer that ultimately determines the contour and grade of the patio. Because sand shifts, you cannot rely on the 1-in. sand layer to fill low spots or to compensate for an uneven surface.

Geotextile, a woven material used to separate the soil from the crushed gravel, is heavier than landscape fabric but still allows moisture to seep through.

Apply the gravel in 2-in. layers, going over each layer with a plate compactor. You can use a hand tamper for this step, but only if you have a much smaller project than this one.

For a large-scale project such as this, Lapka recommends that you install the sand base and pavers in manageable-size sections. To ensure you’re building a consistent 1-in. layer of sand, use 3/4-in.-i.d. pipes for screed rods (photo 9). (The pipes can also help you to verify that the grade and plane of the gravel base are correct.)

Pipes act as spacers (screed rods) to ensure that you build an even 1-in. layer of sand. After you remove the pipes, add sand to the voids, smoothing carefully with a trowel.

Start laying pavers in a corner or along an edge to save on cutting all of the edges of the paver field. You can walk on the pavers once a substantial section is laid, but don’t walk on the unfinished edges of the field, as this is the weakest part (photo 10).

TIP: Use a string line to keep patterns running true. Some foundations, walls and sidewalks may not be straight, and you can mask such flaws by laying pavers straight and filling uneven edges with sand.

Laying the file pavers goes quickly if a helper delivers the blocks to the person laying them. When walking around the site, be careful not to put weight on the outermost edge of the pavers.

Once the field is installed to within 9 in. of a fixed edge, overlay the border of 6x9 soldier blocks (photo 11). Mark cut lines on the pavers underneath with chalk, and trim the excess with a concrete chop saw. Lay the trimmed pavers and the soldier course. Along open edges (sections butting up to the yard, rock beds, etc.), install plastic snap-edging (photo 12).

With the field pavers installed as close as possible to the edge, lay the soldier pieces on top and mark the angles with chalk. Trim with a concrete chop saw (available at rental centers).

Install edging to secure pavers that are bordered by soil. Nail 12-in. spikes into alternating holes to secure the edging, making sure the plastic is low enough that it won’t be visible.

To interlock the pavers and fill joints, sweep wash sand into the cracks. Using the plate compactor, tamp the pavers and sweep in a second coating of sand. Lapka topped off the wash sand with a course of granite sand, which lightly cements the joints. He says this prevents ants from tunneling between the pavers, and it helps to block weeds from sprouting in the cracks. He advises that you check for flaws by hosing down the patio, watching for improper flow and for “birdbaths” (pooling). Lift any low areas and add gravel under the sand to raise those pavers to the desired level.

After a month or two, Lapka checked for low spots again. He swept additional granite sand into the joints that settled and applied a sealer to the joints and pavers using a hand sprayer. Once the surface was dry, he and Carrie sat down at the patio table to admire the view — and to plan their wedding.

Supply List
Premium construction adhesive
Compactable gravel (AKA 3/4-in. minus, road base or Class V)
Washed sand
Granite sand
Retaining-wall block (6-in. height):
Cap (3-in. height)
Princeton pavers (3-in. height)
6x9, 6x6, 6x3 field
6x9 soldier course
Plastic snap-edging and 12-in. spikes

Concrete chop saw
Levels (4 ft. and 1 ft.)
Rubber mallet
Plate compactor
Hand tamper
Power tamper (Jumping Jack)
Shovels and rakes
Block splitter (also calleed a snapper)
Caulk gun (for adhesive)
String line

Centuries-old roads, paved in stone atop an aggregate base, tell us that segmental surfaces are not a new idea – and that the materials endure. Stone is only one option. The design and composition of manufactured pavers allow homeowners to choose from many possibilities to suit function as well as style and color.

Fired-clay pavers (which are more dense than clay bricks) were the first manufactured units and are still a popular choice for patios and walkways, especially in regions where clay is abundant.

Concrete pavers have been produced in Europe since the 1950s, but their use in North America didn’t begin until the 1970s. Paver production has grown tenfold during the past two decades, according to the International Concrete Pavement Institute.

Permeable pavers (available in clay or concrete) are designed to be set with wider joints and include drainage holes to allow storm water and snowmelt to filter into the soil below. The gaps are typically filled with pea gravel rather than sand.

To divert runoff from gutters and downspouts, Lapka installed catch basins and drain lines before building the paver surface. He placed catch basins at the outlet of each downspout, setting them to be flush with the finished surface height. To prevent the drain line (a 4-in. PVC pipe) from retaining water, it has a slope of 1/3 in. drop for every 3 ft. of run, and it extends to a pop-up drain in the lawn and away from the house.

If you need to provide an outlet within the paver field, you can insert a decorative iron grate (available in a number of designs) leading to a drainage system.

This project is part of HANDY's Top 5 Collection: Outdoor Projects.
Click here to check out the other four outdoor projects in this collection.