How to put down paving stones

Updated July 11, 2018

Art Dann is a licensed contractor, but the bulk of the work he has accomplished in the last ten years has been on his own property. Dann, a chainsaw artist, has added several whimsically rustic structures to his land, and each one has required paving for both foot and car traffic. "I'm a carpenter by trade, but I've become -- somewhat unwillingly -- an expert paver," he notes with a shrug. He shared tips for fashioning attractive, long-lasting paving projects.

"I'm a carpenter by trade, but I've become -- somewhat unwillingly -- an expert paver."

Art Dann -- Professional contractor

Draw a detailed sketch

"I always start with a plan," says Dann, pointing to an elaborate walkway meandering from his living room to an outbuilding. It gives me a detailed idea of how the project fits into the landscape and allows me to work with several design schemes before settling on one. It also helps me set the outlines and decide on the type of stones to use and figure out how many I need."

It's best to draw your design to scale using a copy of the blueprint for the property, if you have one available.

• Trace the outline of the project on the drawing, using a pencil, ruler and protractor. Take your time and try several configurations before deciding on one.

• Calculate the total area and figure out how many paving stones you need, allowing for around 5 percent excess.

• Compute the amount of 15 to 20 mm (1/2 to 3/4 inch) drain gravel you need based on a 10 cm (4 inch) depth for foot traffic and a 30 cm (12 inch) depth for vehicles. You'll also need to purchase edge borders and enough sand for a 2 to 3 cm (1 inch) layer.

Measure, excavate and lay the base

"Because I have a map that's drawn to scale, it's easy to lay out the borders with stakes and strings, but digging isn't easy on my land, because we have so many rocks and roots. I always take special care to maintain a slope of at least 1/8 inch per foot [3 mm per 30 cm] -- and sometimes more -- away from buildings, and I try to fill natural depressions to avoid ponding."

It's best to dig out a slightly larger base than you need for your pavers. This gives water a place to drain and it makes the pavers more stable.

• Measure the perimeter of the area to be paved and add roughly 10 cm (around 4 inches) on all sides.

• Dig out and level the ground to the appropriate depth, using picks, shovels and heavy equipment, if necessary. To accommodate a 2 to 3 cm (1 inch) layer of sand, dig the base 12 or 15 cm (5 or 6 inches) for foot traffic and 30 to 33 cm (12 to 13 inches) for cars and other vehicles.

• Fill in the area with base rock, using a string and level to measure the slope, and tamp it with a hand tamper or a petrol-powered plate compactor, a tool which Dann fancifully refers to as a wacker-packer.

• Install borders around the perimeter and stake them to the ground. The borders help keep everything in place. The base rock should extend 15 cm (6 inches) or so beyond them.

• Cover the base rock with a 2 to 3 cm (1 inch) layer of sand and tamp it.

Lay the pavers

When paving against a building, Dann always starts laying the stones along a straight wall, but isolated projects with irregular shapes take some forethought. "It's another reason I make a picture," says Dann. "I often draw the pavers on my schematic to determine the layout pattern that looks best and wastes the least amount of material."

You can avoid the need to lug paving stones back and forth by dropping full pallets at strategic locations just beyond the perimeter of the area you're paving.

• Align each paver and drop it into place rather than sliding it through the sand. Tap it down with a rubber mallet.

• Leave a small gap between each stone and the one next to it -- you'll fill that later with sand.

• Cut stones with a masonry saw or a tile saw. If you're using rustic pavers with irregular shapes, you can also cut them with a hammer and a cold chisel.

• Double check the slope after all the pavers are set. You can modify it somewhat by tamping down any paving stones that are higher than you expect.

Tamp, seal and backfill

It isn't always necessary to seal pavers, but Dann recommends sealing natural stone ones, because it helps prevent water staining and makes them easier to clean. "I use my wacker-packer to tamp down the pavers, backfill with fine sand, sweep and I'm done," he says. "The only thing left now is to figure out what to do with the excavated dirt, but I usually find a way to recycle it."

An airless paint sprayer makes a good sealing tool, but in a pinch, you can use a garden sprayer. Check with your local DIY shop to find the best sealer for your pavers.

• Tamp the pavers with a plate compacter, then sweep them with a broom.

• Spray sealer on the pavers -- if desired -- and let it dry overnight.

  • Spread fine sand over the pavers and sweep it into all the cracks between pavers with a broom, then sweep any excess away.

Some builders prefer to lay pavers over a bed of small-diameter smooth gravel instead of sand. "This is sometimes a good idea if you're laying stones close together; sand tends to work its way up into the gaps and prevent a tight fit," advises Dann. "It's especially important to make sure the base is flat when you use gravel, though, because even a slight hump can crack your pavers."

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About the Author

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.