Building and Maintaining Masonry Walkways

Stone Walkway in Garden
© Bruce Shippee / Adobe Stock

You may have heard stories or seen old photos of life in the last century where the roads and sidewalks were brick or cobblestone. For some lucky areas, these features may even still exist in places.

The good news is that you can create sidewalks with these traditional materials for your own home, and may even be permitted to use them along municipal roads.

The Pros and Cons of Masonry Walks

Stone Pathway
© Kunchit / Adobe Stock

Sidewalks made of brick, stone, or even precast concrete have a lot of qualities that can make them both beneficial and problematic. This means you may wish to consider how your walk will be used before deciding to use masonry as the material.

You will also want to check the local codes if building along a public road, as there may be restrictions. It should also be noted that there is a difference between paver bricks and wall bricks, the latter being a poor choice for walkways.

Advantages

Masonry walks come in a wide variety of stone types, leading to a range of shapes and colors which can make your walk stand out. Damaged sections are usually easy to repair due to the modular design.

They also tend to be relatively cheap to construct, depending upon the materials you choose. Precast concrete pavers are designed to be more resistant to erosion than hand-cast concrete.

Brick pavers also have many advantages over traditional wall bricks. They are designed to be more crush-resistant and don’t fade over time. Pavers also have a higher resistance to water, salt, chemicals, and pressure from ice. The chamfered edges help hide any subtle variations in height.

Disadvantages

Due to the way in which masonry walks are constructed, they are rarely completely flat, making it more difficult to move heavy wheeled objects.

They can also be more difficult to keep clear of dirt and snow. Another problem is the natural susceptibility towards weeds taking root in the filler between individual stones or bricks.

Building a Brick or Stone Paver Walk

Red Brick Walkway
© augustcindy / Adobe Stock

There are a wide variety of pavers to choose from, and you don’t have to settle for just one. You may decide to mix two different shapes or colors of paver to create a mosaic pattern, use a different shape of paver for the walk’s borders, or mix pavers to serve as a transition from one walk to another.

Brick pavers come in two main types. Bonded brick pavers measure four-by-eight inches and can be installed without mortar. Modular bricks, conversely, measure three and five-eighths by seven and five-eighths and are designed to have three-eighths inch mortar joints.

Either is available in both one and three-eighths inch and two and one-quarter inch thicknesses. It may be possible to buy brick pavers in other shapes and sizes, depending on your supplier.

Step 1: Gathering Supplies

Having the right supplies can make laying your new walk a lot easier. You can buy or rent most of the supplies needed. The actual cost will vary depending on the size, shape, and type of pavers you use.

  • 1-inch pipes
  • Concrete sand
  • Geotextile fabric
  • Hand or mechanical tamper
  • Mechanical compactor (for pavers)
  • Non-toxic paint
  • Pavers (brick, concrete, and/or cut stone)
  • Pin flags
  • Rake
  • String or twine
  • Trowel
  • Utility stone (such as gravel)
  • Wooden stakes

Step 2: Preparation

Prior to excavation, you will need to clear out any potential obstructions and mark the path clearly. The most common method for marking out the path is to use paint. The latter may be brushed or sprayed, and different colors allow for marking close lines more clearly.

Stakes and string may also be used, while a chalk snap line is best reserved for straight paths.

Step 3: Excavation

The majority of your sidewalk is located beneath the surface in a deep base designed to aid in drainage and create minimal settling. Dig to a depth of 8 to 12 inches, with the latter being preferred for poor drainage conditions.

While the walk will generally match any natural grades, it is best to ensure slopes always point downward away from the home to prevent flooding. This may require some minor landscaping along the walkway to blend everything together.

Small retaining walls and steps are also useful alternatives, but may make it more difficult for wheeled objects. A final option is to install small drains running perpendicular to the walk so that any water flowing down towards your home will be diverted.

Step 4: Adding the Base

Before filling the base, you will want to tamp the ground to ensure minimal settling later on. Tamping is performed in small increments, known as “lifts”. When using a hand tamper, the lifts will be only one to two inches, while mechanical tampers can achieve three to four inches.

Be sure when tamping that you begin at one end and overlap each section and pass by a few inches. Always hold a hand tamper vertically so that it lands evenly.

Line the trench with geotextile fabric, overlapping seams by two feet to avoid seepage. Dampen your utility stone and pour it into the lined trench, leaving approximately two to four inches for the upper layers.

You can test the dampness of your base material by squeezing a handful. If it clumps without releasing excess water, you have a good ratio. Once poured, rake the material to ensure it is evenly laid, then tamp it down.

Step 5: The Setting Bed

Dry-laid walks require an extra layer to ensure stability. Known as a setting bed, this may be made of either stone dust or sand. It is generally recommended that concrete sand be used, as it has superior drainage qualities.

As setting beds extend beyond the walk, you will need to re-establish your marker lines and add pin flags to ensure you can locate these lines once covered.

Lay one-inch pipes atop the base, tapping them down with a hammer if the pitch needs to be adjusted. You may check the pitch by placing a spirit level on top of each pipe. These screeding pipes will ensure the bed is of uniform thickness.

Once set, you may simply pour the bed material and remove the excess (screeding) so that the bed is level with the top of the pipes. Setting beds do not need to be tamped.

Step 6. Fitting Your Pavers

When working with pavers, it is always best to find the middle and work your way out. Lay the first few rows and check for any errors, as this could save time and effort later.

A large number of patterns are possible, especially if you are mixing shapes, so it is best to work from a sketch or photo when placing more complicated designs.

In the event you need to cut some pavers to a certain shape or size, there are a wide variety of tools available for purchase or rent that can do the job, including diamond-bladed cut-off saws and specialty tools.

Step 7: Borders and Edge Restraints

Edge restraints are a vital addition to any dry-fit walkway. Once your pavers have been installed, gently scrape away any excess sand from the edges to expose your base. Drive the spikes which came with your edge restraints directly into the base, creating a secure hold.

You may choose to also add a border for your walk at this point, using either different materials or the same. A border not only adds aesthetic value, but can help the edge restraints hold the new walk in place.

Step 8: Compacting

You will need to use a mechanical compactor to properly compact pavers. As you work, the machine will force sand up between the individual stones, which helps to lock them into position.

By sweeping the surface and laying a thin layer of bedding sand, you can help prevent abrasion marks while you work. The compactor should be set to have a high vibration and low amplitude to avoid stressing the pavers.

Step 9: Filling

The three most common types of filler are concrete sand, stone dust, and polymeric sand. Loose joints may be filled with stone dust, but tight joints, such as on brick or stone pavers, should be filled with sand. Simply pour, dampen, and sweep clean.

Using polymeric sand is a little more complicated. This mix of polymeric additive and mason-grade sand forms a stronger bond than concrete sand and is less likely to wash away. It is also resistant to weeds and can be color-matched to your pavers.

The downside is that this sand adheres to damp surfaces and will bond to any debris, so be sure your walk is clean and completely dry before using. You will also want to ensure there are no grains on top of the pavers before wetting.

Special Rules for a Cobblestone or Flagstone Walk

Cobblestone Walkway in Garden
© visuall2 / Adobe Stock

Both cobblestone and flagstone walks are more complicated because the stones are of various sizes and shapes. This can pose major problems down the road if certain modifications aren’t made to accommodate these variations.

The Base and Setting Bed

Flagstones vary and may be up to three inches thick. As the setting bed must be one inch thick beneath the deepest-sitting flagstone, you will need to adjust the height of your base to accommodate for the thickest of your stones.

The setting bed itself will vary in height between one and three inches, as needed to fit the individual stones.

Fitting Stones

The starting point for irregular stones isn’t as important as shaped stone. However, if you are going to be connecting to a corner or wall, it is usually best to start there.

It will take time to match up stones, especially if you are attempting a tight fit. You will also wish to check the alignment of each stone as you lay it, due to the varying heights.

Compacting and Filling

Most large irregular stones can be compacted into place simply by stepping on them firmly. A rubber mallet or iron rod attached to a wood block can also be used. Smaller cobbles may require a bit more precision, but will settle in without too much difficulty.

Stone dust is generally preferred for irregular stone, but sand may also be used. Another popular variation for garden walkways where the stones are spaced further apart is to plant moss or baby’s breath between the stones. This will require a bit more planning, but leads to a visually pleasing path upon completion.

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