Friday, February 25, 2011

DIY Brick Patio

The northwest corner of my backyard is the low spot of my property. When it rains heavily - two or three times a year - this is where the water pools. My two pecan trees, now higher than the ridge of the house, have begun shading the area so much that the grass was dying. Pecan seedlings sprouted each spring. It was becoming more of a nuisance than a nice place, and I decided to change that.

I built a patio.

Now, this is not the first time I've proposed a DIY project around the estate. Many ideas have come, lingered, and gone, only to be resurrected as a sore spot whenever I came up with a new idea. Well, doggone it, this project, I decided, I was going to finish. I wanted a place to sit and relax in the corner of my yard, to look back toward the house and see it all, maybe with a couple of Adirondack chairs and a chiminea, high and dry and something my wife and I could enjoy together.

This blog will walk you through this journey.

First, a quick tour. The north and west sides of the site are 6' privacy fences shared with our neighbors. Just south of that are three crepe myrtles that have largely stopped blooming because of the shade from the pecan trees, as you can see from these pictures; a metal edging, once intended to separate lush grass from mulch, marks the south edge of the project. One pecan tree and a thick 5' bush separates the area from my raised garden beds to the east. All in all, I had about 16' by 8' to work with.

I had two other obstacles. First, the gas meter is located on the north side of the area, along the fence. For some reason the gauges face north, so I don't know how the meter reader twists around to do his work, but in any event it's now right in my way. Either I hide it or embrace it. If I build the patio entirely south of the meter, I would lose several square feet of space. But I understand the gas company wants access to their equipment for maintenance purposes.

The other obstacle is a tree, now dead, that once grew in the corner. All that's left was a stump, probably a foot across, but with an ominous spread of roots underground. I knew it had to be conquered - I knew it had to come out to make room for my project.

I first had the utilities come out and locate existing lines. I sure didn't want to risk hitting a gas line or telephone cable with a shovel and creating a crisis. Needless to say, I wasn't entirely satisfied with this experience. After a delay of several days, I finally arrived home to find several flags of different colors and spray paint marking the possible location of utilities. To my chagrin, they were not able to locate the line from the gas meter to the house, which I knew had to be under there somewhere. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to move ahead - I'd done my part, I figured, and I figured I'd just be careful.

I decided I'd better tackle the dead tree first. If I couldn't take it out, the project was over. I started digging around and under the root ball, hacking away at it from every angle, until it started to rock. I finally muscled it out and proudly showed it to my wife. Needless to say, she wasn't very impressed; it looked smaller in my dirty outstretched arms than it appeared in the ground. I assured her it took a lot of work to get it out of there. Still harboring doubts about my project, she acknowledged my efforts and went back inside. I decided I'd burn the thing in my chiminea to inaugurate the newly-finished patio, and stored it on my back patio.

I took my victory over the root ball as vindication of my grand scheme, and pushed ahead. My next step was to raise the canopy of the pecan trees. Not only would this allow more sunlight in the Northwest Territory, but it would also give me more working space. The lower tier of branches drooped as low as 4' above the ground, and many a time I've scogged my noggin while mowing in the area. Nevermore. I removed the lower branches and reclaimed the area to usefulness. I don't think any harm was done to the pecan trees, as they have more than enough live branches overhead to encourage their continued growth. The good pecan wood went into a stack in the southwest corner of the yard, to be used in the future for smoking meat.

Now the time came to face the project head-on.

With a shovel, I removed the topsoil from the subject area until I hit hard-packed clay - probably an average of four inches - and scraped it to be as level as possible. Around the perimeter I dug a trench, a few inches deeper, and I filled in the hole once occupied by the root ball.

I wanted to be able to grow shade plants around the edge of the patio, so I cleared out the four inches or so closer to the fence and installed a plastic fake mulch product that comes in a roll. That should minimize weed growth in the most awkward area. Next to it I installed metal edging, about six inches from the pit. I would fill this bed with good topsoil, and I figured it would give me all the room I needed to install shade plants that would be easy to maintain.

Now the real work was about to begin.

I settled on 4x6" pressure-treated timbers for my outside retaining wall. I settled on dimensions of 8' wide by about 13'6" long, dictated by the amount of space left. I decided to splice the timbers together and bolt them with 6" galvanized bolts. The 8' timbers would be easy enough; I set my table saw on half the thickness, marked at each end the width of the timbers to which the 8' segment would be married, and with multiple passes cut out the ends of two 8' timbers.

Rather than buying a 14' or 16' timber and trying to haul it home, I decided to splice two 8' timbers together. I first created a mate for the above cuts, again fine-tuning my skills, such as they were. Then came the splice; I overlapped the long boards by a foot, enough to install two bolts about ten inches apart. This took many passes on my sturdy table saw, with the distant end pivoting on an improvised sawhorse, but it worked. I then laid them on their side on my concrete patio to ensure a reliably straight line, and drilled holes for the galvanized bolts so they'd line up accordingly.

Never trusting my own measurements, I decided to assemble the long pieces and them trim them, if necessary, to fit my work area. That turned out not to be a major problem, however; by the time I needed to make my final cuts, I'd measured and remeasured multiple times.

I laid a foot-wide strip of landscaping fabric in the trench and added several inches of gravel for drainage. I figured this would also allow me to make adjustments in the height of the timbers until they were level. I used a 3' carpenter's level to get the border as uniform as possible. I measured opposite corners of the rectangle several times to adjust the timbers until they made a perfect rectangle. Finally, I moved some of the rich topsoil from my excavation to the bed between the timbers and the metal edging.

The next step was to add a bed of gravel. I arranged with some of my fraternity guys with a pickup to haul a ton of gravel from Minick Materials in north Oklahoma City, after shopping around. My first preference would have been decomposed granite, but this apparently costs twice as much as the tailings I ultimately purchased. The goal, apparently is to buy sharp gravel that will lock into place when compacted, yet provide good water drainage. Smooth pebbles are what you don't want, because they will forever be shifting and settling. The folks at Minick and elsewhere assured me that the tailings I bought would do the job, especially on a site that would receive as little traffic as this project would encounter.

Because this project is in the furthest corner of the back of the property, I had to figure out how to bring in three tons of material in the next several stages of construction. I located a tough little green wagon at Lowe's that fit the bill. It would carry up to 600 pounds payload, had pneumatic rubber tires and a cute dumping mechanism, but was small enough to fit between the two gates and be easy to pull and maneuver. It looks like a kid's toy at first glance, but it turned into a valuable workhorse for this project.

I had the guys bring in the gravel and dump it in the work area. I smoothed out the gravel and compacted it. I had decided to finish the patio with used brick, so at this point you need to do some reverse mathematics. If the top of the patio is level with the timbers, subtract the height of the bricks and the sand to determine the height and amount of gravel to install. Since there should be "an inch or two" of sand, I understood my measurements at this point wouldn't need to be exact. I was able to install "a couple of inches" of gravel, on average, to level out the area and fit within my rough calculations. The soil was hard enough that I couldn't foresee much settling of the gravel into the soil. I suppose I could have laid down landscape fabric at this point, but I chose not to. Only time will tell whether that was a mistake.

Next came the sand. I had the boys bring in a ton of sand from Minick, and haul it in on the little green wagon. We dumped it up to a certain level that approximated how much I would need, and stored the rest of it on a tarp away from the site for future use if needed. I then used a 1x4" board to screed the sand level, using my "level" timbers as gauges to get a uniformly-smooth surface the thickness of a brick lower than the tops of the timbers. I added sand as necessary to raise low spots, and compacted the sand as I went.

I continued to think about how I was going to finish this project around the gas meter. The north timbers now crossed between the meter and the fence; but I decided to build a frame out of pressure-treated 2x4" wood after installing the brick, and filling the interior of that space with gravel. At first glance, the 2x4s, laid flat, would appear to be the same material as the 4x6" timbers laid on edge, but would actually float on top of the gravel and provide edging around the meter. The main goal, I figured, would be to lock the bricks in place and keep them from shifting, and I figured they would do the trick.

I then purchased a ton of used brick from Fox Brick and Stone in Oklahoma City. I walked over the property and realized how many different varieties of brick were available. I finally settled on some that closely approximated the bricks on the side of my house - not exactly, but from a distance nobody would be any the wiser. My fraternity guys brought the bricks home in their pickup, then unloaded them onto the little green wagon for a trip to the back yard.

I had the finish line in sight.

I settled on a herringbone pattern, which matched another brick pattern next to the house. It was also the pattern on a sidewalk in Hermann, Missouri, my sister and I had visited in the fall of 2009, after my father died. To do this, however, I would need to cut some of the bricks in half, something I'd never tackled before. After a little research, I bought a circular masonry blade from Lowe's and installed it on the same table saw I'd used to cut the timbers.

I decided I wanted to install some lighting near the patio, to stretch the evenings of dusk a little while longer. I also wanted to provide a visual barrier, so nobody would trip over the slightly-raised edge of the patio after dark. I thought about several ways to do this. I knew I wanted to use solar, because I didn't want to run electricity all the way out to this frontier of my back yard just for this purpose. As we were getting close to the Christmas season, I found two solar light strings from Philips, each with 50 LED lights, which seemed perfect for this project. I decided to run a line of lights along the long sides (east and west) of the patio, in the bed of gravel that would fill in between the bricks and the timbers.

Again, not trusting my measuring skills, and not knowing how tightly the bricks would fit next to each other, I laid out all 400+ bricks, starting from the southeast corner and working my way north and west. Every few bricks I'd have to cut a brick in half to start the next run next to the timbers, using a brick damaged on one end when I could. It always helps to buy 10% extra bricks, and you'll inevitably have some left over, but it's better than running short. As I went, I used a rubber mallet to nudge the bricks closer together and set them into the sand.

As it turned out, I started too close to my point of origin, which left me about 4" from the west and north timbers - in sum, it wasn't centered. I found myself in the enviable position of explaining why I now had to move my 400+ bricks about two inches. One by one.

It actually wasn't as difficult as it sounds. The sand bed was already set. I simply moved the last brick - in the northwest corner - to approximately where it should be, then shifted the rest of the bricks over to their new locations. It worked. When I was done, the gap between the bricks and the timbers were equal, all the way around. It worked out a lot better than I had feared it would.

I could smell the finish line, it was so close.

With a bag of gravel nearby, I set the light strings in the gap between the east timber and the bricks, held the lights level with the timbers and bricks, and filled in with the gravel, locking them into place. The LEDs would now float among the gravel, about 3 inches apart, invisible during the day and safely protected from footsteps. I repeated the process on the west side, and located the solar panels on stakes adjacent to the gas meter.

I bought an 8' pressure-treated 2x4 from Lowe's, and cut pieces to fit around the gas meter. I continued to fill in with more gravel until everything was flush. I mounted the solar panels on their stakes, burying the lines under the gravel so they could be ripped out if they died and needed to be replaced without moving a single brick. Over the next several nights I continued to sweep gravel and sand into the gaps between the bricks, and will probably continue to do so for the next several weeks to ensure a tight fit.

I'm very pleased with the results. I've converted a virtually unusable space in the corner of my yard into a sturdy brick patio that should give plenty of use. The solar lights come on at dusk, appearing from a distance like runway lights as seen from an airplane at night. Depending on the amount of sunshine they receive, it looks like the lights will continue to shine for several hours each night, providing the right extension of daylight. As spring approaches, I'll add some shade plants (hostas, lilies of the valley, etc.) in the bed. I planted moonflower seeds on the west side, and in time I'll add a trellis between two fence posts to accommodate the 15' vines. They should look amazing in the evening, lit either by the rising moon or three hundred LEDs around the patio. And I'll track down some lawn furniture to make good use of the area.

There! I finished a project, to the amazement of my wife. I think it was well worth it. What do you think?

March 2, 2012

There's a saying that if things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Well, that seems to be the case for my patio as well.

After a brief but heavy rain, the wooden perimeter of the patio actually floated. It rose up one to two inches. I hadn't expected that. As a result, when I have some free time this spring, I'm going to have to go back and lift every brick again, add sand underneath it, and reset each brick. Actually not a difficult task - just a nuisance.

Also, alas, the Christmas lights fizzled out, so I'm going to have to either pull them or replace them. I may just string party lights on the branches of the pecan tree that reaches over the patio and put in some solar landscaping lights along the edge of the patio. That, after all, is what they're designed to do.

Bottom line: Don't get too creative. Use products for their intended purposes. The likelihood of success is greater.

Meanwhile, I'm working on my water feature on the other side of the yard. I've dug the hole, built a berm (on which I planted a redbud tree that's already about seven feet tall) and started assembling the pump. That's my next project for this spring. Stay tuned!