Monday, January 6, 2014


Building this stone patio together was by far the largest DIY undertaking that we have ever done. As I mentioned in this post, it took three solid months of work in the evenings and weekends to build out the 800+ square feet of patio. We would seriously come home from work at 6:30, change into our grubby clothes and work until it got too dark to continue. On the weekends we would start early, before it got too hot, and work under a shade tent (which helped a LOT). But, even with the precautions, more than once at the end of the day we felt like this:

When I mention tools, I really should state that the most important tools we had for this project were our own backs. These stones are heavy. Like really, really heavy. The 16"x24" stone, the largest of the pattern, weighs 65 pounds, which is no small feat to dead lift and carry. But, other than that, the required tools are minimal.

• Wet saw: we used this one - used to cut stone when necessary
• Wheel barrows - to transport sand and stone from the front yard
• Rubber mallet - get ready to whack your heart out with this baby
• Level - for making sure everything is heading in the right direction
• Float - we used a masons float to smooth out the sand... it worked for us
• Knee protection - a couple gardeners knee pads really saved the day.
• 1" PVC Pipe - for screeding to the correct depth

If you've been following the patio project, you'll know that laying the stone was really the end of a very long process. We started by trenching and laying drainage pipe. Then we hauled in the base rock and made sure everything was sloping correctly away from the house. By the time we started setting the stone, we were already feeling like accomplished DIYers, and pretty much pot committed on the project.

Okay. Enough bragging already. Here's how we did it:

The slate stone should sit in a consistent one inch bed of sand, and the process of keeping the sand the same depth across the patio is called "screeding" (you should have heard me trying to grasp that word as Ryan explained the plan... is it screeching, streeting, excreeting).

We put down 1" PVC to use as a guide, to make sure that the sand base was consistent.

Then it was time to pull something across the PVC pipes (and the sand we'd poured in between the pipes) to make sure everything was nice and flat. We used multiple methods and had a couple favorites. Using a 1x4" board with one of us at either end and pulling smoothly across the sand (applying solid pressure along the PVC pipe) worked when we were able to get a person at either end of the sand section, but if that wasn't in the cards, Ryan used a landscape rake and got a similar effect.

When laying down and screeding sand, we thought it was best to work in small sections. We only tried to smooth as much sand out as we thought we could work in a couple hours, because if we left the project and came back to it later something would have gone wrong with the sand no matter what, making the stone much more difficult to set down.

Once the sand was nice and smooth, we removed the PVC and went about setting the stone. Our particular stone came in a Versai pattern, so it would all fit together perfectly, as long as we set the right stones in the right places.

We definitely used Joey's method of getting in the map to check our work, and probably looked like idiots in the process, but it was necessary after messing up the complicated pattern time and again and having to pull up stones that we had just pain-stakingly set.

Here are the Cliff's Notes for setting slate stone. Drop. Whack. Check for wobbliness. Add sand if necessary. Repeat. We got in a real rhythm for setting the stones after a couple days, and it was definitely a team effort. Here's the long version.

I carry over the correct size stone from the pile and hand it to Ryan.

Ryan does what he coined a "precision drop" with the heavy stone, setting it in place in the sand.

We check to make sure that the stone matches up nicely with the ones that surround it (i.e. no high spots to trip over, no low spots where debris will gather etc).  This is one of the distinct disadvantages of working with natural stone. The thickness is +/- 1.25" thick...and they really mean it with the +/- (but the absolutely stunning quality of the stone made up for it...mostly)

If we like it, Ryan whacks the crap out of it with his trusty rubber mallet... he says this step is absolutely vital in making sure the stone doesn't shift or settle as the patio wears. The jury is still out on this one, but I pick my battles.

After a sufficient whacking, we check the corners to see if anything wobbles. Usually this involves me doing a little leprechaun dance on the stone while Ryan inspects it from his hands and knees. Don't you wish we took some video of that process!

If there is a wobbly corner (90% of the time), Ryan lifts the offensive corner while I add just a little bit of sand. The red solo cups in the picture above were used to hold and pour small amounts of sand into the corners... and here you thought we were just getting drunk on the job.

More whacking and dancing ensues.

Then, more often than not, more sand in another corner, and a repeat of the entire process.

Once we are sure the stone is NOT. GOING. ANYWHERE. we move on to the next stone. Sometimes this process takes two minutes per stone, sometimes it takes twenty. There are times we literally try three stones in a single spot before we find one that fits.

To answer the question at hand; yes we are crazy. Yes, we probably should have hired a pro....but I'm really glad that we didn't!

But damn is our patio looking pretty.

There were many times we needed to cut stones, whether the pattern was dying into the house, or our planter boxes, or the deck. We even cut stones to correct the pattern when things were starting to get a little out of square. This wet tile saw, purchased on sale at Harbor Freight was a lifesaver for us. We wouldn't have been able to complete the project without it.

The other thing that's worth noting is that we used plastic patio edging where necessary to keep the stone in place over time, as the elements eventually erode the earth. We used it inside our wooden planting box and where the patio disappears under the deck. It cuts easy and goes in with long plastic stakes.

Here's an image from this post of the nearly completed patio. It's hard to believe this image accounts for almost three solid months of (literally) blood sweat and tears.

But we're not completely crazy, and knew that when it came to creating the perfectly curving "soldier course" or patio edging, that I just had to have to finish off the patio, it was something that should be completed by a pro. We brought in a local mason that was recommended by the place we purchased our stone, and he did a fabulous job.

He set the soldier course in cement, which will keep all of our hard work in place for years and years.

And believe me, after the work we put in to this patio, it a'int going anywhere... as long as we have something to say about it.

Writing this, it sounds more like a cautionary tale than a tutorial.... but if you're one of the six random strangers that stumbled upon this blog because you are considering attempting a project like this yourself and are diving to the deepest darkest corners of google looking for information or expertise, PLEASE feel free to email me with any questions.

There were a lot of benefits to completing this project on our own, the most notable of which was that we saved tens of thousands of dollars by not hiring laborers. We also know that it was done well... really, really well. And last, we learned so much about working together as a team by pushing ourselves to complete such a huge undertaking.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite (or stone) at a time.

Linking to: Be Bold Challenge


  1. Wow, so much hard work went into that patio and it looks great!

  2. Thanks Ashley, it was a labor of love, but we're so happy with the result. I hope to post "after" pics of the yard once things are blooming for spring!

  3. of the 6 random strangers that stumbled upon your post because we are getting ready to do our front walkway in the CA gold. how thick was your base rock? and sand layer was 1" how big of an issue did pulling the PVC out cause with changing the sand thickness (the pvc was a great idea by the way!) can you email me at

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