Ground Prep

Your first step is to build a perimeter border to establish the size and shape of the patio. We used pressure-treated 2x4s set on edge, but 4x4s, plastic edging or brick pavers will work too. As you're laying out the border, remember that you can avoid cutting any slate if you make the length and width of the patio roughly divisible by either two or three (the panels are 2x2 ft. and 2x3 ft.). Then remember to allow for 3/8-in.-wide spaces between the panels, except where they abut the perimeter. To build a 2x4 border, start by screwing together the four boards to form a perimeter frame. Set the frame right onto the ground and be sure the corners are square. While the frame need not be perfectly level, it should be close. Check it with a level, and dig out any high spots. Pound a 1x3 stake into the ground at least every 6 ft. around the outside of the frame. Drive the stakes just below the top of the 2x4s. Temporarily screw or nail each stake to the frame. Next, use a shovel and dig out about 1 in. of soil from inside the frame. Save the dirt for backfilling later. Spread about 3 in. of sand inside the frame, then compact it by pounding the ground with a hand tamper, which is basically a flat metal plate attached to the bottom of a long handle (you can rent one for about $8 per day). Compacting the sand helps prevent the patio panels from sinking. Then scrape the sand level using a couple of straight boards screwed together - known as a screed. To make one, cut a 2x4 at least 6 in. longer than the width of the patio frame. Then cut a 2x6 to fit within the frame. Screw the 2x6 to the 2x4 with the top edges flush. That will create a 2-in. overhang at the bottom where the wider 2x6 extends past the 2x4. Set the screed onto the frame with the 2x6 extending down into the sand. Then drag the screed across the frame with a helper. The 2x6 will screed off excess sand and create the uniform, 2-in.-deep recess needed to accommodate the patio panels. If you encounter any low spots while screeding, fill them in with sand and screed the area again.

An alternative to building a border: Dig out the patio area about 5 in. deep and toss in 3 in. of sand. Compact the sand, screed it off, then set the patio panels. The ground and grass around the recess will contain the panels. This borderless technique requires more excavation, but it creates a smoother transition because the patio is flush with the grass. It's also easier to mow around a flush patio.
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