brick path illustration
Illustration: Gregory Nemec
Creating a successful path that can survive the elements depends on three things: the bricks, the border, and the base. For the bricks, choose ones that are rated for severe weather (SW), often referred to as "clay pavers." These will not only stand up to the seasons but will also take a lot of foot traffic without cracking. The size of the bricks is determined in part by the pattern you choose. Modern "modular" brick measures 8 by 4 inches, and a well-designed walkway is between 3 and 4 feet wide (allowing two people to walk side by side). There are also old-fashioned "standard bricks," whose length is more than twice ¼ inch between—the tighter the better.

An integral part of every pattern is the border that keeps the bricks in place. Temporary 1x4 guide rails can hold everything in as you lay the bricks. But you still need a permanent border, traditionally created by bricks turned on end. If they are positioned on their short ends (this is called a "sailor course" if they're edge to edge, or a "soldier course" if they're face to face like dominoes), they can be buried deep enough to provide the necessary support. Turned on their long edge (called "drunken soldier"), however, as with the Colonial Williamsburg pattern shown in this process, the bricks won't have enough purchase in the ground to hold the path together. In that case, you'll need to keep everything in place with garden edging that extends at least 6 inches below grade.

Regardless of the shape of bricks you use, "a walkway is only as good as the base you put under it," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook. Location is one factor in that base: Keep the path at least 2 to 3 feet away from trees with extensive root systems that could push the bricks up. But water is a more constant threat. "If the water can't drain properly, it will pool on the surface, and any freezing and thawing will cause the bricks to pop up," says Roger. To redirect runoff, you'll need to slope the walkway slightly to one side - 1/8 inch per foot across its breadth. Beneath the bricks, layers of graded base (a mix of crushed stone and stone dust) topped with sand allow for proper drainage. Both layers need to be tamped down to create a solid base, a job that can be done by hand, though for longer paths you should consider renting a plate compactor for about $80 a day.
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    Tools List

    • square spade
    • hand saw
    • four-foot level
      4-foot level
    • tamper
      Hand tamper
    • drill
    • mallet
      Deadblow mallet
    • push broom
      Push broom

    Shopping List

    1. BRICKS
    Choose bricks rated for severe weather (SW), also called "clay pavers" at the stone yard. Modular bricks measure 8 inches long, 4 inches wide, and 1½ inches thick, but actual dimensions can vary by as much as half an inch. Measure the bricks you like and figure out how many you'll need for your pattern. Depending on the pattern's waste, figure about five bricks per square foot

    (a combination of crushed stone and stone dust), for creating a sturdy, porous base

    or stone dust, for creating a smooth, porous base between the graded base and the bricks

    to use as temporary guides along the edges of the path as you set the bricks. Composite lumber is easier to bend for curves than standard lumber, though the latter will also work

    at least 1½ feet long, to secure the guide rails in place

    6. 1 1/4-inch DECK SCREWS
    to temporarily attach the stakes to the guide rails

    7. 2x4 LUMBER
    to make a screed for shaping the sand

    (optional) to hold together certain patterns of brick. Must go at least 6 inches into the ground