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Building Blocks for a Perfect Patio

The experts at This Old House give pointers on picking the right surface to suit your patio's function, its surroundings, and your budget

Outdoor Options

Creating a new living area outdoors is a whole lot easier than adding one indoors. Sure, you've got to furnish both. But in the backyard, there's no fussing with walls, ceilings, doors, or windows. All you really need is a floor.

That's why one of the first steps in planning a new patio is deciding which material to put underfoot, typically brick, concrete, stone, or gravel. The surface you choose plays a huge role in establishing not only the style of your patio but also its cost, whether you can build it yourself, and how you'll care for it over the long term.

Follow along to learn which patio material is right for you, get guidance on coming up with a design, and find installation tips for cost-conscious DIYers.

Curving Concrete

Stamped and tinted to resemble slate, this poured concrete patio follows the contours of planting beds. Creating such curves with real stone requires complicated cuts.

Similar to shown: Stamped slate texture on colored concrete, $8 to $12 per square foot installed; concretenetwork.com for a pro near you.

Concrete

Photo by Norm Plate

Whether poured or assembled from precast modular slabs, a concrete patio can be smooth and plain-Jane gray or tinted and textured to resemble one made from brick or stone. Precast concrete is DIY-friendly. But pouring a pad is typically a pro job because there's no learning as you go—concrete begins to harden as soon as water is added. For an existing pad in need of a face-lift, a thin concrete overlay with a deep-relief pattern can jazz up the surface without the expense of replacing the patio.

Textured Veneer

A ¼-inch-thick concrete overlay that's been tinted and stamped to resemble formal cut bluestone transformed this lackluster concrete pad so that it echoes the house's classical details. The joints are just skin deep, which means there's no grit to come loose, no way for ants to tunnel through, and no mortar to chip out in freezing weather. Overlays typically go right over clean concrete. But if your pad is coated with a sealer, the surface will first need to be sandblasted to ensure that the overlay adheres properly.

Shown: QC Thin-Pave NI, applied over a previously poured concrete base, $5 to $8 per square foot; qcconprod.com

Colorful Squares

Photo by Norm Plate

Precast concrete slabs in terra-cotta, charcoal, and soft gray give this patio its distinctive checkerboard look. For a new installation, purchase slabs like these that are tinted during the manufacturing process. Or to liven up existing monotone slabs, you can brush, trowel, or squeegee on a thin layer of Quikrete's DIY-friendly concrete resurfacer (find it at The Home Depot). Choose from five liquid tints, including red, brown, and buff, that you mix into the slurry yourself. The new surface won't peel, and colors won't fade as they can with some concrete stains.

Shown: Architectural Slabs, 18 by 18 inches, in Cardinal, Graphite, and Platinum, $4.58 per square foot; mutualmaterials.com

Gravel

Photo by Kolin Smith

Inexpensive and easy to install, gravel is a no-brainer for budget-minded homeowners. But it's also a top choice for anyone seeking an informal patio that easily accommodates curves and requires little more than the occasional raking to maintain. TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook suggests adding landscape fabric between the packed base and gravel on top to keep the materials from intermingling. Gravel comes in a wide array of colors, including white, black, and earthy yellows, browns, and reds.

Speckled Pea Gravel

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

Loose gravel in shades of gray, white, and tan gives this raised patio a beachy feel to complement the relaxed look of the low-slung wood-sided cottage it sits behind. An advantage of gravel is that rainwater easily filters through and into the ground below, so there's never any puddling. You also don't have to worry as much about grading your site. Patios with less-permeable surfaces must be sloped at least ⅛ inch per foot to drain properly. Note that most gravel patios require edging to keep pebbles in place, whether it's steel sunk in the soil or pressure-treated timbers like these that sit right on the ground.

Shown: Del Rio washed pea gravel, $1 per square foot from 60-pound bags, 60 cents per square foot in bulk; bourgetbros.com

How It's Done

Illustration by Elizabeth Traynor

This "sandbox" design is easy for DIYers because there's no digging—just remove the turf. A treated timber frame is pinned to the ground with 2-foot lengths of steel rebar. Then, in goes a base of crushed stone and stone dust, landscape fabric, and a top layer of pea gravel.

Bricks and Pavers

Photo by Laura Moss

Baked clay bricks and interlocking concrete pavers, which have spacers along the edges to create uniform joints, are small, modular, and lightweight enough to easily fit into place single-handedly. Both result in a fairly smooth patio that you can sweep clean. Clay brick is usually red, but you can also get yellow or gray. Pavers come in gray and muted shades of red, yellow, brown, black, or green.

Dry-Laid Brick Herringbone

Photo by Eric Roth

This spacious patio is built to last with a zigzagging herringbone pattern that helps lock bricks in place. Used for centuries on both patios and paths, herringbone is also a traditional choice for more formal landscapes and house styles. You can make the pattern with any rectangular brick or paver, but it's particularly eye-catching with these long ones that are laid with their narrow edges facing up.

Similar to shown: Purington Skinny true antique street pavers, $7 to $9 per square foot; historicalbricks.com

How It's Done

Illustration by Elizabeth Traynor

The patterned surface gets the attention, but the real credit for an A-plus paving job goes to what lies beneath: Here, a sturdy base layer topped with stone dust. Polymeric sand fills the joints between bricks.

Mortared Brick

Photo by Joe Schmelzer

Brick with mortared joints is ideal when you want an easy-to-clean surface—you can actually vacuum it—and in warmer climates where you don't have to worry about a freeze-thaw cycle damaging your patio. The base for mortared brick must be concrete, not the usual crushed stone and stone dust, which makes this an expensive option for new patios. But if you've got an existing, characterless concrete slab, it's the perfect cover-up. Just be sure to use half-height "thin bricks" to minimize the elevation change at doors and steps.

Similar to shown: Homestead Used thin brick, $3.50 per square foot; mutualmaterials.com

Interlocking Pavers

Photo by Laura Moss

Concrete pavers come in a variety of shapes, including tile-like octagons and boxy rectangles, like these, that mimic cobblestones. Pavers lie on a permeable base of crushed stone and sand, with sand between the joints. These gaps are tight enough to prevent narrow feet on patio furniture from getting stuck. Built-in edge spacers make it easy to fit pavers together like puzzle pieces, but their installation does require the use of a vibrating plate compactor, a beefy machine that DIYers can rent at home centers. On this pergola-shaded patio, a tumbled finish softens the manufactured look of the pavers. Get more tips on installing and caring for concrete pavers at thisoldhouse.com/bonus.

Similar to shown: Roman Dominion, $4.19 per square foot; mutualmaterials.com

Top Your Patio with a Pergola

Photo by Richard Felber (Styling by Michelle Lay)

The beauty of a freestanding pergola, like this one, is you don't have to anchor it to the house or move gutters. That said, here are a few things to consider.

Footings

Posts are typically sunk 2 to 3 feet deep, depending on the pergola's height, and set in tamped gravel. A skirted base provides a finished look.

Materials

Options for posts, rafters, and purlins include treated lumber, easy-care vinyl-clad aluminum, and composite made from wood and plastic.

Shade

Purlins provide some protection from the sun, but for more coverage you can add a canopy of leafy vines or climbing roses, woven bamboo mats, sailcloth, or polycarbonate panels.

Stone

Photo by John Gruen

The oldest paving material, natural stone gives a patio timeless appeal. Pieces that are cut into uniform shapes look tidy and crisp, while jagged, irregular edges result in a casual look. Dense stone, such as bluestone and granite, resists flaking in freezing weather and isn't likely to sprout a crop of slippery moss. But softer, more porous limestones and sandstones are fine choices in warm, dry climates.

Cut Bluestone

Photo by Randy O'Rourke

The rough stones in a retaining wall contrast nicely with the smooth bluestone on this sunken patio. Adding even more interest are the various sizes of pavers and the mix of colors, including shades of blue, gray, and purple. The patio's joints fit so tightly that the surface is smooth enough to roll out a charcoal kettle for barbecues.

Learn how to install a cut bluestone patio.

Similar to shown: PA Full Color Natural Cleft bluestone, $5.75 per square foot, thestonecenter.com

Rustic Sandstone

Photo by Lynn Karlin

Adirondack chairs work well on this patio because the legs are broad enough to span the wide, gravel-filled joints in the rough flagstone surface. Because the bottom face of each stone undulates as much as the top, material like this takes time and skill to install. You need to level each piece individually; you can't just spread a layer of bedding sand over a crushed gravel base and set the pavers on top, as you can when using smooth stone of uniform thickness.

Similar to shown: Carolina Rose rustic semi-quartzitic sandstone, $3 to $5 per square foot; thestonecenter.com

How It's Done

Illustration by Elizabeth Traynor

A sand layer beneath the irregular flagstones allows you to level each paver. Simply lift with a pry bar and add or remove sand until the stone is flush with adjoining ones.

Free-Form Flagstone

Photo by John Gruen

This patio features flagstone with a cleft finish, created by splitting the stone into natural layers. The rough-and-tumble material shrugs off brunch guests' spilled wine just as easily as it does mud from garden boots: Simply hit it with a hose. The relatively wide gaps between flagstones are planted with creeping thyme. This good-looking, low-growing groundcover doesn't require mowing or much watering, and stands up to foot traffic. A dense green foliage gives way to late-spring-blooming flowers in shades of lavender, white, or red.

Similar to shown: Buckskin Select flagstone, $3 to $5 per square foot; thestonecenter.com

Put Plants Between Pavers

Photo by Wendell T. Webber

Green crack fillers are more naturalistic than mortar and help soften the look of stone. The following plants thrive in most parts of the country and prefer full or partial sun. Find them online at highcountrygardens.com.

• Thymus minus

• Spanish sandwort

• Turkish speedwell

• Greek yarrow

• Miniature mat daisy*

• Thyme leaf speedwell

* Good for shady and moist areas