When crossing your muddy yard to fetch the daily paper turns into an obstacle course of slips and slides, perhaps it's time to think about an alternative path — literally. How about taking a weekend to lay a brick walkway? The formal pavers will not only provide a clean and sturdy lane for visitors approaching your front door, but they'll also add style to your landscape and value to your home.
As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows, in just one weekend you can turn a swath of dirt into a ribbon of elegance, able to withstand anything from a winter gale to a summer lawn mower.
Brick Path Layers: An Overview
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.
Brick Walkway Border
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.
Brick Path Location
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.
How to Lay a Brick Walkway
1. Excavate the soil
- Determine the desired width of your path and add 2 inches.
- Roughly mark out the positioning of the path at this width using a rope, garden hose, or spray paint.
- Using a spade, dig out the space between the markings to remove the top layer of soil. Dig until you see the color of the soil change (as shown).
- Place the excavated soil on a tarp to keep the area clean.
2. Fill with graded base
- Once the walkway is excavated, pour in 1 to 2 inches of graded base (as shown).
- Spray the base with water before tamping it to keep the dust down.
3. Compress and repeat
- Using a hand tamper, pound the layer of base evenly to compress it (shown).
- Add another couple of inches of the base and repeat the process until the tamped layer reaches 3 ½ inches below grade. (If you're using a power tamper, work with 3- to 4-inch layers.)
4. Add Sand Layer
- Make a screed, which you can also use as a spacer when installing the side guide rails: Using a handsaw, cut down a 2x4 so it is 6 inches longer than the finished width of your path. Then cut notches at either end that are 3 ¼ inches wide and as high as one of your bricks laid flat.
- Using a spade, create narrow trenches along the edges of the graded base to fit lengths of 1x4 composite lumber turned on edge.
- Position the 1x4s along both sides of the walkway, then space them evenly by wedging the notched screed between them.
- Using a dead-blow mallet, pound the 1x4s in until they are level with the existing grade. Work your way down the path until both sides are lined.
- To hold these rails in place as you go, drive wooden stakes about a foot into the ground against the outside of the rails every 3 feet. Secure each stake to the lumber with two 1 ¼-inch deck screws, then cut it flush with the rail.
5. Grade the path
- To grade the path for drainage, cut a small scrap of wood to a thickness equaling 1/8 inch for every foot of the path's width.
- Tape the scrap to the end of a 4-foot level. Rest the level across the two rails, with the scrap wood positioned on top of the rail on the lower side of the path. Using a mallet, tap the rail into the ground until the bubble reads level.
- Pour about 2 inches of masonry sand or stone dust into the space between the rails. Tamp the sand.
- Position the screed between the rails and pull it across the sand to even out the surface and fill in the low spots (as shown).
- If necessary, add more sand, tamp, then screed again.
6. Lay the brick edging
- Gouge out shallow trenches about 2 ½ inches deep inside both sides of the guide rails.
- Lay a brick on edge inside the trench and, using a dead-blow mallet, pound it flush with the top of the guide rail (as shown).
- Use the level with the scrap-wood attachment to check the slope of the brick as you set it.
- Continue setting bricks along the edge in this manner until the entire path is edged on both sides.
7. Fill in the field
- Widen the notches on either side of the screed so it fits between the edge bricks with about ¼ inch of wiggle room on either side. Use it to screed the sand again.
- Begin laying the pattern between the edging: Hold a brick above the sand, press it against the edge brick, and position it so it's even with the start of the path.
- Once it's in position, set it down directly in place. Using a mallet, tap the brick level with the edge course.
- Continue laying bricks in this manner, hitting each to set it (as shown), until the path is filled in.
- Check the slope of the bricks with the level and scrap-wood attachment as you work. When you lay the bricks, make sure not to drag them across the sand or your joints will fill with sand and they won't be tight.
8. Fill the joints
- Shovel a thin layer of masonry sand or stone dust over the top of the bricks.
- Using a large push broom, sweep the sand into the joints between the bricks (as shown).
- Wet the path with a hose to settle the sand, then brush more wet sand into the cracks until they are packed tightly and filled to the surface.
- Let the sand settle for one week and refill any settled joints with more sand. After another week, unscrew the stakes and remove the guide rails. Finish the sides with garden edging set flush with the top of the brick.