DIY Paver Project: Tips for Installing, Cutting Pavers

Working on the new paver walkway Knee pads and gloves are necessities when it comes time to lay pavers. Image:

DIYer shows how he dug, cut, and installed pavers … in 103 degree heat.

This is the third in a series of posts from editor Bruno Bornsztein, who’s 8 inches deep into paving a backyard walkway and patio with help from his wife Alicia, daughter Ayla, and HouseLogic’s sponsorship.

When last we checked in on my paver walkway and patio project, I had just finished laying out a fool-proof plan, complete with 3D renderings. Well, planning and paving are two very different things.

One muggy Monday I grabbed some jeans and a shovel, and started attacking the old concrete walkway like a starving man with an ice-cream sundae. The temperature was 95 degrees, and each slab of concrete weighed about 70 pounds. The time-lapse video (below) makes it look short and sweet. But that’s one picture every 30 seconds. I was digging up that old walkway for more than 6 hours.

Finally, I had the old concrete out, and I also had a nice new gigantic pile of junk behind my garage. (No clue what I’ll do with that. Any ideas? Leave me a comment!)

Cutting the sod

The next day (hottest on record in more than 20 years, at 103 degrees) was devoted to cutting out sod. I needed to excavate to 8-inch depth everywhere pavers would go. But I wanted to save that turf first, so I set about carefully cutting out big chunks with a shovel and moving them to other parts of the yard.

This was hard work, but I’d actually recommend it; the sod is easy to transplant and does really well, given enough water in the first few days.

Digging … in the heat

OK, now for the real digging. Most of the walkway area was easy, since I just had to remove the old sand and gravel that was beneath the concrete.

But the area under the patio, where our giant elm tree had stood, was brutal. A few inches deep, I hit thigh-sized tree roots so dense my shovel (and later my chainsaw) bounced right off. Short of renting a huge stump-grinder, there was no way of getting that dead wood out, so I just did what I could with a mattock and shovel and hoped for the best.

After four full days of digging, I was ready to start installing pavers, which was great, because that very day our supplies were delivered. (I think I mentioned this, but GET YOUR STUFF DELIVERED! No way that load would ever “fit” into our Honda Fit).

Installing pavers

Installing pavers isn’t complicated, but it’s slow going until you get the hang of it.

  • Lay a gravel base (crushed rock).
  • Tamp it down using a plate compactor or hand tamper.
  • Add an inch-thick setting bed, a layer of sand that you smooth out until it’s level. The pavers sit on top of the setting bed, and are held in place by plastic edging on the sides.

Lessons learned about laying pavers

  • Only spread as much gravel base and leveling sand as you think you can cover with pavers in a day (you don’t want it getting rained on).
  • When putting down your base and setting bed, work in big segments, not little ones. This minimizes subtle changes in height/slope between sections.
  • To move quickly, have one person lay the pavers and have a helper hand them to the person laying them.
  • Wear knee pads and gloves. Get gloves that fit snugly — not those bulky garden gloves — for dexterity.
  • For a level, smooth surface to lay your pavers on, place two one-inch-diameter PVC pipes on the gravel. Level the pipes. Spread leveling sand between them, and then use a long board to smooth out the sand (called screeding).

Had rain not interrupted my work, I could’ve finished in two full days. Tip: Cover everything with tarps:

In all, I spent three days just laying pavers. Make sure you budget enough time, and add a day for surprises or bad weather.

Cutting pavers

Although we tried hard to avoid having to cut pavers, it’s inevitable. Our semi-circular patio, in particular, necessitated a lot of cutting. You can cut pavers by hand (with a hammer and chisel), with a guillotine paver-splitter, or using a wet-saw with a diamond-tipped blade.

I tried my hand at hand-cutting, and the results were terrible. Basically, I destroyed a paver. I don’t suggest this route unless you’re a skilled stone-worker. Next I brought a paver into the hardware store to try their paver-splitter. It cut the brick in half easily enough, but the cut was pretty ragged, and I doubted its ability to do angled or precise cuts.

In the end, I rented a wet saw, which cost $40 for four hours. The wet saw is incredible, and can cut slices as thin as a half inch. But it’s not very fast — each cut takes at least 20 seconds. And it’s not portable, so you have to run back and forth between your patio and the saw.

My cutting session took more than four hours, and it’s pretty intense work (physically and mentally, since that blade is spinning so near your non-concrete fingers).

Huge tip: When you’re laying out a curve:

  • Put down all your paver stones.
  • Make sure they extend beyond the final finished area.
  • Using a string and stake, sketch out your curve with a marker on the paver stones.
  • Then pull the bricks up, numbering the bottoms as you go. You can take them all to the saw and make a bunch of cuts at once. You’ll also end up with a neater edge, since the cuts will line up nicely with each other.

After my cuts were done and every last paver was in place, I spread fine sand into the joints using a push broom, and ran a plate compactor (rented: $40) over everything to vibrate the bricks into place.

Note to tool-renters: Call around. I found wildly varying prices for identical pieces of equipment, and saved about 50% by making one extra phone call.

As of today, our walkway and patio are finished, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve spent several dozen minutes just staring at it. Ayla’s thrilled too, and is already asking me to build her a “pink paddio.” I’ll show you the “paddio” video and the final reveal of our finished project in my next blog post.

Related: Follow the DIY paver project from beginning to end.

Have you tackled a similar project? What tips can you offer? How long did it take you?