Building a dry-laid patio is labor-intensive, but can be a decent DIY project if you pay attention to all the little details. The one in the photo is the new one in my backyard. Irregular flagstone wouldn’t be my #1 choice for dry-laid stone just because it’s really hard to get a smooth, even surface, but the stones were free (jobsite leftovers- and sorry, there’s no more left). I think the best stone choice for a dry-laid patio is random-laid rectangular flagstone, like this:
However, the choice is up to you and your budget. Know that retail prices for the rectangular stone range from $7 to $12 per square foot, depending on where you are and the type of stone. Irregular flagstone is sold by the pallet; a ton of irregular flagstone covers 100-120 square feet on average, and can start around $450 per ton.
The first step is to design the patio, so you know the size and shape. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll discuss a 12ft x 12ft square patio, constructed with random-rectangular flagstone. Simple shape; lay it out in the field with marking paint. If you want the patio to be perfectly square, your best bet is to pull string lines and adjust them until you have four 90 degree corners. It’s a simple process, and uses the math you swore you’d never need to use once you left school:
Next, you need to set your grade. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume a near-perfect site. You want your patio to have between 1/8 and 1/4 inch of fall per foot, in order to properly shed water. So for our 12 ft patio, 1/4 inch of fall would mean that the lower portion is 3 inches lower. Looking at your site, you need to decide if that means digging out for the patio, building up for it, or a combination of the two. Because my backyard has such a steep pitch, I actually had to create a small retaining wall to hold back the lower side. I chose to use pressure-treated 6×6 timbers, but segmental retaining wall block or even concrete block with stone facing could have worked just as well. Even if you’re building up and not excavating, at least remove any sod. You want to start with a smooth, clean base that’s pretty close to the ideal pitch. How deep do you go? You want to figure on a minimum 4 inch base of 21A stone, an inch of stone dust for bedding, and the thickness of your stones. My stones had an average thickness of 2 inches, so I allowed for 7 inches of patio.
Once you have your patio area dug out and clean, you want to start by compacting the soil. The best way to do this is with a gas-powered plate compactor, available from most rental yards for around $100 a day or less. If you don’t have a helper, definitely have them deliver it and pick it up. Unless you’re a powerlifter, you’re not getting it in and out of a truck by yourself.
After the soil is compacted, lay down a separation fabric, available from your local stone and paver supplier. Don’t use the stuff from the big box store; it’s junk. Now you can start adding in your 21A in lifts. There are several terms for 21A, including crusher run, ABC, and road base. Essentially, it’s stone that has particles from 3/4 inch down to fines. Because of this range of particles, the stones lock together tightly and give you a super-compact base. Add your 21A to the patio site and rake it into a layer no thicker than 2 inches. Run the compactor over the entire surface until it’s rock hard. Add another 2 inch layer and repeat, until your base is the desired thickness. To make your life easier, keep raking the 21A as you spread it to acheive the proper fall across the surface of the patio. If your base is close, it’ll make installation of the stone a breeze.
Now that your base is in place, go ahead and add your stone dust in a 1 inch layer. Don’t compact this, as you’ll want some play as you set stones. Now, you can start laying stone. There’s no particular set of instructions except keep the pitch on the patio, tap them in with a rubber mallet, and make it look pretty. Once all the stones are in place, sweep stonedust in between the stones and wet everything down with the hose. You’ll have to do this several times to get the stone dust completely settled and locked into the joints. Hopefully, your friends and family will actually let you finish this step before they start putting furniture out there. The last step is to enjoy your new space.
As a disclaimer, this is general advice for construction of a simple patio on an ideal site. Your conditions and needs may differ; if you’re at all unsure, don’t be afraid to call in a pro. Not all landscape designers have a construction background and consult on jobs like this for homeowners, but I can’t imagine I’m the only one.
If you follow my advice and build a patio, I want pictures! Post a link in the comments.