To be honest, I have no clue how to build a flagstone patio in 3 days. This was just the original title I started with after everything I read on the internet recommended setting aside “2-3 days” to build a flagstone patio.
Maybe with perfect weather, uniform stone, and the stamina of an Olympic athlete, but for the average homeowner with responsibilities outside building a flagstone patio, 2-3 days is completely impractical.
It’s not like we were trying to build some mammoth flagstone landscape, it was just a 12×15 flagstone patio. No curves, no pavers, just the very forgiving nature of flagstone.
Contrary to reality, just as they do on the DIY Network, these websites made it look deceivingly easy.
Step 1: Excavate the earth to a depth of seven inches where you plan on building your flagstone patio. The dirt is light as cotton and easily disposed of. This step should take you nine minutes. If you take breaks.
Step 2: Everything will be naturally perfectly level without any need for additional digging or tamping. Roll out some landscaping tarp and shovel in 3 inches worth of crushed stone for a base. Slam a hand tamper down with the strength of Thor to compact the gravel. You can also rent a machine tamper if you’d rather be able to use your arms the next morning.
Step 3: Once the stone is firmly tamped (three hours if by hand, twelve minutes by machine), add another 2 inches of crushed stone and repeat the tamping process. This dual-method of stone tamping is to ensure you never want to build another flagstone patio for as long as you live.
Step 4: Shovel in 1-2 inches of coarse sand and, yep, you guessed it, tamp the ground again. If tamping correctly, you should be uttering expletives with every downward thrust.
Step 5: Set the flagstone pieces in the sand until finished. Every piece will be perfectly shaped and assemble like a puzzle made for toddlers. Sweep some joint sand in the grooves between the stones and enjoy your new flagstone patio with a day to spare!
In reality, building a flagstone patio is difficult. Especially if you’re out there sourcing, digging, and transporting your own stone. But even if you have flagstone delivered to the project site, the preparation is what kills you. The digging, the hauling, the shoveling, the tamping…it’s absolutely brutal to your muscles and “go get ‘em” spirit.
Then, just when you think you’ve reached the easy part of the project, laying the stones, you realize that the preparation was actually the fun part. Unless you acquire perfectly uniform stones, each sharing the same height, there’s going to be a lot of shuffling, digging, padding, moving, and replacement going on. Think of it like a giant jigsaw puzzle. A giant, heavy, burdensome jigsaw puzzle without a box to guide you.
2-3 days? I’d plan on six. Easy.
And if your children offer to help? You can safely double this estimate.
Now, because we sourced our own stone at my wife’s parents’ farm, the project took longer than normal. My six day estimate (twelve with the aid of offspring) is accurate assuming you already have the stone laying in wait. If you don’t, allow ample time to either marry into a family with rock walls or to stealthy pillage stone from neighbors over several nights.
What follows is a pictorial of our flagstone patio project. I doubt you’ll learn much because this post isn’t meant to be a tutorial. It’s more a realistic portrayal of what you can expect if you aren’t already a DIY or landscaping expert…as though you’re just Joe and Mrs. Joe Homemaker. With children.
The project started with hiring Heather's dad to haul all of the flagstone we found on his farm from the stone walls to our rented truck. We budgeted one pack of Little Debbie snack cakes for this.
We made sure to select more stone that we thought we'd need because I wasn't naive enough to think that every piece would fit perfectly. We loaded just under 3,000 pounds of flagstone.
Just as I did when harvesting stones for our garden border project, I managed to get stuck in mud again. Heather's dad pulled me out with his tractor but we went over-budget on snack cakes.
All our stone laid out in a pretty row. Our neighbors thought this was the extent of what we were building. If only.
With the tulip bulbs relocated (seen in the above photo) the soon-to-be patio area was ready for excavation.
With excavation underway our daughter was in charge of relocating worms to worm refugee camps scattered about our gardens.
The elusive 16-year old rarely captured in photographs is not only witnessed awake, but witnessed WORKING. We had relocated a tree so we could gain more space on the existing patio.
While excavating the "easy" patio expansion we uncovered two ginormous tree trunks that had to be sawed and removed with truck and chains.
She felt the scene was dangerous so she opted for a helmet, or, "hemmet" in 3y/o jargon.
Excavated and ready. See how easy that was? Oh, the orange cone isn't there to indicate that there is a gigantic hole in the ground. There was some odd protruding metal pole and we didn't want to yank it out for fear that it was connected to something important. Like, our house.
With the flagstone patio areas excavated, we had reached the point of no return. Not keen on sourcing our own crushed stone and course sand, we had 6 cubic yards of grit (roughly eleventy tons) dumped in our driveway. The tarp was used to prevent sand loss from rain and curious children.
That big pile of crushed stone and giant pile of course sand has to be hand-shoveled into the excavated areas. 2-3 days? Total? For the entire project? Excavation alone took that.
Rolling and stapling landscaping tarp to prevent weeds, bugs, and spelunkers was, by far, the easiest of tasks. Because I could sit while doing it.
With the landscaping paper in place, the transfer of stone begins. Only two wheelbarrow loads were completely dumped in our lawn by children who didn't adhere my warnings that they didn't have the balance or biceps to transport the stone. Plucking cinders from our grass added considerable time.
This photo represents five of the more than 50 loads of loose stone dumped in the giant hole to act as our base. All of this had to be tamped flat...twice.
This is what hand tamping looks like. What's shown is only one of roughly 34,000 full-force tamps.
A Brief Word on Tamping
After going through three bicep-busting, tricep-tearing, abdominal-crunching tamping sessions I can wholeheartedly recommend that you rent a machine tamper to do this task.
After weighing the pros and cons of renting a machine for $80 versus buying a hand tamper for $40, I chose the cost-cutting route. Savings that were quickly eaten up by the purchase of Aleve and Bio-Freeze. Not to mention the fact that I spent approximately four hours hand tamping with all my strength between start and finish.
In the end, I really wish I had rented the machine. Although I will say that hand tamping did wonders for my body image:
See? Look how easy it was to hand-tamp all that rock...twice. Once after a 3-inch layer of stone and again after a 2-inch layer of stone. Fun!
One of the Pro's of using a hand tamper is that I could fire up our work lights and work until midnight. You can't do that with a machine in a neighborhood and live. It was now time to repeat the tamping process with the sand. More fun!
They say by the time you finish one DIY project, another one surfaces. Case in point: this was the result of me just opening the exterior door to our basement. The door completely ripped from its hinges. Probably the result of my overzealous hand tamping.
Sand is tamped and ready for stone!
The flagstone patio expansion area was filled and tamped as well.
This is what happens when you tell your 3-year old to not walk in the freshly tamped sand.
Always frame the patio first and work from the outside in. We chose the heavier stones with flat edges for the sides so that they doubled as both border and anchors.
Don't let the string fool you into thinking I totally know what I'm doing. I'm sure I used it wrong but I placed it at the same height as the bordering stones so that I could maintain level and grade away from the house. The four stones you see in the middle are where the legs of the picnic table will rest. We pre-measured to make sure the table would be level and supported.
As you get near the end, you'll be searching for specific shapes in the remaining stone to try and complete the patio. Unlike a typical jigsaw puzzle, this puzzle gets more and more difficult to assemble the closer you get to the end. Especially when stones are too tall or too thin to be level with surrounding stones. To make everything level we had to either dig out sand or add sand one stone at a time to make each one the same height. A process that took For. Ev. Er.
When nature lets you down, chisel out your own needed shapes.
That was easy. It's complete! Looks good enough to walk on.
The beautiful part about flagstone is that you don't have to worry about perfect seams and tight fits. The nature of the stone is irregular so it allows for some margin of error. And even the errors look fantastic. Here's a little sample of the gaps we felt we could live with.
Another view of the labor of love we loved to hate.
Picnic table installed and ready for BBQs. If you're in the area, stop in. You can marvel at the stonework while I fire up the grill. Those who ogle over the work get extra helpings.
Now on to the sandbox! A project we intended to start more than two weeks ago. The website we’re following, Dover Projects, says to allow 2-3 days for completion. I think I’m noticing a DIY Expert pattern here. Make the general public feel completely inadequate and woefully incompetent by giving time estimates only achievable with experience and a crew of forty.
So far, we’ve managed to move the lumber from our porch to the backyard. Oh, and I staked the yard in what I thought was a perfect rectangle but is actually a misshapen trapezoid. I’ll figure it out.
Back with updates soon…I hope.