10 August 2010

On Building a Patio

Our garden, when we bought our house, had a brick- and stone-built barbecue in it.  After four years, I realised that it was listing increasingly to starboard.  The corner of the garden is higher than the surrounding ground, so my suspicion was that the garden was subsiding.

Since my beloved and I are not ardent barbecuers, I suggested that I knock down the structure, and then investigate and rectify the problem.  I suspected I would have to dig down to the surrounding level and build a retaining wall, then back-fill the wall and lay out a new flower bed.  A fairly straightforward task.

'Oh,' said my beloved, 'if you are getting rid of the barbecue we could have a summer house there.'  It is truly wondrous how so simple a statement can can have such far-reaching consequences...

A summer house, of course, is a structure.  A structure needs something to stand on.  Something large enough and, since we would not want to replace a lopsided barbecue with a lopsided summer house, something level.  So now I had to build a patio.  I still had to build the retaining wall as above but also
  • make the area for the patio wide enough by knocking down a stone wall around a raised flower bed and deep enough by lifting some of the gravel-covered crazy paving,
  • dig the bed back and rebuild the wall,
  • build boundary walls (a couple of courses of brick), since the ground is not level, to define the front and back levels of the patio,
  • provide drainage for the area,
  • fill the area with hardcore,
  • top it out with sand, and
  • lay slabs.
Listed like that it all seems quite straightforward but, with my having vanishingly little experience with these things, it wasn't.  Walls need footings, and footings need trenches.  Trenches need to be dug, and I was amazed at how many house bricks and huge boulders I found buried in the ground in exactly the right place to be in exactly the wrong place.   Anyway, having dug them out (with what the dog would call help, and what I would call a downright bloody nuisance) and back-filled the holes they left, and laid down thicker concrete footings to compensate for any failings in the back-filling, I was ready for bricklaying.

The next set of problems were beyond my control.  I got the retaining wall built but had to stop short of expiring because of the heat.  I also struggled with the mortar mix.  How on earth do people build houses with that stuff?   The following weekend, too much rain proved to be an obstacle (weather is a great problem for outdoor work).  Having a social life is also a distraction, as is going on holiday for two weeks, and family birthday celebrations 200 miles away.

Anyway, I eventually got back to the job and finished the re-sited wall of the flower bed, creating along the way a nice pile of topsoil for the dog to dig in (at least, he thought it was for him) and which, at some time, I would have to redistribute around the garden or transport to the tip.  In the process, I mastered the mortar mix and managed to build the boundary walls, despite the dog's best efforts.  I even grew to understand why some people kick their pets, although I love mine too much to resort to such extremes.  The spade in my hand did not seem to discourage his interfering ways...

Now, having demolished a barbecue built largely of bricks, and having dug almost as many from the ground, I had a huge pile from which to make hardcore.  This entailed putting each brick in turn on a large stone (also dug from the ground) and pulverising it with a 1.8 kg lump hammer.  I am amazed how hard bricks are (in the USA, such rock-breaking amounts to hard labour in penal servitude).  I made good progress with that at first, then discovered that it gave me Tennis Elbow in my right arm.  Further progress proved painful.  I needed an alternative way to get the job moving again.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of buying some hardcore but, having looked it up on the Internet, it proved to be largely unavailable in the form that I wanted or that my beloved would tolerate...  There was no option but to continue doing it myself by hand.  Fortunately, I discovered a two-handed technique that enabled me to avoid the pain.

Work continued, and the pile of bricks grew smaller.  Looking at the dwindling pile and the area yet to be filled in, I began to wonder if there would be enough bricks or if I would have to begin prospecting in another part of the garden to see if there was another as yet untapped seam.  However, another day's hard labour - a whole day breaking bricks; one whole day; that's a working day doing nothing but smash brick after brick after brick - proved the stockpile to be adequate.  I still had a pile of bricks and other rubble to take to the tip.  Oh joy!  I also now had Golf Elbow in my left arm.

With hardcore laid down, and gravel thrown in to fill the small spaces, the next day's work entailed filling up the area with sand and covering it with slabs.  Off to B&Q I went to procure the necessary supplies.  It transpired that, because I live on the wrong side of a bridge with a 5 tonne axle weight limit, and could not guarantee that the delivery vehicle could get within 10 metres of our house at all times, the thirty 400mm  square slabs I needed could not be delivered.  I would have to transport them myself.  So, pro tem, I settled for the sand.  Fifteen bags I bought, in accordance with the advice the B&Q man gave me.  Loaded them in the car myself, I did.  Drove home very gingerly, avoiding potholes and bumps so as to preserve my car's suspension.

At home, I took the sensible approach of unloading the sand bags as I needed them.  That meant that the seven I apparently did not need were still in the car for taking back to B&Q once I had levelled off the area.  Back they went, and I unloaded them from the car onto the B&Q trolley I needed to get them to the returns desk.

I then bought my slabs and loaded them into the car.  One at a time.  I drove even more carefully this time, amazed at how low the car sat on its suspension.  Since I was sure I would need all the slabs, the next job was to get them all, one at a time, out of the car into the garden.  I cleared the route, in good manual handling practice, only to find that, on my very first trip, the dog had assumed that the clearing had been for his benefit; he was lying in my path.  In fairness to him, he was willing to move on being so instructed, and it only took him two or three tellings-off to cotton on...

I next had to master another black art: cutting slabs.  Now, hiring an angle grinder may have made the job easier but I am a tight-wad and, in any case, like a challenge.  Not only that, I had already been given an excellent DIY book one Christmas that contained all the enchantments necessary for cutting concrete slabs to size, and had all the requisite magic wands (lump hammer and bolster chisel) in my armoury.  I also had two-and-a-half slabs spare for training purposes.  With unbounded confidence, I set to and destroyed only four slabs (cf. two-and-a-half) in the process.  I ran out of steam before covering the whole area, but at least I got enough slabs down to give an impression of what the the finished patio would look like.  I also decided that cutting slabs by magic was never going to be an accomplished skill of mine, and that I'd better find the right tool for the job rather than destroy the world's entire supply of slabs single-handedly.

After the weekend's heavy lifting, I spent the following day at work aching at my desk, struggling to lift even my mug of tea.  Admittedly, it is a very large mug.  Ordinarily, it would not be a problem but manual labour, for which I was not designed, had taken its toll.  I used my lunch break to investigate the cost of hiring an angle grinder or block cutter.  Since I couldn't do any slab cutting until such an implement had been acquired, I used the next couple of evenings to begin the relocation of left-over bricks and rubble to the local tip. 

Better inspiration followed.  I asked a colleague at work if he had an angle grinder and, if so, would he mind if I borrowed it?  Of all the people at work, he was my most likely source of a free loan.  Jackpot!  He had one and was willing to let me borrow it, especially after I explained that I was always reluctant to lend my tools to others for the simple reason that they usually come back broken.  I had to buy some cutting discs but, hey, that was a small price to pay.

I got all my slabs cut, and the garden filled with white concrete dust, not to mention the back porch and stairs, my shoes and my socks, in one evening's work.  Magic!  I even managed to use the ones I had damaged earlier to good effect.  Setting the slabs out demonstrated that the sand bed was not as level as I had believed.  Further work was necessary to remedy that, and I wondered if I should have kept a few of those bags of sand instead of taking them back to B&Q.  I had half a bag left, and reckoned I would need one more.

My beloved made her contribution to the work by riddling and bagging the pile of topsoil excavated from the raised bed and patio area.  I found a neighbour whose rockery needed topping out and managed to off-load a fair amount of the soil on her; not literally, of course, that would be cruel. 

The project approached its final stages.  I bought another bag of sand on the way home from work on Friday.  I had a weekend to finish the job.  All I had to do was level off the slabs and grout them with mortar.  That's all.  That, and walk the dog, give a statement to the police (see here for the reason why), receive a huge delivery of logs and move them by hand into the log store, walk the dog again, and eat some lunch.  Anyway, I eventually got to levelling the slabs and worked my way around the outside of the patio.  I fixed those at the front and back to the supporting bricks with mortar plus a special ingredient that made the mix much more pliable and easy to work with: washing-up liquid!  Brilliant!  Saturday came to an end and all I had to do on Sunday was level all the slabs in the middle.

Well, actually, I had to go to church, eat my lunch, walk the dog and then set to work on the slabs.  All with a badly bruised toe on my left foot, since I had stubbed it on the solid wooden foot of my beloved's grandma's balloon-backed chair on Saturday night.  I'm not complaining.  I still had one limb in full working order.  Working on the slabs was actually a bit of a relief because it meant spending a good part of the day on my knees instead of my feet.  I managed to run out of sand with only four slabs to go, two hours after B&Q had closed. 

Finally, on Monday evening, after struggling out of B&Q on that badly-bruised toe with a large bag of sand (how many did I take back and why?), I got the slabs all level enough, swept dry mortar into the spaces between, and sprinkled water all over to dampen the mortar.  My heart sank a little later that night, when it looked like I would need to go over the grouting again, the mortar having settled when wet.

On checking the patio in the morning, I was elated to find that all was well.  I had finished!  I had built a patio!  It took a long time and sweat and pain but I did it.  On top of that, I have learnt a load of new skills which I hope never to use again.

And there you have it.  Well, not quite.  The rest of the garden has to be put right but at least the patio is finished.  We thought about having a barbecue to celebrate but realised that we no longer had the means...


  1. So, tennis elbow in one arm, golf elbow in the other, broken toe, scuffed knees... You survived! Congratulations!

    Brilliant write up, too.

  2. And I quote

    "It is truly wondrous how so simple a statement can can have such far-reaching consequences..."

    Dads Bathroom springs to mind.

    Your bruv.

  3. More of a shower than a spring. And what a nice job you made of it.