Building a stone walkway is a wonderful way to enhance the "country" feel of a yard. Brick, by contrast, will complement a formal landscape design. The stone walkway project described below is well-suited for do-it-yourselfers, although some heavy lifting may be required, depending on your selection of materials. The ideal material for stone walkways will consist of the largest, flatest solid rocks you can find and maneuver. Greater mass equals greater stability.
Time Required: 1 day for every 10 feet of path
- For the sake of consistent measurements, for our rock material I'm assuming pieces roughly 3" thick. If the material with which you're working is thinner or thicker, adjust the excavating measurements (Step 8) accordingly.
- First, choose the path that your stone walkway will take. Avoid having stone walkways run under large trees. Not only may the tree roots eventually damage your stone walkway, but the latter may also damage the tree roots. Some tree species in particular are incompatible neighbors for hardscape paths, because they tend to put out roots close to the surface. Maple is an example.
- Once you've chosen the route for your stone walkway, you'll need to mark it. But first, determine whether you wish your path to be straight or curved. Consult my FAQ on paths to help you decide which is right for you.
- For straight stone walkways, begin by standing at one end of the projected path, holding a ball of string in your hand. Have a partner begin to unravel that ball of string, walking to the other end of the projected path. Decide whether this will be the left or right-hand side of the path. Each of you will then drive a stake in the ground where you're standing, tying your end of the string to the stake.
- How wide do you want the stone walkway? A rule of thumb is to make a pathway wide enough so that two people could stride it side by side. But it's really up to you. Let's use a 3' width as an example. Each of you would then measure 3' over from your first stake, mark the spot and repeat the process of running string from end to end.
- For curved stone walkways use garden hoses instead of string and stakes. Winding a hose in graceful curves as you go, simply meander from one end of the projected path to the other. This hose will mark one side of the curved stone walkway. Take another hose and repeat the process for the other side, matching the curves already established by the first hose. You'll want the width of the stone walkway to be fairly consistent from one end to the other.
- Stand back and judge the look. Does it curve in the most opportune places (such as around a specimen tree)? Walk between the two hoses for a test run. See how it feels. Is the winding excessive? Just go back and tweak the layout of the hoses, until the curves feel and look right. Then take a can of bright spray paint (white, yellow, etc.) and mark the line of the hoses with paint. Allow the paint to dry.
- Now it’s time to use a spade, which is essentially a flat shovel meant for chopping straight down through sod into the soil. Plunge the spade down 5” deep all along the course you've plotted out for your stone walkway. Then switching to a digging shovel, excavate all that sod and soil, down to a depth of 5”. You'll want to end up with a base as even and flat as possible. Moisten the soil in the excavated area with a garden hose and tamp it down with a tamping tool.
- Set landscape fabric down over the base you’ve just established for your stone walkway, to suppress potential weeds later. Now shovel 2" of sand over the landscape fabric. Tamp the sand down with the tamping tool. This will leave you with an excavation 3" deep -- just right for the thickness of the building material assumed for this project.
- Beginning at one end, place some of your rocks down firmly on the sand base. If you have rocks of many different widths and lengths, the task at hand will remind you of your puzzle-building exploits as a child! Keep the gaps between abutting rocks as small as possible. At this point, you're just getting a feel for handling the rocks.
- Continue laying the rocks out along the projected path. But this first alignment will be temporary, so don't spend too much time on it. Just lay out the majority of the rocks, using your largest pieces and focusing on the middle of the path. Now stroll down your stone walkway using your normal gait. You're testing to see if your feet fall in the middle of the rocks, so that you're comfortable. No doubt, you'll need to adjust the pieces.
- After making the necessary adjustments in the positioning of your larger rocks, start plugging the gaps with your smaller pieces. The need for adjustments is the reason why I advised you not to "spend too much time" in Step 11: all the smaller pieces would just have been in the way during the repositioning of the larger ones. Again, keep the gaps between abutting rocks as small as possible.
- Using a carpenter’s level, keep checking for levelness (from left to right) between the rocks you're laying. That is, the width of the stone walkway should be kept roughly level. The other dimension (i.e., front to back) can be made level only if you're working on a level piece of land to begin with. If a stone is resting too far down into the sand, remove it and place more sand under it. If a stone is sitting up too high, do the opposite: scrape away some sand from under it.
- When you are through laying rock, apply sand to the remaining gaps and tamp it in as best you can, perhaps using a small piece of wood for your tamping.
- Here's something to consider if your stone walkway will be cutting across a lawn. By keeping the surface of the stone walkway on the same level as that of the surrounding lawn, you'll be able to mow right along the path. By contrast, when the rocks are allowed to stick up higher than the lawn's surface, you'll need to go back after mowing and trim along the path. Who needs the extra work? Not I!
- Laying stone walkways in sand, as opposed to mortar or concrete, is known as "dry construction." Dry construction is easier for do-it-yourselfers than wet consruction. Not having to worry about finishing the placement of your rocks before a layer of mortar hardens makes for a much more happy-go-lucky project. You can make adjustments as you go, on your own time-table.
- However, wet construction is more "permanent." Rocks laid in sand will have to be re-adjusted over the years. If you don't mind tinkering with a project after it's "done," this shouldn't present a problem. Just make sure you stay on top of it, so you don't end up with a lawsuit after someone trips over a loose piece!
- For wet yards, some additional drainage may be required under stone walkways. To achieve this, simply excavate deeper at the beginning of the project. Then apply a layer of crushed stone before shoveling in any sand.