Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I must have been to think I should do this project. Nah, that couldn’t be it. Maybe just crazy or stupid, likely both.

A few years ago, Tara and I hired a friend of a friend who does masonry work to lay an (approximately) 450 square foot, 4” thick concrete pad. (By the way, if you are local and need concrete or masonry work done, contact Eric Hansen. He does great work!) We were very pleased with his price, timeliness and quality. 

With kids, it’s tough to find the time to get to a landscaping and stone place (together), look around, ask questions and make decisions. Okay, maybe I was just procrastinating but the thing about the kids is still entirely true. Anyway, 525 square feet of flagstone was delivered in August. Sand, lime and cement followed but I wasn’t home during delivery so, despite my request, the lime and cement ended up in the yard. More on why that’s an unfortunate error later.

Research (online or in person at landscaping and stone businesses) was useless as every piece of information I found seemed to be conflicting or vague. Thankfully, I was able to speak with Eric, whose expertise proved invaluable.

I started with a test patch so I could get comfortable mixing concrete and laying stone. This also allowed Tara and I to try several different widths of grout lines. We settled on ¾” but the largest tile spacers I could find were 3/8”. Thankfully, my friend Jamie was able to cut about 100 wooden pieces to use as spacers.   

The official day 1 was in late August and Jamie came by to help me get started. About half the day was spent taking measurements, marking chalk lines, hanging string lines, and other general planning stuff. Then we started laying stones.  

Here’s the basic process:
  1.  Mix dry materials together (2 parts sand, 1 part lime, 1 part cement).
  2.  Clean the dirt off the stones. Chip away any loose pieces so the mortar adheres better.
  3. Paint underside of stones and top of patio with bonding agent. 
  4. Add water and bonding agent to dry concrete mix and mix to a pasty consistency. 
  5. Spread mortar onto patio. Make sure to press it into all the crevices. You want about 1” of mortar under the stones.
  6.  Back butter the stone. Again, make sure to press it into all the crevices.
  7. Lay stone and make sure it’s square to surrounding stones (work into corners if you can so that you always have two stones to square it against). Insert spacers.
  8. Pound stone into mortar with rubber mallet. Don’t go too far or you’ll have to pull the stone out and start over (a pain in the ass, trust me).
  9.  Use a level to ensure the stone has the proper pitch (you don’t want it level or water will pool).
  10. Use a level or other straight edge to make sure the top of the stone is level with all surrounding stones.
  11. Allow mortar to cure a bit and then scrape out excess mortar around the stones. You want the mortar to come up the edge of the stone about 1/8” – ¼” now. You’ll fill the rest in later.
  12.  Clean any mortar off the top of the stones. Be gentle if the mortar hasn’t cured or you’ll move the stone.
  13. Repeat until you’re tired, bloody, sweaty and generally grumpy.
Want some of that in photos?

Jamie came back to help when I was ready to begin doing the grout lines. Tara and I decided on a gray (charcoal) color for the grout. I found that I preferred using a grout bag to squeeze the mortar into the joints. At this point, it was all-hands-on-deck and no stopping for taking photos.

I mostly worked on the patio on weekends and vacation days (I’m thankful I had them). I was able to lay an average of 12 - 15 stones per day (there are a lot of steps – it’s a long process). In August and September, many days were in the 80s and 90s. By the end (I finished on November 16th), many days barely got above freezing and because the days were short, I often worked in the dark. 

So, now that the patio is finished, it’s too cold to use it. But I think it looks nice, though I am definitely biased. There is still some work required to finish the last set of stairs, provide some sort of shade and do some landscaping around the patio. But that’s for next summer. Right now, I’m just glad to be done before Thanksgiving.

Final numbers:
3 months
300 flagstones
2 tons of sand
1 ton of cement
½ ton of lime (weight is not equal to volume across each product)
4 gallons of bonding agent
30 ounces of coloring
2 diamond blades (neither of which could cut through a soft cheese now)
7 rolls of painters tape
Approximately 100 wheelbarrows of concrete (each hand mixed twice, once dry, once wet)
I’m not going to tally the hours because it’ll make me sad.

Challenges: (The whole project but a couple of things in particular)
  •  Poorly cut stones: It was as if every stone was cut by hand, in the dark. For example, I had stones that were supposed to be 12” x 18” but were actually 11¾” on one end and 12¼” on the other.  A half inch difference over 18”? How does that happen and how do I make that square?  Some cheating here and there may have occurred.
  •  Chunky lime and cement: Because the pallets were set in the yard and did not have any plastic under them, ground moisture caused the bottom bags to get chunky. This meant either throwing out nearly $200 worth of materials or building a box with a screen that I could sift the materials through. I opted for the latter but that added significant amounts of time and effort to the project. 
Tips: (in case you feel crazy enough to attempt a similar project, though I don’t recommend it)
  • (Keith) Buy decent quality flagstone and ensure that the stones are cut evenly. 
  • (Eric) Painters tape for the grout lines.
  • (Eric) When you splatter a bit of mortar on a stone, it’s best to clean it off immediately. If that’s not possible, you can let it harden a little, then scrap it off and clean with a wet sponge.
  • (Eric) Don’t put the mortar or grout right up against a house, staircase or anything else that might shift or settle. That will cause the attached mortar/grout to break apart. Use something that’s about 1/8” wide, smooth and slick to put up against the wall of the house or staircase to keep the mortar/grout away from the wall. Fill it in with a caulk backing rod and caulk once the mortar/grout cure. I used cheap poster board (the kind with the Styrofoam stuff in the middle) with petroleum jelly spread on it so it wouldn’t stick to the mortar/grout. Just make sure to wait for a good cure before pulling out the poster board or you’ll pull the mortar apart (again, trust me).
  •  (Tara) Make a pattern on paper first. Tara created one on the computer so she could just move stones around at will, without actually moving stones.  We found out very quickly that even a random pattern is like a giant, horrible puzzle and requires some planning in order to make everything fit together.                             
  • (Keith) After using it for a day, I felt a cement mixer was more trouble than it was worth.  It really only made sense for batches that were larger than I could lay by myself before it started to cure and it required cleaning after every batch, which added time.
  • (Keith) Only clean the dirt off the underside of each stone. Leaving the dirt on the top means any splatters of mortar are easier to clean off and are less likely to stain the stone.

Acknowledgements: (I hardly know where to start)

Thank you, Jamie, for the use of so many tools, for getting me access to Eric’s expertise, for hauling a cement mixer, for cutting spacers and for generously giving at least two days of your life to help with the project.

Thank you, Eric, for taking the time to provide tips and secrets and for allowing me to use your cement mixer that first day. This project would have turned out very differently if not for your expertise.

Thank you, Terry and Mom-mom, for watching the boys on numerous occasions so that I could focus on the project and so that Tara could help. I would still be working if not for you.

Thank you, Jimmy, for the use of so many tools, including an extra wheelbarrow that enabled me to keep one batch of dry mix at the ready. I’m happy I got to put your father’s wheelbarrow to good use again.

Thank you, OT, for devoting a day of your life to helping with mixing and laying stone. One day may not seem like a lot but every little bit contributed to the final product.

Thank you, Colter, who, despite being only 3, was always eager to lend a little hand. True, sometimes you stepped on stones you weren’t supposed too and caused some extra work, but I love working with and teaching you. Someday, you, Elliott and I will make a great team (of course by then you’ll probably balk at the mention of helping your dad).

Last, but certainly not least, thank you Tara. I appreciate that you were so willing to step in and do whatever was necessary to help; clean stones, paint bonding agent, dry mix, prepare meals, keep me hydrated and, probably most importantly, watch the boys. It doesn’t get done without you and I think we make a pretty darn good team. I’ll meet you on the patio next spring to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

I’m sure I’m missing people and for that I apologize. I appreciate everyone’s efforts more than I can say.

I'll end with one final thought: never again.

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