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Patio of real brick has charm of imperfection

This patio was installed 45 years ago. The salvaged brick I used to build it is well over 100 years old, and it still looks to be in great shape. (Tim Carter)
This patio was installed 45 years ago. The salvaged brick I used to build it is well over 100 years old, and it still looks to be in great shape. (Tim Carter)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

DEAR TIM: My wife is begging me to install a patio. She hates interlocking cast concrete brick; it seems to lose its luster and color in a few years. Plus, it looks too perfect, she says. She wants me to create a brick patio that looks like it’s been down for 50 or more years. How can you do that? What’s the magic? I’m not very skilled and the method needs to be pretty simple for me to pull this off. – Zach S. Raleigh, N.C.

DEAR ZACH: Your email brought back a pleasant buried memory. You may enjoy this short tale and take some inspiration from it.

When I was dating my wife back in college during the early 1970s, I was deeply interested in home improvement, yet my skills were still raw and undeveloped. Energy and desire were in abundance, but both needed to be tamed so as to not waste them.

One early summer night when I went to pick up Kathy for a date, I saw two pallets of bricks in her family’s driveway and asked about them. Kathy told me her mom wanted a small brick patio around the back of her house where she could sit in nice weather and have a cup of coffee. (That included 95-degree days, as she consumed hot coffee no matter how blistering the weather. I sweated thinking about that.)

The brick they had bought was solid and had been used in some building. Fortunately, it was a harder brick, strong enough to be exposed to the cold, punishing weather of winter in Cincinnati. You should know that not all brick has been fired long enough at a high enough temperature in a kiln to have this durability. It’s required for paving brick to be used in a patio or roadway. Brick in contact with the ground needs to be much tougher than brick used in a wall.

The first thing I had to do was chip off all the old mortar. Fortunately, the mortar that had been used was primarily made with hydrated lime instead of Portland cement, and it came off with little trouble, although it took days to finish that part of the job.

The bricks had very square edges, but every now and then a corner was chipped. I thought this would be a problem, but Kathy’s mom loved the missing corners – she was going for the same look your wife wants. I couldn’t picture it, but I trusted her and, after all, it was her patio!

Kathy’s mom had read some article about installing the brick in a bed of coarse sand that had some Portland cement blended with it. This cement would eventually set up once the sand got wet and create a fairly stiff base under the brick.

I dug out enough soil so there would be a 3-inch bed of sand. I blended four measures of sand per measure of Portland cement and mixed it up in a wheelbarrow until the sand was a uniform color.

This sand was then put on the soil. I had created wood forms around the patio so I could get the sand in the same plane. Kathy’s dad taught me the importance of using a string to get the edge of the forms straight so the patio didn’t look like it was being installed by a novice. I thank him to this day for that tip, as I was trying to eyeball the wood forms.

I dumped the sand into the wood forms and used another straight 2-by-6 that ran across the top of the forms to smooth out the sand/cement mixture. I did not compact the sand but immediately began to dry fit the brick on top of the sand. I kept the brick about 3 inches away from the edge of the sand. That’s what the instructions in the article said to do. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I do now! That sand edge provided a nice barrier so the bricks on the edges would not tip outward if stepped on.

Because the bricks were very uniform in size, they went together well in a double basket weave or stacked bond pattern. Once all the bricks were installed and I put dirt around the edges, I used a metal tamper that had a towel wrapped around it to set the bricks in the sand. I started at the edges and tamped lightly working my way in to the center of the patio. The final step was to put a lawn sprinkler on to try to activate the Portland cement in the sand so the base stiffened up.

Not long ago I was on that patio, possibly for the last time, because we had to send my father-in-law back to Heaven. Seven years ago we sent back my mother-in-law. I sat in a chair on the patio and marveled at how well it looked after nearly 50 years of wear and tear. The bricks weren’t perfectly level; some were up and down, and the spacing wasn’t perfect. But the patio looked amazing. I think your wife would like one like this.

The only thing I think I’d change if I could do it over would be to blend three measures of sand to one measure of Portland cement. I’d also make the base 4 inches thick instead of 3. Let me know how your patio comes out.

Need an answer? All of Tim’s past columns are archived for free at www.AsktheBuilder.com. You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more, all for free.

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