Build Your Own Flagstone Path
7 tips for a great-looking path from a guy who's built miles of them!
By Jeff Timm, St. Paul, Minnesota
Professional landscaper Jeff Timm of St. Paul, Minnesota doesn't like to steer work away from himself, but he'll be the first to admit you don't need to be a pro to install a flagstone path.
"Flagstone paths are surprisingly easy to install," explains Jeff. "In most cases, you simply set each stone on a layer of sand and level it. It's like putting together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. A heavy puzzle!" he adds with a grunt and a smile.
Building a flagstone path is about as do-it-yourself friendly as a project gets. It doesn't require a lot of fancy tools or know-how, and once a path is installed, it looks timeless. Jeff says, "A path installed yesterday can look as if it's been there for generations."
The one thing it does require is a healthy dose of good old-fashioned muscle power. But if you take your time and select materials you can handle, almost anyone can build a beautiful flagstone path that'll last forever. Here are some of Jeff's tips for making your path as durable as it is attractive:
Select stone that fits the "look" you want (and your budget). Visit a large landscape center or stone yard, and you'll discover that there's a huge variety in the size, shape, thickness, color and composition of stones. Stones are broken into three basic categories:
- Steppers are stones 15 inches across or less. They're ideal for small garden pathways or paths that don't get heavily used. Creating a path with them can be as easy as plopping them down on your lawn, removing a chunk of sod that's the same size as the stone, then leveling it in a little bed of sand.
- Flagstones are stones 24 to 48 inches across. They're slightly more expensive than steppers, but their size and weight make them more stable for walking on.
- Cut stones are those that have been sawn into squares or rectangles. These are the most expensive, but are easy to fit tightly together and are ideal for a formal-looking path.
Limestone, granite, sandstone and slate are the most common types of flagstone. A rough rule of thumb is that 1 ton of 2-inch-thick stone will create about 90 square feet of path. "But order 20 percent more than you think you'll need," Jeff says. "The more pieces you have to choose from the more likely you'll find ones that fit together without cutting. And you can use the leftover pieces for a garden border."
Use a garden hose to lay out the path before you order material. Before ordering material, use a garden hose, extension cord or piece of rope to outline the width, shape and direction of your path. "You'll find it a whole lot easier moving a hose than 2 tons of rock if you change your mind," explains Jeff.
Use a sod cutter to create a trench and straight edge. If you're creating a garden path or small stepping-stone path, you can do all your digging with a shovel. But if you're building a long, wide path, consider renting a foot-powered or gas-powered sod cutter. A sod cutter will cut a path of even depth and width. You'll want to dig out the path area to a depth of about 5 inches, 3 inches for the sand and usually about 2 inches for the stones.
Make a solid base for a solid path. A 2- to 3-inch bed of sand allows you to easily add or scrape away material in order to level stones of varying thicknesses as they're laid. Keep the top of your sand bed a couple of inches below the surrounding ground. That way, once the stone is installed, the path will be level with the surrounding lawn, making it easier to mow without trimming. If you want a path that lies flat as a pancake, use a long straight 2x4 along with a level to make sure the stones are level with each other and the surrounding lawn.
Before bringing in the sand, lay landscape fabric in the trench to inhibit weed growth. Don't use black plastic; it'll stop weeds but won't let water drain away from the path.
Use more brain than brawn when moving stone. "I once heard someone say, 'When you dig a hole, be smarter than the shovel.' The same holds true for moving stone. And it's not that hard to be smarter than a rock!" jokes Jeff.
When you have your stone delivered, have it placed as close as possible to the path site, but not on it. Same for the sand. Large stones can easily weigh 50 to 150 pounds each. You can tip large ones onto a dolly and wheel them in place. You can also use a wheelbarrow, an old-fashioned sled or a family member to help.
Use tools designed for breaking and cutting stone. You're putting together a big jigsaw puzzle, so spread out your stone to get a feel for the size and shape of the material you have. Since the stone doesn't have to fit exactly (you can leave gaps of up to 2 or 3 inches), chances are you won't have to do much cutting or shaping. But if you do, remember:
- If you need to cut stone, buy and install a diamond blade (around $40) in your circular saw, then make a series of 1/2-inch-deep cuts until you're halfway through the stone. A good rap with a hand maul should finish the break along your score line. If you wet the blade down, your saw should be plugged into a GFCI-protected outlet.
- If you just need to trim stone an inch or two from a corner or edge, simply use a hand maul to chip away at the edges.
- When cutting or chipping stone, always wear safety glasses. When sawing, wear a dust mask and hearing protection, too.
Fill in the gaps to create the look you like.You can give your path a different look depending on what you put between the stones. If you want a clean, solid path, sweep sand or pea gravel into the cracks. If you want a more natural-looking path, fill the cracks with a mixture of mulch and black topsoil, then plant creeping thyme or other durable plants in between.