How to lay paving
An in depth guide to laying flawless paving
This beginner friendly guide is written by a professional landscaper. Teaching you tricks of the trade we usually keep to ourselves. Its a lot to take in, but getting it right can save you thousands compared to paying professionals.
This video shows us laying a curved patio. Its a good idea to watch it before you read, then refer back to it during and after reading for a visual demonstration.
Should you lay your own patio?
Laying paving is definitely not for everyone. It is labour intensive and requires practical intelligence (being able to see/work out how things should work).
You should consider laying your own paving if you are fit, strong, handy and can pay attention to detail. Otherwise you may injure yourself or end up with a mess that will cost more to fix.
Laying your own paving can save a lot of money. Around two thirds of the cost of laying paving typically goes on labour. So if you have the time, it can save you hundreds or even thousands to do it yourself.
What you will learn
Paving is our bread and butter at Acorn Landscape Gardening, there is rarely a week goes by that we don’t see ourselves laying paving. As a result we have developed a lot of expertise in getting it done fast and flawlessly.
There are a number of methods for laying paving however we have experimented most of them and found this to be the winner for quality finish and speed.
This how to guide will show you how to lay your new paved patio, or path perfectly. The good news is that this can usually be done with very little equipment. The bad news is that it will be harder if you don’t have some of the equipment.
This guide will work if you are laying on most normal garden surfaces including already existing patios, concrete, tarmac, grass or mud.
How long does it take to lay a patio?
I won’t sugar coat it, laying paving is hard work and can be time consuming. When thinking of laying some paving you should count the cost and make sure you are up for the job.
Starting from scratch in a garden you should put down for at least 2.5 hours per square metre of paving. This takes into account all of the preparation right through to completion.
How difficult is it?
if you count yourself as a reasonably strong and practical person you should have no problem laying paving.
Following this guide should make the job pretty straightforward. BUT you should read the whole guide before you start. There are some things which are not intuitive but if you don’t do them, it could go wrong in the future.
Some equipment is essential and some is optional but useful. The optional equipment is for specific tasks or generally making laying your paving a bit faster.
- Steel toe boots
- Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty
- Cement mixer
- Plasterers trowel
- Rubber hammer
- Helpful others
- String (at least as long as the longest side of the paving)
- Spirit level
- Tape measure
- Compactor/whacker plate
The useful others
- Cement mixer
- Angle grinder
- Stone cutting saw
- Dust mask (essential if you are cutting or breaking slabs)
- Protective goggles (essential if you are cutting or breaking slabs)
- Line level
Before you start: materials
Before you start its essential that you work out how much of what materials you will be bringing in and out of the area. We have put together a helpful paving calculator to help you work out the desired quantities of all the materials you are going to need. Go through this before you start.
This guide works in millimetres (mm) and meters (m).
Step 1: Preparation
A patio needs a solid and drainable Foundation. You should make out the area using some spray the edge of a spade or whatever works on the surface you are working with.
You’ll then need to dig out the area. depending on what the surface is you will either need a concrete breaker or just a spade.
before starting make sure you are taking into account the safe digging principles. It’s all too easy to mistakenly hit a utility such as gas or electricity. they aren’t always clearly marked on the ground or even on maps so follow the protocol suggested by health and safety England.
Decide the level you would like the paving to sit at when it’s laid. The base of your prepared area should be at least 150 mm plus the depth of the slab below that.
In this example the slabs are 30mm thick so the total minimum depth needs to be 180mm
make sure the bottom of the pit is reasonably level. You can do this by setting up a string line and then checking the level of the pit from there using a spirit level.
During this digging out phase you will generate a lot of waste. unless you have a tipper van you will probably want to hire a skip.
Work out the volume of the waste you are removing so that you know how large the skip needs to be.
Going through hard surfaces
It’s quite common for people to lay paving on top of an old patio, concrete or another hard surface.
This can either make things much easier or much harder.
If the surface is solid and will work well as a base for the paving then you just need to make sure you have at least 50mm plus the depth of the paving between the current surface and where you would like the surface of the paving to be.
In this example the paving is 30mm thick
If this isn’t going to work you will have to break up the hard surface and remove it.
To do this you will need a concrete breaker or a jackhammer. These can be rented out or bought quite cheaply.
Make sure to wear protective equipment, especially ear defence, when using a concrete breaker. Follow all manufacturers guidance on use.
Another consideration you have during this phase is drainage. if the area that you are laying the paving on has poor drainage (puddles sitting on the surface after it rains) it is likely to have poor drainage after laying paving.
The last thing you want is a nice new patio that gets flooded every time it rains. There are usually many solutions to this but you will need to install some drainage under the paving. See our drainage page for more information.
Step 2: Building the base
Paving needs to sit on a hard well drained Foundation. To build this up you will use type 1 MOT hardcore.
This can be ordered from builders merchants who will drop it off for you in ton bags. Make sure you have some space on a driveway or some land that you can leave these.
The makeup of the paving structure is as follows however the hardcore can be deeper if need be.
To lay the hardcore Foundation begin with bringing through the hardcore in wheelbarrows and pouring in piles fairly close to each other.
When you have covered the area in these piles, use a rake to flatten out to the hardcore. you can use the string line method again at this point to check the level.
Getting the drop right
Most paving will be fairly resistant to water. This means that water will pool on the surface. To stop this happening a patio needs to have a slight gradient (usually too small to see) going away from the house.
The gradient should be 1:80. This means that for every 80cm it should fall 1 cm. This number is called the drop, and represents the depth difference between a fixed higher and lower point. To work this out, take a measurement of the length of the area down the axis that the slope will follow. Divide this by 80 and you have the correct drop.
How to set the drop
- Set up a string line along the axis you want the slope to follow. Ase a spirit level to make sure the string is level.
- If the pit is the correct depth, measure the distance between the string line and the base of the pit at the top of the slope (point A in the image)
- Add the drop to this number. Dig out a pit at the lower corner (point B in the image) which matches this distance from the string line.
- Level off the slope at one end first then use a spirit level to imitate this slope across the whole area.
once the hardcore is to the correct depth and following the gradient you need to compact the area.
This needs to be done with a wacker plate which you can rent cheaply from a plant hire company.
Follow the guidance of the equipment leaser or manufacturer on using this machine safely. You need to go over the entire area at least three times to ensure that the hardcore is properly compacted. if you don’t do this step properly it could result in subsidence and uneven paving.
Note: if the area gets wet it will be much harder to compact
Laying paving on concrete or a hard base
As mentioned above, you can lay on a hard base such as concrete if it was already there and leaves room for the paving plus 5cm of cement.
Laying paving directly on to soil
Many people want to know if they can lay the paving directly on to soil. This is a bad idea, under the cement which supports the paving there needs to be a hard surface. Soil, even when compacted morphs with time, weather and pressure. If you lay paving on soil with no supporting hard base, it will eventually deform and need replacing.
Step 3: Laying the slabs
After hardcore base is compacted its time to lay the paving. Before starting to lay the paving it’s important to have the slabs in a readily available position so that you can grab them quickly.
If you are using multiple sized slabs which need to be in a pattern make sure you have a drawing of that pattern which you can easily follow laid out.
The slabs will be laid on roughly 5 cm or 50 mm of concrete. This is most easily made using a cement mixer but can also be mixed in a wheelbarrow.
See this article for a step by step breakdown of how to mix concrete
Set up the string line
Before you begin to lay the paving you need a reference point to get the surface of the paving at the correct height. Using pegs, the string and a spirit level or line level, set up a string which is level and runs precisely down the line you would like the edge of the paving to follow.
Choose one fixed edge and a corner to use as the orientation for the paving. Lay down this edge first then go from there. If the paving is touching/near a house, use the house as the fixed edge.
When laying, line up the edge of the paving so it is almost touching the string. Then use a spirit level to bring the rest of the paving to where it should be.
Each type of paving will have its own recommended spacing. For paving with uniform slab sizes, accurate spacing can be very important as uneven spacing could stand out from a distance.
To help you get this perfect paving spacers are a great idea.
For paving without uniform slab sizes you may find that having uneven spaces is unavoidable. For example, Indian stone paving typically comes in 4 size packs. Sometimes the same sized slabs will be slightly off because they are riven (split) rather than cut. If you are trying to match a paving pattern this can result in gaps of between 0.5cm and 3 cm
Select the corner that you will start from. Set out 2 string lines from this corner going down each side. The outer edge of the paving will almost touch the string line. Aim for a 2mm horizontal gap but ensure it is the exact level of the string line. Any error made here will be followed through in the rest of the paving.
The top of the paving should be 50mm + the depth of the paving.
If you are laying to a pattern ensure you know which paving slabs are going where before you start.
Using your mixed cement and a trowel, place the cement in piles on the area you are going to lay the first slab, make sure it reaches to all the edges. Flatten this out to around 8cm above ground level. The cement does not need to be level.
Next, using your cement trowel, drag some grooves through the cement which go almost to the hardcore base. If you need to remove cement at this point you can put it in place for the next slab. These grooves allow the paving to be pushed down easily enough to level.
Line up the paving slab to get it in the correct place. The slab should be a couple of cm above where it needs to be. Using your rubble hammer hit the slab 3 inches in from the corners. When a corner drops a couple of millimeters, switch to another corner. The aim is to get the slab to remain as level as possible whilst dropping down to the correct level.
If any part of the slab drops below the correct height you will need to take up the slab and regroove the concrete. Alternatively you can add more concrete.
Ensure the slabs are level using a spirit level. To get the correct slope for water to run off (described above) use a spirit level on the sloped string line and observe the position of the bubble. Try to imitate this as you lay on the slope. You may find it useful to set up more than one string line.
Cutting and shaping
Unless you are laying something with only 90 degree angles you will need to shape paving slabs to fit the area and get around obstacles. Depending on what you are doing, there are two essential tools if you want to get a clean cut.
- Stone cutting saw (for straight cuts)
- 115mm angle grinder (slower but can cut fairly steep angles.
Ensure you use eye, ear and hand protection when using these tools. For a detailed breakdown of how to cut and shape paving see our cutting and shaping article.
Working safely with concrete
Concrete is corrosive and can cause skin conditions if not washed off. Never leave wet cement on your skin, wash it off with water. If your clothing gets covered in wet or dry cement, make sure to wash it off as soon as possible. See HSE advice on working with concrete here.
Step 4: Finishing
Pointing (filling the gaps between paving slabs)
Pointing was traditionally done by pushing concrete into the gaps between paving slabs then cleaning off the excess. This method is still used for some things but new materials are far superior in our experience.
Check out our helpful guide on the best resin paving joint compounds and how to install them.
Sealing and treating paving
Sealing and treating paving can enhance its colour, protect it from dirt and algae and reduce the amount of cleaning it needs. However it can also make it look patchy and ruin it if not done well. Our breakdown of paving and sealing is designed to help you work out the best approach for your paving.
Working in winter
If you are laying your paving in winter then there are extra things you need to consider. Frost and heavy rain can frustrate the laying process, cause uneven finishes and even destroy the cement before it gets time to cure. Be sure to check out our helpful tips on laying paving in winter.