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How to Build a Pathway

A simple yet attractive path will transform a property.

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Step 1: Outline the Pathway

To create the general outline of the walkway, toss the garden hose out into a wide arc and then pull it into place (Image 1).

Aim for soft, gentle curves that flow naturally. Walk the path and adjust the hose until you're happy with the layout. Then mark the line with chalk powder (Image 2).

A path that's wide enough for two people or one person with a wheelbarrow should be at least 24". Here's an easy way to keep your spacing even throughout the walk: use 2' wooden dowels as spacers (Image 3). Place one end of the dowel on the chalk mark and then line up the garden hose on the other end. You could eyeball it, but using the dowels guarantees a consistent width and a more professional finish. Use more chalk powder to mark the other side of the path.

Step 2: Put Markings for Stairs

To mark the position of the stairs, put chalk lines across the path where you want them to go. Once the sod is removed, excavate the walkway bed by digging a trench to a depth of at least 6". Periodically stop and measure the depth and width of the trench to make sure it's even. But don't excavate the step area just yet.

Step 3: Add and Anchor Edging

Install plastic edging to help keep the gravel filler from spreading into the yard. This inexpensive edging is designed especially for a walk like this.
Line up the edging against the side of the trench. It should stick up above the side by about 1/2". Anchor it in place by driving plastic stakes through the holes and into the ground using a 3-pound sledgehammer.

plastic edging keeps gravel filler contained

Step 4: Choose Pathway Material

You'll find lots of choices for pathway material: bark, mulch and lava rock, to name a few. Bark and mulch are nice and soft underfoot but decompose over time. Other choices such as lava rock or beach stone are expensive. The important thing is that the material you choose really fit your particular site -- in our case, pea gravel is the best choice.

pea gravel chosen for pathway material

Step 5: Create a Base, Add Pea Gravel

Before you can spread the pea gravel into the walkway, you'll need a base for it to sit on. Start with a layer of underlayment fabric. This will help keep the walkway flat and stop settling and sagging. Also, one thing you really don't want is weeds growing up through the gravel -- and using a porous underlayment like this allows water to seep into the ground but blocks anything that tries to grow up from below. It's easy to cut and install.
Cut the underlayment to the right width for the walkway, following the curves of the edging. Then just spread the fabric out in the trench. Next, cover the fabric with a 3" layer of sand. Wet it with a fine spray of water from the garden hose and rake the sand until it's even across the bed. Once the sand is level, it needs to be compacted.

Shovel a 3" layer of pea gravel onto the compacted sand. Use a rake to make sure the gravel layer is even and level. Then go over the gravel several times with the drum roller.

cut underlayment and spread out in trench

Step 6: Frame Stairs

The stair design is simple and classic: each step is a frame made out of 5"x6' landscape timbers and filled in with concrete. To find the exact dimensions of the steps, drive a stake into the ground at the bottom of the slope (Image 1) and make sure it's plumb. Then drive a shorter stake at the top of the slope.

Place a 2x4 against the stakes with one end touching the ground at the top stake. Adjust the 2x4 so that it's level (Image 2) and attach it to the stakes with screws. Measure from the ground to the bottom of the 2x4 to find the vertical rise of the stair. Divide the total rise by the thickness of the landscape timbers (in this case, 5") to get the number of steps you need.

Step 7: Measure Tread Length

To determine the tread length, measure the 2x4 between the stakes to find the horizontal span. Divide this by the number of steps in order to find the tread depth, which should always be 11" or more.

Step 8: Cut Timbers for Frame

Each step is basically a 24"x16" box. In our design, the front timber runs the full length of the step and is the same width as the walkway — 24". The back timber is 10" shorter and fits between the two side pieces; use a reciprocating saw to cut the timbers to length.

build step frames

Step 9: Cut Grass around Timbers

Use a spade to outline the step by cutting down into the grass around the timbers.

cut grass around timbers

Step 10: Excavate Frames

Remove the timbers and excavate the area to create a flat bed that's even with the walkway in front and 5" deep in the back.

Note: The bed should also slope slightly about 1/8" from back to front to help the step shed water.

excavate area to create flat bed

Step 11: Match up Timbers

The front timber of the next step sits on the back timber of the first one. Excavate a flat bed for the step and check to verify the 1/8" tilt, back to front.

match up timbers

Step 12: Place Second Step

Re-lay the timbers for the second step. Then nail the second frame to the first step with three 12" spikes in the front timber and use a sledgehammer to drive two pipes through the timber and into the ground.

re lay the timbers for second step

Step 13: Prep for Concrete then Pour

To prep the concrete, pour a 2" layer of compactable gravel into each of the frames. Tamp the gravel down and smooth the surface with a scrap 2x4.

With the step framework completed, it's time to pour in the concrete.
Once you mix up the concrete, shovel it into the bottom step, filling it to the top of the frame.

fill the frames with concrete

Step 14: Smooth With Rake

Go over it lightly with a rake, just enough to release any air bubbles — but go easy: you don't want to disturb the gravel below. Now take a scrap 2x4 and drag it across the surface until the concrete is smooth. (This process is known as screeding.)

Once the surface has turned dull, run a concrete edging tool along the cracks between the concrete and timbers for a clean, slightly rounded edge. Edge each step before moving on to the next one.

lightly rake top of concrete to release  bubbles

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