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How to Create a Custom Courtyard

A courtyard with brick is an easy, colorful way to bring a sense of design and purpose to a yard.

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Step 1: Mark off the Area

Begin by marking out the borders of your planned courtyard using spray marking paint. For this project, the courtyard will be centered in relation to a set of steps, so the center of the top step is measured first, then used as the center point for the courtyard. Mark off the perimeter using that center point as the reference.

Step 2: Excavate the Base

Once the area is marked off, dig down six inches to accommodate the base. The base is very important as it will ensure that your courtyard is sitting on firm, level ground. For a base that covers a large area, you may want to use a small skid steer to help with digging. It can also come in handy in situations where you're digging into ground with sizable tree roots. With the six inches dug for your base, set up string lines from one end of the perimeter to another, front to back and side to side. A string line will help guide your direction and level, and is created by stretching nylon string between two wood stakes in the ground. Since this particular courtyard is adjacent to a retaining wall and steps, they give their base a quarter-bubble pitch toward the wall and steps. The slight pitch will allow the rainwater to drain downward. Next, use a plate compactor to compact the soil. This will give the ground a nice solid base before you put in crusher run.

Step 3: Put in a Layer of Crusher Run

With the soil compacted, next put in a layer of crusher run that's three inches deep. Bring in the crusher run and spread it over the base. Run the compactor over it, and then rake the crusher run to make sure it follows the desired pitch. Repeat the process until your base is properly graded. If your area has poor soil quality or a lot of roots, it may help to also put down a layer of landscape fabric between the soil and crusher run.

Step 4: Add Concrete Sand and Choose Brick

The next step for the base is to put in a one-inch layer of concrete sand. A simple way to ensure a one-inch layer of sand is to lay one-inch metal pipes parallel along the base. Make sure the pitch is correct, then spread out the sand and use a landscaping rake or wooden board to screed the sand up to the height of the pipes. Don't worry about the spots left by the pipes after you remove them. You'll fill those in once you start setting brick.For this project, Canal Street brick is used, which offers a visually pleasing variety of color. Whenever you choose brick for courtyards, walkways and patios, make sure you choose paving brick. Bricks for veneer work come with holes through their center, and should not be used for paving.

Step 5: Set Bricks

With the base of crusher run and sand in place, now it's time to start setting brick. If your courtyard is centered on steps or another landmark, then set your first bricks at the centerpoint. As you set the bricks, keep a bucket of sand and trowel handy, and use them to fill in the gaps left by your one-inch pipes as you go. You may use a basket-weave pattern, which is two bricks in one direction, and then two bricks in the other. You can only do this type of pattern with a modular brick, which is of a length where two bricks side by side make a square.From the center point, keep setting bricks along the middle section of the courtyard, always following your string line to make sure the bricks are straight. As you set the bricks, keep a bucket of sand and trowel handy, and use them to fill in the gaps left by your one-inch pipes as you go. Tumbled bricks that, because of their characteristic distressed look, are slightly irregular in size. A good rule of thumb is that the lighter the color of the brick, the longer and wider it is. So as you set your bricks, you may want to step back occasionally and examine the pattern, switching out any bricks where necessary to ensure a nice mix of size and color. If your bricks line up slightly off, line up a wooden plank against their edge and whack it with a heavy hammer (such as a sledgehammer) to get the bricks back in line.

Step 6: Install Snap Edging

Once the brick patio is completed, lay down snap edging around the borders of the courtyard (Image 1), and secure it with steel 12-inch landscape spikes. Remember to use non-galvanized metal spikes, which will eventually rust and hold the snap edging into place. Start at the corner of your courtyard, and hammer in the snap edging about every three holes.With the snap edging in, use a broom to sweep off any dust, sand and pebbles. Then run the plate compactor over the bricks (Image 2), which will push them into the sand base and snap edging.

Step 7: Build a Border

Before setting any stone, your first step is to mix the mortar. Type S mortar, a mixture of mortar and cement, will give you a stronger bond. Pre-mix mortar, which already includes sand, and only needs to be mixed with water. Always be sure to wear a face mask when mixing mortar or concrete.For a smaller job such as this, you can mix the mortar by hand. Pour the pre-mix Type S mortar into a wheelbarrow, and then slowly pour in the water. Use a hoe to mix it together, until your mortar has the consistency of peanut butter.Use a trowel to spread mortar where you'll want to set the stones. Spread it out about a foot and a half ahead of where you're working. Start from the corner first. Lay the first stone into the mortar, and then tap it into place with the rubber mallet. Then set the next stones, and continue to check the level as you work. As you set the stones, you'll also want to "parge" the back, which means throwing extra mortar on the backs of the stones to secure them.

Step 8: Add a Step

A four-foot step on the corner of the courtyard makes it more convenient to enter. They use 10-inch riser modules and 14-inch tread modules for this step. You could be able to build the step on top of the courtyard's base, but it may be necessary to spread and compact gravel to give your step a base. Spread some mortar over the area where the step will go. Then set the riser modules into the mortar, and make sure they're level. Next, spread some concrete block adhesive over the risers, and then secure the tread modules on top of them.

Step 9: Spread Polymeric Sand

The final step is to spread polymeric sand into the brick courtyard's joints. When activated with water, the sand turns into a concrete-like substance that prevents weeds and discourages ants, but still remains semi-permeable to water. Be sure to wear a face mask and eye protection while handling the polymeric sand.Use a broom to spread the sand around until the joints are completely filled in. Next, bring in a hose and mist the courtyard. This will activate the polymeric sand. However, be careful not to over-wet it. Just mist the surface. Wait for the polymeric sand to activate, which will take about 24 hours, and then spray the courtyard down one final time. Now your canal brick courtyard is completed.

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