HAVERHILL, MASS. — A walkway isn't something you think about every day when you step out to get the paper.
Unless you don't have one.
Take my brother Bruce and his wife, Stephanie. After their home was built last August they focused on the interior. Now they're concentrating on the outside.
The project: a front walk.
The dilemma: hire a contractor, or do it yourself?
After getting estimates in the $1,000 to $1,200 range they decided to take the DIY challenge.
"The how-to directions were pretty straightforward and we figured with a little help we could do it for a lot less money," Bruce says. "Plus I liked the idea of building something myself."
They took the dimensions to Dana DeLorenzo, owner of a nearby building supply store.
"The market for this has exploded because manufacturers have made it easy for homeowners," says Mr. DeLorenzo standing amid piles of pavers and stones.
Typically, cement pavers (precast concrete blocks) run $1 to $5 per square foot, depending on what type you choose.
By definition, a paver withstands at least 8,500 pounds per square inch, compared with chimney brick which typically withstands as little as 3,500 PSI. So, you're paying for durability.
In years past, builders opted for "dead" systems - brick or stone set in cement, concrete, or blacktop. These stay in place, without expanding and contracting. But harsh weather and temperature extremes can cause cracking, buckling, and openings for weeds.
These days many homeowners are choosing "live" systems, DeLorenzo says, whereby pavers are set in sand.
Live systems usually don't buckle and crack. And if a stone or portion of the walk needs to be replaced, it's easier to do than removing sections with a jackhammer.
In the past few years, Pennsylvania fieldstone has become a top-seller (at $80 a pound., or about $1.50 a square foot according to DeLorenzo.
Strong, good-looking pavers, from such companies as Belgarde and Duracon, are also popular, offering consumers variety in color, texture, and durability. Looks vary from tile-looking patterns to old-time cobblestones.
"Get what you want," DeLorenzo says, noting that too many people gravitate toward the least expensive option and afterward wish they had gone for higher quality, considering the small price differential.
In choosing their walkway, my brother and his wife decided on a brick color to brighten up their neutral-colored faade. "It's a Colonial house, and brick gave it old-world charm," Bruce says. They went with Duracon Hollandstone ($2.25 per square foot), which looks a lot like brick but is much more durable.
Their front yard angles down a bit and the walkway area measured 4 ft. wide by 30 ft. long. DeLorenzo provided them with the appropriate number of pavers, stone dust, geotextile lining (a material that resembles cheesecloth), and his best wishes.
On a Saturday morning, they rented a five-horsepower compactor for $69 a day and made sure a few friends were coming to help. All in all, the project took three men six hours and cost about $400.
Here's a brief rundown of the process (including one goof):
The walkway would lead from the front steps to the blacktop sidewalk, 30 feet. Builders had left a layer of aggregate, ground-up recycled road material like asphalt and gravel, for the walkway, so my brother didn't have to put down the first layer, which typically would be gravel.
He and his friends started by compacting the walkway area. Instead of digging out a bed or foundation, they decided to build up the loam to the level of the finished walkway.
They staked 30 feet of pressure-treated, 2-by-4 boards on the sides with deck ties to outline the walkway. It gave them a box in which to work.
Then they poured stone dust - resembling sand - into it.
To "screed" they fabricated a board with notches to pull along the outer boards, smoothing out the surface and making a perfect fade. "The process makes you think of silk-screening," Stephanie says.
A little misting of water helped it set (but not too much).
Next, they laid down some test pavers. The first row looked great.
But wait! They forgot the geotextile that was supposed to go down before the stone dust!
Geotextile is a lining that contributes to the system's stability: It allows water to go through but keeps weeds from poking up. "It's like a paper towel, but you can't rip it," Bruce says. It cost about $10.
So, they had to lift up the pavers, clear off and respread the stone dust as they went along laying the geotextile down. "This is what they don't show you on the home shows," says Bruce.
All worked out well in the end, however. The pavers lined up, save the last row, where Bruce cut the pavers and beveled the angle with a metal chop saw (with masonry blade on it).
Then they started "setting" the walk by tamping it with the compactor. (That settled the pavers into the "bed" and leveled the walk.) On recommended full speed, the Honda motor was pretty loud.
Next, they spread more stone dust and swept it between cracks to lock the pavers in place.
Compactor again. Sweep. Compactor again.
Then they swept the walk, hosed it down, and cleaned up.
Finally they weatherized the walk with a sealer. DeLorenzo recommends a concrete sealer or paver sealer such as Umaco Siloxane ($30 per gallon) or Thompson Water Sealer ($10) but you'd have to do that every year.
"It's not a very difficult project if you take your time, says Bruce. "It's nice to work with other people, not only for help but for humor and to bounce around ideas," he says, adding, especially if one majored in math and assures you midway: "Dude, this is lookin' really good."
But even better is when neighbors drive by and shout, "Nice job, who did it?"