DIY Outdoor Living Space – Part 4: Pavers

part 5: wood benches
part 8: fireplace finishing


In Part 1 we covered the basics of coming up with the design, rough planning materials, and determining space. In Part 2 we covered how to prepare the ground for foundations, running any underground conduit needed, and pouring foundations. In Part 3 we covered how to lay concrete blocks and foundations. Now we’ll talk about how to lay pavers.

As a recap, for our outdoor living space we settled on an outdoor kitchen, gas fireplace, two sitting walls, and a pergola. The fireplace top serves as the 4th pergola post and sitting walls link the fireplace to the two adjacent posts. The three posts are then wrapped in decorative stone a little higher than each seat. See Part 1 for the rough drawing.


The first step is ensuring you know how you want your pavers laid out and the pattern. This needs to be done well before you order your pavers as different layouts will result in more or less cuts and directly affect how much material you order. This also affects what pavers you choose as different styles will come in different sizes, colors, and finish options.

For our project we opted to go with a bluestone concrete composite paver that came in 24″x24″ and 12″x24″ sizes. We ordered enough to complete the project based on the original layout using a basketweave pattern.

basketweaveStone we chose with basketweave pattern.

Once the stones arrived we did a dry layout to determine where we wanted the lines and orientation. Do they by starting in the center and working out. Just place enough to get a basic feel for how things will lay out when done then mark your lines. It is important during this step to ensure that your angles are perpendicular and that your lines are straight.

In our case we laid the rough form out and decided we didn’t really like the basketweave pattern and wanted to modify it to have a 3rd size paver, 12″x12″. We also decided to extend the area behind the bar to allow more room to walk once barstools are there, which required ordering more stones.

IMG_0033Pattern we decided to go with. Image from

Base preparation

To prepare for the pavers you’ll need to excavate to allow for 4-8″ of gravel and paver base, plus the height of your pavers. In our case we will have light foot traffic only so we have roughly 4″ of gravel, 2″ of paver base, then stones just shy of 2″ thick. If you plan to have vehicles, hot tubs, or other very heavy things on top of your pavers you’ll want to research to ensure that you have the appropriate depth. Note that in places where the ground freezes you’ll also need to research to ensure your project can hold up to temperatures.

We had a concrete slab where the existing, poorly graded, patio was so had to start by removing it. For this and part of the paver installation we decided to hire people. It isn’t particularly complicated work but is extremely labor intensive and was a good candidate to outsource.

IMG_0136 2Concrete being cut into sections and removed.

Once all concrete was removed we were able to excavate the remaining area and fill with gravel then paver base. It is extremely important for this to be well compacted. Poorly compacted bases will result in stones that shift and sink over time, leaving you with a ton of work to get back to a solid surface. For small jobs you can purchase a hand tamper – basically a large, flat metal piece on the end of a pole. This is physically exhausting for more than very small areas but does work. The better option for most DIY projects is to rent a tamper from a local vendor.

IMG_0013 2Excavating yard to 8″ depth, in preparation for gravel and paver base.

IMG_0023Backfilled, leveled, and tamped. Lower layer gravel, upper layer paver base.

Once you have your surface graded and tamped you are ready to start laying pavers.

Drains and other special needs

For our patio we need a drain as well. The entire reason we started this project was because the yard pooled water up against the house. If you have any special needs, like drains, you’ll want to do them before you set your pavers.

IMG_0032Drain being installed during base laying process.

IMG_0026Drain for kitchen sink being laid during paver base process.


The final step is to lay the pavers. Start by laying the first paver in the spot you marked in your dry layout then work outwards from there. To lay the paver sprinkle a handful or two of paver base loosely where you want the stone. Then lay the stone, ensure it is level, then tap it place with a rubber mallet. Then move on to the next one. Keep going until you get to the edges and cannot put a full stone down.

Note that you’ll want a uniform surface under each tile. If you don’t have this you’ll notice the sand between pavers will start to disappear when it rains later – this is from the sand washing down to fill the gaps you left under the stone. If this happens just apply more sand in the joints.

IMG_0040 2Pavers going down in final position. 


The edges will need to be cut to fit. If you have a layout that results in the edge being parallel to the patio edge there is a simple way to ensure you have the right cut. If you have a design that doesn’t result in this search for the best way to ensure accurate cuts.

If you do have parallel edges take the stone that will go into the space and lay it so its edge lines up with the stones you had already laid down. This is the bottom tile in the image below. Then lay another stone, of the same size, on top of it and position it so that it goes all the way to the patio edge. This is the middle tile, the upsMark a line on the first stone then cut. The resulting piece should fit perfectly into the gap. Make sure you leave a little bit of room for gaps between pavers and any desired gaps between the edge of the patio and whatever it abuts.

This is illustrated in the image below. The bottom tile represents the stone that is already in place. The middle tile, the upside down one, represents the stone you want to place in the gap. The top tile is the one used to abut the patio edge so you can mark for your cut.

IMG_0577Illustrating simple measurement system for cutting edge stones.

Between pavers

Finally, once your pavers are down, either in part or whole, you need to fill the gaps. You’ll see mixed opinions between using regular paver sand and using polymeric sand. Polymeric sand solidifies more like grout once it is set and is supposed to do a better job locking the stones together, preventing insects from getting underneath the pavers, and preventing weed growth between stones. I’ve used both and found that polymeric does a great job for a few months but still tended to crack and allow weed growth. Given the higher cost I typically just use paver sand now.

To fill the gaps put dry paver sand down over the set stones then sweep them into the cracks. You want to sweep to the point where the sand is uniform on all cracks and slightly below the surface of the paver. Once you have all of them in place you’ll wet with a hose. To do this make sure you don’t have a direct spray as it will simply wash the sand out. The goal is to get the sand wet without displacing it. I typically use the ‘shower’ setting and waive back and forth.

IMG_0108Piles of paver sand, ready to be swept into cracks.

Let the pavers dry then reapply where necessary. You can always do this again any time you have sand wash away or just need touch ups in areas.

Next installment we’ll talk about creating the wood benches.


DIY Outdoor Living Space – Part 3: Laying Concrete Blocks



In Part 1 we covered the basics of coming up with the design, rough planning materials, and determining space. In Part 2 we covered how to prepare the ground for foundations, running any underground conduit needed, and pouring foundations. Now we’ll talk about how to lay the concrete block that forms your structure.

As a recap, for our outdoor living space we settled on an outdoor kitchen, gas fireplace, two sitting walls, and a pergola. The fireplace top serves as the 4th pergola post and sitting walls link the fireplace to the two adjacent posts. The three posts are then wrapped in decorative stone a little higher than each seat. See Part 1 for the rough drawing.


Calculating the materials you’ll need is the first step of this process. You’ll need concrete blocks, rebar, mortar, and concrete. The rebar goes inside some blocks then most of the blocks are filled with concrete, adding significant strength and rigidity to the structure. For ours we filled all blocks on the ground with concrete then were more judicious on any floating ones – those on some kind of raised platform – in order to evenly space the weight out and get the best possible weight to strength ratio, which we’ll talk about below.

There are a few choices in mortar. After doing a bit of research I decided to try a relatively new (at least to me) product on the market, 1-2-3 Mortar. This product is intended to make laying mortar beds similar to applying cake icing – simply mix in the bag, squeeze out of a tube, then lay the blocks.

1-2-3_Mortar1-2-3 Mortar Commercial Video.

As is the case with many products it wasn’t quite as simple as the video made it seem. I bought a few cases of this but ended up only using two boxes before giving up and moving to regular mortar. There were four main problems I ran into with this product:

  1. It was very hard to get the mix to squeeze out. Even after adding more water than the instructions called for I was finding it very hard to keep a steady stream of mortar flowing from the bag.
  2. Once the bag was nearing an empty state there was a ton of left over mortar that was very hard to get out. I ended up cutting open both bags I used and scraping out the excess, which covered about another block, per bag.
  3. The bags did not cover as many blocks as advertised, even when mixed exactly per the instructions.
  4. The consistency was not tacky enough to stick the sides of blocks – it was a speed/timing act to get the block down before mortar fell off the side.

If you are only doing a small area this product is absolutely fine. I’d shy away from it if you have 20,000 pounds of block to lay.

What we ended up using was regular Type S Mortar mix – high strength and intended for load bearing use.

As for concrete blocks, they come in a number of sizes and you can also find custom shapes out there, though you’ll pay a premium for them. The standard sizes are 8x8x16 (hollow), 4x8x16 (hollow), and 2x8x16 (solid). You can use other sizes but most of what you should need to do can be accomplished with these standard and readily available sizes.

Note that there are a few different shapes of the 8x8x16 blocks. If you really care about all the types you can read about them here.

  • Stretcher blocks have protrusions, called stretchers, along the lengthwise walls, making them ideal for non-corner applications. These are smooth on the long faces but do not make for a smooth and nice looking short end face.
  • Corner blocks are smooth and make for a good corner appearance. These are smooth on all outward facing sides.
  • Sash blocks are just like corner blocks only they have a groove, called a sash groove, running down one of the short ends. This is intended for metal from a door, window, or other structural detail to slide into during the construction process.

Most big box stores will ship pallets of blocks to you for a small fee.


The next step is to lay out your blocks to ensure that your measurements and planning actually make sense. Nothing worse than getting to the end of a course only to find out your measurements were off and you have to adjust everything mid stream. During this step focus on getting the perimeter laid out how you want it, keeping in mind any conduit that you ran will need to run either to the inside or through a block.

IMG_0498Fireplace and pergola blocks laid out in “final” arrangement for rough fitting.

IMG_0496Kitchen area blocks laid out in “final” arrangement for rough fitting.

Once you have the perimeter run you can start filling in the center, if that is what your design calls for. In our case the first course is also supplying the base for the fireplace. We chose to put a few cinderblocks in there then surround them with concrete mix, then top with a mortar mix.

Once you have blocks laid out roughly where you want them mark the ground using a chalk line, spray paint, chalk, or some other means so that you can follow the lines when laying the first course.

Now you can figure out the height you want and get a true estimation for how many blocks you need. This is simple math at this point – the first course times the number of rows high you want it. We were able to order all blocks ahead of time and be within 10 blocks when we were done – out of a 20,000 pound load.

Before you move on to the next steps measure, measure, measure! Make sure that anything that is supposed to fit inside your blocks will fit as expected. I’d also recommend making wood, cardboard, or foam templates that match the size of the gaps you will need. We’ll discuss my horror story and my lesson learned below…


The first course of blocks is your base and it is extremely important that these be level and solid. Take your time to lay a solid mortar bed then place each block into it according to the layout you marked in the previous step. After the first block put a layer of mortar on one end of the next block. I found that I had to somewhat sculpt this by hand to keep it in place while I laid the block. Once laid, tap lightly with the end of your trowel to set them into place, both horizontally and vertically. Finally, place a level on top of the block and make sure that it is level in all directions. If it is not, lift up, add mortar as needed, then re-set. Do this for every block. For every block after the first it is good to also use your level or some other straight edge to ensure that the block faces are on the same plane.

As you start laying your course you will inevitably end up with pieces that just don’t fit right. Or perhaps your design calls for this from the outset. You can fairly easily break blocks with relatively clean lines using a hammer and a chisel. But if you have a need to expose any of the edges you are breaking you’ll want something cleaner. In our case we used a 4″ wet circular tile saw fitted with a diamond blade. Simple mark, cut, then tap gently with a rubber mallet and the block will split.

IMG_0677My 4″ wet circular tile saw.


The remaining courses should be staggered in such a way that the joints are overlapping, as shown in the image below. This adds strength to the walls. It is still extremely important to make sure that each course you lay is level.

IMG_0517Kitchen area, showing staggered blocks, filled with concrete and rebar.

You’ll notice some gaps in the picture above – these were intentionally left in the kitchen area to allow for air flow, since we’ll have a natural gas hook up under the countertops.

The mortar process had a very small learning curve but you quickly get a rhythm down and can lay blocks pretty quickly. For me I used a small brick trowel. I just scooped up half a trowel’s worth of mortar, tapped it onto the top edge of the brick, then repeated until all top edges are covered in about the same height of mortar.

For the work done here we laid 3-4 courses high at a time then let them set. Once the courses were laid we inserted rebar into every 3rd or 4th opening then filled all blocks to the top with concrete. This adds a great amount of strength.

It is easy enough to test this strength out – join 4-5 blocks using just mortar then 4-5 with mortar and concrete, give a few days to set, then hit it with a sledge hammer. The concrete filled blocks are much, much stronger.

Continue building up your courses, following your design, until you get to the desired height. It is best to consider common seat, bar stool, and other heights if you are working on an outdoor living space. Make sure you take into consideration the thickness of whatever you are going to use as the top and facade for your blocks.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 7.42.37 PMI cannot find where I took this from now. Let me know if yours and I will remove / give credit.

The final course depends a lot on your design, height, and what area of the project you are working on. In our case the final course was a mixture of open core blocks, horizontally laid 4x8x16’s, and horizontally laid 2x8x16’s. We will be covering the tops of all surfaces, except the very top of the chimney, with concrete “countertops” so it doesn’t really matter whether our final course is a open or closed core block.


Spanning gaps took a lot of research. Perhaps there is one but I’ve yet to find a really good article talking about how to safely span gaps in cinderblock projects. If you want to put a door or window into a cinderblock wall there is a ton of information out there. But if you want to do something more complex – say, create a fireplace opening, there isn’t a lot that I’ve been able to find.

So… Let’s go through what little bit I know…

Any span must be supported properly or they will be structurally unstable. DISCLAIMER: This post is by no means an expert article but simply meant to give you enough information to figure out what direction to go in then research or seek professional support for the path you choose.

IMG_0578Our largest span was the area over a fireplace box. Gas so no chimney needed.

From my research there are two primary ways of spanning a large gap:

lintels or flat irons

Lintels are basically large angle irons, specifically sized for holding the weight of different types of blocks and brick. Make sure you get the right size for what you are working on. The one linked above is for bricks but isn’t necessarily the right size to hold cinderblocks.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 5.30.11 PMI cannot find where I took this from now. Let me know if yours and I will remove / give credit.

Using a lintel can be done a couple ways with cinderblocks. The first is to place them under the outside edges of the blocks and use them like rails with blocks laid inside to span the gap. The second is to use Lintel blocks (or, better, score and cut your own) so that you can lay the lintels with the backs of each “L” facing each other so that the upright portion of the lintel is inside the block.

For the openings in the kitchen area we had gaps where the cabinets were that we used lintels to span. In our particular case we had some odd sizing to deal with so we actually used concrete backerboard strips, topped with a lintel, with the blocks on top.

IMG_0026Opening for cabinet with lintel reinforced concrete board and blocks spanning gap.

Laying a concrete slab

This section states, “just as you would do on the ground”, a lot. See Part 2 if you don’t know what to do here.

The second method is to lay a concrete slab. This is done much like you would do on the ground only you have to supply an artificial ground until the concrete cures. To do this simply measure and cut a piece of 3/4″ plywood then secure at the right height. In our case we secured the perimeter with 2×4 cleats then put a support 2×4 beam in the center.

Once you have this in place, put the forms around the outside, just as you would if this were on the ground. The only difference is that you’ll need to secure the outside of the form to the cinderblocks.

Once you have the forms in place pour the concrete, just as you would on the ground, only now you have to haul it up to whatever height you are pouring into. Fill half way, then place rebar in horizontally. Place this in a grid pattern, ensuring that the rebar overlaps the cinderblock that is supporting the load by at least a few inches. In our case we put rebar in with 3-4″ squares in the grid – probably more than we needed but we erred on the side of caution, especially since our fireplace will also be supporting 1/4 the load of the pergola.

Once cured the structure is quite strong. I’m not too far south of 250 pounds and it holds me just fine. Note that the apparent flexing in the concrete is just where I let the front edge of my board slacked too much during curing. I really needed another support. This thing is quite solid.

IMG_0613Me standing on top of my newly cured slab.

From here the rest of the fireplace structure is the same as working on the ground, only now the ground is our slab 6 feet in the air. Continue stacking courses as needed but strategically choose which ones to fill with concrete and rebar for stability. In our case we only filled blocks that were directly above the below walls so that we could limit the weight placed on the span itself.

For our third section of the chimney we only needed a few blocks so we just used a piece of concrete backer board to hold it in. We then interlaces the blocks then filled the ones over the wall below with rebar and concrete. We’ll also add a concrete “countertop” above the concrete backer board, which will add additional rigidity and strength. Note that we did not put concrete directly over the span of the backer board – that would have been far too much weight and would have resulted in bowing at the least, collapse at the worse.

IMG_0614Dry stacked 2nd and 3rd levels of the concrete, sitting on top of our floating concrete slab.


So remember when I said, “measure, measure, measure”? Well, I said that because I learned the hard way.

I measured multiple times for the opening of the grill yet managed to measure wrong multiple times. As embarrassing as it is I also made a template out of wood and managed to size it incorrectly too. So I went to drop the grill into the newly finished block structure only to find that the structure was about an inch too narrow.

IMG_0579My kitchen area with wood forms, with the ones for the grill measured wrong.

Ugh. So now what? Well, I got to find out how much stronger concrete filled blocks really are. I took a sledge hammer to about a quarter of the structure and, remeasured, then started re-laying block. Only this time I actually took the grill itself and make sure it fit during the dry lay phase of the new courses.

This isn’t fun – make sure you measure. In the picture directly above the left front section, front where the grill area is to the wall, all had to be ripped out. This how I know how much stronger concrete filled cinderblock is…

So that does it for concrete block. This is a relatively short article but this is the biggest part of most projects. Take your time and think before you lay the first stone and it will all come out great. Oh yeah, and measure.

Finishing Up

The final step for us was to lay concrete backer board over the countertop so that it is ready for us to pour the countertops, though there are a few steps before that.

IMG_0016View of finished Fireplace, sitting wall, and columns.

IMG_0085View of finished kitchen – just missing a countertop.

Next installment we’ll talk about laying pavers.


DIY Outdoor Living Space – Part 2: Foundation and Base Structure



Foundation and Base Structure

In Part 1 we covered the basics of coming up with the design, rough planning materials, and determining space. Now that you have your plan, the real fun begins.

For our outdoor living space we settled on an outdoor kitchen, gas fireplace, two sitting walls, and a pergola. The fireplace top serves as the 4th pergola post and sitting walls link the fireplace to the two adjacent posts. The three posts are then wrapped in decorative stone a little higher than each seat. See Part 1 for the rough drawing.


The first part of preparing the foundation and base structure is understanding what your ultimate structure will look like. For example, the prep for concrete block is different than the prep for buried wood posts. When researching the best ways to do this there were three primary ways that I kept running across:

  • Wood structure, as demonstrated here. This uses a pressure treated wood structure as the base. Stone is then hung on cement board. This is a viable option but you must consider the sturdiness of this approach for what you are building. For our needs this would not have been anywhere near strong enough to support all the weight we will be throwing at it. That, and we live at the business end of Hurricane Alley.
  • Pre-fabricated kits, as found here. These are good options and provide a wide array of styles to choose from. We opted to go with self-built for two main reasons. First, the cost of self building is far cheaper. Second, I like building stuff.
  • Concrete / cinderblock based, as demonstrated here. Given that I like to build things and we want something very sturdy to hold the weight we’ll have on top of it this is the route we opted for.

So concrete blocks it is! Those are heavy – around 28 lbs a piece – and we don’t want them shifting so we’ll need a solid foundation – meaning concrete.

Prepping the Foundation

The first part of prepping the foundation is getting your layout marked. There are a few different ways of doing this. If you know the layout already and have everything marked you can jump straight to digging. In our case we wanted to play around with the final placement and size of everything so we created the forms first.

To create the forms we just cut 2×4’s and 2×6’s to the sizes we needed then screwed them together. Most forms you see will use nails but since we were moving things around and wanted to play with sizes screws were easier. Once the concrete is poured we just cut the forms off with a reciprocating saw.

For the weight of the fireplace portion we need a deeper foundation so that portion uses 2×6 boards for the frame. The rest uses 2×4. The cross beams in these pictures are simply support to maintain shape until the forms are secured in the ground.

Yard with fireplace, sitting walls, and pergola posts laid out.

You’ll notice some posts in the above post as well – this is where we were figuring out the placement of the posts for the pergola. We started with the center post in the fireplace then measured out the distance we wanted for each of the adjacent posts – in our case 15 feet. You can then use some basic math to ensure the placement is right and you have a perfect square.

Fisheye view of yard showing the full layout, including the outdoor kitchen.

Once we had the forms created and final placement we moved straight to digging.

Digging Prerequisites

Before you start digging you need to make sure utilities are all marked. You can do this by calling 811 or by visiting The fines can be very steep if you damage a public utility. The degree of the fine will depend on the extend of damage caused, whether people were injured, etc.

Note that they will not mark utilities between multiple buildings on your property, such as the main house and a detached garage. Likewise, they will not mark irrigation lines. You’ll need to know where these are and avoid them. In the case you do cut your irrigation lines they can easily be repaired using a flexible PVC repair kits. I don’t have any pictures but I accidentally cut through one of the pipes and, while a pain, only took 30 minutes to repair between digging, putting new pipe in, and cleanup. If you cut one of the main utilities between buildings shut them off and seek professional help.

Digging and Forms

Since we already had the forms placed where we wanted them we started digging by digging a line a few inches around the entire form. We then removed the form and dug the entire section out.

It is important to keep your final height in mind and make sure that you are digging to a depth appropriate for that end height. You’ll want to dig slightly deeper than needed to get the form to its final height. In our case, we are re-grading the yard so that it will drain better. Because of this we have some areas that stick out of the ground quite a bit and others that are completely submerged.

Note that you’ll need to either cut or move any irrigation lines. What you do with them is dependent on what your plan calls for.

Once you have your areas excavated drop the forms back into the ground. You’ll then use wood stakes to secure them at the right height. Place the stakes around the perimeter of the form, one at each corner then a few along the edges. Adjust the form to the correct height then either screw or nail the stake to the side of the form. Screws proved easier for us and allowed for us to shift sections of the form height if we needed adjustments.

It is extremely important to make sure you have a level form. Without this anything you place on top of the foundation can shift, causing cracking or other structural issues. To do this simply place a level on the forms at various places on the forms throughout the digging process

Fireplace and sitting wall forms buried, leveled, and secured with stakes.

Kitchen area forms buried, leveled, and secured with stakes.

IMG_0489Forms showing secured pergola posts, rebar, forms, and buried gas line.


Once you have the forms secured you need to add rebar, which will add strength to the concrete and help prevent it from shifting or cracking.

In our case I went to my local big box home store to get the rebar and have a couple lessons learned here.

  • First, rebar is very rusty and can have some sharp edges. Wear some gloves when handling it both to protect from cuts and to keep your hands from being stained a bright orange.
  • Second, I asked one of the people in that area of the store what they recommended to cut it. I was told to get a heavy duty set of bolt cutters. Don’t do this. It doesn’t work. I ended up bending my rebar for the foundation then went and bought a Dremel Sawmax with a metal cutting blade for the rest of the work. This worked great – just make sure you wear eye/face protection as it does kick back some little metal particles.

You’ll want to make sure that you have rebar around the perimeter then woven throughout the middle. Cut pieces to length then tie multiple pieces together with rebar wire. Then place the assembled rebar into the form, using rebar chairs to ensure rebar is at the center height of the form.

For the foundation forms in the pictures above all of the rebar was bent by hand. To do this simply mark out where you are going to need a bend, place your foot about 2 feet down, then pull on the side your original measurement is. A word of caution – this is very tough work and is not the easiest way to do this. The most sore I have ever been in my life is after spending 3 hours bending rebar by hand. You’d be far better off to purchase something like the Sawmax then measure and cut.

Gas and Electric

If you are running any kind of gas or electric underground you’ll need to know the code for your areas and/or seek professional help to get this done. I was having trouble finding definitive codes for these for our are so I chose to go with the most conservative of the national codes and decided to dig 18″ trenches for our needs.

In our case we needed electricity for lighting and gas for the fireplace to be run out from the house and kitchen area to the fireplace and sitting wall area. After marking out the start and stop points we dug the two trenches, making sure they were at least the target depth along the entire length.

IMG_0433-e1449352184859-768x1024Two 18″ deep trenches being dug for electrical and gas lines.

Right after the trenches were dug we experienced a few weeks of historical levels of rainfall. So we were left with hundreds of gallons of water in both trenches and all of our forms filled to the top. The pictures above show them nearly full.

After trying a ton of different methods – from a homemade T-syphon to a drill powered garden hose pump to a barrel syphon rigged to a garden house – I finally settled on a way that really worked well. I ended up buying a Shop Vac with a built in water pump. With this I simply hooked up a standard garden hose, ran that to the street drain, then started sucking the water out. It took about 2 hours to clear entirely but it worked great. I wish I had a picture of me sitting in my lawn chair with a cold drink holding the vacuum hose in the water to share…

Once the trenches were fully dug and dried it was time to drop in electrical conduit. I wasn’t ready at this point to actually run any electrical so I simply fitted pieces of electrical conduit together, using PVC cement, dropped them into the trench, then covered them up. If you go this route be sure to seal each end of the pipe with either a PVC cap or some other means to keep water from filling the pipe.

The final step before concrete was to lay gas lines. I can do most things but gas is such a volatile change that I paid someone to do this part. I’d rather pay and know it is safe than save some money and end up having someone hurt. They came out and dropped a gas line, capped it at both ends, then pressurized it. They left a gauge on top so that we’ll know if anything during construction compromised the line.


At this point your prep is done and you are ready to pour some concrete. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of good pictures of this part. Both my wife and I were actively pouring and neither of us stopped to take pictures.

We ended up pouring around ninety 80lb bags of concrete (that’s 7,200 lbs BEFORE adding water…). After doing the math on how much we needed to mix for this project it made a lot of sense to purchase our own mixer. We ended up getting one similar to this one and were able to mix two bags at a time.

We got a pretty good rhythm down after a few runs and it went like this:

  • Pour mixed cement into wheelbarrow.
  • Scrape sides of mixer and dump again.
  • Pour 1/2 of water into mixer, add two bags of concrete, then add rest of water.
  • Refill jug with water and rinse concrete dust from skin.
  • Take wheelbarrow to form and dump.
  • Spread and pack concrete in the form, taking care to preserve the placement of forms and rebar.

This cadence took about 5 minutes each, which is about how long each load is supposed to mix. We ran about 45 loads, which took us around 5 hours, including breaks.

The concrete mix will vary depending on the moisture content of the mix, the humidity, the temperature, etc. When you mix make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions. Adding too much water will weaken the concrete once it dries. For standard concrete you are looking for something that resembles moist, clumpy sand. It should not flow freely but act more like dirt. You can take a handful of it and should be able to form it in your hand and have it roughly retain the shape. Concrete you see flowing like water is either destined to be weak or has superplasticizers mixed into them. We’ll talk more about superplasticizers when we get to the countertops section.

Concrete_mix3Proper consistency for most concrete mixes.

Once you pour each wheelbarrow you’ll need to pack the concrete down into the form with a hoe or shovel then spread it evenly. Once your form is nearly full use a 2×4 to screed the concrete. Take the board and gently shift side to side as you drag from one end to the other. This is easiest with a helper. Search for a video of this if you need – there are a ton out there.

Once the concrete is screeded you’ll take a metal trowel or float and smooth it, working in arcs. There are a ton of videos out there on how to do this so I’ll not rehash it. For a very smooth surface you’ll want to come back and re-smooth after about an hour. In our case nobody will be able to see the foundation and we are only using it to attach blocks to so the look of the surface wasn’t important enough to us to return for a second smoothing.

With all the rain we had been having we took one final step and covered all the slabs with plastic and weighed it down on the sides. This did two things. First, it prevented additional moisture from permeating the concrete while it was still curing. Second, it retained the prescribed amount of water in the mix, resulting in a top strength cured concrete. We left it like this for a little over a week, just to make sure it was fully cured.

Finally, we cleaned up. After 3 showers and some internet searches we found that vinegar will take off the concrete residue. Your skin will still feel a little bit weird but as long as you don’t have hazy concrete on it you are ok. You want to make sure you get all of this off as concrete can cause chemical burns on the skin if left too long.

Next installment we’ll talk about laying concrete blocks.