“It is the song that never ends.
It just goes on and on my friends…”
That was the song that played over and over in my head whenever we worked on relaying brick in my courtyard during the summer of 2014. I kept wondering if we would ever finish.
I knew this project wasn’t going to be very fun from the get-go. It was, however, necessary. Through the years, roots from two large trees had lifted a section of brick in my courtyard, making them dangerous to traverse. For that reason, I needed to lift approximately 1/3 of my front courtyard, remove the imposing roots, and then simply relay the brick such that they looked like they were never disturbed.
Rather, “It is the task that never ends” repeated incessantly in my head.
This project was riddled with a series of unfortunate events.
Tree Roots. Uff-Da
I did a lot of research and determined that removing less than 8% of an established tree’s roots would likely not cause material harm. I estimated my overall root removal constituted approximately 5% of my tree’s roots.
Months later, all is still going well. The disruptive roots are all out and my trees are only a tad unhappy. I’m attributing that as much to the California drought as to the root routing.
However, removing tree roots was really, really hard work – even for my strong, fit, healthy college athletes!
I learned this the hard way. Initially, I hired two workers for a weekend thinking the three of us would just blast this project. What I learned is that two hours of swinging a pickax, an ax, a hatchet, and using a crowbar and a shovel is more than enough exercise for a day! The entire weekend was not nearly as productive as I had anticipated.
Oh sure, we got lots done. But it would have been more cost effective to schedule those 24 hours of work as 2-3 hour sessions instead.
Now I know — The more physical the task, the shorter our work sessions should be.
My yard contains approximately 6,000 clinker bricks. [What’s a clinker brick?]
While I view them as works of art, no two are the same size, color or shape. I repeat — NO TWO ARE THE SAME SIZE, COLOR, OR SHAPE.
That made laying them level especially challenging!
But they are beautiful. I’m plucking a select few to create something stunning. Stay tuned. You’ll see what I come up with at some point, I’m sure.
My Yard is Not Level! My Yard is Not Level!
I live near an earthquake fault at the bottom of a hill. Translated, relaying uneven bricks into a sloping landscape essentially required a new definition of “level”.
Oh how I would have loved to measure “level” relative to the earth’s poles. But we had to determine “level” far more liberally.
We used a long board to measure how newly placed bricks laid in relationship to existing bricks.
Level for this project was based on comparisons and sight, as much as it was on the earth’s poles.
To me, that was a complete compromise, and I cringed each time we had to do this. But the alternative was excavating and leveling my entire front yard, and I’m simply not going to live that long.
Leave No Trace
I am not a camper. In fact, I’m the antithesis of a camper. (My idea of camping is a night at the Ahwahnee Lodge at Yosemite.) But I’m familiar with the camping concept of “Leave No Trace” and that surely was an objective in tackling this project. Our mission was to ensure that when all was said and done, it looked like my newly laid courtyard had been here since the beginning.
How frustrating! You work and you work and you work, but for what? To make it look like you haven’t done anything? But that’s what we did and I’m proud to report that the completed courtyard truly looks like it was never disturbed. Yeah.
Other Extenuating Circumstances
It didn’t help that my Rottweiler ran me down, broke my teeth, my glasses, my nose, and gave me a concussion during the summer! (She is the self-appointed guardian of our street, and I was in her way as she sped to the gate to investigate a noise. She is big. Fast, too.)
It also didn’t help that my helpers all got full-time jobs this summer, leaving limited time for relaying brick.
I’ll be better prepared another summer. And I’ll certainly stay out of the path of my big, fast dog!
But Look What We Learned!
Reusing Existing Borders — a Gift and a Curse
We reused sections of the previously mortared borders as much as possible. In the long run, this probably saved time and money because I didn’t need to select and arrange individual bricks for the border.
The already mortared groupings are also more stable than bricks set with sand. Truth be told, I actually did damage trying to separate bricks of the borders. Clinker bricks are increasingly hard to come by and I don’t have a lot of spares, so availability became a factor.
But the border section (4-6 bricks held by mortar) were heavy and unwieldy. Their uneven mortar base made leveling them even more of a challenge than leveling stand-alone clinker bricks.
In the end, reusing my borders was the right choice. We set and leveled the border first, giving us a target to aim for when relaying the courtyard itself. (Conceptually, this is like assembling the borders of a crossword puzzle first.)
Sand is Forgiving
My courtyard was originally laid upon a bed of sand with either sand or mortar used between the bricks.
I chose to use sand exclusively, largely for its forgiving nature and also to ensure that deeper, unexposed tree roots are adequately watered by the winter rains.
I used play sand to fill between the bricks and all-purpose sand to supplement my base, when necessary.
Perspective, Perspective, Perspective
I was reminded more on this project than any other that perspective is everything! You absolutely cannot tell if bricks are straight, aligned, or relatively level until you look at them from a distance.
That is such an important lesson to keep in mind for life in general. But it’s especially important when relaying brick.
The only time I failed to monitor this project from a distance is the one time we ended up relaying an entire section of brick. Ouch. (They were gorgeously laid but headed radically uphill.) I will not make that mistake again.
For tips and tricks about this project, click here.
Ta-Da! The Final Result
Months later, I am absolutely ecstatic with the results. Check out this project’s postmortem, when it becomes available.