The new homeowner (okay, my son, Mark) was ecstatic with his purchase, but there were a few drawbacks. One of them was the front path—a dangerous eyesore. The awkward, narrow, too-high step and wobbly, crumbling concrete made footing precarious. We tackled the problem with the help of Kelvin, a professional mason from Andrew's Restoration (instructions for building the retaining wall will be featured in a future issue).
We decided to widen the approach to create easier access and a generous platform leading up to the porch (the neighbour's narrow, concrete walkway had to remain). We created a comfortable ascent by adding an extra step (to calculate how many steps you need, see “Step Right Up,” below). For the step risers and retaining wall, we chose Allan Block Junior, an economical, Canadian-made interlocking wall system, and for the treads and path, we invested in a few slabs of showy, Indiana Buff split-face sandstone, cut to fit as needed (see “Engraved in Stone,” below). You might prefer random-cut flagstones or concrete or brick pavers.
Fortunately, the soil is light and sandy and the space small, so digging it out by hand was relatively quick and easy. If your pathway is longer than six metres (20 feet) or your soil a root-bound, heavy clay, Steve Maxwell, technical editor for sister publication Canadian Home Workshop, recommends you rent the services of a micro-excavator and operator to remove the soil. And while you're at it, rent a tamper, too (if, like us, you have a tiny area to cover and opt to use a manual one, the 20-by-20-centimetre [eight-by-eight-inch] size is easiest to handle). To avoid injury, always lift heavy materials from your knees, and wear safety glasses, gloves and sturdy shoes (preferably steel-toed workboots).
Step right up
Using imperial measurements, here are two basic formulas for determining the correct ratio between risers and treads (known as rise over run):
Riser + tread = 17 (for example, if your riser is seven inches tall, your tread depth should be 10 inches). Or: riser x tread (in inches) should equal 70 to 75.
For surer footing in bad weather, exterior steps are generally broader, deeper and less
steep than interior ones.
Engraved in stone
If using a circular saw to cut stone, you'll need to install a diamond-tipped blade. Measure your cutline and mark it; then make a series of one-centimetre (1/2-inch) deep cuts until you're halfway through the stone. A sharp tap with a maul (a heavy, long-handled hammer) should complete the break. Small adjustments, such as trimming corners, can be made by carefully chipping away with a two-pound hand mallet and cold chisel (it's dusty work, so wear safety glasses and a mask).