Natural stone masonry and stone structures can be largely overlooked when it comes to landscape and swimming pool designs. To some homeowners, swimming pool and dining patios are valued but seriously underestimated in terms of their power to really define an outdoor living space. Natural stone patios provide a number of opportunities to transform the most functional aspect of a landscape and swimming pool into an art-form that adds to the overall ambiance. Before you embark on a natural stone masonry project of your own, use this blog to help learn how to judge quality masonry construction.
This week, I went to consult on a masonry project and discovered that 2,000 square feet of patio needs to be removed and reinstalled. Why you ask? For starters, the contractor neglected to install any expansion joints and more than likely missed a few other important steps vital to the proper natural stone installation process. We are taking core samples and sending them out to an engineer for structural analysis. A paver company who thought it was a good idea to start installing stone appears to have gotten in over their head.
Unfortunately, with the recession still lingering, there are many companies like this who just don’t have the experience or who mislead clients about their ability when interviewing for these large projects. Many companies are getting on the “one-stop shop” boat and leaving plenty of unhappy customers in their wake. In order to help you see through this smokescreen, I want to share some tips on how to determine a quality natural stone installation.
First of all, when you’re researching companies on the internet and you’re going through photo galleries, be sure that you see multiple examples of what you’re looking for. For example, we can show our clients 50 NJ outdoor kitchen and fireplace structures. If we have a client that is looking for natural stone patios or walls around their pool, I can show them 100,000 square feet of natural stone patios or 50,000 square feet of veneer. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to boast; I’m just trying to convey how important it is to have a lot of hands-on experience.
If a landscaping or swimming pool company advertises a natural stone patio or a masonry structure on the internet or in a print ad and it interests you, make sure you ask to see that very patio as it stands today. Try to see several examples of the masonry to help judge a company’s craftsmanship! When you go see the stonework, be sure to get a good look at all the masonry patios and walls. Here are a few things to look out for:
1. Look at the joints. Joints should be no wider than ½ inch regardless of the pattern or type of stone. Larger joints tend to separate from the stone faster than normal because of the different absorption rates of mortar compared to the denser stone. If the joints are too big, the patio is sure to call for repairs sooner rather than later as a result of damages from freezing and thawing.
2. How does the stone feel when you walk on it? Any sawn pattern stones with a finished surface like sand blasted limestone or thermal faced bluestone should be very consistent. It should feel like you’re walking on smooth glass. Irregular stone patterns or natural cleft stones will be slightly inconsistent but should still feel evenly pitched. If the stone feels uneven when you walk on it or if there are large edges sticking up or large pieces missing, it could be a sign of poor craftsmanship.
3. Give it the Tap Test. Bring a small hammer or a 2” stone with you to visit the project. Gently tap on the stone throughout the patio area and listen for hollow pockets. A hollow sound suggests that the stone has somehow separated from the setting bed. Very few stones should be separated from the setting bed! If you have a hard time recognizing the hollow sound, don’t worry. At least the mason contractor will see your hammer and know you mean business.
4. Make sure there are no large puddles on the patio. Obviously it’s easy to detect puddles after it rains, but even if it’s been dry for an extended period of time, you can look for accumulated areas of dirt or grey chalky film left behind by puddles on the patio. Small puddles are fairly common on large slab stone patios and tend to form in stones that are cupped or concaved. Most of the time we try to avoid the cupped stones, but sometimes its unavoidable. Even on a patio that has 2” pitch, you may still see small puddles. As long as the puddle is within a single stone, you shouldn’t be too alarmed. On the other hand, should you see puddles spanning several stones, this is definitely a source of concern. Large areas of standing water tend to erode the masonry joints on a patio. This allows water to infiltrate the setting bed and cause widespread separation of the masonry and the natural stone. Eventually the structural integrity of the concrete patio slab will be compromised as a result of these large puddles.
5. Check for settling where the patio meets up with other structures such as the pool coping or steps. If the back of the pool coping is higher than the patio, this is a sign of settling. Look at the staircases too. If the bottom step is taller than other steps leading up the staircase, this could also mean the patio has settled and the base preparation was more than likely inadequate.
I encourage you to be a little skeptical when it comes to your next masonry project. Go out and visit completed masonry works and put them under the microscope. With hammer in hand and these few helpful tips, you’ll be able to judge good stone masonry and feel comfortable about your investment. If you would like any additional information or want to dissect some of my own stone masonry work using these tips, email me at email@example.com.