Brick By Brick

Our parents have been so helpful in some of the projects that we have done in our yard. Both my parents and Kurts dad were here in the spring helping us build our fence. Last year, my dad come and helped me re-finish our deck in preparation of a company covering it with duradeck. They are always quick to say yes when we ask for some solid manual labour. So when it was my parents turn to do a major project, we were quick to say yes to helping. Unfortunately Kurt hurt his shoulder earlier in the spring and the type of work we were doing wasn’t going to be good for it, so he had to sit this one out.

My parents driveways is a double car driveway, but has really only been useable as a single car driveway for a few years. If it isn’t the drainage not draining, it is the heaves and dips that have made one half only useable if you have a truck, and never after a rainstorm as that half of the driveway is a small pond. So it was due time to get it re-done. My dad decided that he would have a company come in and take out the old asphalt and retaining walls. He would then build the new retaining walls and then the company would come back to re-do the asphalt. He managed the first retaining wall on his own as it was a straight shot and only a couple bricks high. I still think he should have asked for help event on that once since the bricks are about 80 lbs each, but he’s retired so he just plucked away at it for a few hours a day.

The wall that I helped with, was a little more complicated. It goes a little deeper since dad wants a bit of a slope to the new drainage grates he is putting in. As well as that, he had a great idea of adding a little nook to the wall to store the garbage & recycling bin so that they are not in the way and have a little home. The nook would also have a stair or two leading up to the backyard fence gate.

The fun thing about helping on this wall is that starting on the weekend and lasting into this week, we are hitting extreme high temperatures and setting new temperature records for June. FUN! The good thing is the work area is in the shade until about 10 am, so we agreed at we would work from 6 am – 10 am and then call it quits for the day. Seems completely reasonable and worked out really well, even though temperatures were reaching into the 40*C plus range for the day, the mornings were manageable enough to get a solid 4 hours of work in. It was a much better system than the one where I had him helping me re-do our deck in the same sort of heat for the full day.

The first day was just dad and me. Dad had all the bricks and tools we would need, including his own built tamping tool for the gravel. I love this about my dad. Rather than buying one that he likely will not need again after this, or if he does need, will be minimal, he made himself one. He had a piece of metal in his shop that had been in his way for years. He commented that he just about got rid of it a few months ago when he was organizing the shop/garage, but decided to keep it. He created a base with handle, and then attached the heavy metal plate to the bottom for quick and easy tamping. Worked as well as the one that Kurt and I bought years ago when we first started building our walls. I love the creativity and that he’s my dad so I have to have some of those ingenuity genes!

We got a great start and seemed to make good headway with the first 4 bricks, which included the first corner going into the nook. But we are not wall builders. Although everything lined up beautifully, everything was level and everything was coming together well, we had missed a key measurement in our planning. We needed to bring the bricks up about 3″ to be at the right starting point for the grade of the driveway and eventual asphalt, as well as for the top level to be flush with the grass. Doh! Luckily we realized our mistake early. Unfortunately, we had just filled those first 4 bricks with crushed gravel. So not only did we need to re-do the bricks, but we had to move the gravel back out of the way again. Oh well, live and learn right! We got those 4 bricks back into place at the right height fairly quickly and continued along our way.

The most challenging part about the wall was the nook and understanding how the bricks would all go together how they needed to. In order to do the corners and the nook, we had to use a few different size blocks. The main ones were quite deep for stability. The corner ones were narrower. Then we had to use some half-size blocks which were also narrower. None of them were the same size, which made planning out where they were going to go and how it was going to sit a little more complicated. To top that off, the next level up sits back approx. 2″ from the bottom level for a slight slope to the front of the bricks. Luckily, Dad and I are able to visualize things the same way, so we were able to figure it out. If all else failed, we just placed the bricks tentatively to ensure our plans were going to work. Plus we used string, lots of string, to help us with different lines for the wall, whether it was keeping it all straight or gauging height of blocks, etc.

On the second day, my brother-in-law, mom and sister were also available to help. It’s hard though as it really is only a 2 or 3 person job, otherwise we are just in the way of each other. So mom kept us hydrated and well-fed with some delicious breakfast items and pitched in with the building wherever she could (when one of us got a little tired and needed a break). Rachel checked in regularly and made sure to help out whenever the opportunity presented itself. By the end of the second day, we had the nook built with both sets of corners sorted out and completed. It was then a straight shot wall to the end of the driveway. Easy.

Well on day 3, we got started on that. But it wasn’t quite as easy as we thought it would be, though it did go relatively fast. In this section, we had to use some blocks that were half the height of the normal blocks. This section went along the deepest part of the driveway, which was too deep for just 2 blocks height, but would have been over-kill with 3 blocks height as the bottom block would be almost completely buried by the asphalt. So dad got the half height ones. The good things is that they were exactly the same footprint as the normal ones, so lining them up was a little easier. This run only went for 4 brick lengths, before we were high enough that we could go back to just 2 bricks height.

Once past that point we cruised and the final leg of the wall came together quickly, which was good because it was getting HOT. We managed to finish not only the first level, but we were also able to put all the levels on, fill the bricks with crushed gravel and backfill behind the wall and into the drainage trench that Dad had to dig to replace the drainage pipe. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough wall caps, so he will continue working on that this week. It will be interesting as it isn’t as easy as just plunking them on top of the wall. Those 4 corners that we made will need bricks cut at 45* angles to make sure the finished look is good. The caps are only “finished” on one side, so you need to join them for the overall look. Dad bought himself a good angle grinder cutting blade for that, so it should be fairly quick work for him.

The walls turned out beautiful. I can’t wait to see what they look like once the driveway is completed! They have already had some comments from the business across the road as well as some friendly high school kids walking by. Everyone loves the look of it. So do my parents. It is always nice to return the favour of helping on a big project like that, and I got to learn about a different kind of brickwork that will come in handy when we have to re-do the retaining wall in our front yard using the same style bricks. Win Win.

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