The heavy rains earlier this year exposed drainage problems I had forgotten over the last four years of drought. Mounds of pine straw accumulated at the bottom of a sloped trail. Small island-like tufts of grass were left where water strongly flowed across my back lawn. The damage was easy to fix and the results of the rain reassured me, in an odd sort of way.
We are soon to add a flagstone patio beside our new screen porch. My task in May was to make sure the clay soil was level before the sand base and rock could be installed. The area was full of ruts and mounds of dirt. How and where should I move the soil and be sure it was level across a wide area?
My contractor, Bill, had faced a similar problem in January. He needed to make sure the porch floor was level. A carpenter’s level wasn’t long enough to suit his obsession with accuracy. Instead, he pulled a twenty-foot long coil of plastic tubing from his workbox and made sure every joist surface was in the same plane. It seemed to me, facing my task in early June, that a tool as simple as a water-filled clear tube would be easy for me to master.
Indeed, I made and used a water level of my own design. The rains of early June proved that I had understood the principle of water seeking its own level: my prospective patio had only a couple of low spots!
A LONG TUBE My patio will be thirty feet diagonally across, so I began with a standard fifty-foot long water hose. At a hardware store I purchased two three-foot long lengths of clear vinyl tubing. The tubing had an inside diameter of five-eighths inch, which matched the size of my water hose. I also bought a male and a female hose end fitting. Back home, I attached one fitting to each of the two pieces of tubing. The tubes were then easy to screw onto the two ends of the garden hose.
STAKES With porch construction finally complete, I have plenty of short lengths of trim molding. I chose a dozen two-foot long pieces and pounded them a few inches into the ground around the circumference and across the middle of my patio space. Now to make the water level operational!
COLORED WATER Rummaging through last spring’s Easter supplies, I found a bottle of blue food coloring. I dribbled a few drops into the end of one piece of clear tubing. Holding the other piece of tubing close to the first, I filled the whole fifty-six foot long tube with water, which quickly became blue.
LEVELING My trusty ten-year old son was brought into the effort at this point. I decided to use the top edge of the porch steps as my reference point. He held one end of the long tube at the steps while I stretched the hose to the first stake. We kept our thumbs over the tubing ends while maneuvering the hose to keep the water from spilling out.
I squatted beside the stake and placed my tube next to it. Grey watched the level of water in the tube at his end. Gently lifting and lowering our respective tube ends, we reached a point where his water surface was exactly in line with the top of the porch steps. “Mark!” he shouted. I used a felt tip pen to mark my stake at the spot where the water surface in my tube had leveled with his.
Eleven marked stakes later, we had identified the spot on each one that was level with the top of my porch steps. At some stakes, the soil was only a few inches below the mark: that’s where it needed to be scraped down and removed.
At other stakes, the mark was a foot above the soil: that’s where we put the soil removed from the high spots. Eventually, after much scraping and shoveling, the soil was the same distance below the mark on each of the twelve stakes. Intellectually, I knew it was level – but would Mother Nature bear me out?
As you already know, the rain identified a few low spots but they were small and easy to fill. Now I can spread the sand base for the flagstone, secure that I haven’t created a sloped surface that directs water toward the house.
“Water always seeks its own level”, Mrs. Sarah Minter taught us in fifth grade. “No matter how long the tube…..don’t slouch in your desk, Walter Reeves!…… the water at one end will be level with that at the other end.” She was as correct forty years ago as she would be today. The laws of physics are hard to change, and I’ll soon have a level patio to prove it!