Yardsmart: Getting The Look of Cobblestones of Yore

They say that the cobblestone streets of Virginia were paved by the tobacco trade. So great was the demand for this American weed that ships arriving in the ports carried ballast stones to offset their light weight. Once anchored, the ballast was removed and replaced by heavy oak barrels of freshly cured tobacco. Throughout the colonies, ballast stones accumulated around the harbors as abundant raw materials were shipped to the Old World. These were often heavy, hand-hewn blocks of granite, and sometimes fired clay brick. Today you can see them occasionally in Boston and other old cities where the ballast stone paving is revealed when asphalt laid over them deteriorates. Today these communities cherish such pavers and are relocating them to high-profile streets of historic districts and for accent in urban plazas.

As much as we’d love to use old granite pavers to create walks and patios, the cost of those reclaimed from colonial streets is high and the supply limited. Yet there’s nothing that gives a new landscape that Old World look than the evidence of hand-hewn stone.

Decades ago when concrete pavers were first invented, they were manufactured with precise shapes and edges. This rigidity could be felt in the landscapes where they were used. Many of the colors, while highly variable, did not resemble natural stone. When you saw a paver patio, you knew exactly what it was.

Paver makers got the message and went to work creating new products that look old. What gave ballast block its character were signs of hand-hewing. In olden days, everything was done with hammer and chisel because labor was cheap. This meant that the surface was not smooth, but bore divots as chunks of stone were knocked off to give it a roughly rectangular shape. Often Old World ballast stones were the leftovers of European construction or teardowns. They might be cracked and chipped or just a piece of a broken block. This added even more irregularity to the process of laying pavement. Stone masons hand-set each unit, which required skill just as it does today, which drives up the cost of installing old reclaimed blocks.

Paver manufacturers such as Belgard Hardscapes Inc. were keen to create new lines of precast concrete pavers that offered the look and feel of old ballast stones without the irregularities that drive up the cost of installation. The first step was to create colors that closely resemble Old World granite. Then shapes were limited to squares and rectangles sized like the old cobbles. Finally blocks were loaded into a huge drum and tumbled just as they would have been years ago when ballast stones were thrown into wagons and ship holds and then onto docks and into colonial street-paving projects.

If you love that age-old look, if you live in a historic home, or if you dream of an old English garden pathway in your backyard — tumbled new pavers are the ideal choice. Take a look at the examples at Belgard online at belgard.biz. Click on the Old World collection to see a dead ringer for ballast pavers. Like the granite predecessors, these feature an irregular surface. But as a modern product, the pavers are uniformly sized for swift installation.

For a more refined look, try the Antique category, which offers new tumbled pavers with more sedate surface textures for the softer look of old building stone. With dozens of examples of finished patios for each of their product lines, you’re bound to find exactly what you want in these affordable new, yet old, pavers.

Instead of throwing money away on vacations next year, consider paying for a new outdoor living space. Use the right pavers to make it feel a lot more like New Orleans, Baltimore or Nantucket than your own backyard.