There’s a good reason why gravel driveways have enjoyed a significant surge in popularity over the last few years.
The perfect combination of decorative charm and durable functionality, they offer a quick, cost-effective way to make a dramatic transformation to your outdoor space.
So it’s no surprise that you’re now considering swapping your old driveway for a gravel-based replacement.
At least, you would be if only you could get a straightforward answer on how to get started.
In our experience, heading online to research exactly how to make a gravel driveway brings up lots of seriously conflicting advice.
Some so-called experts make it sound like such a chore that it’s almost enough to put you off the whole idea.
Meanwhile, others seem to gloss over some pretty important details and leave you still no closer to understanding precisely what you’re supposed to do.
That’s why we’ve put together this ultimate guide to building a gravel driveway with clear, step-by-step instructions to guide you through each stage of the process.
Whether you’re looking to save money on the long-term maintenance of your driveway by replacing tired, old tarmac with a great-looking gravel finish, or whether you’re simply looking for a creative way to revamp your outdoor space, here’s how it’s done.
1 – Check for buried services
Beware that digging up your driveway without first checking for buried services could cause you to strike underground utility cables and pipes carrying electricity, dangerous gas or other services. Always check for such services before you dig.
OK, so this might not be the most exciting part of the whole project, but it is undoubtedly the most essential.
To provide services such as gas and electricity, telephone and Internet, and even drainage and sewage to your home and your community, utility providers have laid out millions of miles of underground pipes and cables.
When you dig into the ground to lay your new driveway, you run the risk of striking one of these cables.
According to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), around 38 million Americans dig into the ground without checking for such buried services every year.
Of course, there’s every chance you might get lucky and avoid hitting anything, but the statistics are not in your favor.
The CGA reports that an essential utility line is damaged every six seconds in the USA, all because people failed to check whether the area was clear.
The consequences of hitting a buried service
Of course, it goes without saying that if you strike an essential cable, you risk cutting off supply not only to your own home but to your entire community.
Naturally, that’s going to cost a lot of money to fix, yet even that may be the least of your worries.
If you inadvertently strike gas pipe, you run the risk of creating a life-threatening explosion. That’s to say nothing of the consequences of hitting a live electrical cable.
How to check for underground utility services
So, we’ve agreed that checking for buried services before you start digging is a pretty smart idea, but how do you go about it?
One option would be to invest in an underground cable locator.
Models like the low-budget Kolsol Underground Wire Locator Cable Tester F02 or the state-of-art Akozon MS6816 Professional Cable Tracker Metal Tube Positioning Detector for Buried Line Measurement may prove to be a solid investment if you’re planning even more outdoor renovation work after the drive is complete.
However, a more affordable option might be to call 811.
Each US state has its own 811 call center which you can call free of charge to find out if there are any underground cables in the area you’re planning to dig.
If there are, 811 will contact the utility provider who will send somebody out to mark out the exact location of those facilities with paint or flags to ensure you don’t hit them.
To get this done in plenty of time, 811 recommend that you call them at least 72 hours before you’re planning to dig.
2 – Excavate the existing base
To create a solid foundation for your new driveway, you’ll need to clear away any existing driveway as well as digging up the topsoil. This leaves a firm subsoil that will serve as the load-bearing base.
Now that you’ve double-checked that it’s safe to dig, it’s time to clear out the area where your new gravel driveway will go.
To create a solid base that’s capable of holding the weight of your vehicle, you’ll need to dig down until you reach a firm layer of subsoil.
Choosing the best tools for the job is critical here.
If you’re replacing a tarmac or paved drive-way, then a pickaxe or similar tool might prove invaluable for breaking up that top layer.
You’ll then need to use a good quality spade or shovel to clear away the topsoil.
How much topsoil should be removed?
Typically, you’ll need to dig between 50mm to 300mm to really get to that solid level of subsoil, though you may prefer to dig a little deeper to get the desired decorative effect you’re going for, providing it is safe to do so.
Disposing of the rubble
Don’t forget to think about how you’ll dispose of all the rubble you dig up when creating your drive. After collecting it in your wheelbarrow, you might want to invest in a dumpster or even a small dump truck to help you get rid of the waste.
Don’t forget to find a safe and effective way to dispose of all the waste rubble and topsoil that you dig up.
Consider renting a dumpster or a dump truck to make the job easier.
3 – Add your weed-control membrane
Expert gardener Jim Putnam talks you through the pros and cons of using weed control fabric when working on a new project like building a driveway. Experts disagree on what stage of the driveway construction is best for adding such a barrier, but we think adding it beneath your sub-base provides the best long-lasting protection for your driveway.
The last thing you want is for your beautiful new driveway to be spoiled with weeds.
Even if you’ve stocked up on some of the best weed eater money can buy, the additional maintenance can prove to be a serious hassle.
So at this stage, it pays to lay down a quality weed control membrane.
Expert opinion varies as to whether it’s best to lay down the membrane between the subsoil and the sub-base, or between the sub-base and the finished gravel surface.
In our experience, we’ve found it works best when you put it beneath the sub-base.
The good news is that this stuff is pretty inexpensive. A 3 feet by 50 ft roll of premium 50z ECOgardener fabric will set you back no more than $27, and it’s possible to get it even cheaper if you shop around.
4 – Create your sub-base
Ensure that you buy enough sub-base to cover your entire driveway. You can use an online calculator to determine how much you’ll need, or ask your supplier for a recommendation.
Now we come to one of the most crucial stages of the whole project.
Your gravel driveway will need to support a substantial amount of weight so it needs a solid foundation.
To create this, we recommend using a type of sub-base called MOT-1. This is made up of different types of aggregate all compacted together for lasting strength and durability.
You can buy good quality MOT-1 sub-base from any good DIY or garden supply store.
How much sub-base will be needed?
It’s easier than might think to determine how much sub-base you actually need.
Simply calculate the length of your drive by the width and depth. For ample support, you’ll want that depth to go between 50MM and 100MM, though again, your own garden design plans may call for something more.
Most MOT-1 suppliers will be able to tell you exactly how much you need to buy to adequately prepare your drive, or you can even use an online calculator.
How to apply the sub-base
Use a spade or shovel to empty the contents of your bags of MOT-1 into the drive space. If possible, you’ll then want to buy, borrow or hire a good plate compactor to smooth out and flatten the sub-base.
Failing that, you’ll need to do it the old fashioned way:
Get your shovel out again and use the back to flatten everything out.
5 – Add gravel grids
Gravel grids may not be essential for building a gravel driveway, but they can certainly be helpful. Loose gravel can mess up your garden space as well as creating uneven surfaces. Gravel grids prevent this.
If you choose to, you can skip this step altogether.
It’s entirely possible to make a gravel driveway without using gravel grids and since they can be pretty expensive, you might deem this part of the process to be unnecessary.
However, that’s not to discredit the usefulness of such tools.
Easy to layout and fit together, gravel grids prevent your gravel from moving around, something which can not only cause uneven driveway surfaces but which can also cause loose gravel to spread across your lawn or garden space and make a mess.
If you are going to use one then, now is the time to click them into place and lay them out ready for your gravel.
6 – Add your gravel
By now, all that’s left to do is add in your gravel. We like the popular Cotswold or Granite style chipping gravel as it is versatile enough to add a wonderful finish for all types of garden design.
Finally, you’re ready to add the gravel.
At this stage, it’s tempting to go overboard and lay out more gravel than you really need.
Keep in mind that all you’re doing now is adding a decorative finish. All the load-bearing support is handled by your sub-base, so you don’t need to add tons of the stuff.
At most, you should be looking at going no more than 50mm deep.
Once you’ve laid out the appropriate amount of gravel, a garden rake or even a snow rake will come in handy to even out the surface.
With that, you’re all done. You’ve successfully made your own gravel driveway.
Frequently Asked Questions about Gravel Driveways
Before you leave and set about this process for yourself, we understand that you might still have a few questions.
Let’s answers those right now, shall we?
What kind of gravel should I use?
There are lots of different types of gravel that you can buy.
Ultimately, the one you choose will be determined by the kind of look you’re going for.
That being said, for the best results you’ll want to buy gravel that is 20mm in size.
Anything smaller will get stuck between car tires while larger gravel will be uncomfortable and uneven to walk on.
As long as your gravel is of the appropriate size, any one of the following types will create a great look for your outdoor space.
Granite or Cotswold chippings are among some of the most popular gravel types on the market.
Typically light in color, they add a clean, vibrant finish to your drive.
A personal favorite, golden gravel combines beautiful golds, yellows, and cream colors to create a stylish and contemporary feel that is perfect for modern exteriors.
Moonstone is one of the most durable and hard wearing types of gravel, making it an ideal solution if your driveway is going to withstand lots of heavy use or if you have particularly large vehicles.
It’s made up of darker colors such as blacks, browns, and greys, all of which create a striking decorative finish which is perfect if you really want your gravel driveway to stand out.
Comprised of pinks, whites, and greys, flamingo gravel really does create a unique look and is perfect for brightening up an otherwise dull space.
Black Ice Gravel
Sometimes, it isn’t the driveway itself you want to stand out, but the beautifully designed garden or outdoor space surrounding it.
In that case, the darker colors of black ice gravel work well, creating a bold, solid look which stands in contrast to the more vibrant colors of your flowers and plant life.
How long does it take to build a gravel driveway?
From start to finish, it may take the better part of a day to make a gravel driveway if you’re planning on doing it solo.
Yet as the old saying goes, many hands make light work and if you can get enough people to help you, there’s nothing to stop you creating a beautiful looking driveway within the space of an afternoon.