DIY stonecutter: Donora man builds his own patio, outdoor fireplace
August 12, 2016 9:50 AM
Mark Pawelec spent four years of weekends from April to October building a 24- by- 15-foot stone patio and wood-burning fireplace.
By Kevin Kirkland / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mark Pawelec is the ultimate handy neighbor. For four years, from April to October, he spent weekends building a stone patio with a wood-burning fireplace and two stone benches in his backyard in Donora. He also built low stone walls along his walks.
His house is his hobby and he never doubted he could do it, though he had little experience in stone cutting and masonry.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right,” he said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Pawelec was a finalist in the Renovation Inspiration Contest, which is judged by staffers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Design Center. He didn’t win -- it’s hard for an outdoor project to compete with an interior renovation -- but his care, craftsmanship and can-do DIY work ethic inspired the judges. And the project’s cost -- around $2,000 -- was pretty impressive, too.
His biggest single expense was a used, gas-powered, 14-inch cutoff saw. Not far behind was 100 80-pound bags of mortar. But what about all that stone?
He found nearly all of it on Craigslist and some was free. He picked up material as close as Monessen and as far away as Castle Shannon. In Bridgeville, someone didn’t want a flagstone patio, so he made 15 trips in his Chevy Trailblazer to dismantle it and carry it home. The flagstone is now the surface of his 24- by- 15-foot patio.
The project’s focal point is the fireplace, whose firebox is nearly 6 feet across with an arched opening that is 32 inches wide and 24 inches high. The chimney stands nearly 10 feet tall from the patio, 13 ½ feet from the backyard beyond it.
There are no real plans for the fireplace or patio. Mr. Pawelec got most of his design ideas from the internet or HGTV.
“I usually have three or four projects going at the same time,” he said. “I have that nervous energy.”
Mr. Pawelec, 57, a computer programmer who graduated from nearby California University of Pennsylvania with a degree in graphic communications technology, lives in a tan brick house that he grew up in. Both his father, Raymond, and his grandfathers worked at the American Steel & Wire plant in Donora. The company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, also owned the zinc works responsible for Donora’s killer smog in October 1948. The mill closed in 1967, seven years after this house was built.
Since his mother passed away in 2006, Mr. Pawelec has installed a gas-burning fireplace with faux stone surround and remodeled the kitchen, designing and making his own fruit bowl backsplash from tile.
More than 50 years ago, his father poured a concrete patio that had dropped about 5 inches by the time his son became the homeowner. Wanting to preserve his father’s work, Mr. Pawelec first thought about repairing it or hydraulically lifting it but eventually decided to replace it.
After removing the rubble, he built a French drain, then poured a concrete footer in June 2012. Early summer weather was a treat. There were many days in April and October that weren’t as warm.
“Fifty degrees or above, it was tolerable,” he said.
Mr. Pawelec spent evenings picking stones and fitting them. “I probably handled each stone three or four times.”
On weekends, he started at 8 a.m. and worked 6-10 hours a day with his cut-off saw, circular saw, grinder, hammer and chisel. He lost count of how many diamond-tipped blades he went through. Neighbors sometimes stopped by to check on his progress.
“They asked questions and gave encouragement,” he said. “I appreciated that.”
So has anyone asked him to build them a stone patio? Sure, but he’s not interested.
“I had the luxury of going as slow as I wanted. I couldn’t make money doing it. I’m too meticulous.”
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978.
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