A lot of landscape companies install pavers or do other hardscaping work—but how many are actually masters of the trade?

Some of the hardscape professionals Turf spoke with believe only one-quarter of the industry—or perhaps even less—are true “masters of hardscape.” Those who are masters have put in the legwork, which has meant an investment of both time and money. They’ve taken classes and done the hands-on labor many times. But they’re also the ones who can charge more for their work. They’re the ones who land the big jobs and have continued success.

If you’re looking to be a master of hardscape, expect that it will take a serious dedication to the craft that combines physical skill with knowledge of the trade.

1. Train in the trade

There’s no doubt a hardscape master is someone who is well-trained. Les Kline, co-owner of Teacher’s Landscaping and Irrigation in Olathe, Kansas, says a master of hardscape is one who has put in the necessary training and education to be as knowledgeable and skilled as possible. He says to be a master, one should go to classes sponsored by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) and the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) or other “real deal” engineering-focused groups.

“You have to have a firm understanding of the basic principles and then follow them,” Kline says. “Everything literally builds off of those facts. Talk with other experienced contractors and observe what other hardscape work looks like. Look closely, take notes and always be thinking about what you could do better.”

Training is definitely an essential component of being considered a master by the paver manufacturing company Belgard. At Belgard, those who have mastered the skill of hardscaping earn the title of “Belgard Master Craftsman.” In order to be one, there are a number of criteria to meet. It all starts with two ICPI certification courses. A Belgard Master Craftsman also has to have installed a certain number of jobs while meeting specific standards on those jobs.

Another minimum in order to be considered for this elite designation is to be recognized as a local or national award winner on projects completed in the last two years. And all of this needs to be maintained for a minimum of five years.

“If we’re going to be recommending a Belgard Master Craftsman to someone, with our name on it, they need to uphold all of these standards,” explains Jimmy Veltri, a spokesperson for the company. These days we’re seeing more companies that are specializing in hardscape. They won’t dig a hole and plant a perennial because that’s just not what they do—they specialize in hardscapes. And sometimes even the larger companies that do offer both services have very specialized crews—some that only handle landscape and some that only handle hardscape.”

2. Take a hands-on approach

Always aiming for improvement is definitely part of being a master. Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape and Design in Paoli, Pennsylvania, says he’s remained involved with every single one of the installations his company does and that has helped to continue to hone and improve his skill.

“There is no way I would be where I am without being on site at the jobs,” Barmby says. “As an owner, you cannot just sit in your office and point a finger. A lot of people view that as success—getting to the point where you’re just delegating all day—but you will never improve that way.”

Continuing to grow a hardscaping skill definitely requires a hands-on approach. In addition to education there is a very important physical component to being a hardscape master, Kline agrees. You can’t expect to learn everything in the classroom.

“There is learning you do with your head and learning you do with your hands,” Kline says. “Once you know the engineering, master your tools. The diamond saw, angle grinder, hammer, chisel, level and tape measure are simple tools but ones hardscape masters feel comfortable using. Practice, practice, practice with these tools. Watch a master using the tools of his or her trade, and then replicate those same techniques.”

“While the classroom component to mastering the trade is essential, it isn’t going to teach you to be creative or to learn new ways of trying something,” Barmby adds. “There is an apprenticeship element to all of this that cannot be ignored.”

3. Have a customer-centric focus

In addition to the skill involved in the hardscape work itself, the experts all say there is a skill in handling customers that makes one a master.

“A true master of hardscape really takes the time to understand what the customer wants and needs,” says Veltri. “They don’t just install the pavers they’ve always installed or feel comfortable installing – they take themselves outside of that box. In this industry there are so many different shapes, sizes, textures and styles from the proactive companies in the marketplace, and they continue to evolve. A true master of hardscape really embraces all of these different options to deliver on what the customer wants to achieve with their outdoor living space. In other words, a master of hardscape is very customer-centric.”

Barmby agrees. “You have to be flexible if you’re looking to be a master of this trade,” he says. “There are so many new products and new ideas out there, and you have to be open to them. People are using social media and online resources to find ideas about what they want. You need to be able to listen to what the customer is saying and be flexible in the way you do things. Those who are set in their ways will not evolve and improve.”

4. Avoid common mistakes

It goes without saying that a true master of hardscape is also one who no longer makes those common mistakes that the beginner hardscaper makes. And of course, those aiming to be masters of their trade take the opportunity to learn from the mistakes they do make.

So many of the common mistakes made in hardscaping—sinking, settling, cracking—are things that can be avoided if you simply follow the procedures that are set forth by training institutes like the ICPI, Barmby says. “These training organizations set the standard and offer the best practices,” he explains. “Those who fail to pay attention to those standards are setting themselves up for mistakes that can be easily avoided.”

Anton Neugebauer, owner of AFN Landscapes: The Paver Pros, in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, says mistakes often happen with inexperienced hardscapers before the job even begins. That includes not knowing what the costs are going to be to install the project.

“This includes more than the cost of the materials,” Neugebauer says. “It should be a combination of your business overhead; equipment costs; labor costs including all payroll taxes and insurances; subcontractor costs; materials with a mark-up; and, of course, profit. A lot of new contractors will bid projects based on a square foot price that they heard was the going rate. That doesn’t work with all of the variables in a paver installation. For example, access to the worksite can be a huge variable. Can you drive a truck and excavator right to the edge of the patio or are you wheelbarrowing your material in and out? The worse thing that can happen to a new contractor is that they underbid a project then have to rush or cut corners to save money.”

Most often the mistakes tend to happen during the preparation period. And if the preparation isn’t done correctly, the entire job can be affected. “The most common mistake I see is not doing the prep work correctly,” says Kline. “The footings for walls are often insufficient to support the work long-term. Bases are two narrow, too shallow and not thoroughly compacted.”

Attention to drainage behind the wall is also an element not given enough, or any, consideration. “Paying attention to detail is huge,” Kline emphasizes. “Close joints, tight fits, precise cuts—these all matter. Hurrying is often to blame for making common mistakes.”

Neugebauer agrees mistakes made during the prep process can be disastrous to the overall project. The most common mistake he has seen happen with inexperienced hardscapers during installation is compaction.

“The subsoil and the stone base have to be compacted to the right density,” Neugebauer says. “The only way to determine this accurately is to have the density measured by an engineer. The more experienced contractors have a better feel for when they have reached the optimum compaction density by the way their compaction equipment is operating. But this level of experience only comes from being hands-on at the job.”

Veltri compares it to making a cake. “The pavers are just the icing,” he says. “If you have a crummy cake, it’s still going to taste bad even with wonderful icing. The point is, what goes under the pavers in terms of the job being properly prepped and excavated is what makes the cake. You can use the best paver possible but if you put it on a poor subgrade or a poorly prepped space, in a matter of time, it’s still not going to look good.”

5. Stay current to stay on top

Of course, keeping up with the latest information is also important to a hardscape master. Veltri says one of the biggest mistakes he has seen—and one that ends up being a dividing point between the masters and the novices—is simply staying current. The learning must be continuous. The true masters of the trade are those who are constantly learning something new.

“Whether it’s the latest in materials or installation techniques, those who fail to stay current are making a big mistake,” Veltri says. “You need to invest in yourself if you want to be considered a true master. Stay engaged in your business. If you were a doctor and the last time you did anything to further your knowledge was 20 years ago, you’d be doing a huge disservice to your patients. It’s the same thing with becoming a master of hardscaping. There is always something new to learn, and you should invest in staying engaged. That is how you will become one of the best.”