Gravel and Loose Stone Are Economical Choices for a Driveway

A child running over a stone driveway
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Installing a new driveway is not cheap, with poured concrete costing at $6 to $10 per square foot, on average, and considerably more if there is demolition of the old concrete slab involved, or if you want the driveway stamped or stained for a decorative effect. Stone paver driveways are even more expensive, with costs ranging from $10 to as high as $50 per square foot, depending on the type of paver used, the cost of local labor, and the circumstances of the building site.

But there are low-cost options to consider when planning a new or replacement driveway. One of the best ways to save money is to use loose materials such as gravel, stone, or tar-and-chip (macadam) for your driveway surface.

Gravel vs. Loose Stone vs. Tar-and-Chip

There are three types of driveway surfaces that use loose-fill materials rather than solid concrete or pavers. The distinction between gravel and loose stone is not entirely firm, with different sources and contractors using the terms in slightly ways. There are also regional differences in what these materials are called. But according to the official definition used by civil engineers:

  • Gravel is the term generally used for small stone aggregates created by natural weathering. "Gravel" is rock fragments sourced from an existing deposit of weathered rock, such as in rivers and streams, or in gravel pits where ancient glacial action has deposited large amounts of small, weathered stones. Gravel tends to be more rounded and has few if any, broken edges. Bulk gravel tends to have a mixture of colors, reflecting the many different minerals found in it.
  • Loose stone or crushed stone is the term used for a stone that has been sourced from some parent rock (such as granite, limestone, or dolomite), then crushed. Bulk crushed stone typically has a uniform color and the individual stones have sharp edges.
  • Tar-and-chip bridges the gap between loose stone and asphalt. These driveways are created by laying gravel or a loose stone, then spreading heated tar over the top of the stone layer.

Gravel Driveways

Traditionally, the gravel used for driveways is a naturally occurring material gathered from stream beds or gravel pits. But these days, the material called gravel may be a processed product obtained when a hardened slurry of rock, sand, and clay is crushed. While classic gravel will have aggregates of many different colors, processed gravel is usually a single color, buff or brown. This processed form of gravel is sometimes called "compactible gravel" or "class-5 gravel." This type of gravel is more often used as a base layer under other paving surfaces, but it can also be used for the exposed surface of a loose-material driveway.

Whatever type of gravel you choose, the cost of a gravel driveway can vary from under $1 per square foot to more than $3 per square foot, installed. Even at the high end, it's still about the least expensive driveway you can build, depending on how far the gravel has to be trucked and the thickness of the driveway.

Whatever form of gravel is used, it is a very durable surface that can easily last 100 years, though some periodic redistribution of the gravel or addition of more gravel may be necessary. It is also relatively easy for DIYers to build a gravel driveway, which contributes to the cost savings.

Stone Driveways

As distinct from gravel, stone driveways use a form of crushed natural mineral stone such as marble, slate, or limestone. This stone is not naturally weathered but is quarried then crushed. This is the type of stone often used as a ground cover or "mulch" around landscape plantings. It is also a common choice for loose-fill driveways. It is available in several different colors, depending on the type of stone used. The edges of each piece of stone are usually quite sharp.

A stone driveway typically is made from loose crushed stone dumped over a fairly deep compressible gravel base. To maintain this simple construction, you will occasionally need to rake loose stones that have strayed. You can minimize this small chore, however, by building a border for the driveway with bricks or cobblestones. It will also be necessary to smooth and grade the surface regularly, and you can use the same rake for this job. Plus, you'll want to clear any weeds that grow through the stones. With this minimal maintenance, there's no reason why a loose stone driveway can't last a lifetime.

Depending on the choice of stone and the depth of the stone and gravel base, a stone driveway will cost about $2 to $4 per square foot, installed, due to the slightly higher cost of the materials themselves. You can keep costs to a minimum by doing much of the work yourself.

Tar-and-Chip Driveways

Driveways made with a combination of tar and chip (macadam) are included among the loose material options because the chips used are loose stones. Once warm tar is poured over the stones, the mixture is rolled, and the final result is a solid surface closely resembling asphalt, though with a rougher texture. This method is also known as chip-and-seal, seal chip, macadam, and liquid-asphalt-and-stone. 

While driveways like this only cost in the range of $2 to $5 per square foot, they are not built for the long haul and will remain sound for just 7 to 10 years. At that point, you may have to add another layer of stone and tar. This is not a DIY project since special equipment and materials are required

Planning Considerations

  • Gravel, stone, and tar-and-chip driveways may not be suitable for in certain residential locations. While they are very common in rural areas, they may seem quite out-of-place in urban locations where all other driveways are made of poured concrete, pavers, or asphalt. There may even be zoning restrictions that prevent you from installing gravel or stone driveways.
  • Driveway costs are subject to market fluctuations in the costs of materials (oil-based products in particular) and labor, and they can vary with the location and design of the driveway, the depth of material, and the prep work necessary, among other factors.
  • Consider doing some or all of the work yourself. Except for tar-and-chip, loose-fill driveways are not hard to build, requiring rough labor but no special skills. If you have a straight driveway and a reasonably flat surface, you should be able to install a loose material driveway installed for well under $3 per square foot. For a typical 12-foot-wide by 50-foot-long driveway, which is 600 square feet, the installation will likely cost you between $1,000 and $1,800.

Finding a Contractor

As with any contracting work, do your homework before giving the job to someone. Take some time to find a good contractor. Insist on hiring a licensed, bonded, and insured contractor. This is a must. Otherwise, as the property owner, you are liable if a member of the work crew gets injured on the job. 

Before you hire a contractor, be sure you understand their qualifications, including any certifications they have from national trade organizations, which bind them to a strict code of ethics. Some of these memberships, titles, and abbreviations include certified graduate remodeler (CGR), local Building Industry Association member (BIA), and National Association of Home Builders member (NAHB). 

Then be sure to compare contractors' estimates. Remember that the lowest cost is not necessarily the best choice. Above all, you need someone who has the experience and expertise to do the job right.