Tar-and-Chip Driveway Review: Pros and Cons

Is a Tar-and-Chip Driveway Right for You?

A builder's model home on Lake Granbury hopes to attract new buyers.
Dave Shafer / Getty Images

Though the name "tar-and-chip" might not be familiar, you almost certainly have seen driveways and roads built this way. Or maybe you know it by one of its other names: chip-and-seal, seal chip, macadam, or liquid-asphalt-and-stone. Whatever the name, it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think "driveway," considering that concrete, gravel, pavers, and asphalt are all more common paving choices.

Although it looks similar to asphalt, tar-and-chip paving uses a different installation process, in which successive layers of gravel, hot liquid bitumen asphalt, and more loose stone are laid over the surface and compressed. You have probably driven over miles of tar and chip roadways and parking lots, and this form of paving has a long history of successful use, especially in rural areas. And it's a good driveway choice for those wanting to keep costs down.

Pros
  • Low cost

  • Good traction

  • Easy maintenance

  • More durable than gravel

Cons
  • Limited lifespan

  • Contractors hard to find

  • Easily damaged by snowplows

Tar-and-Chip Driveway Cost

Since it is primarily composed of asphalt and gravel, it is useful to compare the cost of a tar-and-chip surface to those other two options. A tar-and-chip driveway will typically cost about twice as much as a gravel driveway and a little less than an asphalt driveway. Expect to pay in the range of $2 to $5 per square foot (the exact cost will vary depending on your region and the labor costs in your community). As is the case with asphalt driveways, the costs of oil are a big factor in the installation expense. The cost of these driveways will likely climb a bit when the commodity price of oil increases. 

While gravel makes for a cheaper driveway surface, tar-and-chip creates a harder, more durable surface, though it is considerably less durable than concrete. Tar-and-chip paving can last as long as 10 years vs. 40 years or so for concrete.

Maintenance and Repair

Little upkeep is required with tar-and-chip driveways. Unlike asphalt, it doesn't need to be repeatedly sealed, and small cracks tend to heal themselves. The surface can be renewed every 10 years or so by spreading additional hot bitumen and loose stone.

The rough surface of tar-and-chip paving can be scraped by snowplows that apply too much pressure. If using a plow, keep the blade slightly above the surface; a shovel or snow blower might be a better choice.

Design

Tar-and-chip driveways create a decidedly rustic look. They are most appropriate for rural locations or informal landscapes. Because they are relatively inexpensive, tar-and-chip can be a good paving material for locations with long driveways.

Tar-and-Chip Driveway Installation

Building a tar-and-chip driveway is a pretty simple process. First, as with most driveway materials, a gravel base is installed. Then, hot liquid asphalt is poured over the gravel. This is followed by a coating of loose stones, which are rolled into the bitumen to form the finished surface. It's in the selection of this top layer of stones where you have choices to make regarding the look of your finished driveway. You can choose from different colors of stones to create a unique and personally appealing surface.

Tar-and-chip can be installed over existing driveway materials, provided they are in reasonably good shape.

Unlike asphalt paving, which is so common that installation contractors are plentiful, you may have trouble finding a firm skilled in the installation of tar-and-chip driveways. And this is not a DIY-friendly project. Before getting too committed to using tar-and-chip on your own driveway, do some online hunting to see if you can find someone in your area with the necessary experience and equipment.

Comfort and Convenience

The texture of tar-and-chip paving makes for better traction when the surface is wet or snow-covered. Both asphalt and concrete are more slippery than tar-and-chip.

Top Brands

Your best option for finding a contractor to install a tar-and-chip driveway is to search for asphalt businesses, some of which will also install tar-and-chip. There are no national brands for this material, so do your research and verify the credentials and reputation of local contractors before you hire them.

Tar-and-Chip vs. Asphalt

Today, most tar-and-chip paving does not use genuine tar but is instead comprised of liquid asphalt (aka bitumen). Both refer to a sticky liquid or semi-liquid form of petroleum. Unlike tar, which is a distilled substance, bitumen/asphalt is a naturally occurring material.

When the term "asphalt" is used to describe hard paving, it refers to a mixture of liquid asphalt and aggregate that is laid to form a paved surface. Tar-and-chip differs from asphalt paving because the petroleum-based liquid and aggregate are applied in separate layers; asphalt, on the other hand, is a premixed blend of bitumen and gravel, which is applied as a hot, malleable material that is packed and flattened to form a paving surface.

Tar-and-chip paving creates a more informal look than asphalt, and it is less expensive and less durable. However, you may have trouble finding contractors who are familiar with tar-and-chip paving; asphalt installation, on the other hand, is very easy to find.

Is a Tar-and-Chip Driveway Right for You?

Tar-and-chip paving may be your best choice if you're seeking a fairly informal paving material that is also inexpensive. Some urban or suburban communities may have ordinances or covenants against the use of this informal material for driveways, so check with local regulations.