Last Modified: April 3, 2024

Installing a Wood Chips Driveway

Challenges and Practical DIY Considerations

Hardwood chippings with log edging

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist

Overview

In the quest for sustainable or affordable driveway options, the use of wood chips as an up-cycled material for constructing surfaces has gained in interest. Their natural appearance and eco-friendly credentials make them an appealing alternative to traditional materials like concrete or asphalt. However, building and maintaining a wood chip driveway comes with its own set of challenges and considerations.

This article aims to guide you through the essential aspects of constructing and caring for a wood chip driveway, from initial preparation to long-term maintenance.

Hey guys, just a quick note about our new tool, the 'Pebble Picker', in the sidebar or menu. It allows you to effortlessly browse and choose from every decorative aggregate based on their colour and type.

Key Takeaways

  • Durability: Many challenges, necessitating frequent upkeep, especially for high-traffic or harsh weather conditions.
  • Suitability: Assessing factors such as vehicle usage, local climate, drainage and the driveway's gradient.
  • Installation: Success hinges on ground preparation, including a soil assessment and creating a stable, well-drained sub-base.
  • Maintenance: Wood chip drives require regular replenishment of chips, attention to drainage and weed control.
  • Alternatives: Eco-friendly and recycled options are available that offer a more durable and versatile surface
Installing wood chippings

Setting Your Expectations

When embarking on the project of building a wood chip driveway, it's crucial to approach it with a clear understanding of the challenges involved. While the end result can add a rustic charm and blend seamlessly with the natural environment, constructing a wood chip driveway that is both durable and problem-free is admittedly a challenging endeavour. We begin by providing some guidelines to help you assess the factors which are most consequential to success, such as the site conditions and DIY skill level.

  • This project rates a 1 out of 3, or 'challenging', on the DIY-friendly scale indicating the level of skill and effort required.

Understanding the Project's Scope

The installation of a visually appealing and functional driveway can be a source of pride and joy. However, achieving this in the longer term requires the satisfaction of a certain minimum 'functional standard'. To assist in setting realistic expectations, we explore what it takes to reach this standard, which includes considering the suitability of wood chips as a material your project.

Large excavation of a driveway

Assessing Your Capabilities

If you have the right mix of factors - easy lay of the land, relevant experience, or a helping hand - constructing the driveway to a functional standard can be more rewarding than problematic. This 'right mix' is a combination of various elements that will influence the outcome. Ultimately, the judgment is yours, so we next provide key conditions to help you assess the job.

Person carrying a wheelbarrow in a garden

Durability and Functional Standard

The longevity of your driveway hinges on proper ground preparation. Understanding your soil type, especially its drainage capabilities, is vital. For a driveway to reach a 'functional standard', the following 6 criteria should be met:

  1. 1
    Excellent drainage.
  2. 2
    A compacted sub-base of a minimum depth.
  3. 3
    Slight slope for water run-off.
  4. 4
    A heavy duty weed membrane for stability.
  5. 5
    Stabiliser grids should be used to secure the chips on gradients.
  6. 6
    In low-lying areas or those prone to heavy rainfall, the installation of side drainage systems, such as French drains.

These criteria are standard for any driveway installation. Failing to meet these conditions, particularly in areas with high traffic, increases the risk of encountering significant problems in the future. Therefore, it is essential to weigh up all the stages and materials required to reach this standard when planning the project.

Next, we cover a few other factors worth considering that go to the suitability of using wood chips for your driveway.

Gate posts in a woodchip driveway

Evaluating the Suitability of Wood Chips

The suitability of a wood chipping driveway for your lifestyle should also be carefully assessed prior to moving ahead. Beginning from the base assumption that it will be built to the minimum 'functional standard' as outlined above, also consider the following.

How will the driveway be used?

If it's for infrequent use with a small car, such as on and off a couple of times per day, plus there won't be any heavy equipment moved across it, wood chips will be more than satisfactory. This project should bring you no end of rewards and joy, and the wood chips may only need top-ups bi-annually.

On the other hand, if it will be used frequently and/or there will be big vehicles or other heavy usage, it might not be the best aggregate for your needs. In this scenario, if you did proceed, as a minimum, the wood chips would need to be replaced far more often. Also, the level of maintenance will be more frequent.

What is the gradient of the driveway?

The slope of the driveway is a factor. The steeper it is, the more likely the chips will wash and move, which can cause a loss of traction when wet, especially with heavy rear-wheel drives. If this doesn't sound good, grid stabilisers may be needed, or perhaps consider an alternative.

Wood Chippings vs. Free Wood Chips

Wood chips aren't all made the same, particularly for the purpose of constructing a lasting and durable driveway surface. As a general rule, hardwood chips are the hardest-wearing and best alternatives for this job. While they are generally more expensive than softwood chips, they are more resilient and more likely to result in a successful installation. Softwood chips are less durable and prone to water-logging. We're pretty sure you probably could guess that we wouldn't endorse the idea of a shredded bark driveway, for practical reasons. 

Purchased wood chips usually guarantee a more consistent quality and size, which can be crucial for creating a more stable and uniform surface. In contrast, free wood chips, while cost-effective, usually contain a percentage of green waste and can vary significantly in composition. This can create a variety of problems, from the introduction of diseases or toxic species to your garden right through to problems establishing an even surface and increased maintenance requirements.

We compare the various facets of the common types and sizes of retail wood chips available in the UK in our article, Wood Chip 101. If you are looking for free arborist chips in the UK, they can be found here.

Freshly chipped wood in a forest

Need to work out how many wood chippings your project needs? Try our free wood chip and bark calculator.

Planning Your Installation

When contemplating the construction of a DIY wood chip driveway, it's paramount to consider factors that will improve its durability and minimise future maintenance issues. Below are critical tasks and considerations for the installation.

  • Soil Assessment: Analyse the soil type and its drainage capability.
  • Sub-Base Material: A layer of compacted crushed stone and gravel provides a stable base with good drainage.
  • Proper Sloping: Ensure the driveway has a slight slope for water run-off.
  • Stabilising Layer: A layer of geotextile fabric beneath the chips helps stabilise them and prevents sinking.
  • Drainage Systems: In areas with heavy rainfall, consider drainage systems like French drains.
Mot type 1 sub base on heavy duty weed membrane

We also have a step-by-step, DIY guide on how to lay bark chippings, available for your convenience.

Other Factors to Consider

Aside from the aforementioned installation tasks and components of building a durable driveway, there are also some other factors to consider, such as the optimal chip depth and drainage.

Correct Depth for Laying the Materials

For best performance, the chips should consistently have a minimum depth of 50 mm to 75 mm (2-3 inches). They will settle in the first period and should be topped up as they pack down for the best performance. From there, on average, they will last about a year. That is unless you are using free arborist's chips, which will contain a lot of green content and mulch down far faster, requiring more frequent top-ups.

Regarding depth, there's always a good chance of getting bogged down in muddy chips if the depth of the chips is insufficient. Think about it this way: Sometimes, chips are laid out on muddy job sites. It works great for foot and wheelbarrow traffic, but heavy vehicles get stuck. So that's what you want to avoid by skimping on chips.

Tape measure on bark chips

Addressing Drainage and Durability Concerns

Drainage is a critical factor in constructing a wood chip driveway. Wood chips are more porous and less durable than gravel or asphalt, making them susceptible to damage over time. They can shift under heavy traffic, and in rainy areas, they can become muddy and intractable, potentially damaging nearby gardens. In colder climates, snow coverage and ice formation due to poor drainage are additional concerns. This can make it difficult for 2WD vehicles to maintain traction on icy surfaces.

While adding more wood chips from time to time can help control ruts and keep the driveway looking new, it is not a durable solution and requires on-going maintenance costs, such as regular replacement of the wood chips. This is one of the factors that explain why wood chip driveways are far less popular than those made from more conventional materials.

Installing a front garden driveway

Maintenance

Without proper groundwork and maintenance, a wood chip driveway's long-term durability can be compromised, similar to a house without a solid foundation. The following is a short list of the most likely upkeep issues, but does not include all.

Regular Upkeep and Potential Issues

Regular maintenance, such as filling in potholes and smoothing out bumps, is necessary to keep the driveway in good condition. Maintaining proper drainage and preventing plant growth through the wood chips are two other salient issues. Regular maintenance includes adding new chips annually, levelling chips and removing debris. Overall, you need to be prepared for the regular upkeep, which can cost time and money. Still, proper attention can help mitigate overall expenses associated with your driveway down the line.

Disadvantages of Wood Chip Driveways

Despite their aesthetic appeal, wood chip driveways have notable disadvantages. For one, their durability is less compared to hard-packed gravel surfaces. We cover this in detail with our article, Wood Chip Driveway: An Objective Look at the Pros and Cons.

Raking a large area of wood chippings

Eco-friendly Alternatives

When considering environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional driveway materials, several natural options stand out for their sustainability and use of recycled materials. Slate chippings are often made from off-cuts or recycled roof tiles. They offer a durable and aesthetically pleasing surface that blends well with natural surroundings.

Another excellent choice is decorative gravel, which can be a sustainable option that allows for better water drainage and reducing runoff, thus helping to manage water resources more effectively. Additionally, Hoggin self-binding gravel is a sustainable, durable, and attractive option for driveways. Made of crushed limestone and clay, it has low environmental impact and excellent water drainage properties.

These natural and recycled materials not only offer greater durability, but also functional and aesthetic benefits for driveways while contributing positively to environmental sustainability.

Plum slate driveway

Summary

In summary, while wood chips seem like an appealing choice due to their low initial outlay, the long-term durability of this type of driveway material raises some concerns. Where a below-average DIY gravel driveway could last years without any problems or need for maintenance, it is worth keeping in mind that even a 'functional standard' wood chip drive can have a host of problems, and it will still need to be topped with new chips every year or so, and perhaps even more often. Wood chips' tendency to absorb water, propensity towards shifting under traffic, as well as poor drainage capability underscore their potential for drawbacks.

However, when constructed to a high enough standard and maintained correctly, it can provides a unique and natural aesthetic to traditional gravel, while potentially being very affordable or even free!

1close up of chipped bark

FAQs

How long does a wood chip driveway typically last before needing replacement?

A wood chip driveway usually lasts many years, depending on factors like the quality of chips used, climate conditions, and maintenance. Regular upkeep can extend its lifespan, but individual use may affect these estimates.

How do you maintain a wood chip driveway?

To maintain a wood chip driveway, rake it every few weeks to distribute wood chips evenly and remove debris. Replenish the chips annually at a depth of 2-4 inches to keep the driveway looking and functioning well. A well-maintained wood chip driveway can last up to 10 years, making it a cost-effective option for homeowners.

Can a wood chip driveway withstand heavy vehicles?

Well-constructed wood chip driveways can handle heavy vehicles as they are designed to be durable and resilient. A compacted base layer beneath the wood chips distributes weight evenly, while the natural interlocking characteristics of wood chips provide stability and strength. According to a study by NCAT, wood chip driveways have excellent load-bearing capacity, making them suitable for heavy vehicle usage.

What are the benefits of having a wood chip driveway?

Wood chip driveways are cost-effective, provide good traction, blend well with the environment, and improve drainage by allowing rainwater to infiltrate into the soil. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, they absorb 90% more stormwater than concrete driveways, helping to mitigate urban heat island effects and improve water quality.

Are there any drawbacks or downsides to having a wood chip driveway? 

Wood chip driveways require ongoing maintenance as wood chips degrade over time and may attract pests. They may not be as durable as other materials like gravel or concrete, resulting in more frequent repairs and higher maintenance costs (an average of £200 per year compared to £50 for gravel and £30 for concrete driveways).

What are the drawbacks of using free woodchips?

Free wood chips usually contain green waste as well as lacking uniformity in size and type, leading to inconsistent coverage and faster decomposition. Additionally, they may contain unwanted debris or pathogens, posing a risk to plant health and the overall stability of the driveway.

Also, never allow a demolition or building company to bring you chopped-up debris, which is sometimes referred to as "chips", "hog", or "hog fuel". This stuff can contain all manner of contaminants, from nails to lead paint to asbestos. It's not worth it!

There are so many different aggregate types and colours available for your project. Why not browse our decorative chippings encyclopaedia?

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.