Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stonewalls last Forever

A dry stonewall that is centuries old
Photo by Emmanuel Giel

A stone wall is durable and a well built stonewall will last many lifetimes.  A fence made of wood will only last for 10 or 15 years before it is rotted away.  In New England building stone walls was a necessity because the fields literally grew a fresh crop of stones every year.  The stones were natural and not some kind of devilish crop foisted off onto the old-time farmers by an angry God.  This might be true, but many a New Englander thought otherwise.  Frugality was in a New Englanders’ soul however, and since the Good Lord provided these stones in such abundance the farmer figured he might as well use them.  His solution was to use of these stones to make walls around his fields.  These walls have lasted for centuries.

Although it may seem contrary to reason a dry wall built without using mortar is the most durable because it can breathe with the movements in the ground caused by frost, and other conditions.  A dry wall doesn’t need a foundation like most other walls or structures.  The stones are held in place by their own weight being acted on by gravity.

Building a stone wall is hard and tedious work that is guaranteed to give you big fat muscles and make you lose lots of weight.  Most stone walls are built using a string.  No they are not built from string; they’re built from stone.  The string is used to keep the wall straight while it is being built.  Don’t try relying on your evil eye for this part of the project as my Great Grandfather tried doing this once while he was building a house from stone.  He was a professional stone mason but he built a house that was 18 inches longer on one side then the other.  So much for his evil eye.

You will need some tools for this project;

A ball of mason’s twine
Several wooden stakes
Paper and pencil
Long handled shovel
Wheelbarrow of garden cart
Mason’s level
Stone chisel and a bullpoint
Masons hammer
8 Lb. hammer
3 pound hammer (engineers hammer)
Work gloves
Back support
Anything else that you can think of to make your work easier.

The handiest tool however for building a stonewall is a Bobcat skid steer loader.  Many of these tools can be rented, and returned to the rental agency when you have finished the project.  Other tools can be bought at your local hardware store or mason’s supply yard. 

The actual construction of the stonewall starts with the ball of mason’s twine and some wooden stakes in a straight line.  These can be lined up with a compass by sighting from one to another you'll be able to keep the line straight.  This establishes the line for the inside of your stonewall.  When building your stonewall you should always start with the largest stones at the bottom and as the wall becomes higher the stones become progressively smaller with the smallest stones at the top.  You can use small fragments of rock to prop up the spaces between the larger stones as you build the wall.  The mason’s level is mainly used when you are finishing the top of the wall so that it is reasonably level.  The top of the wall is also slightly smaller than the bottom.  This gives a cross-section through the wall a trapezoidal shape.

Two of the tools need some explaining a rock chisel has a chisel point and a bullpoint comes to a point.  The bullpoint is especially useful for breaking pieces off of larger rocks.  The rock chisel is mainly used to cut a relatively straight line from the rock.

If you build your stonewall of freshly dug or quarried rock like our illustration.  It will not have a patina of age about the stones.  It takes several years for this patina to develop, and this is one process that you can't hurry up, Mother Nature takes her own sweet time for this.  

A properly build stonewall is a thing of enduring beauty and can be often built in conjunction with other landscaping that will enhance your property.

The author has built several stone walls over the years as both dry walls and mortared walls.  Our description of building a stonewall is based on experience. Although one person can build a stonewall it is much easier work if more than one person is building the wall.  Regardless of how many people are working on the project it is still hard work.

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