Stonemasonry: Building a Stone Wall

A complete guide to mortarless stone wall construction. Includes rock details, tools, preparation, dimensions, layout and stability.

| January/February 1984

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    Rock-working tools for building a stone wall.  
    ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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     Lay the courses parallel and level, alternating thicknesses within them.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    John Vivian learned stonemasonry by studying an existing stone wall.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    A deep footing trench helps ensure the stability of a stone wall over time.  
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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    Remember to tie stone wall ends and corners well.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

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My introduction to building a stone wall, like beginnings in so many homesteading skills, came unexpectedly, urgently, and at the wrong time. It was a rare clear morning during a rainy spring in the late 60's, and I was leaving for work from the once-derelict farm in upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania that provided my weekend refuge from a city job. The buildings on the place were 150-plus years old and had yard-thick stone walls. The house was stuccoed on the outside and was in fair shape, but the barn had been badly neglected. Its leaky roof rested on ten-foot-high walls that were originally constructed as a sandwich: vertical rock faces of rounded fieldstone on the outside with a mud-mortar/rubble stone mix on the inside. Most of the "pointing" (mortar troweled into the cracks between rocks to retard weathering out of the interior) was long gone. Winter rain or snow meltwater had run in, frozen, and gradually worked that mortar out, and the interior mud packing had gradually followed suit, until—in places—you could see clear through the walls. Still, the rock itself had been laid up well enough to stand through generations of rain and storm.

Till that day, that is. On walking to the car, I found that the thunderstorms that had kept me awake half the night had also washed out the southwest corner of the barn, along with half of each adjoining wall. Now, the roof was kind of fluttering in the wind . . . ready to follow the south wall downhill.

I hastily shored up the roof with old framing timbers, traded my Brooks Brothers/Florsheim city uniform for honest Sears/Endicott Johnson, and ordered up a few days' vacation from work. Then, when the Yellow Pages failed to produce any stonemasons at all (and the only general masonry contractor who'd talk to me recommended that we tear the walls down and let him put up a building-code-acceptable concrete-block foundation), I set about teaching myself stonemasonry the only way I could, by studying the barn foundation itself: walls that had been built shortly after the American Revolution by dirt farmers with no architecture degrees, no building codes, no engines to ease the strain-just common sense and hands-on experience, simple ramps, levers and pulleys, a team of draft animals to pull the stone boat, and strong backs unafraid of work.

My slow-learner's repair job took the better part of a week, and most sections were built and torn down and rebuilt several times before I got them half right. But I can honestly say that the sense of satisfaction I felt on finally completing that barn wall did more than any other single experience to move me out of the urban rat race and into a life of self-dependence on the land.



First Lessons in Stonemasonry

I 'd suggest that what I did for lack of any alternative—study an existing wall and copy it—is the best way for folks to learn stone building on their own hook. Granted, as with most anything, a master of the trade can teach you faster (some would say better ), and I've learned a lot from proper masons. However, stone building is a highly individual skill, so once you have the basics down, you simply have to put in time working with the stone to develop your own style.

You see, no two builders will turn the same wall out of the same pile of rock. A mortared brick wall—all plumb and square and lovely—is a work of craftsmanship, to be sure. But it's a solid chunk of ceramic, assembled from identical component parts, and constructed pretty much like any other. A stone wall, on the other hand, is a combination of learned craft and an individual's intuitive response to a complex three-dimensional puzzle having an infinite number and variety of solutions. A stone wall is a work of art in the truest sense, my friend, a creation of order out of chaos, of beauty from dross—as much an improvement on nature as may be accomplished by the hand of man.

David B. Williams
2/25/2009 9:27:00 AM

Nice article on the use of stone. In terms of stone walls, I would also add that people take a look at Stone by Stone by Robert Thorsen. It's an excellent book about the history and geology of stone walls. And for those who want additional information on stone used in buildings I would add that I have started a blog on the subject, which addresses the cultural and natural history of stones we walk by every day. That blog is at www.stories-in-stone.blogspot.com.







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