Techniques for Dry-Laid Stone Walls

Learn how to build a wall using techniques for dry-laid stone walls, including types of rock determine the wall design, wall layout and foundation, laying stone, setting ends and corners and building retaining walls.

| December 1996/January 1997

MOTHER's Country Skills column discusses using techniques for dry-laid stone walls on the homestead. (See the dry-laid stone wall diagrams in the image gallery.)

Mortar has its place, but a stone wall that's laid up "dry" and unaided by artificial adhesive or fillers seems more in keeping with a hunk of granite or mica schist formed when the earth was young, or a slab of sandstone or shale from the age of dinosaurs. A dry-laid stone wall (whether a low garden fence, a five-foot retaining wall, or a full-fledged house or barn) is held together by nothing but nature's own gravity—plus your skill in arranging the stones so that each one lies flat and stays wedged in all around so it won't slide out and collapse the wall.

Before you start building using techniques for dry-laid stone walls, check local zoning and land-use regulations. Like Hadrian's Wall in the U.K., the Great Wall of China, and the stone fence that wanders all through our (once-cultivated) New England woods, a properly built dry stone wall will outlast any modern building, and a good many modem civilizations as well. So you may need a building permit, zoning variance, or engineering plan for even a low rock wall. All populated jurisdictions demand permits and inspections for high retaining walls and buildings of any size or construction. A structure intended for human habitation, especially if more than one story, must be built to code—and unmortared rock walls may not qualify (see Tom Elpel's fine article on slipforming in this issue, which is code-acceptable most places and should be everywhere).

Rock is heavy, and even a low garden wall takes a lot of it, so be sure you are fit. Learn to lift with your legs, not your fragile spine. Get a pair of tough jeans, high ankle-protecting steel-toed boots, horsehide gloves, and if you plan to use a toothfaced rock hammer and mason's chisel to dress stone and square its sides or remove wobble nobs, get a pair of safety glasses—and wear them; some soft and all hard rock can split off razor-sharp splinters and send them flying.

Rock Informs the Wall

Without mortar, the kind of rock you have available will determine your wall's design. The more brick-shaped (uniformly thick, flat-surfaced, square-edged) the stone, the easier it builds. Weight equals stability, and the best walls are raised from rocks as large as the builder can lift easily, except perhaps the flat capstones saved for the top. But you can build walls from great boulders if you have the equipment to move them—a clamshell-equipped tractor if time is short, ramps and levers if it isn't.

Nearly flat-faced walls can be made of thin and uniform slabs of slate or mudshale too; it just takes more of them and more time to dress and place them carefully. Rounded fieldstone can be laid up into a nobbly wall if the stones are chipped flat where necessary to make them hold still, and streambed table rock can be split out and broken up into wall size.

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