The Owner Built Home and Homestead: Stone Masonry

The first of a homesteading series by Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead. Kern shares information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques in home building.

| September/October 1970

Stone Masonry

Next to plain dirt, stone (or rock) is the least exploited of all materials for building construction. And like earth—which has been used for centuries in building walls, floors and roofs—rock is most readily available at little or no money cost. It can be gathered (usually free for the hauling) from any streambed, from abandoned mines and quarries, or from open fields and embankment cuts. There is hardly a region in the country that doesn't contain a substantial resource of building stone.

Maps and aerial photographs of one's region are generally available, and can be employed to advantage in locating building stone. Agricultural soil maps are revealing and thorough. Geologic maps indicate existing pit and quarry sites as well as the type and structure of the rock. U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey maps cover nearly every section of the country. They are especially helpful in locating abandoned ore mines. Tailings from mines are among the best sources of building stone. From aerial photos one can locate such rock-laden features as excavations, outcroppings, cliffs abandoned railroad and road cuts and natural streambeds.

With such widespread availability, one asks, why is building stone so rarely exploited by homebuilders? Because building with stone is similar to building with earth: There is a large "time" and "labor" factor involved in gathering and placing the material into a wall. But the average Owner-Builder's time and labor resource customarily outweighs his capital resource, so this cannot always be considered a serious handicap.

Perhaps a more pertinent answer to this query lies in the fact that stone masonry technology—more than any of the other building trade skills—has been traditionally clothed in secrecy. Carl Schmidt, in his little book on Cobblestone Architecture, illustrates this point:

Several very old men, who as little boys saw cobblestone masons at work, readily recall the jealousies among the masons. Whenever a visitor appeared while they were working, they would stop work, hide their tools and do something else until the visitor went on his way. The fact that these men succeeded very well in keeping their own methods a secret, explains the different mannerisms found in the method of laying up the walls.

Through the centuries stone masons also have succeeded in maintaining a respectable, highly paid and somewhat apostolic status in the building industry. Their "trade secrets" are maintained to this day, and include such important items as an intimate knowledge of rock, the correct mortar proportions and use of auxiliary materials, the proper selection of tools and organization of work procedure and—finally—an esthetic awareness of the rock in place: The total effect and composition of the finished wall.

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