Build a Stone Wall on your Property

There’s just something about a stone wall or structure that one can’t help but associate it with strength, durability, and power. When you think of a stone structure, you might think of a castle, a monolith, or…maybe just a wall – but whatever the case, it’s most likely going to be a heavy, solid structure that you should be able to count on for a long time to come.

Stone is similar to concrete in that it’s strong in compression but weak in tension, and therefore can’t be too thin or tall without reinforcement of some kind. This is why you don’t usually see very tall or thin stone walls. If you do, it’ssturdy stone wall most likely reinforced heavily in the middle with steel or even just “plated” on the outside but a different material inside.

But stone can still be used to make beautiful and durable walls and structures provided the rules are followed. First of all, determine whether your wall will be wet or dry. Wet is with mortar and dry is without. Generally, and for obvious reasons, walls constructed dry shouldn’t go any higher than 3 feet and should be no less than 2 feet wide at the base.

But even mortared stone walls shouldn’t go much higher than that if they’re unsupported. For example, arched stone structures lock together due to their shape and are known to last for centuries, whereas a simple, straight wall that is built high with no supports will most certainly fail within years or even months. That’s why most stone walls will have at least one right angle turn. This is not only for looks or function, but to provide crucial support.

On with the building…

The first step is deciding where your wall is going to go and how far it will stretch. Now drive pegs into the ground at the appropriate locations and attach string to them. This will help you create a straight first course. You will need to have string at vertical intervals as well to ensure you don’t veer.

Rule of Thumb: For every foot your wall climbs, it needs to thicken at least half.

Next you excavate the soil where your wall will stand. Dig down about 2 feet, and 6 inches wider than the thickness of your wall for both the front and back sides each. Note that the level of this trench floor is not crucial as you will fill it up with gravel. The gravel bed is what will need to be leveled to reasonable precision. Use a spirit level and a straight 2 meter 2by4, scraping away or adding gravel as needed. Tamp the gravel down.

*Replacing the gravel with concrete and widening the base is advised for higher walls.

Leave the gravel surface 2 or so inches below the ground level to ensure the wall foundation is locked within the trench. Now dry-fit your first course of stone, using an above-average selection. This first course is the most important in many respects, so you should use your biggest, flattest stones. (Keep enough good ones for the very top course though!) After dry-fitting, remove once, to ready for mortar.

After you mix your mortar, begin spreading it out on the gravel bed. Be sure you don’t spread too much out at one time as you don’t want it to start curing before you can finish. – But because you dry-fit the first course beforehand, it shouldn’t take all that long. Firmly press and twist the stones into the mortar one by one leaving a small gap between stones for movement. Remember to check each stone for level in both directions.

Dry-fit the second course in the same fashion and repeat the process, staggering the joints. During this time it’s especially important that you stay true to the string guides you have up! Failing to do this will result in disaster! All 90 degree corners you may have planned are also important and need to be carefully locked together in the same staggered pattern.

I bet you wouldn't mind one of these in your garden eh?

The top course is the one that everyone will see and notice the most, and therefore needs to be the nicest looking ones of the lot. Depending on how high – or short – the wall is, it may also serve as a bench as well! Taking care to ensure the top surface of the final course is flush and level will make a world of a difference aesthetically. – In fact, if the wall is in the 3 foot range, this is all most people will ever notice!

Every hour or so of work, you should scrape and wash away any protruding bits of mortar that would otherwise cure and ruin the final appearance. Use a stiff brush and wet rag to remove the unwanted bits, making sure the mortar has as even a look as possible throughout your wall. Depending on the stone you use, you might also want to go over all the joints with a tuck trowel or similar to compact and smooth them out.

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