You don’t have to be a New Englander to appreciate a well-built stone wall, though it probably helps. The first settlers found stone everywhere, pushed up by the ground as it froze and thawed. Fortunately, the same stones that stopped the plow, defined the boundaries of newly cleared fields. Decades passed. The earth swallowed up the settlers and the forest reclaimed much of the farmland. But the stone walls endure, faithfully outlining the old homesteads, now deep in the woods.
Surprisingly, those walls were dry-laid. Dry-laid stone walls—built without mortar—enclose and define space in an organic way. In your yard or garden, they can emphasize grade changes or encircle planting beds. They provide the ideal habitat for honeysuckle, ivy and other climbing and niche-loving plants. They’re at home in nearly any setting, with almost any house style. The five-step process we detail here will help you design and build your own timeless walls, or collaborate with an expert mason on a stone wall project.
Design Your Stone Wall
The kind of wall you build depends on your site’s characteristics, the type and quantity of stone you use, and the amount of talent and elbow grease you can muster. Even with levers, wooden ramps, carts (here is a heavy-duty one from Amazon) and other aids, stone wall construction is hard work. This might be a good time to get acquainted with local high school football players who’d like to earn some extra money.
Now let’s get to it. Here are the three major stone wall types:
Traditional dry-laid walls
Drystone walls, capable of moving and settling as well as letting water sluice through them, will outlast their less flexible cousins made with mortar. If the drainage underneath them is decent (to prevent frost heave), dry-laid walls are also fairly easy to repair as well as to revise. But the traditional wall demands the best stones—a lot of them. If you’re new to stonemasonry, try building a low wall around a tree or small flower garden, for example. Walls like this can be straight-sided and built with just a few courses of stone. A stone wall higher than about 30 inches looks better and lasts longer if you build it with “battered” walls—thick at the base and narrow at the top.
Rubble-filled, mortared walls
When it’s finished, a rubble-filled mortared wall can look much like a dry-laid wall. The difference lies in the center. Round or poor-quality stones, old bricks, broken-up concrete and other rubble make up the wall’s core. Only the attractive “face” stones go where they can be seen. Professional stonemasons sometimes take a shortcut to the dry-laid look by using standard concrete mix to fill gaps between stones, but this method has its shortcomings. Appearance suffers if the mortar shows between the stones, and too much mortar makes the wall rigid; this invites cracking and structural problems down the road.
While poured concrete or stacked railroad ties may come to mind when you think of retaining walls, you can easily make small retaining walls from stone. Since there’s ample natural drainage between the stones, you’re automatically spared the problems of drainage tiles and weep holes that go along with using mortar. Long, flat stones work best in this kind of wall. Make sure that any stone retaining wall higher than 2 feet or so leans back into the slope it’s meant to retain. The thickness of the base should be at least a third of the total height.
Collect, Order and Organize Your Stones
Stones come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and it takes a lot of them to make a wall. It’s sensible to amass a vast rock collection before you start building. Structurally, shale, slate, schist and limestone work best in walls. Natural cleavage planes in these rocks allow them to split along parallel lines, so they break into stones with flat tops and bottoms.
How much to get
To calculate how much stone you’ll need, determine the volume the wall will occupy. Simply multiply thickness times height times length. Some stone suppliers sell by the cubic yard, so you’ll need to divide a cubic-foot measurement by 27 to get cubic yardage. Other suppliers sell stone by the ton—that’s 12 to 16 cubic feet, depending on density. Still, other stone suppliers sell by the pallet load. Expect a typical pallet to contain about 20 cubic feet of stone and weigh about 1 1/2 tons.
Where to get it
You can go to a stone supplier, of course, but maybe you don’t need to. If your property contains old stone walls or other rocky reserves, your material is free. Just make sure you have the right gear for getting stones out of the ground and conveying them to the site of your new wall. Along with your pick and shovel, you’ll need a digging bar at least 5 feet long, a shorter pry bar, some heavy rope, and a wooden sled, garden cart or wheelbarrow. Choose a heavy-duty model that can tilt up on end or on its side so that heavy stones can be tipped in.
What about other stone sources? If you’re fortunate enough to live near a quarry, inquire about stone classified as “quarry waste.” This is usually shale or other sedimentary rock, and it can be perfect