Stone walls are iconic. Not only are they beautiful and long-lasting, but imagine the countryside without them. They’ve been around for thousands of years as a way to contain livestock and mark boundaries, but they’re still an incredibly useful tool in the garden. If you’re wondering how to build a stone wall for your space, you’ve come to the right place.
I was raised in Central Kentucky where we have beautiful stone walls lining horse farms and roadways. Our government has been recognizing the powerful history of these walls and has a grant program to hire stone masons to rebuild them.
Today stone walls still have a place in containing livestock, but they are so much more versatile. They can be used to showcase and entryway, act as a retaining wall to prevent erosion or make a terraced garden on a hillside. Stone also makes beautiful and resilient raised garden beds.
Stone Walls Can Stand the Test of Time
Walls made out of stone can stand the test of time and add value to your property. This article will give you some guidance to decide what type of wall you want and walk you through how to build a basic stone wall.
I will say I had quite the stone wall experience as a teen in Kentucky. I grew up on a farm that was surrounded by 100-plus-year-old stone walls. At one point we had a tornado touch down close to the farm.
My father, fearing for the horses, had us running to the barns throwing stalls doors open. As the horses took off for the open fields we stood on a hill and watched the tornado go through a stone wall along the road.
I watched old oak trees and stones fly up into the air and come crashing to the ground before we ran for the basement. It took several days to round up the horses and cattle from our farm and the neighbor’s farm. My father rebuilt the wall and it stands today.
Types of Stone Walls
- Tossed walls are those rambling paddock walls that often make us think of Ireland. Farmers just tossed rocks into fence rows as they worked the fields, building a wall up.
- Laid walls are more orderly than tossed walls. The stone is placed and secured (without mortar) to make a well-fitted wall. These are the walls throughout the south that are often referred to as “slave walls.” These are also referred to as dried stacked walls.
- Curved flagstone walls are a popular way to define a patio or backyard kitchen. They also make dynamic looking stone raised beds.
- Mortared stone walls are ideal as retaining walls because they’re strong enough to hold back the earth.
- Stacked block walls are made of mortared concrete blocks. They are more formal and create a courtyard effect.
What Kind of Stone
There are so many types of stone and rock to choose from. Check out what is happening on your property. You may have lots of fieldstone or creek rock.
Different types of rock are better suited for different types of tasks. Some stones are manufactured to perform certain tasks such as locking together for a retaining wall.
This video gives you some ideas of what’s out there.
Advantages and Challenges of Dry Walls
Dry stone walls are those that are built without wet mortar, and they have some advantages. They’re a bit easier and less expensive to build because you eliminate a step. A dry wall can incorporate a lot of different sized rock and is often well suited to the rock you find on the farm.
The challenge is that it’s like a puzzle trying to fit stones together. You’re depending on the earth’s gravity and the friction between the stones to keep it together.
Advantages and Challenges of Wet Walls
Wet walls are built using wet mortar. The main advantage is that the mortar binds the stones together and helps the structure to be stable. It can have a more formal look or be constructed so you don’t see the mortar to look more free-flowing.
The downside is that they take longer to build and are more expensive to construct.
How to Build a Stone Wall
Stone walls take some planning. You need to decide what type of wall you want and what type of rock you will use. You may have a big rock pile that you’ve made while plowing your fields.
If you don’t have a lot of rock on your property a trip to the nearest quarry or landscaping store is in order. This will help you get some firm ideas about what you want.
Lay Out Your Footprint
The first step is to layout where you will put the wall. Make sure the wall doesn’t cross over any water or septic lines. Use a length of rope to mark out the footprint, paying special attention to angles or curves. These areas will take a little more building finesse.
Dig the Trench
Your next step is to dig a trench. The trench is an important element that gives your wall has a solid foundation so it doesn’t shift or tumble as easily. Water under the soil in the form of a frost heave is extremely powerful, and a good foundation will help your wall avoid the problems that come with frost heave.
For a short wall under 20 feet or so, you can dig the trench by hand. For a long wall, you may need to hire or rent a backhoe.
The width of your trench should be six inches wider than the stones you are using. This helps keep your wall stable.
Your trench needs to be below the frost line. If you are in a northern area of the country, you can consult with your local extension office or county construction on the depth.
Since the frost heave goes deeper in northern areas, your trench may need to be up to 18 inches deep. This impacts how much gravel you need to purchase. Fill your trench two-thirds of the way with gravel.
In southern states, your trench should be at least six inches deep. Fill the trench with four inches of gravel.
Tamp Down the Gravel
Now it’s time to tamp down the gravel. You can use a hand or power tamper. Compress the material until it’s firm and compacted. Make sure your gravel is level because this is the base of your wall.
Add the Stone
You’re now ready to start adding the stones. Place them so that they’re touching. Make sure stones are level, adding gravel if needed. Build one full course (row) of stones at a time.
Use a torpedo level or string to check the sides and front to back. If you are using field stones, pick out the largest stones for the course. Then go back in and fill with smaller stones.
Figuring out drainage is an important step if you want to learn how to build a stone wall. If you have a dry stack wall under 3 feet, you can skip this step. Otherwise, after you have placed the first course of the stones, add a drainage pipe that is wider than the wall. The excess should stick out so the pipe can drain out into the yard.
Lay down the drainage pipe along the back of the wall with the drainage holes facing down towards the soil. Cover the pipe with gravel. To help keep the pipe clean, lay down a length of textile fabric to keep out the soil.
Add More Stones
Now it’s time to add another row of stones. Dry fit the stones and make sure they are stable and look nice before adding mortar. Make sure that the vertical joints are staggered so that your wall will be strong.
You want your stones to be staggered so that the joints aren’t overlapping. This may require you to cut a stone or to search out a smaller stone.
Add a layer of mortar to the first course of stone. Place the mortar in the middle and away from the stone’s edges. This will make your wall look more natural. If mortar squeezes out use your trowel to trim it off.
When laying down each stone, tap it with a mallet to ensure good contact. Use your level to make sure you have created a level surface.
If you need to trim a stone, a wet saw with a diamond blade will cut them smoothly and quickly. You can also use hand tools like a three-inch carbide chisel, a three-pound sledgehammer, and of course safety glasses. You should always protect your eyes when you are cutting stone.
If you are going to use hand tools, you need to first mark the stone where you want to make the cut. Put the rock down with the side you won’t use facing the earth.
Aim the chisel slightly down and hit once with the mallet. Next, reposition the chisel so that it is half over the indentation you just made and a half over the fresh stone. Strike the chisel again.
Work your way around the rock until it starts to pull apart.
It can take some time and practice to work with stone. Start small and simple and build up to bigger projects. The results are certainly worth the time and effort.
The Last Word on How to Build a Stone Wall
The process itself isn’t that complicated – after all, people have been building stone walls for centuries. But the work is physically demanding, so make sure you give your self plenty of time and have the right tools on hand. Now that you know how to build a stone wall, enlist some friends to help you out with the work and share your newfound knowledge.