Dress Up a Block Wall with a Rock Wall
Rather than hiding a poured-concrete or block foundation with landscape plantings, show it off with stone veneer.
Synopsis: Making a rock wall is easy, right? Lay down some mortar, put a rock on it, and then keep doing the same thing all day and you’re done. But that’s not the whole story. In this article, North Carolina stonemason Cody Macfie guides us through the tough parts — manipulating a stone to fit a particular spot, making space to work, and making the right mortar recipes. A design gallery and materials list including cost information will help you plan your project.
In the old days, foundations of rock or brick were the norm. They looked good and were fairly easy to build. Nowadays, concrete block or poured concrete is the foundation method of choice because they’re much faster to build. This newfound speed, however, comes at an aesthetic cost: Concrete is ugly. But you can make a plain-looking block wall into a great-looking rock wall by veneering it with fieldstone. The tools and materials needed are few, and the payoff is huge.
The techniques for veneering are the same for block, poured concrete, or even a wood-frame wall, as are the requirements. Make sure you have sufficient support below the stone (a solid footing), and attach the veneer to the wall with wall ties. If the veneer is a retrofit, you may need to pour an additional footing, usually about 6 in. wide. And for wood-frame walls, you need to add a moisture barrier, such as peel-and-stick roofing membrane or #30 felt paper, to the wood. Wall ties are easy to install if you’re laying up a new block wall. For concrete walls or existing block walls, the ties can be attached with a powder-actuated nail gun or with masonry screws.
Although veneering an entire house is best left to a professional, a short foundation veneer is certainly bite-size enough for a non-mason to attempt.
Tight-fitting, yet unmanipulated
There are as many varieties of stonework as there are stonemasons, but most can be lumped into a few patterns. Much of my work is in a style called dry stack, which resembles a traditional no-mortar rock wall. When veneered in the dry-stack style, mortar is packed behind the stones as well as in a thin layer around the stones, but the mortar is not visible. While dry-stack veneer looks rough and tumble, it’s rather precise. The stones fit together tightly, yet look unmanipulated. With jointed-style stonework, you don’t have to be as particular because the visible mortar around the stones absorbs the bumps and irregularities.
Good-looking dry-stack veneer is all about tight joints that look natural. You can close gaps between stones by chipping away bumps, by using plugs, or by manipulating the shape of the stone with a hammer and a blunt chisel. Large gaps not only look unnatural but also can allow stones to shift, which creates a weak spot in the wall.
The most important tool is space
Being able to look at all the stones to choose the best size, shape, or face for each particular spot—especially the corners—is critical. Because stonework is a mixture of art and grunt labor, plenty of space allows you to take inventory and set aside key stones, such as corners and caps, so that you won’t have to switch gears as often. Stopping the process of laying up stone to haul another load can be frustrating.
Start by dumping the stone into a large space near the work area, and shuttle small piles to the wall in a wheebarrow. The other tools you’ll need are a square shovel, a pointing trowel, a mason’s trowel, a 4-ft. level, a brick hammer, a 4-lb. rock hammer, a blunt chisel, a plumb bob, a tape measure, and a garden sprayer. If the job is large, rent a cement mixer.
For photos and more information on how to build a rock wall including costs, click the View PDF button below.