Build a Sturdy Stone Sitting Wall
Keep the look of a traditional dry-stack stone wall, but strengthen the core with mortar and finish with a bluestone cap.
Synopsis: A stone wall is an appealing feature for any yard, but building a sturdy wall requires patience and skill, especially when selecting stones to be placed in the right location. Mason Brendan Mostecki shares his lessons about the best techniques for building a wall with a classic dry-stack appearance but that uses mortar to make sure that the wall holds up over time. A good wall starts with a solid base, proper drainage, and a poured footing. The first course goes on top of the cured footing, and stones are then stacked in layers. While Brendan looks for stones that are appropriate for the face of the wall, he also does improvements when necessary with his bricklayer’s hammer. After the first course is set, he places a layer of mortar and continues building the wall. This article includes sidebars about customizing a wall cap with a “rock and thermal” finish, creating appropriate drainage for a stone wall, and mixing mortar.
I used to get annoyed when I heard people compare building a stone wall to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Stone walls have no precut pieces, and they certainly don’t come with a picture. Then one day I sat down with my two sons to put together a jigsaw puzzle. As these things often go, they quickly ran off with the box, and I was left with a pile of pieces but no road map. That’s when I realized that a stone wall wasn’t so different from a puzzle after all. I start each wall by emptying and sorting a pallet of stone into four categories: base pieces, face pieces, cornerstones, and caps. I lay out the first row, establish the corners, then work in toward the middle, just like a puzzle but without the picture, of course.
I could write an entire article about different ways to build stone walls. They can be dry-stack or wet-stack (set in mortar with or without visible joints), and built either freestanding or with stone applied to the face of concrete blocks. The stones can be round or flat, natural or chiseled, rough or smooth, and random or uniform.
For this project, my crew and I built a small retaining wall that doubles as extra seating around the perimeter of a patio. Sitting walls can be topped with large flat stones that match the face of the wall, but they don’t make for comfortable seating. I prefer to cap these walls with custom slabs, in this case bluestone.
Size the base, and consider the drainage
Stone walls can be built atop a well-compacted gravel base or atop a poured concrete footing. Personally, the only time I choose a gravel base is if I’m building a dry–stack farmer’s wall.
For most situations, substituting the gravel base with a rebar-reinforced concrete pad allows you to cut the base depth in half. A concrete pad also helps to unify the assembly, allowing the wall to rise and fall as one unit when the ground freezes and thaws.
In most cases, a poured footing can be formed just by digging a trench, adding rebar, pouring the concrete, and letting everything set. Straight footings are the easiest, but curved footings aren’t much extra work. Once I have the area cleared and leveled, I scribe the curve in the dirt, playing around with the layout until I’m happy with the shape and the flow of the wall. Then digging can begin.
If patio pavers are going to abut the stone wall, I like to form the edges of the footing with 1 ⁄4-in. or 1 ⁄2-in. plywood, which I remove once the wall is built. This creates a smoother surface so that in winter months, the patio pavers will be less likely to collide with the wall footing and heave; it’s the same principle as using cardboard Sonotubes for pier footings.
Magazine extra: Watch a pair of videos where Brendan explains how a torch and water add sizzle to capstones, and how a judicious amount of mortar and just the right stones can emulate a crisp dry-stack corner.
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