How to Build a Stone Wall

A complete guide on building stone walls with all the details you might need to know

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Stone walls have been used for centuries, and such longevity proves that this type of fence construction is reliable and durable enough. No wonder many people still use this type of wall around their homes and property.  

However, if you decide to build a fieldstone wall, you will definitely have quite many questions. What type of stone to choose? Shall mortar be used or not? What steps does a stone-building procedure consist of? And many others.

In this article, you will find answers to all of them (or at least to the majority of them for sure!). We are going to provide you with step-by-step instructions on how such walls should be built. Also, you will find out what type of stone should be used and what two types of stone walls are considered the most popular these days. In addition, we will tell you what types of stone walls exist so that you could figure out which one would be the most suitable for your needs.

Assembled stone ready for construction
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

How to Build a Natural Stone Wall

Perhaps, to some of you building a natural stone wall may seem an incredibly hard task! And, well, stone walls do take some planning indeed. You need to decide what you need this wall for, what type of wall you want, and what type of rock you will use for building it. 

For example, if you just want to have a decorative stone wall around your property, you might not need to make your wall super strong and durable. But if you need it to serve you as a fence, then you will most likely want to choose another wall construction, as well as another kind of stone for it. For building a wall to protect your field or kettle, you might have to search for something else.

A pile of stones
By vista.com

And of course, you need to decide where you will get all the stones needed! It is great if you have enough on your land, but what if you don’t? If you don’t have a lot of rock on your property, a trip to the nearest quarry or landscaping store is your option. This will help you get some firm ideas about what you want.

Speaking of the process of building a stone wall, it consists of the same steps, no matter what type of stone is used or what the purpose of the wall is.

 

Lay Out Your Footprint

The first step is to decide where you will put the wall. While laying out, make sure the wall doesn’t cross over any water or septic lines. We suggest you use a length of rope to mark out the footprint, paying particular attention to all the angles and/or curves. Remember that these areas will take a little more building finesse!

 

Dig the Trench

The next step in your wall-building process is to dig a trench. The trench is an important element since it gives your wall a solid foundation. Like that, you can be sure that it doesn’t shift or tumble as easily. In addition, a trench will help your wall avoid the problems that may come with frost heave. That is important since water under the soil in the form of a frost heave is extremely powerful!

If you are building a short wall that is under 20 feet or so, you can easily dig the trench by hand. But for a long wall, it might be more reasonable to hire or rent a backhoe. The width of your trench should be six inches wider than the stones you are using. This will help you keep the entire construction stable.

Also, note that your trench needs to be below the frost line. If you live in a northern area of the country, you can consult with your local extension office or county construction on the depth. Usually, since the frost heave goes deeper in northern areas, your trench may need to be up to 18 inches deep. In each case, this will impact how much gravel you need to purchase. 

As for the southern states, when building a stone wall there, you also need a trench. But in this case, your trench should be at least six inches deep. 

 

Tamp Down the Gravel

After you figure out how deep your trench should be, it is time to tamp down the gravel. You can use a hand or power tamper, that doesn’t matter much and doesn’t influence the quality of the wall. Compress the gravel until it is firm and compacted. Also, make sure the gravel you tamp down is level because this is the base of your wall.

 

Add the Stone

Finally, you are now ready to start adding the stones. By this time, all the stones needed for the wall construction must be at your disposal, so make sure you buy them in advance! 

  • Place the stones so that they are touching
  • Make sure all the stones you lay are level
  • Build one full 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 ones for the row

 

Add Drainage

Drainage is an important step in the wall-building process. However, depending on the size of your wall, you might be allowed to skip it. For example, if you have a dry stack wall under 3 feet, you can skip adding drainage. But if your wall is going to be bigger, after you have placed the first course of the stones, add a drainage pipe. And make sure that it is wider than the wall! The excess pipe should stick out so the pipe can drain out into the yard.

When adding a drainage pipe, lay it down along the back of the wall so that the drainage holes are facing down towards the soil. Then cover the pipe with gravel. We would also suggest you lay down a length of textile fabric to keep out the soil. It will help you keep the pipe clean.

 

Add More Stones

Now it is time to add another row of stones. Dry fit the stones and make sure they are stable before adding mortar. Make sure that the vertical joints are staggered so that your wall will be strong. This may require you to cut a stone or to search for a smaller stone.

 

Cut the Stones If Needed

stone cutting tool
By vista.com

If you find out that you need to trim a stone during the wall-building process, opt for a wet saw with a diamond blade. It will cut them smoothly and quickly. As an option, you can also make use of different hand tools, for example, a three-inch carbide chisel or a three-pound sledgehammer. 

But no matter what tool you are going to use, you have to remember to wear safety glasses. You should always protect your eyes when you are cutting stone! Otherwise, a tiny piece of chipped stone might hurt your eyes.

Also, if you are going to use hand tools, remember that you need to mark the stone first at the spots where you want to make the cut. Cutting a stone is pretty easy:

  • Put the stone down so that the side that won’t be used faces the ground
  • Aim the chisel slightly down and hit once with the mallet
  • Relocate the chisel half over the indentation made and a half over the fresh stone
  • Strike the chisel again
  • Work your way around the rock until it starts to pull apart

Now you have a complete picture and a clear understanding of how a stone wall should be built. It may seem to be a hard and complicated task at first, but if you follow all the tips and recommendations given above, you can be sure that you will be able to prepare the stones and lay them perfectly well. 

However, this is not all we wanted to share with you. There are several aspects that we would like to highlight regarding the stone wall construction. They will also become handy for you when you start building a wall.

 

Types of Stone Walls

Before you start building a stone fence or a wall, you should decide on what type of wall you need. Is there any difference, you may wonder? Well, in fact, there is. Below, we have collected the most commonly built types of stone walls.

  • Tossed walls are those rambling paddock walls that you can often see in Ireland. They were built by farmers who just tossed rocks into fence rows as they worked the fields, building a wall up.
  • Laid walls are more orderly than tossed walls. For laid walls, the stone is placed and secured without mortar to make a well-fitted wall. This wall type is also referred to as dried stacked walls.
  • Curved flagstone walls are typically used in patios or backyard
  • Mortared stone walls are used as retaining walls because they are strong enough to hold back the earth
  • Stacked block walls are made of mortared concrete blocks

Now that you know what types of stone walls exist, let’s find out what benefits and downsides the two most popular types of them have. We are talking about dry walls and wet walls.

 

Advantages and Challenges That Dry Walls Have

First of all, let’s remind you of what dry stone walls are. As it is clear from the name, dry stone walls are walls that are built without using wet mortar. And despite the fact that such a construction may seem to be not much reliable and stable, they do have some advantages. 

First of all, dry stone walls are a bit easier and less expensive to build. The reason is obvious: to build this wall, you eliminate the step of preparing and applying the mortar. There is one more benefit though. To build a no-mortar stone wall, you can make use of a lot of stones that have different sizes. This is why this type of stone wall is often more suitable for those homeowners who use the rock found on the farm for building it. 

However, there are also certain drawbacks that come with this type of stone wall. The challenge is that it is quite difficult to align all the stones if they have different sizes. In this case, it is more like a puzzle trying to fit stones together. You are depending on the earth’s gravity and the friction between the stones to keep all the construction together and prevent it from falling apart.

 

Advantages and Drawbacks Of Wet Walls

Unlike the dry walls described above, wet walls are built using wet mortar. The main advantage of this type of stone wall is that the mortar binds the stones together and helps the entire structure to be stable. It means that, unlike dry walls, here you don’t have to twist your mind trying to figure out how to arrange the stones! The mortar will do the job for you.

The downside of this wall type is that wet stone walls take more time to build. In addition, they are more expensive to construct since you need not only the stones but also the mortar. 

So, as you can see, it is not very difficult to build a stone wall on your land. Technically, the process is rather simple and easy to do. However, some preparations are needed, and this is when many people fail and make mistakes! 

This is why we suggest you read this article carefully and use the tips and recommendations given here when you start building your stone wall. Like that, you will be able to avoid some common mistakes, and chances are high that your wall will be flawless and serve you for a long time.

Facts

  1. Oldest Stone Wall: The Knap of Howar, located on the Orkney Islands of Scotland, is home to the oldest preserved stone wall in the world. It is part of a Neolithic farmstead dating back to 3700-3500 BC.
  2. Longest Stone Wall: The Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is often referred to as the longest stone wall on earth. It stretches over 13,000 miles and was built over centuries with a mixture of tamped earth, wood, and stone.
  3. Amazing Dry Stone Walls: The Inca civilization built remarkable stone walls without mortar, known as dry stone walls. The precision of their stonework is astonishing; it's said that not even a piece of paper can be slipped between the stones!
  4. Stone Walls and Ecosystems: Did you know that traditional stone walls can become mini ecosystems? Over time, they can be colonized by various plants and small animals, contributing to local biodiversity.
  5. Reclaimed Stones: An interesting trend in modern times is to build stone walls from reclaimed stones - those retrieved from old buildings or walls. It's a great method of recycling and preserving history.
  6. World Record Stone Wall: In 2010, a Guinness World Record was set in Cumbria, UK, for the fastest time to build a 1.65m dry stone wall - in a staggering 57 minutes 38 seconds!
  7. Round Towered Stone Walls: The Irish are famous for their round towered stone walls, unique to their cultural history. The towers were built as early as the 9th century and demonstrate the exceptional masonry skills of their builders.
  8. Stone Wall Festivals: Yes, they exist! In some countries, festivals and competitions are held, where skilled stonemasons and amateurs gather to build and showcase their stone walling abilities.

History

In the annals of human history, the art of building a stone wall has been a milestone marking the dawn of civilization. The story begins with the Neolithic Revolution, a period that saw the advent of agriculture and sedentism. As communities began to establish permanent settlements, there arose a need for a stable, durable means of construction.

The choice was simple: stone, a material that was abundantly available and required no technological tools to manipulate. The early humans discovered that piling these stones could create walls, boundaries, and primitive buildings. They were the first architects, unknowingly ushering in a new era of human society.

The technique was simple, yet versatile. They found that they could make these walls more durable and sturdy by choosing stones of the right shape and size, placing larger ones at the bottom and smaller ones at the top, thereby giving birth to the technique of stone wall construction.

Fast forward a few millennia to the Iron Age. We find the Celtic people in Western Europe developing the art of dry stone walling - walls made without using any mortar. The stone walls of this era are a marvel, balancing stones of different shapes and sizes with a precision that confounds modern engineers. Many of these walls still stand today, silently echoing a testament to their timeless artistry.

The Romans, ever the engineers, took stone wall construction to another level. Using mortar for the first time, they created walls of unimagined durability and strength. The remains of Roman structures across Europe, like Hadrian's Wall, bear testimony to their expertise.

With the Middle Ages, stone walls took on a new role. They transformed from mere structures of utility to symbols of power and status. Castles, forts, and cathedrals rose, their stone walls designed to inspire awe and reverence.

As time went by, the art of building stone walls evolved with the changing needs and tastes of society. Yet, it never disappeared. Today, even with countless alternative materials and technologies, we find stone walls adorning landscapes, signifying the enduring appeal of this ancient craft.

Building a stone wall is a dialogue with the past, a tribute to the ingenuity of our ancestors. Each stone we place is a reminder of the countless hands that laid stones before us, shaping not just walls, but the very course of human history.

Expert Advice

Building a stone wall may seem like a daunting task, but with a few expert tips and guidance, you can create an enduring structure that adds value and aesthetic appeal to your property. Let's explore these handy tips that professionals often employ:
  1. Choose the Right Stone: The first step is choosing the right stone. Natural stones like limestone, granite, or slate can be used. Remember, the type of stone you choose will impact the look, durability, and cost of your wall.
  2. Prepare the Ground: You'll want to start by clearing and leveling the ground where you plan to build. Consider digging a trench about 6 inches deep and filling it with a layer of gravel. This provides a solid base for your stone wall.
  3. Start Big: Lay the largest stones at the bottom of your wall. They'll provide a stable base for the smaller stones above.
  4. Use the Right Mortar: If you are using mortar, make sure it's suitable for the type of stone you've chosen. Some stones require a specific kind of mortar for the best adhesion and longevity.
  5. Stack Wisely: Don't stack stones directly on top of one another; instead, overlap them. This gives the wall more stability and creates a more interesting visual pattern.
  6. Utilize a String Line: Keep your wall straight and level by using a string line as a guide. This is especially important for walls that are longer or taller.
  7. Tie the Stones Together: Long stones that go back into the wall can tie the wall together, preventing it from bowing outwards over time.
  8. Cap It Off: Once your wall has reached the desired height, you should cap it off with flat stones. This not only provides a finished look but also gives the wall extra strength.
  9. Safety First: Don't forget to wear safety glasses, gloves, and sturdy footwear when handling stones. These items can protect you from potential accidents.

 

Remember, building a stone wall is as much an art as it is a science. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t quite match your expectations. With practice and patience, you’ll soon be building stone walls like a seasoned pro!

Safety

Building a stone wall can be a satisfying and durable construction project, but it's essential to adhere to safety measures during the process. Here are some key safety instructions to follow when undertaking this task:
  1. Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Always wear a hard hat, safety glasses, sturdy footwear with steel-toe protection, and heavy-duty gloves. These items can protect you from falling stones and sharp edges.
  2. Heavy Lifting Technique: Stone walls involve lifting heavy stones. Always bend your knees and use your legs to lift, not your back, to avoid injury. If a stone is too heavy to lift safely by yourself, use equipment like a dolly or enlist help from others.
  3. Work in Good Weather Conditions: Wet stones can be slippery and difficult to handle, and high winds can make lifting and positioning stones dangerous. Try to work in favorable weather conditions, and secure your work site at the end of the day to prevent any accidental falls or slips.
  4. Ensure Proper Ventilation: If you're using a mortar mix, ensure your work area is well ventilated. Some of these mixes can release harmful fumes.
  5. Stay Hydrated: Physical work, especially in the sun, can lead to dehydration. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
  6. Use Appropriate Tools: Use the right tools for the job, and ensure they are in good working condition. A stone hammer, chisel, and a mason's level are essential tools for building a stone wall.
  7. First Aid Kit: Always keep a first aid kit nearby. Accidents can happen, and being prepared can save you from severe complications.
  8. Take Breaks: Building a stone wall is physically demanding work. Take regular breaks to rest and stretch to avoid straining your muscles and joints.
  9. Training: If you are using machinery like stone cutters or cement mixers, ensure you have been properly trained to operate them.

 

Remember, safety first. The goal is to build a beautiful stone wall without any injuries or mishaps. Follow these guidelines to ensure a safe and successful construction project. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It Mandatory To Buy Stones For Stone Walls?

No, it’s not. You can buy them or use those that you have on your land.

How Long Can A Stone Wall Last?

Well, they can surely last for decades. There are even old walls that are over 100 years old!

How Much Time Does It Take To Build A Stone Wall?

For mortared walls, you'll need roughly 2 to 3 days to lay a 3x10-foot wall. Dry walls might need less time, but it depends on the height and length of the wall.
What Is The Purpose Of Building A Stone Wall?

Stone walls can serve various purposes, including retaining walls, property borders, decorative features, and structural elements.

How To Build A Stacked Stone Wall
  1. Site preparation: Clear and level the area where the stacked stone wall will be built, and excavate a trench for the foundation.
  2. Foundation construction: Lay a compacted gravel or crushed stone base in the trench to create a solid foundation for the stacked stone wall.
  3. Stone selection: Choose weather-resistant, flat stones that fit together well for better stability and visual appeal.
  4. Stacking technique: Start at one end of the wall and carefully stack stones while staggering the joints, ensuring a more stable structure.
  5. Drainage and backfill: Add drainage material like gravel or crushed stone behind the wall to prevent water buildup and ensure wall longevity.
  6. Wall capping: Apply capstones on top of the stacked stone wall for a polished appearance and added strength.
  7. Wall maintenance: Regularly inspect the wall for any damage and replace damaged stones to maintain the integrity and stability of the structure.
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