Dry Stone Walling

Dry stone walling as front yard fence/courtesy John Bland StonecraftEver heard of dry stone walling? It’s worth investigating if you're looking for a ruggedly beautiful, green type of fence that stands the test of time. Read our interview with John Bland of Montreal’s John Bland Stonecraft and discover the ancient craft of dry stone walling.

What is a dry stone wall?

A dry stone wall is built with only one ingredient – natural stone. There’s no mortar gluing everything together or backup made of concrete blocks.

How does it stay up?

You create structure by intelligently laying stones, using gravity and friction to make them stay together.

I follow some basic rules, like “two stones over one and one over two,” as in bricklaying. Grade your stones -- biggest on the bottom, smallest on top. The wall’s faces should actually lean into one another, so a cross section has a rough “A” shape.

Dry stone walli cross-section/courtesy John Bland Stonecraft

Do you need a foundation?

Debatable. I always bury my first course of stone. I like making the foundation course much wider than the rest of the wall, so it acts as a footing. Here in Montreal, we have clay soil, so I’d add a gravel bed for drainage.

What’s the advantage over a mortared stone wall?

Longevity. Mortared walls are subject to freeze-thaw cycles, which cause mortar to deteriorate, crack, and eventually fall apart. But dry stone walls are weather-resistant – great when you live in a cold climate.

A dry stone wall behaves like a bicycle chain; it can move around but stays linked together, even in spring when the ground is shifting like crazy. Every joint in a mortared wall is very hard and rigid, but every joint in dry stone is essentially an expansion joint.

What is dry stone walling used for?

Decorative fencing, firepits, tables, a base for a grill in an outdoor kitchen with a niche to put firewood. I’ve done a couple of bridges. Anything you can make out of masonry, you can do the same with dry stone.

Stone window/Sunny Weiler

How green is dry stone walling?

Potentially very green. Most of the walls I build are fieldstone; no quarrying’s necessary. Because I don’t use mortar, no greenhouse gas-producing cement or lime is needed, either. More often than not, stone is actually gathered off the property I’m building on, so the only carbon footprint comes from me driving to and from the site.

When I go to work, I bring a bucket and a couple of hammers and chisels … no glues, no power tools, no dust, no noise. A pry bar and a dolly help, but that’s all I need to run my business.

What shape of stone works best?

To be honest, lately I like working with ugly stones, really gnarly, terrible-looking ones most people would call garbage. It’s funny; you don’t need a perfect stone in order to build a beautiful wall.

What type of maintenance is involved?

A dry stone wall’s worst enemy is vegetation. If you notice a small seedling growing in the wall’s base, remove it before it becomes a full-grown tree and destroys your wall. That’s the only maintenance issue, to my knowledge.

How long does a dry stone wall last?

About 150 years, sometimes far more. If you build on bedrock, there’ll be no soil movement and who knows how long your wall could last?

Work in progress/courtesy John Bland Stonecraft

Is dry stone walling feasible as a DIY project?

Yes. There’s no real right or wrong way of doing it; you can take rocks and stack them any way you want. However, I suggest getting some training first. If you want to build a wall that’s reasonably tall, dry stone walling involves working with a lot of weight. You don’t want it to fall over and hurt somebody.

The Stone Trust in Vermont offers workshops that anyone can sign up for, as well as certification training.

How did you get into the profession?

I studied heritage masonry at college because I loved the historic architecture in Old Montreal. As a student, I helped restore a fort, a Parks Canada heritage site. It was cool, but we had to stick to a diagram. The work didn’t engage my creativity. Shortly after, I got introduced to dry stone walling and thought, “This is amazing!”

Decorative stone wall/courtesy John Bland Stonecraft

Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.

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