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Building a dry-stack retaining wall and terraces.

 
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When we moved into our first and hopefully only house, my beloved mentioned in passing that someday, she’d really love to have a stone wall. Well, buying Stone is expensive, so I’ve been gathering for a few years now. Excavation began today, and I think this is as good a place as any to keep a diary of the process. Hopefully, my efforts might be useful, or at least moderately interesting, to somebody someday.

Started digging for the foundation today. The ground is going to start freezing soon, and I’d like to be able to build through the winter (but slowly slowly).

A line was run to indicate where the hill shall be cut away. It’s well-compacted clay with plenty of rocks, as it turns out. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about hearting or pins.

The next post will probably be about The Plan, methodologies and information source material.

Some images:

CDB2B9DC-95F2-4E70-9982-431F372638AC.jpeg
line was run to indicate where the hill shall be cut away
line was run to indicate where the hill shall be cut away
CA22228B-AB08-4F3F-9C55-7702FCFFB208.jpeg
Excavation began to lay foundation for stone wall
Excavation began to lay foundation for stone wall
F533FFD5-74C8-445D-8FEC-AC7F5816334B.jpeg
Excavation continued
Excavation continued
 
pollinator
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I am curious
 
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That reminds me of my first rock wall...

My wife said, "This will be our Together-Project" as we were newly-weds at the time. She helped me get two loads of rock, and then she had laundry to do, and dishes...and never did get back to helping me with that rock wall. That was 25 years ago, and she is long gone (with her !@#$^^&&* online boyfriend) and we have divorced, and now I am on my third wife, but still building those rock walls!
 
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Looking forward to seeing your progress Daniel!
I have always wanted to try dry stacking a wall.
There's a great video here at permies about dry stacking. I'll try to find it and post a link.

EDIT)  Here's the one, enjoy   permies.com/t/51765/Real-good-dry-stack-stone
Wall-Building-28.jpg
dry stack wall
dry stack wall
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Well, Travis, I do the dishes and the laundry too, so I’m hoping for a better result. ;)

Thomas, that’s a great video. I’d seen it before, but not for quite some time, and it was a great refresher to watch it again.

And here’s today’s learned lesson:

A shovel is a good digging tool, but it isn’t necessarily the best one. I bought a mattock today, and alone, I was able to dig out and fill up the wheelbarrow significantly faster than two of us could do it yesterday, with far less frustration at the rocks in the earth.  

Wish I had had it when I was digging out my swale last year.
 
Travis Johnson
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I used to build some pretty good dry stacked rock walls, and actually really liked building them, so I did it a lot. I would go up in the old fields, hand load my rocks onto a trailer I pulled with my tractor, and then build my rock walls slowly and methodically.

Then I got my log loader. With it I can pick much bigger rocks, but my rock walls really suffered. They were more like big rock retaining walls then dry stacked rock walls.

I did build a small dry stacked wall this summer when I was still living in my Tiny House, but it was not anything especially great I admit. I will post a picture of it just so you can see, but again, I am not very proud of it. :-(

My only advice is to use string. The rock wall does not have to be level (although it can be), but the top must be on the same even place from point to point for it to really look good.

Earthworks.jpg
dry stacked rock wall
dry stacked rock wall
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Doesn’t look bad, though! I’m fortunate in that the “wild” rocks I harvest generally come out of a limestone cliff face that I drive by regularly, and they are remarkably block like. And the domesticated stones have already been used in homes, so they’re oftentimes dressed into perfect blocks. And with a few exceptions, I’m limited In size by what I can get into a minivan using a hand truck. So I top out at about 300 lbs, with most significantly smaller.

I’ll definitely be using mason line and batter boards, and strict leveling with spirit levels and the bunyip device described in Gaia’s Garden. And with luck, the foundation trench should be completed today.

D
 
Daniel Ackerman
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The main excavation finished today, a couple days earlier than expected, which is great. Discovered two small water seeps which I’ll have to account for in the foundation.

B591F703-59E9-4403-8579-1D81FA776C7C.jpeg
main excavation finished 1
main excavation finished 1
37A70960-BA71-43F5-B6EF-A5BF1A9D4192.jpeg
main excavation finished 2
main excavation finished 2
D55244CF-CEB3-4AF9-A8B7-85335D00DE65.jpeg
main excavation finished 3
main excavation finished 3
 
Travis Johnson
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Daniel Ackerman wrote:I’m fortunate in that the “wild” rocks I harvest generally come out of a limestone cliff face that I drive by regularly, and they are remarkably block like. And the domesticated stones have already been used in homes, so they’re oftentimes dressed into perfect blocks. And with a few exceptions, I’m limited In size by what I can get into a minivan using a hand truck. So I top out at about 300 lbs, with most significantly smaller.



I gave you an apple because I like your style!

I move stuff the same way. I once had to put sand and concrete on the floor of my great room. But it was the middle of winter and my gravel pit was frozen. So I went down to the town's sand shed, and dug sand for it. I could only dig (10) 5 gallon buckets at a time, and even then I had to hike 1/4 mile in because they gated off the place due to people like me stealing too much winter sand. Well I was undeterred, so I just used a plastic sled, put the heavy buckets of sand on that, and pulled them to my car.

You would be surprised what I can haul with my Ford Focus...including a full sized, live Ram. That is an interesting story.
 
Daniel Ackerman
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I’m not entirely clear what the Apple means, but I know it’s good, so thank you!

Sleds.... tried and true! And I bet anyone following this thread would be interested in that ram story. It reminds me of a story a friend of mine told about picking up a lamb for an orthodox Easter sacrifice, and letting his little niece feed it French fries in the back of his smallish, perfectly ordinary car. Perhaps a bit too much bonding for a child before they slaughtered it an hour or so later.

In any event, with a little help from a good friend, I laid my first stone for the foundation yesterday. Leveled my lines using mason’s string and a mason’s level that clips onto it. Great little tool. And wedged the stone in using a digging bar and some handy found fulcrums.

The bottom of the stone wasn’t perfectly flat, so the trench floor had to be scooped and sculpted to make it lay in stably at the line.

Yesterday’s unexpected lesson:
The biggest stones are not always the best stones. If they’re really big and heavy (I estimate this one somewhere north of 700 lbs), it takes a LOT longer to get them in position, and because they’re so heavy, it’s harder to place stone shims in the right spots to get them perfectly level, which is especially important for the foundation.

Rain was forecast, so a pulled a huge tarp over the worksite so it doesn’t turn into a muddy mess.

D
8B6348AC-E7B8-4D3A-ADD6-145FF3422AC5.jpeg
prep to lay first course 1
prep to lay first course 1
57E136E9-B124-4B6D-AC20-F48B39C7B87F.jpeg
prep to lay first course 2
prep to lay first course 2
FD66EFD7-2044-48A9-9B4B-5EAB689DC83C.jpeg
starting the first course
starting the first course
 
thomas rubino
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Hi Daniel;
 Apples are a way to show our appreciation of a quality post.  It lets others know to check a post out. It also reflects on your reputation as a quality poster.  
Figures rain moves in when you about to start.  I dug a trench a few weeks ago... later that day rain moved in, quickly changed to snow and temps dropped to 12F .
Needless to say I still have frozen clumps of clay in my yard. Although with mucho work and a digging bar I did refill the trench.

Keep up the good work! Please keep us posted on your progress / or lack of if it keeps raining.   Lots of photos!
drystoneP1030246.jpg
[Thumbnail for drystoneP1030246.jpg]
Your next wall!
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Thanks Thomas. Mighty inspirational!
 
Daniel Ackerman
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It was a good couple of days. I got a four-hour chunk of time to fall into it, and boy, what a satisfying thing. There were several “oh just one more before I go in.”

The foundation course is about 5/8 completed. The largest, ugliest stones have a nice home against the bank. I think I’ve already begun to wear out the point end of a brick hammer. It’s about 1/3 inch shorter than it was when I pulled it out of my drawer.

The amount of pins and hearting needed is actually a little shocking. I didn’t realize how small the pin rocks would end up being. I also got a warning from the stone. Safety goggles are not necessarily enough when using a heavy sledge. A sliver of stone whizzed up and shaved off a bit of beard (without cutting the skin). Yay for beards, and for full face shields.

Progress pictures below:

659DE70C-1195-4843-B053-C419932C5AF2.jpeg
first course progressing 1
first course progressing 1
B1F09DAC-75B8-44F2-B103-229E3C93E7DE.jpeg
first course progressing 2
first course progressing 2
EBD9178A-4702-4895-A976-10302F97BA18.jpeg
first course progressing 3
first course progressing 3
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Time to update. The foundation is long completed, and I’m nearly done with the first wall head. When I next get a chance to build, I’m hoping to start on the second head. Since the wall is going to make a turn there to go upslope for stairs, I’ll probably need to excavate the next bit of foundation. Digging down is less fun than building up.

 
Daniel Ackerman
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Pictures:

0CC7F065-02A8-41F0-9076-4C200454E78E.jpeg
first course progressing 4
first course progressing 4
D4B5193B-B79B-4870-AD4A-A5DCA88D5270.jpeg
first course finished
first course finished
56DC91F8-0082-4723-9CBD-3D384423EC4B.jpeg
second course started
second course started
CB095E8F-97C9-4227-953B-9F8FFC49B189.jpeg
second course progressing 1
second course progressing 1
1A24092B-4744-44D3-BCA7-1027045CD672.jpeg
second course progressing 2
second course progressing 2
EAC30CA7-EF82-4B8F-9364-D1DB7339F94F.jpeg
wall getting higher 1
wall getting higher 1
8C482FDA-32F5-4364-A082-1893B73DF831.jpeg
wall getting higher 2
wall getting higher 2
D58771CA-CD9A-4B4D-9484-BBADFF0A4C7F.jpeg
wall getting higher 3
wall getting higher 3
 
thomas rubino
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Daniel;
That is looking great!  I'm jealous you have the time and place to do that build!
Keep up the good work and keep those pictures coming.
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Thanks, Thomas! I don’t manage to have an enormous amount of time, but I snatch it here and there. It goes (relatively) quickly since it consumes a lot of mental real estate, and when I get out there, I pretty much know exactly what I’m going to grab and lay.

More pictures as more progress happens.

D

 
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Hi Daniel, just curious, looks like about a 4” gap between the existing stonework and the new wall - why?  Will that be back-filled with gravel or small stones at some point?  

Not questioning you by any means, I have zero experience with stone work, so I would have likely butted it up against the existing foundation with no idea that I shouldn’t.
 
Daniel Ackerman
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That’s the foundation of our house, actually, and it’s mortared. I didn’t want to lay the new wall against the house for a few reasons, none of which are necessarily good or valid:

1. I figure the new wall and soil under certain conditions could possibly put a lot of lateral stress on our foundation. While I’m sure it is thick and could probably take it, I didn’t want to chance it.

2. The foundation needs to be repointed, and it was too cold to do so when the moment arose to start building the retaining wall. I needed to leave room to do that work in the spring, and no I’m not even slightly impatient or impulsive.

3. I got a little nervous about water being channeled towards the house. While I’m sure I could grade effectively, I didn’t want to chance it.

4. The thing I didn’t think of. While I’m reasonably sure of thought of most of it, I didn’t want to chance it.

5. The retaining wall didn’t need to be built; I just wanted to relandscape that side of the property so I could grow something over there, and not just have it be a grassless shady clay slope.  Chancing anything with regards to the house, well, just didn’t seem worth it.



So, I promise I’ve thought about the gap, and I’ll probably either place some wood or smaller stones to fill in the gap to keep the earth from pouring through. I may also build a small independent stone structure. Heck, I could even take a drive down to the concrete statue place and get weird bit of mass-produced art to fill the gap. Now there’s an idea...... maybe a 4 foot stack of concrete frogs?

Thanks for the question! It’s definitely a problem I’ll have to solve.  Happy to answer any others.

D
 
Daniel Ackerman
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Made the 90 degree  turn! Excavated a bit more for the foundation. I couldn’t build the second wall head without starting the other portion of wall.

It occurs to me I haven’t included the master plan. I’ll write that thread at some point.

Anyway, the lesson learned yesterday was don’t spend an hour trying to shape a stone for a particular spot.  In the end, it still might not sit well. Find a stone that fits without so much palaver.  

So, the three major stones that will form the second wall head and turn are in place. I decided to have the wall head extend forward a few inches to give it a stronger appearance.
Here are some photo updates. The bucket lid is for scale.


352C4767-3F58-465D-A5DB-C183B92AEEB3.jpeg
Stonework stone wall, masonry
6FDD0697-6B05-4E35-B652-E7850A7543FA.jpeg
Stone wall, stone work, stone masonry
8AE79E5A-5698-4778-8E50-D754EA840BA1.jpeg
Stone wall, stone work, stone masonry
E54AF2AB-9699-4BA0-A2BE-525A7645B6CA.jpeg
Stone wall, stone work, stone masonry
 
Artie Scott
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Looking great, Daniel, and loving the pictures of your progress!
 
Daniel Ackerman
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I had thrown a tarp over the project for what I thought would be the winteryiest of the winter season, but climate change giveth and taketh. It’s been so warm, and the winter aconite started to come up in spots.  I couldn’t bear the thought of them dying underneath a tarp because I didn’t want to work in mud. So, the tarp got put away, and work resumed.

I was spending a lot of time trying to make a certain configuration of stones work; after spending many hours at it, I realized that there was a certain stone (weighing about 200 lbs) in a certain place that was causing all of the problems. So, I disassembled and started one portion of the work over. There’s a certain excitement that comes from laying the first stone of the Third Course (it’s capitalized in my brain, for some reason).

Here’s where we are:

A451940D-1DDB-4479-B155-13E448601A04.jpeg
[Thumbnail for A451940D-1DDB-4479-B155-13E448601A04.jpeg]
9B6E20DE-AA0E-4D42-A7F0-051BAE6D134F.jpeg
[Thumbnail for 9B6E20DE-AA0E-4D42-A7F0-051BAE6D134F.jpeg]
642186FF-163C-48B6-9761-E59856D91750.jpeg
[Thumbnail for 642186FF-163C-48B6-9761-E59856D91750.jpeg]
 
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