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Tips for Building a Stone Wall

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, stone walls are synonymous with strength and permanence but a poorly built wall can crumble in no time at all.

     
    TOM: Here with tips on how to build a stone wall solid enough to stand up to the future is This Old House landscaping expert Roger Cook.
     
    Welcome, Roger.
     
    ROGER: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me. 
     
    TOM: Roger, I’m always amazed as I travel the country and see stone walls that go for mile upon mile, that seem to show absolutely no wear and tear. How is that possible?
     
    ROGER: Well, it really depends on what the wall is designed to do. If you need a wall to hold back, to really be strong and change the grade for you, then you need a mortared wall.
     
    TOM: So we’re talking about a retaining wall? It’s going to hold back the earth, say, where there’s an elevation change.
     
    ROGER: Tons and tons of earth. So to support that wall, you have to dig down 4 feet deep below the frost line, pour a footing and then build your wall on top of that. If you don’t, the mortar will fail and the wall will fall apart.
     
    TOM: So, Roger, we’re talking about digging down to 4 feet to get below that frost line. Now, for those that are not familiar with what a frost line is, it’s basically the point above which soil will freeze and expand and it can be disrupted through the wall. But that frost line is going to be different based on different parts of the country, right?
     
    ROGER: That’s right. Here in New England, we use 4 feet as our frost line. But it’s different in every part of the country, so you can check with your local building department. They should be able to tell you.
     
    TOM: Now, if you’re just building a stone wall to provide a border for your yard or keep the cattle in, do you have to go that deep?
     
    ROGER: No, you don’t. That’s what we call a “farmer’s wall.” And what we do is we literally scrape out 6 or 8 inches and take the biggest rocks and roll them in place. And we try to get them so that it’s wider at the bottom than it is in the top. So the wall’s really leaning on itself to give it support. And because it’s a dry wall, the water drains right out through it, you get very little movement and when you do, you just pick up the rock and put it back on the wall again.
     
    TOM: It’s actually better than if it had mortar in it because that would just freeze and crack and chip away.
     
    ROGER: Yeah. Without a footing 4 feet deep, absolutely.
     
    LESLIE: Well, that brings up a good point. What about a footing? If you’re dealing with a mortared wall versus a dry wall, what’s the prep work for the ground below it?
     
    ROGER: With a mortared wall, we’re going to start out with a big machine and we’re going to dig down 4 feet deep, probably a foot or 2 wider than the wall is going to be. We’re going to take and pour a concrete base and build a wall on top of that.
     
    LESLIE: And for the dry wall, you don’t have to do anything?
     
    ROGER: For the dry wall, I literally dig out 6 or 8 inches, put a little stone in there and set the rocks in place. Think about it: when the farmers were building these walls years ago, they put the rock – roll a big rock on a sled, use a horse or donkey and drag it over to the property line and push it off. And that’s why all the big ones are on the bottom. The little ones they’d lift up and put on the wall.
     
    TOM: Now, what if you have to cut a stone to maybe fit into an open space? Do you ever really do that or do you just keep looking for a stone that fits?
     
    ROGER: Yeah. You have good days and bad days. Some days, every stone you pick up fits in perfectly. Other days, you’ve got to cut. There’s a couple different ways to do it. You can use a chisel with a carbide blade on it. There’s a couple different shapes on the end of the blade so that you can really get – chip what you want to chip. But what we use a lot is a diamond-blade saw, anything from the 4-inch one to – we have a big, 16-inch one to cut the block. And once we cut the block, then we take a chisel and shape it with a hammer and chisel.
     
    LESLIE: I feel like there’s certain types of architecture in certain areas of this country that really make a stone wall look very charming and appropriate but no offense, it seems like a lot of work.
     
    ROGER: Well …
     
    TOM: That’s because it is.
     
    ROGER: It is.
     
    LESLIE: Is there – I’m always looking for a shortcut, apparently. Is there an easier way or a trick of the trade or a different product?
     
    ROGER: Well, to address your first question – is I love seeing all the different types of walls, because every mason does things a little bit better, a little tad – a little different pattern, a little bit of stone.
     
    LESLIE: Right.
     
    ROGER: And you can even recognize some of the people’s walls. Like I know who built that wall without a sign being there.
     
    TOM: Who built the wall. They’re artists.
     
    ROGER: Now, if you want to try something different from building a wall, there’s a concrete segmental wall block. That whole system that’s made out of concrete, where you dig a very shallow footing and you backfill it. And you can build a wall simply stacking them on top of each other. Doesn’t quite look like a stone wall but is less expensive and goes very quickly.
     
    TOM: Kind of the big-boy version of Lego blocks.
     
    ROGER: Exactly.
     
    TOM: Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
     
    ROGER: Thanks.
     
    LESLIE: Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
     
    TOM: And Ask This Old House is brought to you on PBS by AZEK Deck, Trim and Pavers. AZEK, engineered to last beautifully.
    LESLIE: Well, stone walls are synonymous with strength and permanence but a poorly built wall can crumble in no time at all.
     
    Tips for Building a Stone WallTOM: Here with tips on how to build a stone wall solid enough to stand up to the future is This Old House landscaping expert Roger Cook.
     
    Welcome, Roger.
     
    ROGER: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me. 
     
    TOM: Roger, I’m always amazed as I travel the country and see stone walls that go for mile upon mile, that seem to show absolutely no wear and tear. How is that possible?
     
    ROGER: Well, it really depends on what the wall is designed to do. If you need a wall to hold back, to really be strong and change the grade for you, then you need a mortared wall.
     
    TOM: So we’re talking about a retaining wall? It’s going to hold back the earth, say, where there’s an elevation change.
     
    ROGER: Tons and tons of earth. So to support that wall, you have to dig down 4 feet deep below the frost line, pour a footing and then build your wall on top of that. If you don’t, the mortar will fail and the wall will fall apart.
     
    TOM: So, Roger, we’re talking about digging down to 4 feet to get below that frost line. Now, for those that are not familiar with what a frost line is, it’s basically the point above which soil will freeze and expand and it can be disrupted through the wall. But that frost line is going to be different based on different parts of the country, right?
     
    ROGER: That’s right. Here in New England, we use 4 feet as our frost line. But it’s different in every part of the country, so you can check with your local building department. They should be able to tell you.
     
    TOM: Now, if you’re just building a stone wall to provide a border for your yard or keep the cattle in, do you have to go that deep?
     
    ROGER: No, you don’t. That’s what we call a “farmer’s wall.” And what we do is we literally scrape out 6 or 8 inches and take the biggest rocks and roll them in place. And we try to get them so that it’s wider at the bottom than it is in the top. So the wall’s really leaning on itself to give it support. And because it’s a dry wall, the water drains right out through it, you get very little movement and when you do, you just pick up the rock and put it back on the wall again.
     
    TOM: It’s actually better than if it had mortar in it because that would just freeze and crack and chip away.
     
    ROGER: Yeah. Without a footing 4 feet deep, absolutely.
     
    LESLIE: Well, that brings up a good point. What about a footing? If you’re dealing with a mortared wall versus a dry wall, what’s the prep work for the ground below it?
     
    ROGER: With a mortared wall, we’re going to start out with a big machine and we’re going to dig down 4 feet deep, probably a foot or 2 wider than the wall is going to be. We’re going to take and pour a concrete base and build a wall on top of that.
     
    LESLIE: And for the dry wall, you don’t have to do anything?
     
    ROGER: For the dry wall, I literally dig out 6 or 8 inches, put a little stone in there and set the rocks in place. Think about it: when the farmers were building these walls years ago, they put the rock – roll a big rock on a sled, use a horse or donkey and drag it over to the property line and push it off. And that’s why all the big ones are on the bottom. The little ones they’d lift up and put on the wall.
     
    TOM: Now, what if you have to cut a stone to maybe fit into an open space? Do you ever really do that or do you just keep looking for a stone that fits?
     
    ROGER: Yeah. You have good days and bad days. Some days, every stone you pick up fits in perfectly. Other days, you’ve got to cut. There’s a couple different ways to do it. You can use a chisel with a carbide blade on it. There’s a couple different shapes on the end of the blade so that you can really get – chip what you want to chip. But what we use a lot is a diamond-blade saw, anything from the 4-inch one to – we have a big, 16-inch one to cut the block. And once we cut the block, then we take a chisel and shape it with a hammer and chisel.
     
    LESLIE: I feel like there’s certain types of architecture in certain areas of this country that really make a stone wall look very charming and appropriate but no offense, it seems like a lot of work.
     
    ROGER: Well …
     
    TOM: That’s because it is.
     
    ROGER: It is.
     
    LESLIE: Is there – I’m always looking for a shortcut, apparently. Is there an easier way or a trick of the trade or a different product?
     
    ROGER: Well, to address your first question – is I love seeing all the different types of walls, because every mason does things a little bit better, a little tad – a little different pattern, a little bit of stone.
     
    LESLIE: Right.
     
    ROGER: And you can even recognize some of the people’s walls. Like I know who built that wall without a sign being there.
     
    TOM: Who built the wall. They’re artists.
     
    ROGER: Now, if you want to try something different from building a wall, there’s a concrete segmental wall block. That whole system that’s made out of concrete, where you dig a very shallow footing and you backfill it. And you can build a wall simply stacking them on top of each other. Doesn’t quite look like a stone wall but is less expensive and goes very quickly.
     
    TOM: Kind of the big-boy version of Lego blocks.
     
    ROGER: Exactly.
     
    TOM: Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
     
    ROGER: Thanks.
     
    LESLIE: Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
     
    TOM: And Ask This Old House is brought to you on PBS by AZEK Deck, Trim and Pavers. AZEK, engineered to last beautifully.
     

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