Monday, February 17, 2014

Tips On Building Dry Stack Stone Walls #1: Project, Tools

This is the first in a series of tips on building dry stack stone retaining walls for landscaping,
gained from my personal experience and particularly aimed at the owner builder.

In future posts I will be discussing topics such as how to build durable walls and steps,
how to design the layout for a project, theory on dry stack walls, 
 stone as a material and what stone works best in each part of the project, site management,

 The photo above shows the finished project which gives you a feel for the scope of this work.

We will start with the section you see above which includes three sets of steps
as well as a series of terraced walls.

The before picture above shows the landscaping dilemma
 we were confronted with when we purchased the house.

The house pad was originally leveled by cutting into the embankment you see above,
 when the house (just behind the camera) was built some 30 years ago.
Since that time the 8'+/- x 100' cut was basically left to erode on its own 
and directed rainwater back towards the house.

This had to be dealt with before any further landscaping could be done,
and not being into railroad ties as a solution stone seemed the best choice.

We had the first of 3 loads of what ended up being a total of 44 tons of stone
 delivered from a nearby quarry.
In the next post we will take a closer look at the stone and where it came from.

Above I am just getting started and most of the tools I am using are laid out.

Before I go any further I want to stress that this is very hard work 
and the risk of serious injury is real.
One should be in top physical shape and be constantly aware of your surroundings.

The pile of stone at the top of the above photo is unstable
  and a large unstable stone could easily break a bone.

Hazards of  tripping over stone and tools are ever present,
and then there is your back.

If you have any hesitation don't attempt this work.

Always wear good work gloves and sturdy work boots.
One stone smashing a finger or falling on your foot can set you back or worse.
I also like wearing a heavy duty work apron to protect my clothes.

Now to the tools. 
On the right above is the homemade tamper that I purchased at a farm auction many years ago 
and of course new ones are available from hardware stores.
Next to it is a 5# sledge that I also use for tamping in areas where the tamper is too large,
or where I need to increase my pounds per square inch for increased packing of the earth.
Very occasionally I will use it to break up stone.

A good pointed shovel is on the left of the above photo and levels are also essential.

A couple of 5 gallon buckets always come in handy.

The two levels I use most often are an 18" and a 42" 
and wood with brass edges work good with stone.
The wood doesn't bang against the stone like metal levels.

I never keep my levels with other tools as they will get banged around a lot 
which will throw the bubbles off and compromise the accuracy.

They get carried and stored all by themselves.
If you doubt the accuracy of your level simply turn it around, same side up and compare.
If both readings are the same your level is accurate, if the bubbles are off split the difference.

Behind the levels are a 5 1/2' digging bar on the left and a pry bar to the right.
A digging bar is lighter and used for breaking up compacted earth 
and can be turned upside down to use as a tamper with the round flat end,
while the pry bar is much heavier and thicker along it's shaft
and is used to pry or lift stones.

Truth be told I rarely use the pry bar anymore as it is so heavy for me 
at my 130 lbs. and 62 years old.
Instead I cheat and use the digging bar for prying and take the risk that I could bend the blade.

Above gives you a look at what the section we have viewed
 in the last couple of photos looked like when finished.

Besides the tools you have already seen a pick and/or mattock are essential.

You will also need a good heavy duty wheelbarrow with knobby tires (above),
and a hand truck also with pneumatic tires.  

Later on in the project I bought the blue hand truck above with larger tires, 
slightly taller for a bit more leverage and a heavier capacity. 

For the hand trucks and wheelbarrow it is well worth your time to find a tire store
 that carries tubes for these tires and have them put them on.
 Once you have that put some Slime in the tubes.

There is no future in messing around with flat tires 
and because of the small rim sizes it is almost impossible to change the tires yourself.

Without tubes a heavy weight on the tires can split the tire off the rim
and you will spend the rest of the day getting it fixed.
Having two hand trucks gives a back up if one gets a flat.
For me, no hand truck, no work; they are essential.

Now to the smaller tools above and below.
The cutoff mason's trowel (it came that way) is one that I use all the time
and is one of my favorite tools as can be noted by the rounded corners on the blade.
It is great as a mason's trowel, a garden trowel, a plaster trowel,
and cleans out corners in wheelbarrows and 5 gallon buckets.

What you do not see here is a string line
 and that is because I don't use them for stonework unlike many stonemasons.

So many materials that are used in construction work best in straight lines
 because they themselves are in a single plane and are straight.
  2 x4's,  plywood, or cement block lend themselves to straight lines
which speed up the construction process.

Random ruble stone does not have that bias 
as it works in curves as easily as in a perfectly straight wall.
I like to let the landscape determine the shape of the wall.
I will go into this more in future posts.

At the top of the photo above is a 3 lb. mallet and I prefer a short wood handle.
Besides using it with the chisels, I use the butt end of the handle quite often
 to knock stones in and it shows.

The longer steel chisel is shamefully in dire need of sharpening 
but I really don't use it too much, instead I use the carbide next too it most of the time.

The advantage of the steel is that it can be sharpened with a bench grinder,
while the carbide will hold it's edge much longer, it is hard to sharpen at home.
The carbide tip held it's edge throughout this whole job.

Although the hammer above may be a farrier's hammer, a lighter brick hammer
 is good to have to knock off small chips from handheld stones for quick work.

The tiny stub of a yellow construction crayon, above, is used to mark stone
 where I need to chisel spots for a better fit as I am fitting the stone in place.
Without the marks it is very easy to forget where to chisel 
once you have the stone upside down and on the ground.
A masonry pencil will also work but I like the crayon better.

Now to one of my greatest time saving tools, the wooden folding rule.
The one above is an old one I had that I had retired from woodworking 
as the numbers and their marks were getting too hard to see.

And not only will it measure the size of the stone I need
 but it will give me the angle I am looking for.

Carrying stones back and forth not only wastes time and is tiring 
but the discarded stones take up valuable space around the work area
 making it hard to maneuver and offering lots of tripping opportunities.
The wooden rule gives you a more accurate way to size up a potential stone
 before you move it.

The folding rule can be manipulated to more complex shapes
 than the simple near square that you see above as needed. 

The posts to date in this continuing series are: