How to Build A New England Stone Wall
Traditional New England Stone walls are a classic feature of our landscape. They represent a long history of agriculture in this country, and are still built today for a variety of practical and decorative reasons. Building a New England stone wall may be hard work, but it is fairly intuitive and doesn’t require highly specialized knowledge or skills. Anyone can do it who has some work ethic, persistence, and wants to try their hand at the long standing tradition of dry stone walling in New England.
If you’re ready to take on the task, read below for a step-by-step guide on building your Traditional New England Stone Wall.
Finding the Stone
One the most satisfying and affordable ways to find stone for a New England Stone Wall is to salvage stone from your own property. This is exactly how stone walls were built in the past, and many properties in New England still have old fallen down and buried stone walls and piles. Otherwise, stone can come up from excavations or construction projects, or can be gathered overtime from gardening or landscaping.
If you don’t have stone on your property, New England Fieldstone can be purchased from a local stoneyard or landscape supplier. The general rule is that the more the stone has been handled or sorted, the higher the cost will be.
The cheapest stone you may find is fieldstone that is a byproduct of excavations or loam screenings. Some landscape yards will have a pile of stone that is more or less waste to them, and they will sell it cheaply. This stone will be completely unsorted and may have sticks and roots and some other materials mixed in. If you’re on a budget, and don’t mind picking through the piles then this is a good option.
After that there will be material bins or piles of bulk fieldstone. Bulk fieldstone is loaded by a bucket machine into a dump truck, and is priced by the ton or yard. The bulk fieldstone comes mixed, or has been sorted into piles of different shapes/sizes. Some types of masons much prefer the sorted stone, but for traditional drystone walling the full mix of sizes and shapes is often the best.
After the bulk supply you will find New England Fieldstone packed on to pallets. This stone has been further hand selected, and can be delivered on a forklift. This means the pallets can be put down exactly where you want , and placed in different spots down the length of the wall. This may be worth it to someone who doesn’t have a machine, and doesn’t want to move a dump truck load of stone by hand.
Weathered vs Unweather Stone
Weathered stone is another distinction you will find. Weathered stone has been out of the ground longer and has grayed in color, has a rougher more eroded surface, and may have lichen and moss. This differs from freshly excavated stone which can be smoother and more brown/tan in color.
How much stone do you need?
Figuring out how much stone to use is a simple formula. First calculate the volume of the wall by multiplying length x width x height (in feet). This will give you cubic feet which you then divide by 27 to arrive at cubic yards. If you are buying stone by the truckload then a cubic yard measurement may be the most useful, or if by the ton there is approximately 1.5 tons of fieldstone in each cubic yard. When dealing with truck loads of stone these are rough measurements and estimations, and it is rare you will be able to fit every single stone into the wall. So expect that you may come up short or have excess stone at the end.
What tools do you need?
To build a Traditional New England Stone Wall you will need some basic tools which you may already have, or can find at most any hardware store. These tools are:
- wheelbarrow or 2-wheel dolly (moving material)
- shovel, pick-ax, steel rake (base prep)
- tamper (compacting the base)
- 6′ prybar (moving and adjusting base stones)
- sledge hammer (breaking large rocks)
- mini sledge hammer or rock hammer (trimming smaller stones)
- gloves (saving your fingers)
Preparing the Wall:
Once you have sourced your stone and gathered your tools, the next step is to plan your wall and prepare the area. To prepare the area for your New England Stone Wall it is best to excavate the footprint to remove any organic topsoil. In many areas that aren’t forested, the top soil is not very thick and 8″-10″ of excavation will do. Topsoil does not compact well, holds water and gets muddy so doesn’t provide a sturdy base. The goal is to remove the topsoil until you find the sandier/stonier non-organic subsoils which do compact and drain well.
Sometimes you instead find clay subsoil. Clay will also pack down very hard when dry, but, holds moisture and can get very soft and spongy when saturated. If this is the case then a drainage or an outlet for water at the bottom of your excavation is a good practice.
Once excavated you can start building your stone wall from below grade directly on top of the hardpacked subsoil, or you can fill the base with crushed stone or gravel. The gravel can be compacted to form a solid base, and provides a permeable base layer for water to drain through and keep frost/heave forces away from the stones.
Building the Wall:
Setting the Base
To build the wall first set set stakes at either end and stretch a string line to follow. If the wall is to curve, then step back and eyeball your curve periodically or paint a line on the ground to follow. If you want to be precise you can screw bendable pieces of plastic tubing to stakes and follow those. A 1/2″ electrical conduit makes for a good bendable line.
Select your largest stones first and lay them to form the base course. The larger stones create a solid foundation but also these are the stones that you can’t lift off the ground. So getting these stones into the wall while you still can is your best use of your material. Set each base stone with the desired face out, but keep in mind that wall is sturdiest when the bulk of the stone ties into the center of wall. Keep small stones or “pinning” on hand to shim the larger stones so they lock in place.
At this stage a large 6′ prybar is your best friend. This can be used to push and adjust stones, lift and level them, and tamp the surrounding earth or gravel so that they sit sturdily. The large sledge hammer may also be used at this stage to adjust stones, or break/shape large stones that need it.
Once you’ve set both faces of the wall, pack the middle with small stones or “hearting”. The more densely you pack the stones, the more mass the wall will have and the sturdier it will be.
Building the Face
After the base course is in, you can start building up the face. Again lay the stones so that most of their mass tie back into the wall, and use smaller stones to shim around them so they lock in place and don’t wobble to the touch. Laying the stones somewhat level and in courses helps keep the wall organized and makes setting the next stone on top easier since you’ve created a flat open space above. Leveling your string line and moving it up as you build the wall will help with coursing. Every once in a while step back from the wall to view it from a distance and make sure you are using a good mix of stones and following your lines. At this stage you may use the mini sledge hammer, rock hammer, rock pick, or any variety of walling hammer. These smaller hammers can be used to trim and shape stones, and tap stones and shims into place.
The Cheek Ends
The ends of the wall or the “cheek ends” are the hardest part. Here you will need to find corners, and must take a lot of care to make it sturdy. From the very start of the process you should be keeping an eye out for good corner stones and saving them for the ends.
Capping the Wall
As you get closer to the top set the string line to the desired height and start planning your cap. A traditional New England Stone Wall is about 30″ tall which is about mid-thigh for an average man. The reason for this is that mid-thigh is where one’s hands hang to. Meaning, you can lift a stone to that height using only your lower body and without bending your elbows. A mid-thigh high wall is also just high enough that stepping up onto isn’t easy, so serves as an effective or at least non-inviting barrier. If 30″ is the average, anything higher is a more imposing wall, while lower walls become more quaint and decorative.
To cap the wall it is best to save your largest, flattest stones. These large flat stones will create a tidy cap but will also help hold everything in place. The bigger the stone, the harder it will be to move, so it serves to lock in all the smaller stones below. Also if people are going to want to sit or walk on the wall they will naturally gravitate towards the large flat stones to sit or step on, and avoid the smaller stones that could move.
Pick out your biggest cap stones first and find where they will fit, and then fill in smaller cap stones around them. Keep small flat stones on hand to shim the caps up to meet the line. It’s rare that you will find the absolute perfect fit, so using smaller stones to shim the caps up to the desired height is an easier way of reaching a precise height.
How much wall can you lay in a day?
The average worker, moving at a good pace for 8 hours should be able to lay about 8′ of double sided, 2.5′ high wall in day. This equals about 2 tons of stone to lift and set per day.
What to watch out for?
One thing to watch out for in planning your wall are underground utilities. Public utilities that come from the street can be electric, gas, water, sewer. Water and sewer lines should be at least 3′ deep so shouldn’t be a concern but sometimes older houses can surprise you. Electric and Gas lines only need to be 18″ deep and could get punctured by a prybar or easily severed by machinery. When digging take caution and look out for fresh sand or caution tape, this will signify utilities below. Dig Safe is a free service that will come and mark any public utilities coming from the street. But they won’t mark any private utilities that are coming back out from your house.
Stone walling is hard work and your back, legs, arms, hands will be sore at the end of the day. Take care to lift stones with a proper form by squatting down and using your legs instead of bending over and using only your lower back. A good method of insuring proper lifting form is to squat down and then lift your chin up and look at the sky. This motion will force you to lock in your lower back and lift with your legs. Over the course of a day you may lift 4000lbs of stone – so do it the right way to avoid undue wear or injury.
Crushing a finger is a very common and painful injury when building New England Stone Walls. Catching your fingertip between two rocks will ruin your day, and if the nail comes off it can take about 6 months to fully grow back.
To avoid finger crushing always be careful and aware of where you fingers are, and where the stone might shift or fall to when setting them. When lifting stones with the help of another person make sure you lift at the same time and don’t tip the other side of the stone onto the other person’s finger or vise versa. In stone walling, gloves protect your hands from getting rough, dirty, scratched, and calloused. You may not care about those things, but what gloves really do are help prevent finger crushing. That little extra separation and reduced friction will allow you to slip your finger out of the glove and escape when you feel it getting pinched. Without a glove, as soon as you feel it, it’ll be too late and you may have a long wait for a new fingernail.
Still crushed a fingernail? Go to the ER or clinic and have them put a hole in the nail to relieve the blood and pressure buildup. They’ll use a small drill or a red hot poker to melt through your nail. It hurts for a moment but is well worth trying to save the nail, and will save you days of throbbing pain.
Building a traditional New England Stone Wall is a satisfying experience. You use your body, simple tools, and local, natural resources to carry on an ancient practice. The work is straightforward, intuitive, and grounding. You get to see your progress clearly at the end of each day, and get to enjoy the fruits of your labor for many years thereafter. Like anything you will get better with practice, but it doesn’t take any extraordinary skill or knowledge to get started. Feeling the weight of a stone and how it will sit solidly is almost a natural instinct and is something people have been drawn to for thousands of years.