Dry Stone Masonry: A Complete Guide for New Homeowners

Dry stone masonry is continuing to create a buzz in the construction industry. It’s a great option for homeowners looking to use readily available materials to build long-lasting walls around their homes. Although the construction process requires the skills of an expert, you’ll love the natural look and the strength of walls built from dry stones

So whether you want to use dry stone construction to create an English-inspired border wall around your property or just to spruce up your backyard landscaping, it’s important to understand the basics of dry stack stone walls. 

Let’s take a closer look at how you can build a sturdy dry-stone wall.

What is Dry Stone Masonry?

It’s a technique that involves using stones without a binding material like mortar. Instead, the mason uses the good ole’ principles of gravity and friction to sustain the wall structure.

The individual stones are carefully selected and shaped with simple tools, like a hammer and chisel, and then placed together to form the wall.

Although the work process can be time-consuming and requires a measure of skill to get it right, the walls can last for centuries. Just check out some of these dry stone walls from Britain that are centuries old.

A dry stone wall is a timeless addition to your home that adds a rustic, yet refined look. So keep reading to learn more about dry stone masonry.

Sourcing the Construction Materials

In dry stone masonry, there’s just one basic material – stones. Although any stone could work, it’s best to avoid round stones. Instead, go for angled and flat ones.

It’s also good to have a variety of sizes, from small to large ones, that way it’ll be easier to find the perfect one for each place.

Centuries ago, artisans sourced stones from the general vicinity of the area where they were building. They also re-used ones from old buildings and broken walls.

Nowadays, it’s easiest just to visit some natural stone suppliers in your area. They usually have a large network of distributors which makes it easy to find the perfect ones for your home project.

Some stone suppliers usually have some waste that doesn’t fit the specific size range of stone they’re trying to sell. This is a great option if you’re on a budget since they tend to sell them at a lower price.

Dry Stone Masonry Tools

Professional masons usually have both basic and sophisticated sets of tools to ensure their work is professional; however, for simpler DIY projects, you only need to work with the basic tools.

• Batter Frame

A batter frame works as a guide to help ensure you get a straight and properly shaped wall. There are legs that are set at a specific angle with strings run between them to serve as a guide when choosing and placing the stone.

Here’s a page with a video that helps explain how to use batter frames.

• Shovels

You’ll use a shovel for digging the foundation and cleaning up scraps.

• Hammers

For smaller DIY projects, you can get away with just a small mason hammer, but most professional masons have a variety of hammers including…

• A smaller mason or brick hammer for fixing the stones

• A 2 to 4-pound hammer for trimming the larger pieces

• A 6 to 10-pound sledgehammer for breaking large stones

Other essential tools include:

• Bucket for carrying small or medium-sized stones

• String that you can set up as a guide

• Line level

• Several masonry chisels for cutting the stones

• 1-foot level

• 2-feet level

• Safety glasses

• Tape measure

• Gloves for protecting the hands

Advantages and Disadvantages of Dry Stone Masonry

Pros

• You can re-use and recycle the raw materials as many times as you wish.

• The handmade appearance of dry stone walls makes them visually attractive.

• Lichens, mosses, and other living organisms find an excellent habitat on the walls built with dry stones.

• Dry stone walls use local materials that reflect the local culture.

• Well-built dry stone walls can last hundreds of years.

Cons

• The labor costs to build dry stone walls tend to be high since dry stacking stone properly is time-consuming.

• Can come apart if not well built.

• Dry stone walls aren’t suitable for tall walls and buildings

• Requires more stones than traditional mortar and stone walls. 

• Dry stone fences take up more space than wood or brick fences.

How do you build a dry stone wall?

Stack the raw materials

It is a good practice to stack the materials in a way that allows you to perform the task easily; therefore, arrange the stones in piles of small, medium, and large sizes.

• Keep the large stones near the wall while leaving a space of about 2 feet to allow you to move around easily. 

• The medium-sized ones will come next, followed by the smaller ones at the farthest distance.

This arrangement will help you to pick the right stone quickly and keep them easily accessible to your work area.

Lay the foundation

Do dry stone walls need foundations? Yes.

Dry stone construction needs shallower foundations than mortared walls. That’s because well-built dry stone walls can flex and move as the ground settles.

It’s crucial to follow industry standards when laying the new foundations to ensure your work is strong and stable.

Mark where your wall will go and dig a shallow footing or foundation that’s a little wider than the wall. The footings can be as deep as 3 to 30 cm, depending on the type of soil. For soft soils, go deeper. For hard, rocky ground, stay shallower.

Once you’ve dug the foundation, ensure the base is firm and level. You can do this by compacting the soil and then spreading a layer of gravel to create a level base.

Then place the largest stones, except those that are well shaped to work for the wall throughs, and coping (more about those parts later). Look for ones that will have flat surfaces on the top which will be easier to build on.

Building the Courses

The body of dry-stone walls consists of horizontal layers known as courses. During the construction, start with the largest stone pieces at the bottom and gradually work towards the top, using smaller rocks as you go.

If you need to chisel or hammer a stone, avoid supporting the stone on the wall since this could dislodge stones you’ve placed previously.

As you add new courses, make sure the vertical joints aren’t all in one line. The space between two stones on one course should fall close to the center of the stone in the course below. This will help create a stronger wall.

All the stones in the same course should ideally be at the same level. Additionally, you should position them carefully to ensure they are as tightly fit as possible.

Although mortared walls have a vertical construction, new dry-stacked walls are usually built with a slight angle. That means the base is wider than the top. This is necessary to keep the wall together since the stone wall doesn’t have any mortar.

As you move up from course to course, placing the large stones on the courses on either side of the wall, there will be a small gap left in the middle. Once you finish a course, be sure to fill in that gap with smaller rocks. Take your time to make sure they’re placed properly to avoid any large gaps that could weaken the wall.

For small DIY dry stone wall projects, you can make sure the wall is straight by eye or by setting up a simple string line. But for longer walls and a more professional look, it’s best to use a batter frame and string guides.

Work With the Through Stones

Also known as leg stones, they support the dry stone construction by keeping it from bellying out and collapsing.

Their width should be equal to or slightly longer than that of the wall construction. Place them perpendicular to the direction of the wall so that they span the entire width of the wall. That means they’ll sit on top of the courses you’ve laid on both sides of the wall and once more weight is added on top, they pin both sides of the wall together.

Where to place them and how many to use depends on the wall’s size, your region’s construction style, and the type of stones.

For 3-feet or shorter walls, place the throughs at about the mid-point. For higher walls, you’ll need to place them at regular intervals, but in this case, it’s best to call the professionals.

Coping Stones

The coping is the topmost layer that straddles the wall in a similar way that throughs do. They protect the upper courses and help hold the wall together.

Since the coping defines the uppermost part of the wall, it’s important to choose them wisely. Look for pieces with a similar shape and thickness which will create a level top along the wall.

Where will you put your new dry stone wall?

If you want to add some rustic charm to your home, consider dry stone masonry. Their stone construction can last for the life of your home when built properly.

They work really well as decorative accents added to your overall landscaping design. For smaller projects, most people can build one of these stone walls themselves, but if you want it done right or want to tackle a larger building project, it’s best to call the dry stone construction professionals.

If you’re in the Garland, Texas area, give us a call at Alexander and Xavier Masonry. We’ll work with you to make your dreams a reality with beautiful masonry projects both inside your home and outside in your landscaping.

Give us a call today for a FREE consultation!

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