Don't Take Everything for Granite
J. Kent Sprague on 11/28/2011
When we moved to New England in 1974, one of the first things noticed was the presence of old rows of rocks everywhere you looked in the woods. About 200 years ago the early settlers of the area cut trees and moved rocks to rows on their farm boundaries to try to eke out a living on the rocky land. Most of them who were serious about farming moved farther west to find land more suitable for that occupation. Since then, the trees have grown back over much of New England and the rocks are right where those early settlers left them. Many people now have decorative stone walls built in their yards from some of those rocks.
I discovered that the cost to hire someone to build a wall was somewhere near $100. per linear foot for the labor and another $100. per foot if the rock is purchased. I live on a lot with an abundance of rocks, so purchasing the raw material wasn't needed. I also decided that it might be fun to learn how to build stone walls by myself in my spare time. I tell people who ask why I started to build stone walls that I think that too many folks take everything for granite.
As part of my education about stone walls, I have accumulated a good collection of books, pamphlets and articles on the subject ranging from practical "How to" information to the romantic and mystical. One of my favorites is Robert Thorson who is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut. He is not a wall builder but an observer of walls other people have built. As a professor, he is very much into definitions and classifications of different types of stone walls. I once listened to him take at least fifteen minutes explaining the difference between rocks and stones. By his reckoning, rocks are what we find randomly scattered across the landscape by ancient tectonic plate earth movements and glaciers. They become stones when they are converted by man to something useful, decorative or functional. Therefore, we have gem stones, mill stones, cobble stones, hearthstones, grave stones and stone walls. You deserve to be corrected if you call them rock walls.
Over the last 35 plus years I have built close to 2000 feet of stone walls at various places including our own yard. Somebody once calculated that my average-sized wall has about a ton of rock every five feet. That totals about 400 tons of odd shaped rock moved into position and added to walls one piece at a time over the years. As a hobby, my old candy bar wrapper collection had a little less heavy lifting.
Most of the stone walls I have built are either standing walls or retaining walls against a dirt bank. Most of the professionally constructed walls nowadays use mortar in the middle, but I prefer the old-fashioned method of making dry walls. My only exceptions were a stone storage shed and a mail box stone pillar which were both made with cement and sand as mortar. One of my signature characteristics is to top all walls with flat cap stones which shed water best and I think makes a better path for the squirrels, chipmunks and grandchildren. By professor Thorson's classification system, my standing walls can officially be described as "Traditional New England double faced standing dry stone walls with flat cap stones".
Over the years, I have developed a list of observations and rules of thumb for stone wall construction which include the following:
1. Don't ever let your wife or someone else set a completion date target.
2. Whatever your estimate is for completion time, multiply it by a factor of at least three.
3. If you build a wall close to the street, you will get acquainted with all your neighbors.
4. If a neighbor volunteers to help, don't hold your breath waiting for them to show up again.
5. Wear leather gloves and keep your fingers from getting between a rock and a hard place.
6. Rocks too big to lift can be moved easier downhill than uphill.