Thursday, June 10, 2010

Building a Stone Wall

 There is something about a neatly stacked stone wall that appeals to me for reasons I cannot fully articulate. I first marveled at seeing them in Italy creating terraces, sometimes for a single olive tree on a steep side hill. I was impressed with the physical labor involved in building them, then at the realization of successive generations adding to them. Time and labor acting on stones from the earth. First you have to go find the stones, then handle them several times before actually getting them to their final resting place!

Now I find them all over Maine, some built as early as the 1600's and some being built today.

One such new wall is going up, albeit very slowly, near the University of Southern Maine. As I drive by each morning and afternoon I can see a few stones added and sometimes two college students are actually working on the project.

This type of stonework is called "dry stack" since no binding mortar is visible. In a true dry stack wall no mortar is used at all and the wall is solid stones. That's not done any longer because the wall is prone to break down over time, and it takes more time and material to build. Now days the stones are stacked in a double row to give the impression of a solid wall 16 to 18 inches thick. Cement is used in the void between as a binding agent to lock the stones together. The builder says they use as little cement as possible.

This wall is at least a month along in the construction (by all appearances, they only work on it a couple days a week). A trench of about 16 to 18 inches deep and several inches wider than the wall is dug and filled with crushed stone. This foundation is tamped down firmly and provides drainage and prevents frost heave (as discussed in an earlier blog).
Daniel, the student building the wall, informed me that he learned the craft from his father and that he is building the wall for the advisor of his frat house. The lucky advisor is getting a discount for this 25 foot long wall (3 feet high) for the price of $16,000.00. Daniel told me the going price for this wall would normally be near 20k.

They try to fit the stones as closely together as possible, but use an electric grinder and hammer and chisel to finalize the fit. The result appears to be a random stack of stones very pleasing to the eye.