Working with Stone
Stone is one of the most artistic materials in masonry. Setting it requires planning, knowledge of the materials, and ability to use tools correctly. A stone structure may be formal, informal, or even rustic. Stone masonry requires practice and creativity, but is one of the most satisfying masonry endeavors.
Gathering your own stone
You can order your stone from a local quarry or stone distributor, but if you own, or have access to, an open landscape, you can gather your own materials.
Doing so requires a long pry bar, a crowbar, and an understanding of leverage. Bring along something to transport the stone -- a garden cart or a child's wagon for small stones, a hand truck with inflatable rubber tires for larger stones, and some 2x12s for ramps in case the wheels get bogged down. You can also rent a "stone boat," a sled with iron runners.
When loading a garden cart, tip it and roll the stone inside instead of lifting the stone and dropping it into the cart. If you need the 2xs on soft ground, alternate moving the equipment on one board and setting another in front of the first one. If you're using a wheelbarrow, concentrate the load toward the back to keep the weight off the front wheel. A stone boat is handy because it's low to the ground and all you have to do is roll the stones onto it. You can also hitch it to a car or truck and drag it across the field.
Use a low trailer to bring your stones to the project so you won't have to lift the stones too high. Roll the stones up a ramp made of 2x12s or flip them end over end.
Tips for stone masonry
In general, a stone wall should be about 2 feet thick for every 3 feet of height. (A 6-foot wall should be 4 feet thick, for instance). For every 6 inches of additional height, add 4 inches to the width of the base. Local building codes may specify dimension requirements for stone walls.
A mortared wall requires a footing; a dry-laid wall does not. If you're building a stone retaining wall or planter, install weep holes -- either unmortared gaps in the base or sections of 1/2-inch PVC pipe.
The key to building a sturdy, pleasing wall is stone selection. Carefully select and fit each stone before applying mortar. Use stones that nest comfortably against the surrounding ones. Wedge small stones between large stones to fill any voids.
Work with a few shovelfuls of mortar on a piece of plywood, and keep it on the ground beside you. Mist the mortar with water to keep it well tempered.
You don't need to be delicate when mortaring a wall. Throw mortar from the trowel onto the stone. Rap the stone firmly with the end of the trowel handle to seat it and to force out any air bubbles. Scrape off the excess mortar and throw the excess into the center of the wall.
To keep the stones clean as you work, have a bucket of water with a large sponge handy to immediately wipe off any spills.
After cutting a stone, dress the edge (remove sharp irregularities) with a pointing chisel. Place the point of the chisel at the base of the bump and rap the chisel sharply with a small sledgehammer.
You can cut stone with a cold chisel and hammer. Or you can split large, flat stones, 3 or 4 feet across, with tools called feathers and wedges, made for breaking stone.
First chalk a cutting line. Then, using a power drill and a masonry bit the diameter of the feather-and-wedge assembly, drill a hole every 8 inches along the line. Insert a feather and wedge into each hole. Gently tap each, starting in the middle, then working alternate sides. The pressure should split the rock along the line. If it doesn't, redrill holes at 4-inch intervals and try again. Take care not to jam the wedges into the feathers so tightly that you can't pull them out. If they do get stuck, pry them out with a crowbar. Place a wood block under the crowbar so it doesn't mar the stone.
Every two or three courses, lay bondstones that span the thickness of the wall to tie it together. Place these about 4 feet apart horizontally and about halfway up the wall (more often on higher walls).Safety First: Handle Stone Safely
Save time and stress by organizing your material. Set the stones in piles or sections by size, keeping bondstones in one, fillers in another, and the remaining stones in a third. These categories will help you pick the right stones and will also help you prepare yourself when you need to lift the heavy ones.
Protect your back when lifting stone. Wear a back support belt and always keep your knees bent. To be safe, enlist the aid of a helper or use one of the mechanical methods shown to assist you.
The sheer size and weight of some stones make them difficult to place properly on your wall. A ramp made from 2x stock can make the job easier. Push the stone up the ramp or flip it end over end. Consider renting a portable crane and chain for larger stones.
For boulders too large to lift, rent a boulder cart. These are made to handle any size boulder one or two people can pull or push.Planning a Mortared Wall: Step 1
Lay out the footing, then excavate and pour it. When the footing has cured, measure the width of one of your bondstones and snap chalk lines that distance apart on the footing to mark the front and rear faces of the wall. Snap lines to mark the ends of the wall as well.Planning a Mortared Wall: Step 2
Choose bondstones of equal width (or cut them to the same size) and lay one at each end of the footing, lined up on your chalk lines.Planning a Mortared Wall: Step 3
Make a trial run by dry-laying the first course. Choose stones based on both aesthetic and practical considerations. Vary the length of the stones to add visual interest, cutting stones to fit as necessary.Battering the Walls
A stone wall is narrower at the top than the bottom. Slant (batter) both faces of the wall slightly and at the same angle -- about 1 inch per 2 feet of height. Increase the batter for fieldstone and retaining walls. Build two batter gauges following the directions below.
Cut four pieces of 1x4 as long as the height of the wall and two more pieces as long as the base width. Compute the width of the top based on the amount of batter you want, and cut two 1x4s to this length. Nail the boards together as shown above. Add a diagonal crossbrace, and set the gauges at the ends of the wall.Cutting Thick Stones: Step 1
Mark the stone where you want it to fracture. With the stone on a soft surface such as grass or sand, score the top face of the stone with a stone chisel. Strike the chisel, moving it along the line.Cutting Thick Stones: Step 2
Extend the marked line to the opposite face of the stone and score this line using the same techniques. (For thin stone, you can score just one face.)Cutting Thick Stones: Step 3
Place the stone on solid material, such as a length of 2x4, making sure the scored line lies beyond the support. Then hit the unsupported section with a small sledgehammer. Not all stone will crack. If it doesn't, choose another and repeat the process.