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Dry Stone Walling - Guide to Good Practice

Armed with the right knowledge it is easy to spot poor workmanship with a few simple visual checks. If you are wanting to try your hand at the craft or have engaged a contractor and are concerned about the standard of their work, the following guide outlines the key aspects of dry stone wall construction. Don't accept badly built walls, they will only cost money to maintain in the long term, whereas a sound wall will stand for hundreds of years.

Looking at a cross section of the wall while it is being built you should notice these key points.

The wall is built with two skins that taper evenly to the top, this tapering is referred to as batter. The width of the base of the wall is determined by the overall height and should never be less than 600mm. Insufficient batter allows the two skins to peel outward and eventually collapse

Batter should be even and looking along the face of the wall there must be an even plane, without bulges or hollows.

The largest stones are used to build the first course, the footing. As your eye moves up the wall the height of the stones gradually decreases, it is acceptable for some deviation from this point within reason. The majority of stones should sit with their length into the wall, all should sit firm and level.

The cavity formed by the to skins is built up with hearting stones. The quality of the heartings is  essential to the walls construction, they should be as big a possible and laid with care, not a bucket of hardcore poured in at random!

About half way up the wall there should be through stones which join both skins together these are ideally placed every 1.5m but when suitable stone is not available this may not be possible. Note there are practices to overcome this problem, using a series of overlapping, alternate 3/4 length stones.

The wall is finished with toppings that stand up vertically and span the wall joining the two skins. Toppings should be worked with a hammer to match the surrounding style, rough and random , curved as shown or square faced and regular.

Viewing the wall from the front

The courses should follow reasonably straight level lines, again check the size of the footings and that there is a fairly even decrease in the height of courses.

Most importantly of all when inspecting a wall you are checking that all stones touch each other tightly and that there are no straight joints. Every join on a wall should be bridged by a stone above, unless two courses run into one thicker course.

When placing a stone on the wall any rocking should be eliminated by support from inside the wall with a pinning stone. Check the face of the wall for small pins that have been used to prop these rockers from the front, this is poor practice as the wall will settle and they will fall out. In particularly shoddy examples, you can pull them out easily.

Retaining walls

Retaining walls follow the same rules and should be built with two skins even though only one is
visible. It is essential to have a solid foundation to build off so if the ground is at all soft use compacted hardcore or even consider concrete if the wall is to be particularly high.

The width at the base of the wall should be 1/3 or more of it's height any less and the ground being retained will overpower the wall over time. Larger stone is required to build retainers, especially in the footing (see pic below) and it is wise to get as many throughs in as possible.

Installing the footing for a retaining wall

The batter is more severe and the bulk of stones must be placed with their length into the wall. A wall built with a single skin with stones placed length-ways along the face to increase build speed will not stand the test of time and whilst may seem cheaper in it's material and labour cost, will be more expensive in the long term.

dry stone retaining wall
A stout retaining wall the open end shows the stones facing into the wall.

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We will be happy to advise upon your project from choices of stone to letterforms. Whether you would like advice or a full written quotation, don't hesitate to get in touch. 

Contact us with your queries, we'll be happy to help
email - stoneandgardens@btinternet.com
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