Dry Stacked Stone Walls

Natural Drystack Rubble Stone Wall with Mortared Cap image: Chris Miracle
Natural drystack rubble stone wall with mortared cap
image: Chris Miracle

From the rolling countryside of Ireland to the mountains of Kentucky, the craft of building dry stacked stone walls has a rich history. Hand crafted stone walls dating back hundreds or even thousands of years can be found around the world. They are usually mortar-less, built of local stone, and reflect each area’s vernacular architecture and cultural heritage.

Dry stone walls are built for many reasons. Some hold back significant amounts of earth, allowing railroads, highways, and buildings to be constructed. Others form the foundations for bridges or provide protective armoring for shorelines. Some are stacked as fences to delineate property limits and others are created for a sense of enclosure and can make a strong architectural statement.

Just within Wisconsin alone, we are truly blessed with a dizzying array of native stone to choose from for our dry wall constructions and would like to share some images and information with you. These projects highlight the dry stone wall building craft as well as the wealth of material riches that there is to choose from. We also invite you to contribute information through words and images including cases where dry stone walls solved a landscape architectural need in your area. Were there any special techniques or unique stone products used to complete the construction project?

Drystack Freestanding Wall Under Construction image: Chris Miracle
Drystack freestanding wall under construction
image: Chris Miracle
Lannonstone Retaining wall under construction image: Chris Miracle
Lannon stone retaining wall under construction
image: Chris Miracle
Lannonstone Retaining wall under construction image: Chris Miracle
Lannon stone retaining wall under construction
image: Chris Miracle

Dry stacked stone walls are an important design element in the built environment and it is important that they be properly installed. With modern day technology, there are a few basics that should be taken into consideration when constructing a dry stacked wall:

1.    One of the most important factors of a dry stacked wall is what is hidden in the construction of one. What is meant by this is the base preparation for the wall and what is behind it. It is imperative that a sound sub-base be installed. In the northern climates we typically recommend a minimum of 4″-6” of traffic bond but the depth can go as deep as 12″-18” in denser soils. The traffic bond base used can be made up of clear chips to further enhance proper drainage. Whichever sort of traffic bond is used, it should be installed in 2″-3” lifts and compacted using a vibratory compactor. The traffic bond base should extend 6” in front and in back of the wall.

This will ensure the integrity of the wall and will not compromise on the weight of the wall above the stone base. In some instances it may be worthwhile to pour in a concrete trench with reinforcement, but do keep in mind that this will be adding costs to your client. Again, the sub-base is vitally important to the longevity of the wall itself.

2.    Proper backfill is also a considering factor when constructing the wall. Typically, backfill is clear stone in order to provide for proper drainage, but it is also dependent on the actual type of stone in which the wall is constructed. When dealing with fieldstone walls, a number of contractors will simply use compacted earth on the backside. However, this should properly be done so that large holes within the fieldstone wall are not present. Large holes may incur water and drainage channels, thus compromising the integrity of the wall itself. Some people do like to install filter-fabric behind fieldstone and other walls – this will be left up to your personal taste.

With walls that have very closed joints (typically Lannon stone walls) it is imperative that you not only backfill with clean stone in the Northern climates but it is also recommended to use drainage tile. With the freeze/thaw aspects of this climate, moisture can get behind the walls. When the moisture freezes, it will expand and thus begin to push the wall forward. This can easily be avoided with the incorporation of drainage tile.

image: Tim Garland
image: Tim Garland

3.    Another item to take into consideration when constructing stone walls is the batter or the degree in which it deflects back into the hill. Keep in mind these are gravity retaining walls; they rely on the weight of the material to ensure they do not overturn. Typical batters are generally 2″-3” per vertical foot on fieldstone walls, whereas with more structured walls you can get by with 1″-2” of batter or tilt back into the hill with every vertical foot.

Other landscaping concerns that should be taken into consideration are the type of soils that you are building these walls into. Heavy clay soils have a tendency to store a lot of water which could be problematic in Northern climates. In addition, sandy soils can cause problems with slippage and failure.

With walls that are in access of 24”, you may want to consider installing barriers for the health, safety, and welfare of people. In addition, always check with local codes and ordinances regarding retaining walls and permit requirements. Surcharge on top of the wall is very important and should also be taken into consideration regarding the actual construction, design, and engineering of the wall. If you feel uncomfortable designing and engineering the wall refer to a civil engineer/structural engineer for typical guidelines.

Slab/Stones Creating a Natural Border Along Edge of Pond image: Chris Miracle
Slab/stones creating a natural border along edge of pond
image: Chris Miracle
Oversized outcropping makes a dramatic statement in the built environment image: Chris Miracle
Oversized outcropping makes a dramatic statement in the built environment
image: Chris Miracle

Retaining walls are often installed merely for aesthetic quality, creating a nice texture alongside the landscape, but we should consider – when at all possible – to grade out the landscape with soil, lawn, or garden areas. Although we may feel that our designs may need that structural/design element, a simple slope may do the job with less cut to the land. Take this into consideration when you are designing with retaining walls and it may save time and money.

by Chris Miracle, PLA, ASLA, and Tim Garland, PLA, ASLA, Design-Build PPN Co-Chairs

15 thoughts on “Dry Stacked Stone Walls

  1. lknott March 24, 2015 / 2:43 pm

    This is a lovely article. However, I would never mortar a cap on a dry-stack wall. Dry stack walls are great because they are flexible and respond well to changes in soil temperature, frost heave, and the like. To add a mortared cap is just asking for trouble. For the same reasons, I would never use mortared joints because they prevent the movement of moisture back and forth between fill and exterior, leading to possible frost heave and slumping.

    • Chris Miracle March 25, 2015 / 8:10 pm

      Thanks for your note. I agree that mortarless is the best method for the majority of applications. By far, most of our wall work is completely dry constructed. There are some communities in our area that require top course mortaring as a safety precaution in order to pass inspection.

  2. Deirdre Toner March 24, 2015 / 8:32 pm

    Great reminders about retaining wall construction! Another type I use quite frequently in the Midwest is the Aqua Blue Boulder or XL Granite Field Stone retaining wall. I have nice pictures of @ a 6′ wall project I did retaining a swimming pool and deck. Not sure how to attach images here?

    • Chris Miracle October 9, 2015 / 10:30 am

      Deirdre, I couldn’t agree more. Our firm installs probably 2-300 tons of these walls yearly. At first our crew people were a little bit hesitant using this angular granite material, but soon found their stride with it and now fully embrace this gorgeous stone.

  3. Matt Carter March 27, 2015 / 12:04 am

    As a professional dry stone waller, I’m disappointed that the three main factors cited that make for a successful dry stone wall are base, backfill, and batter. All of those together are less important than ensuring that the builder adheres to proper building techniques such as two-over-one/one over two, laying stones with their length into the wall, crossing vertical joints, hearting and middlefill, etc.

    • mark January 5, 2017 / 7:11 pm

      Dang it, broken link.

  4. john marson December 31, 2015 / 10:16 pm

    I am interested in foundation info for heavy walls. I was thinking a foot or more deep using round stones to stop heaving, and how to fit odd shaped rock. Is there a pattern or formula to do it properly.

    • Chris Miracle January 5, 2016 / 10:37 am

      John, Tim and I appreciate your visiting our page and submitting your question. I agree that at least a foot of base depth, preferably 18-24″ would be good, for a dry set wall. Be sure that the width of the prepared base exceeds the width of the wall by 6-12″ on each side of the wall face. Clear(no fines), free-draining angular stone chips would be better than the round stone in my opinion. Placement of odd shaped rock is definitely an acquired skill. The crew people at the firm I am with strive for working with the stones natural shapes as much as possible, but they definitely have to do some occasional chisel work to ensure good interface friction of stones. Also, don’t rule out doing a block or poured concrete footing for your dry stacked wall. It’s a nice insurance policy to minimize frost movement in harsh climates. Hope this helps!
      Chris

  5. Jan Johnsen October 25, 2016 / 3:55 pm

    In my upcoming book, The Spirit of Stone ( out in Feb., 2017) I talk about dry stone walls. I have a design/build firm and we build a lot of them.

    • Chris Miracle November 19, 2016 / 8:30 am

      Hi Jan, thanks for the head’s-up on your forthcoming book. I’m anxious to see some of your work!
      Chris

  6. David August 23, 2017 / 1:23 pm

    Thanks for this great post. I have a question I was hoping you may be able to help me with. I’m going to build a dry stone wall that will be 3ft high. How wide do you think I should make the base? Is 2ft wide enough? I live in New England. Thanks

    • Chris M August 23, 2017 / 2:27 pm

      Hi David thank you for your interest and your question. I would try to go a little wider with your base 32-36 in if you can, maybe tapering up the sides. Good luck with your project!

      • David August 24, 2017 / 7:44 am

        Thanks Chris. Much appreciated.

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