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Stone Building

By Jason Astroth

And so it began. The 2015 fellows and I arrived on the mountain the last week of April and didn’t waste a second diving right into this learning experience. Zach Foster came to visit the first week to teach us stone building so we could start a couple of projects that will be ongoing throughout our time here.

We started off with a classroom session learning about the different ways to build with stone as well as their advantages and disadvantages.

We then moved outside to look at the site where we would start building dry stacked stone walls in order to create planter beds. Dry stacking is a style of building that uses no sort of adhesive filler to hold the rocks together.

The first thing we did to start building the bed walls was to measure our rise and run. Run is the term used to describe the depth of the area you are building in. Rise is the height. We had a run of 144” (12 ft.) and a rise of 36” (3 ft.), so we decided to do two equal beds that had an 18” (1.5 ft.) rise and a 6 ft. run (which included the depth of the rocks we used to build the wall so the actual beds will have a planting space of around 5 – 5.5 ft.

After finalizing the plan for the plant beds, we moved on to discussing our approach for the step and patio for the studio. The step has been wobbly for quite some time and we decided to fix it this year.

Before we started working with the stones, Zach explained the different types of tools we would be using, how they work, and how to use them safely. He also explained a few techniques for moving large rocks and some general tips on being aware in the workspace, such as always making sure that no one is downhill from you while moving a large stone.

After all our lessons and formulating our plans, it was time to harvest rocks. (From left to right: Anna M., Anna T., and Sarah)

When starting the wall for the planter bed, we started on the lower bed and at the lowest point of that bed. Starting at the lowest part of the ground makes it easier to level out. To set a goal that was realistic, we decided to do a 6 foot section, 3 ft. on either side of the low point.

Zach checking the time while also checking to see if the area was roughly level. Since we didn’t have a level on hand, he showed us how to use the handle of a tool and a half full see through water bottle as a makeshift level. Pretty clever.

Alli digging up the old patio foundation.

After removing the old patio, Nick found that there was a little bit of rotting wood behind the metal flashing at the base of the door. This was due to poor drainage. To remedy the situation, we dug the foundation a little bit deeper and used some larger stones that would let water pass through easier. We left a slight gap between the foundation and the building, as well as a slight crown and grade on it so that water would flow away from the door and off either side of the patio as much as possible. Drainage needs to be constantly checked and is one of the reasons building with all natural stone is very time consuming.

Anna T. digging a hole for the second foundation rock of the wall. These take a decent bit of time to put in place as they must fit very snug and be almost perfectly level. Not an easy task using natural stones. You can modify the stone using a hammer and chisel, but only slight changes are recommended, which we learned all about towards the end of the day.

The first team on the step/patio project. They worked really hard to get this far before switching to the planter bed wall. Great work!

Zach chiseling at the third rock in the step so that they fit together a little bit tighter. You don’t want any large gaps or edges that aren’t even when making a step because it can lead to twisted ankles and things of that sort. Nobody likes a twisted ankle. Our desire to be perfect, though, eventually led to somewhat of a disaster at the end of the day. Once the stones fit really well together, we noticed the one on the right was slipping inward and would cause water to pool on top of the steps. Zach made an attempt to level it was a hammer. It was a risk and we knew it, but we went for it anyways. It didn’t end up working out and we had to make a really quick strategy change at the end of the day. This is where the lesson about only making small adjustments to the stones came in. They are unpredictable in the way that they fracture, so if you are going to make a huge change to a stone, don’t do it at the end of the day.

Look at that team work! Every time you finish a layer of the wall, you have to backfill it with dirt. These four worked just as hard after lunch and made major progress on the wall. I was very impressed.

The finished product at the end of the day.

After we were done working, we took a few minutes to relax and look at some other places we could potentially do some stone work to keep the land from washing out, such as where the water drips off the edge of the roof.

This is what we ended up doing without the third rock. It does not look like much, but it is very sturdy and functional. And besides, we have the whole next 6 months on this beautiful mountain to work on it so stay tuned for updates! Special thanks to Zach Foster for making the trip to the mountain to teach us!

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