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Hardscaping 101: Dry Stone Walls

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Hardscaping 101: Dry Stone Walls

June 8, 2017

Dry stone walls have been created for thousands of years and, if done well, will look as if they have been in place for at least that long. Yet anyone can learn how to lay a dry stone wall, insists Richard Ingles, a master craftsman who has built these structures in the UK for more than four decades. (Ingles began dry stone walling on his father’s farm as a boy— and quickly realized he had an affinity for it.)

If you want to create something of beauty and permanence, however, the skill can take many years to master, says Ingles, who kindly agreed to walk us through the steps of dry stone walling.

Is a dry stone wall the right element for your landscape? Read on for everything you need to know:

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.

What is a dry stone wall?

You will rarely find these walls in areas that have no natural stone resources says Richard Ingles of Cotswold Walls, Trees and Fences.
Above: You will rarely find these walls in areas that have no natural stone resources says Richard Ingles of Cotswold Walls, Trees and Fences.

As the name suggests, these walls are made of nothing more than dry stone. There is no mortar and the structure is made strong and stable with nothing but the careful placement of stones.

The walls are generally built only in areas where there are natural materials available; in England they are a familiar sight across the Cotswolds, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Scotland.
Above: The walls are generally built only in areas where there are natural materials available; in England they are a familiar sight across the Cotswolds, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Scotland.

What is the history of dry stone walls?

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Above: England has 125,000 miles of dry stone walls.

Some dry stone walls in Europe have been dated to the beginning of the Neolithic age (circa 7,000 B.C.), an era when animals became domesticated and barriers were developed to keep them from wandering off. In upland areas, this ancient craft has left its mark on rural landscapes.

In recent years, photographer Mariana Cook traveled around the world to capture images of stone walls (including  those of Malta’s Hagar Qim Temple, built in the 4th century B.C.); her photos are collected in Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries ($42.25 on Amazon).

In America, in areas with rocky subsoils, English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants brought the skills to lay dry stone walls with them. Stone walls are prevalent in New England, where receding glaciers deposited rocks in the landscape.

How do you build a dry stone wall?

Because there is no mortar used, dry stone walls are flexible; if ground moves then the walls can move too. But this also means that the construction is key, especially the middle of the wall which is filled tightly with stone. If you leave any void, says Ingles, it creates a weakness in the structure.
Above: Because there is no mortar used, dry stone walls are flexible; if ground moves then the walls can move too. But this also means that the construction is key, especially the middle of the wall which is filled tightly with stone. If you leave any void, says Ingles, it creates a weakness in the structure.

Styles vary slightly in different areas too, because of the different stone formations. But the procedure for building a stone wall is the same almost everywhere. There are no foundations for dry stone walls (unless there’s a very unstable subsoil).

First, remove turf and then lay a base of large stones. The higher the wall the wider the base will be as the wall tapers in slightly from the base upwards and inwards. Then each course needs to be built up, as carefully graded stones sit harmoniously together.

At certain points every meter or so, stones are used that bridge the two sides which help to tie it in – this stone goes right the way through the wall and sometimes out the other side.
Above: At certain points every meter or so, stones are used that bridge the two sides which help to tie it in – this stone goes right the way through the wall and sometimes out the other side.

How do you cap a dry stone wall?

On the top there will be a protective layer of capping stones, sometimes called toppers or hens and chickens, that also helps to tie the two sides together.
Above: On the top there will be a protective layer of capping stones, sometimes called toppers or hens and chickens, that also helps to tie the two sides together.

How long will a dry stone wall last?

A dry stone wall, if it’s built well in the first place, can last hundreds of years. But it does depend on the stone.
Above: A dry stone wall, if it’s built well in the first place, can last hundreds of years. But it does depend on the stone.

In the Cotswolds where a oolitic limestone is used, it will perish sooner, perhaps after 100 years. In other regions such as Cumbria where there is granite, the time frame will be much longer because the stone is harder and more durable.

Dry stone walls can follow terrain, going up and down slopes and hills–which is how it’s most often seen crossing the rugged, hilly landscapes in England and Scotland.
Above: Dry stone walls can follow terrain, going up and down slopes and hills–which is how it’s most often seen crossing the rugged, hilly landscapes in England and Scotland.

If there are slopes then a slightly different technique is used with some courses running at a right angle level with the terrain.

How much does a dry stone wall cost?

Interesting textures and harmonious tones make a dry stone wall a sympathetic boundary treatment in gardens.
Above: Interesting textures and harmonious tones make a dry stone wall a sympathetic boundary treatment in gardens.

More expensive than other options, the price of building a dry stone wall starts at about £40 per linear meter (or roughly $20 per foot). But the beauty of the walls —and the contemporary resurgence of traditional skills—has created a surge in demand for this craft at the moment.

N.B.: See other wall and fence options:

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